Taalke Middents: Adventures on container ships

Camaraderie and piracy, whales and refugees – Chief Officer Taalke Middents has already experienced a lot at sea

She is tall, blond and steers container ships on the seven seas. Although she is only 29 years old, Taalke Middents works as a chief officer for the Hamburg-based shipping company Hapag-Lloyd. The seafarer is responsible for thousands of tonnes of cargo that are loaded, secured and transhipped in ports. She has been sailing around the world on these sea giants for a decade. “A lot of people don’t know that the mangos they eat for breakfast were brought here over the course of weeks by people on container ships, as if a farmer in Colombia picks the mangos in the evening and then they are miraculously just lying on the breakfast plate in the morning,” she says. “In fact, many people aren’t even aware of the shipping industry anymore.”

Chief officer on a Hapag-Lloyd container ship

Before switching to Hapag-Lloyd, Middents worked for Leonhardt & Blumberg, another Hamburg-based shipping company. She started there in the second practical semester of her training. After completing her nautical studies, she was hired by the company as a third officer and received a uniform with a single stripe on the epaulettes. Service providers in ports recognize who they are supposed to speak with from their insignia. The job of third officers includes calculating seaways electronically and mapping our routes on maps by hand.

When Middents earned her second stripe, she was put in charge of safety on board. But now she wears three stripes on her uniform. With four stripes, only the captain outranks her. “I’m really proud that I’ve made it so far,” Middents says. But her sights are set even higher: on earning that fourth stripe and becoming a captain. Then she will be permitted to steer ships through narrow estuaries and into ports. With her nautical degree, she has already completed the required training, so the only thing she still needs now is more on-the-job experience. Then the captains Middents has worked under will be able to recommend her for promotion.

The chief officer: “I couldn't let a person die”

The young woman can already look back on a series of both challenging and happy moments at sea. For example, she has seen sharks swimming under the mirror-smooth surface of the water off the coast of Saudi Arabia, and she once heard a loud slapping sound and saw a whale that was “definitely 20 metres long” dive into the waters a few miles off the coast of Ghana. On the Atlantic Ocean, she once encountered a boat full of refugees. She gave them some food and stayed with them until a Spanish rescue vessel arrived. And she would do the same thing again at any time.

“I couldn’t let a person die, and neither could any of the people I’ve worked with,” she says.   

Human error: A much bigger threat than waves or pirates

When asked whether she has ever been scared at sea, Middents hesitates for a moment before saying: “Really scared? I can’t recall that.” Not even when sailing in pirate-infested waters off Somalia or in the Strait of Malacca east of Malaysia. So far, she has always been able to steer clear of pirates. But she knows a colleague who was kidnapped off Somalia and later released. “I’m not thrilled about sailing through those areas, but I’m not afraid of it, either,” she says, adding that they take precautionary measures and increase their speed to avoid any danger.

She also says that bad weather rarely worries her, as the shipping company works with meteorologists, and when they say that bad weather is coming, the crew waits it out in shallower waters. “We once bobbed around in the Azores for a few days because the weather was bad in the Bay of Biscay,” she says. It was funny, she adds, to have bright sunshine on the container ship but bad weather in the target region off the coast of France and Spain. But safety comes first.

Human error, she continues, is a much bigger threat than piracy or weather conditions. “Dangerous situations arise from carelessness at sea, such as when the traffic has been underestimated,” the seafarer says. “That’s when you have to ask the captain for assistance.” What’s more, as in any household, members of the crew can be injured or get sick, which is why all nautical officers receive paramedic training during their studies.

Hygiene in the coronavirus age: Fighting the pandemic with a cleaning plan

Nautical students spend two weeks in a hospital, including one in the emergency room. “More than anything, this is meant to toughen them up so they don’t faint at the first drop of blood,” Middents explains. What’s more, she adds, the system is so well-developed that German seafarers can telephone doctors on call at a hospital in the German port city of Cuxhaven from almost anywhere in the world.

The doctors know all the medication available on board and will advise the crew to return to land, if necessary. That has already happened to Middents, too. “Once when we were sailing from California to Tahiti, our captain’s vision started getting worse by the day. Every day, we checked to see where the nearest land was.” In the end, though, the captain finished the voyage and the seafarers didn’t have to return to shore.

Since March, there has been another health-related factor on board, as not even seafarers have been spared from coronavirus worries and impacts. To protect the crew from infection, everyone has to help with a big clean-up effort after every port call. Apart from the seafarers, no one is allowed on board, as the risk of infection would be too high and the repercussions too serious. If no new coronavirus restrictions are put in place, Taalke Middents will soon go back to sea. There, she will keep gaining the experience she needs to qualify to become a captain.  

Note: This profile appeared in the Hamburger Abendblatt, a local newspaper in Hamburg. The author is Laura Kosanke. It has been slightly adapted for non-German readers.  

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