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Nineteen-year-old Hannah Gerlach started her apprenticeship to become a ship mechanic at Hapag-Lloyd on 1 January 2019. She was aboard the “Basle Express” as part of her practical training from the end of September 2019 to the end of June – and she was one of the seafarers who hadn’t been allowed to disembark as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic for many months. She told us how she spent all this time at sea, what she missed the most, and the first thing she did when she was allowed to leave the ship.
You’ve been on board the “Basle Express” for nearly nine straight months. How did you experience this time?
Hannah Gerlach: I did very well, thank you. I was very happy on board. I boarded the “Basle Express” on 21 September. I was really excited because it had been my first solo voyage. The original plan was for me to already disembark in Hamburg at the end of November, but I voluntarily extended my assignment until mid-March to experience what it’s like to go on a longer voyage. But then I could no longer sign off due to the coronavirus.
What has changed for you during this extended period on board the ship?
To be honest, not a lot has changed for me. I really enjoyed the work a lot, and the crew – including our captain – was super. Even after almost nine months, I didn’t have any problems keeping motivated. Nevertheless, I missed my life at home very much – especially my family and friends. Apart from most birthdays, I haven’t been able to spend Christmas, Easter and Pentecost with my family. In those moments and on those days, you naturally miss your loved ones even more, but you also know that this is simply part of being a seafarer. The only thing that bothered me a lot was that I wasn’t able to meet my second nephew directly after he was born.
Other than your family, what did you miss the most?
This might sound a bit crazy, as I had been working and living on a container ship for nearly nine months, so I was constantly on the water. But I was really looking forward to going sailing with my family again and enjoying the calm and peaceful atmosphere on the water in the evening. As I see it, there are two worlds you can live in while on the water that aren’t directly comparable. The peaceful and wonderfully calm atmosphere in the evening, when the sea shimmers in the twilight, is sometimes very similar to what you experience on a sailboat. But, on board of a container ship, you still have the whirring of the fans or the humming of the refrigerated containers in your ears.
How did you get along with the crew, and how did you spend your free time?
We got along great. I’ve sailed with two crews in total, as there was a crew change in November and February for the European crew, with whom I’ve stayed on board. I find that spending so many months together on board really forges strong bonds between everyone. After all, in addition to working together, we also lived together. The nice thing is that you don’t have to be alone if you don’t want to be. We all ate our meals together and, in the evening, we often watched movies or just talked. Birthdays, Christmas and Easter were celebrated together. For example, at Christmas and Easter, we had barbecues. We also had a barbecue together every now and then on no special occasion, which was really great. And, of course, when the Filipinos celebrate birthdays, you simply have to have karaoke.
How has your attitude towards your apprenticeship changed since you started your career with Hapag-Lloyd?
My time at Hapag-Lloyd so far has definitely confirmed that the apprenticeship I chose was and is the right one for me. When you’re 16 or 17 years old and about to finish high school, I think it’s only human to not necessarily be 100 percent sure about what your next step should be. Of course, seafaring is very unique, as it completely changes your life and you are deciding to work and live on a ship for many weeks away from your family, friends and home. But I can say that I’m more than 100 percent sure that I’ve made the right decision for me, and that I’m very happy to have taken this step. And that’s particularly what sailing on the “Basle Express” taught me – the voyage itself, but most of all the crew. They’ve taught me so much, and we had so much fun.
What’s your favourite part about working as a ship mechanic?
The diversity, in the sense that I can work and learn both on deck and in the engine room. I particularly like it in the engine room. I always find the various systems, aggregates and machines that propel the ship and make life on board possible super fascinating. Personally, I really enjoy the practical work and the extra combing through the manuals to understand functions, interplays and problems.
How have your relationships with the other crew members changed after spending so much time together? Do things sometimes also get stressful?
I can’t really say whether it’s been this good because we’ve been here together for so long now or for some other reason. In any case, the important thing is that things have clicked for us right from the start. That is still the case, and we never run out of things to talk about or stop having fun. There definitely isn’t any friction. On the contrary, I think that we can rely on each other. I know that I will always remember the “Basle Express” and the crew.
Are you the only woman on board right now? And, if so, is that hard?
Yes, I have been the only woman on board since February. I came on board with another female apprentice, who also extended until mid-February. It was the first big voyage for both of us. In addition to getting along great, we benefited from each other on the job and while studying, and we also complemented each other really well. Then, from the end of November until mid-February, we were even three women on board: a chief mate and us two apprentices.
For me, it definitely isn’t hard to be the only woman on board. I think I proved quite quickly that I can work just as hard as the men, and that I therefore don’t need to be treated any differently. I also think that your own attitude and how you approach the fact that you are the only woman plays a major role, and the crew here on board has reinforced this impression.
Which loop are sailing in right now?
We have been in the FE5 service since the end of March. This means that we started in Hamburg, made calls at Antwerp and Southampton, went through the Suez Canal, and then called at Jeddah Then we stopped in Colombo, Singapore, Laem Chabang in Thailand, and Cai Mep in Vietnam before heading back to Europe. We have sailed this round voyage two complete times now and then one more time to Vietnam. The “Basle Express” was supposed to spend some time in dry dock beginning in April, but this was postponed due to COVID-19. We were then scheduled for the MD1 service and were already on our way to the first port when this deployment was cancelled at short notice. After drifting on the South China Sea for three and a half weeks, we have been in the AG3 service since 24 April, sailing back and forth between the Persian Gulf and Asia.
At the beginning, you were still allowed to go on land. Which shore leave particularly impressed you?
I can’t say that I’ve found a particular port or a particular shore leave the most impressive one. For me, they have all been special in their own way. Asia was a completely new experience for me, and I’m really glad that I had a chance to go ashore so frequently. For example, I found Singapore extremely impressive as a city. Despite being a gigantic metropolis, everything there is super clean, and there are a lot of green spaces and parks. The last time I was on land was almost four months ago. Even if it isn’t possible for everybody to go ashore in every port under normal conditions, shore leave is something that we are all really missing now. It’s an opportunity to relax for a few hours, to go for a walk, to buy things that aren’t available on board, and to recharge your batteries!
How did you keep in touch with your family and friends?
Usually via various messenger apps and FaceTime. But I also occasionally spoke with them on the satellite phone. In my opinion, it isn’t important – or even possible – to write to everyone every day. What I find most important is that despite the physical distance, you know that you can rely on each other and write to each other whenever you need to.
You are still fairly young. Have you learned any so-called “life lessons” while on board?
I’ve learned that I can, want to and will pursue my goals and dreams. And my high motivation level and positive attitude will help me to do so. It might sound clichéd, but I still believe the saying that: “When you smile at the world, it smiles back.” In fact, I would almost say that this has become something like my motto. Having a smile on your face and feeling motivated makes it so much easier to get out of bed in the morning. And another thing that I personally find very important is to not be prejudiced.
When were you able to leave the ship? And what was the first thing you did once you were home?
On June 23, I disembarked and flew home. I won’t have any vacation until August because I am continuing my studies in the vocational school. The courses already started in late April, first only online but now also with in-class lessons. I tried to stay on the ball as much as possible by working through the lesson materials after work and during my lunch break, as I didn’t want to miss out on any practical experiences at work. But, no matter what, I try to spend as much time as possible with my family and friends.
About Hannah Gerlach
After earning her high school diploma, Hannah Gerlach started an apprenticeship to become a ship mechanic with Hapag-Lloyd on 1 January 2019. She started her first long voyage in September 2019 on board the “Basle Express”, and she has been on assignment for almost nine months due to COVID-19. The 19-year-old grew up in Timmendorfer Strand, a municipality on the Baltic Sea about 15 kilometres northwest of Lübeck. When not working or studying, she likes to spend time with her family and friends, listen to music and do sports – especially sailing.