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Living a childhood dream: A profile of Captain Silke Muschitz

Old-school seafaring is alive and well on the bridge of the “Fehmarnbelt”. There is a large, wooden steering wheel, a brass-coated telegraph to transmit commands to the engineers, iron speaking tubes that lead to the engine room, the radio room and the captain’s cabin. When she is on holiday and at home in the northern German port city of Lübeck, Silke Muschitz likes to sail on this old ship. But her day job is to steer the 8,700 TEU “Chicago Express” as Hapag-Lloyd’s youngest captain.

Six months ago, shortly after receiving her “master mariner” certificate, freshly minted Captain Silke Muschitz went on a three-and-a-half-month voyage that literally took her once around the world – from Barcelona through the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal to Asia and America, through the Panama Canal, across the Atlantic and back to Europe. Muschitz is one of two female captains at Hapag-Lloyd, and her 32 years make her the youngest of the company’s 120 captains. The “Chicago Express”, the vessel for which she is responsible, is 335 meters long and has an engine more than 150 times more powerful than that of the “Fehmarnbelt”.

Muschitz was born in the Austrian city of Salzburg. Her father was a diplomat, which is why she grew up in constantly changing places all over the world, where she attended German schools. “I come from a family in which nobody has anything to do with seafaring,” she says. Even so, her dream job has been clear since she was a young girl: “I always only had a single goal in mind: to become a captain.” After finishing her university studies, Muschitz moved to the northern German port city of Lübeck nine years ago – intent on going to sea. Her parents followed her there.

Muschitz says she has always been fascinated by ships. “The community on board is small and tight-knit,” she explains. “It’s like a small family – and one with everything that can happen in a family. After all, you don’t have a lot of opportunities to avoid people.” Conflicts are usually sparked by trifles, such as when one person doesn’t say “good morning” to the other. When asked what differentiates female from male captains, Muschitz doesn’t have an answer that applies across the board. “Every captain has his or her own style,” she says. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a man or a woman.”

On the “Chicago Express”, she is not only responsible for the 23 members of the regular crew, but also for 12 apprentices. As she describes it herself, her style is clear and confident. “One person is wearing the hat; one person bears the responsibility,” she says. “I clearly said at the beginning how I envisioned the voyage.” As she sees it, there are three key traits that a captain needs. “It’s all about being fair, tolerant and competent.”

She wants to influence others by setting an example rather than due to her positio. “If I slept poorly and let everybody know about it, it wouldn’t be conducive to the peace on board.” She fosters a team spirit on board – and says that jointly organising barbecue evenings is a highlight for the entire crew.

When asked why there are so few female captains, Muschitz wishes she had an answer. “At the end of the day, it’s a technical job,” she says, suspecting that this may put many women off. But Muschitz sees signs of a change. On the last training trip, on which she was the chief officer, eight of the 36 officer cadets were women. She says she has never encountered any problems in terms of being accepted, adding: “There are some pilots and agents who have a brief moment of shock at first, saying: ‘Oh, a young lady!’ But if you demonstrate that you understand your job, it doesn’t matter much anymore.”

She says she feels a sense of joy every time her ship sets sail. “Ships aren’t built to lie in port,” she explains. She likes to be on the water during her holidays, too – at the helm of the “Fehmarnbelt” or on a sailing boat. And when she has time, she also likes to participate in regattas on the Baltic Sea. In those cases, however, she is simply a member of the crew. “That’s vacation, and I just do what the skipper says.”

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