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Markus Grote waves it off right at the beginning of the interview, saying: “Oh, come on! What would I have to tell you?” But when speaking with him, it quickly becomes clear just how much passion and empathy he brings to his job as a captain. An encounter on the Elbe beach in Hamburg, right across from the container terminal.
“I will never forget my first voyage as a captain,” says the 43-year-old native of North Rhine-Westphalia, as he looks off across the Elbe and into the distance. “It was in December 2013. We were in the North Pacific, south of the Aleutian Islands, when we were passing by the ‘Boston Express’.” Hapag-Lloyd’s 4,667 TEU ship had been drifting at sea there for quite a while after suffering engine damage. “Part of our crew was supposed to bring over welding electrodes and tools in the rescue boat in the hope that they could use them to weld the defective camshaft. I watched from above as the boat, small as a nutshell, struggled through the choppy seas with our three seafarers. Then its engine failed, and the waves rocked the boat back and forth. I immediately called the captain of the ‘Boston Express’ and asked whether someone could go out and meet up with our rescue boat. But, luckily, the engine started up again soon after that.”
The seafarers made it back unharmed. But the efforts to repair the “Boston Express” came to nothing, and the 300-metre-long container ship ultimately had to be towed by a tugboat to the nearest port. “Deploying our rescue boat might have seemed like just a minor operation at first glance. But when it’s the first time that you are personally responsible for it, all the various things that could go wrong rush through your mind,” the captain says pensively. “On the other hand, just think of how the people on the ‘Boston Express’ must have felt. According to what I’ve been told, the captain was also on his maiden voyage at that time and had the much bigger challenge to deal with.”
From Baltic Sea beaches to South America via Bielefeld
Markus Grote’s early years were more uncomplicated and carefree. As a small boy, he regularly drove with his family to vacation on the shores of the Baltic Sea. “The huge ferries heading for Scandinavia fascinated me even back then, while we were digging in the sand. And the first time I was asked in school what I wanted to be when I grew up, I already had a fixed answer in mind: a seafarer.”
While attending an informational event organized by the German Shipowners’ Association (VDR) in the western German city of Bielefeld, the then-17-year-old heard a lot of positive things about Hapag-Lloyd. “After that, my thoughts of studying mathematics were quickly off the table. I couldn’t picture myself being a maths teacher anyway.”
Grote speaks candidly about his first job interview with his current employer. “I didn’t do a passing job on that one,” he admits. “I had been watching the news for weeks to keep up on global events, but the interview was much more specifically about what happens on board – and I wasn’t prepared for that.”
That’s how he ended up at Hamburg Süd, where he completed an apprenticeship to become a ship mechanic. “The first voyages to South America were really impressive. Rio de Janeiro, Santos, Buenos Aires – and we also had a few great shore leaves.” But the budding seafarer also enjoyed life on board. “In the morning, we learned in the training workshop what holds a ship together at its core. And, at lunchtime, we put on some sunscreen and jumped into the pool to cool off before going back down to the workshop. When we came home six weeks later with a tan in winter, my family and friends weren’t just proud – they were jealous, too,” he says with a laugh.
Surmounting first physical and now emotional challenges at sea
In October 2000, the then-23-year-old headed to Warnemünde, a city in north-eastern Germany on the Baltic Sea, to study nautical science and technical ship operation at the University of Wismar. “My contact with Hapag-Lloyd was quickly re-established – first, because I was often dragged along by my fellow students to meetings at Hapag-Lloyd; and, second, because I worked as a ship mechanic at Hapag-Lloyd during the semester breaks.” Right after finishing his studies, he was hired by the very same man who had turned him down just a few years earlier. “That was in 2005. I started as a ship operations officer and was promoted to first officer after three years.”
At that time, he sailed in this role on the “Wellington Express”, a rather small ship with its own cranes. And that presented the newly minted officer with a challenge already on his second voyage. “We were berthed in Willemstad, the capital of Curaçao. The wire cable on one of the cranes was damaged and had to be replaced, which was something I had never done before. It’s a good thing that our captain knew how to do it! So, with our combined strength, we wound up about 200 metres of new wire cable, which took us almost a day and a half with various shift changes.”
When asked if he can recall encountering rough weather while on his voyages for Hapag-Lloyd, Grote says with relief in his voice, “Fortunately, I can’t think of any encounters off the top of my head. The weather forecasts and calculations are so good nowadays that you can almost always steer clear of any trouble.” Of course, he does admit to having seen some rough seas every once in a while. “But it’s more annoying than anything else, because it’s so bumpy and noisy at night that you just can’t sleep very well. And when the entire crew hasn’t got enough sleep, you have to figure out ways to keep everybody in a good mood.”
Grote says that he does this now as a captain by organizing game nights or barbecues and, if possible, giving the crew some nice shore leaves to look forward to. “My most important job as captain is to look after and motivate the crew.” When the pandemic broke out last year, he says that all seafarers were put to the test. “A lot of our Filipino colleagues weren’t able to return to their home country because of the travel restrictions and were stranded on board for 12 months or even longer, which was very stressful. One of our seamen had to stay for more than a year on board the ‘Antwerpen Express’, which I sailed on from July to November. Our cook’s relief was also cancelled at the last minute. We all had to take care of him, talk to him, and repeatedly simply try to cheer him up. But sometimes I also thought to myself: ‘We are all safe here on board, and we don’t have to wear masks or keep physical distance from each other. We are 20 people with enough room to sleep and enough food to eat. That’s far more than is possible for a lot of people around the world’.”
Asparagus water, burst tyres and chips every other day
Captain Grote isn’t only grateful that his career has enabled him to experience the vastness of the ocean and to get to know many ports across the world, as the mix of many small and big experiences also make the job special to him. “Take, for example, the excursion to a statue of Buddha in Taiwan, during which the guide offered us a litre of asparagus water from a can! Or the trip with our apprentices and ‘vacation voyagers’ to the Tsingtao Brewery in China. In addition to the tour, the trip there was also interesting, seeing that one of the tyres of our tour bus burst and we had to creep along the road at 30 kilometres per hour. I didn’t realise how far you could get with a punctured tyre.”
Another unforgettable experience happened on an excursion with a very enthusiastic agent in Tokyo. “He personally drove us to the Skytree, the highest television tower in the world. The view over Tokyo’s endless sea of buildings from a height of 450 metres was absolutely incredible. The hustle and bustle in the streets is also simply breathtaking,” Grote reminisces.
One of his favourite films, “Lost in Translation” with Bill Murray, is set in the glittering mega-metropolis. And, speaking of movies, Grote says that film nights are particularly popular in the coronavirus era, since the crew isn’t allowed to take any shore leave. “We recently agreed in a very democratic manner to watch ‘Rambo 4’ and ‘The Terminator’, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. If it had been up to me, we would have watched ‘La La Land’,” Grote says with a laugh. “I like romantic comedies, but I prefer to watch them alone in my cabin.” So does this mean that captains don’t have any privileges on board? “Oh, yes we do!” he responds. “Our cooks like to prepare what the captain wants. And since I love chips, we have them on board at least every other day.”