At a first glance, his presence commands respect. The firm handshake, the unflinching gaze and, on top of that, his height – you can’t miss Syrel Lopena. This is fitting, since as bosun on a container giant such as the 366-meter-long “Essen Express”, you need to have the ability to assert yourself. Lopena oversees the deck team and must ensure that the requests passed down to him by the chief mate or the master are fulfilled.
But looks can be deceiving. As imposing as the Filipino appears, he is equally friendly and modest during our conversation. His tough exterior disappears completely when the 37-year-old talks about home – about his wife and daughter and the house they share, which he built not far from the sea four years ago. At that point, he changes from deck boss to family man.
Syrel Lopena grew up in Bohol, the tenth-largest island of the Philippines, which is located an hour south by plane of the country’s capital city, Manila. A rural paradise, Bohol is very rarely visited by destructive typhoons. When the fearsome cyclones do sweep over the island, it’s usually just for a whistle-stop tour.
Sailing runs in the family, as is often the case for people from his island. On finishing high school, Lopena’s choice of career was influenced by two of his uncles, who are sailors. Likewise, two out of his five brothers (he also has a sister) sail the seas today; Syrel himself has done so for 15 years now – ever since he was 22 years old.
Being a link between the management of the ship and its crew
Syrel Lopena Moved up the ranks from his start as a sailor and has been a bosun for three years. His most important tasks are ensuring safety on the deck, coordinating maintenance work and keeping an eye on the cargo. Lopena says, “I now have more responsibilities as the head of a team. As bosun, you are a sort of link between the management of the ship and its crew.”
By the time this issue is published, Lopena will be disembarking from the “Essen Express” after nine months on board, during which the ship sailed numerous times back and forth across the Pacific Ocean and was docked in Shanghai for classification. Does he mind his long absences from home? “No, because my work here is a lot of fun,” says Lopena, adding, “we have a good community on board and work well together”. For example, Lopena is always up for karaoke, a popular party game on ships that brings officers and crew members together, usually on Friday evenings; ballads from the 80s are his favourite. But Lopena is quick to point out that he is “not a good singer”.
His plans for the future are already mapped out for him: “I want to continue working at sea. Here, every day is different; every day is a new challenge – I like that.” This was his ninth time working for Hapag-Lloyd. The “Basle Express”, also with a capacity of 13,200 TEU, was his first ship. The “Essen Express” will surely not be his last.
The crew recruiters
Syrel Lopena is one of many sailors from the Philippines at Hapag-Lloyd, and was trained by Marlow Navigation before joining the liner shipping company. Marlow (just like another company that works in this field, Aboitiz Jebsen) ensures in close cooperation with the Fleet Management in Hamburg that crew members, especially those of enlisted rank, are well-prepared before boarding Hapag-Lloyd’s ships. For this purpose, the company established a maritime academy in the Philippines as well as a special training centre for seafarers.