How Kim Jes Nagies suddenly became a father on the Indian Ocean

Kim Jes Nagies is a true northerner. He lives in the north-western German coastal city of Brunsbüttel – directly on the dyke and with a view of the Elbe River. He has worked at Hapag-Lloyd as an officer of the watch since 2018. When he boarded the 13,200 TEU “Ulsan Express” in Korea on 10 January 2020, he had no reason to suspect that this would be the beginning of an unforgettable voyage. And he owes it all to COVID-19.

Just a few weeks before his voyage started, Nagies learned that his wife was pregnant. With this in mind, he made plans to spend eight weeks on board the “Ulsan Express” and then to take a brief vacation at home in Brunsbüttel to renovate their apartment. And then he would take a round voyage on the “Valparaíso Express”, which would get him back right in time for the birth of his first child. But, as the old saying goes: “How do you make God laugh? – Tell him your plans.”

In late February, Nagies went ashore in Israel, where the weather was fantastic. It was supposed to be his last shore leave for several months. After all, by the beginning of March, it was becoming clearer and clearer that ports across the world would impose massive restrictions in response to the outbreak and rapid spread of the coronavirus. The closer he got to his planned vacation, the more restrictive these regulations became. Crew change in Korea? Impossible. In China? Forbidden. In Turkey? Not allowed. In Israel? Not a chance. Then, while on the phone with his wife back home, he said: “I can’t come to make the renovations. But I will be there right in time for the birth.”

Then he made the same round voyage again, which took him back to China, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Once again, there weren’t any shore leaves or crew changes.

In June, the ship lay at anchor off Korea – where the crew spent four long weeks just looking at the port in the distance. Shore leaves? Not gonna happen. Then, on another call with his wife, he said: “It will work out by the end of June.” To which she laconically responded: “I won’t believe it until you’re actually on the plane.”

At last, there was a good sign: The apprentice on board was allowed to disembark in South Korea. But that was to remain an exception, and the only people permitted to go off the ship were those who didn’t need a replacement. When the young seafarer was picked up by a water taxi, some of the crew stood wistfully at the railing and waved after him.

By now, it was July. And, with each day, Nagies’ hopes of being there in person for the birth of his first child dwindled away. Then came the news they had all been waiting for – after long and intense work of the Hapag-Lloyd fleet management team in Hamburg: On 14 July, they would be permitted to make a crew change in Singapore. Relieved, Nagies started to pack up his belongings. Shortly thereafter, Singapore withdrew its authorisation. The voyage continued. The clock was ticking for Nagies and his family. His wife was very pregnant now, and the due date for his child was quickly approaching.

On 19 July, Nagies celebrates his 31st birthday somewhere out on the Indian Ocean soon after sailing past Sri Lanka. On today of all days, the network goes down – cutting off his internet connection to his family. In the evening, once the problem has been resolved, 20 new WhatsApp messages arrive at once. The first of them reads: “We are driving to the hospital now.” The last one says: “Congratulations! You’re a father! Hanna has arrived – and as healthy as a horse!” That night, the entire crew celebrated two birthdays in the bar – that of Hanna and that of her father.

In the days to follow, the ship changes its course. The Mediterranean is now calling, and the plan includes stops in Italy, France and Greece. And the miracle would happen in Piraeus: On 31 July – after exactly 203 days on board – Nagies is allowed to disembark.

A few days later, when he finally arrives in Brunsbüttel at one o’clock in the morning, the entire family – including its newest member, Hanna – is waiting for him. Tears were shed.

“It’s crazy. I never saw my wife when she was visibly pregnant. But now I come home – and a baby is there. It’s strange somehow,” he says.

When asked how he made it through the seven months on board, Nagies says: “We grew very close on board, and we did a lot of things together, such as watching movies and playing music and games. It was important to feel a sense of cohesion, which kept people from starting to become broody. One of my colleagues on board had to postpone his wedding several times; another lost his mother and couldn’t attend the funeral. It was hard. But that’s our job – and we love it.”

When asked when he would be returning on board, he responds: “Probably in January. Right now, though, I can’t free my mind up enough to even think about work again.”

But, as his gaze falls on the Elbe, you can detect a bit of wistfulness in his eyes.

Back to Top