Andrew Longnecker – through the anchor hawse to the top

Andrew Longnecker has been sailing on board the “Philadelphia Express” for a dozen years, four of them as captain. In the following interview, he shares why an older ship has its advantages, how he fished for salmon and cod off Alaska as a young man, and why he is proud to work for Hapag-Lloyd.

The scene is the Container Terminal Altenwerder (CTA) in Hamburg. The sky is a bright blue on what is one of the first warm days of the year. Just as radiant is Captain Andrew Longnecker as he stands on the quay in front of his ship, the “Philadelphia Express”. Hapag-Lloyd CEO Rolf Habben Jansen has announced that he will be visiting the ship. He wants to bring a few gifts for the crew to thank them for their hard work before they head back to Charleston. And he’s also bringing some good news: In a few months, the crew is scheduled to switch to a more modern ship, probably the “Al Kharj”, which is berthed right next to their current ship. In other words, their future is practically within reach.

Without a doubt, the “Philadelphia Express” has seen better days. The 3,237 TEU container ship has 18 years under its belt. It’s a bit rusty in places and, yes, the lettering could also use a bit of touching up. The lift isn’t working right now. But that isn’t such a big deal, as the crew is young and fit, and they like to race up and down the stairs. And Andrew Longnecker won’t stand any criticism of his ship. “I know the ‘Philadelphia Express’ inside out – every corner, every repair. It’s just a great feeling to know everything about a ship,” says the 51-year-old American.

The route will meander from Hamburg to London, Charleston, Port Everglades and Houston, and then back to Hamburg via Savannah, Norfolk and Antwerp. “The Atlantic Ocean has a lot of storms to offer on this stretch,” the captain notes, adding that waves up to 10 or 12 metres high are nothing out of the ordinary. “It isn’t so bad when you’re sailing with the current, but when you have the storm and 4,000 nautical miles ahead of you, you need a lot of experience. And the hurricane season off the East Coast in late summer isn’t without its challenges, either. Just last year, we came very close to a hurricane off Charleston, and a second one came in after that. But then one headed north and the other south. We just got lucky!”

Growing up on the East Coast, fishing off Alaska

As with many captains, Longnecker’s love of the sea runs in the family. “My father was a seafarer, and my two sisters and I more or less grew up on board off the East Coast,” he recounts. “Then, after high school, I moved to Alaska to work in deep-sea fishing. I ended up with a Norwegian fishing family. Their wooden longliners were passed down from generation to generation. When you run into rough weather on one of these boats, the planks literally bend, you get soaked to your bones, and you hardly get a wink of sleep. Longline finishing is tough, physical work – but as a young man, I loved it,” the captain says.

At 26, he bought his own boat. “The ‘Virginia Creeper’, a good 22-metre longliner. Bigeye tuna, which grow to up to two-and-a-half metres, cod, swordfish – we brought up to 15 different species out of the water in all weathers,” Andrew Longnecker fondly recalls.

At the time, he was living in Hawaii, where he also met his future wife. When asked how he went from fishing to container shipping, he says: “Some of my friends had already switched over, gotten their licence and sailed as third officers on cargo ships. As much as I liked fishing, I realised through our conversations that container shipping offered more of a future, especially if you want to start a family.”

Climbing to the top, and then showing young people how it’s done

“I worked my way up from ordinary seaman to captain. We Americans call it being a hawsepiper,” the captain says, explaining that it refers to someone who climbs onto the ship through the hawse of the anchor chain – or, less figuratively, meaning someone who did not attend a traditional maritime college or academy to earn an officer’s licence, but did so by accumulating enough sea time and taking the necessary training courses and exams.

He got his start with Hapag-Lloyd in 2009 as a third officer, sailing on the “St. Louis Express” and the “Washington Express” until he ended up on the “Philadelphia Express”. He became a chief mate on this ship and then earned his master’s certificate in 2017. His entire family was incredibly proud of his promotion, Longnecker says, adding: “Especially my dad. I once took him along for a bit up to Norfolk because he’d never been on a ship that big before. That’s when he said to me, ‘You inherited my passion and turned it into your career’.”

As much as Captain Longnecker loves adventure, he is also passionate these days about training the younger generation. “Showing the guys how the job works, monitoring their progress and watching them grow in their roles is very fulfilling,” the tall captain says. “For example, I have a colleague here on board whom I’ve known ever since I was a chief mate myself. He had served 18 months in Afghanistan before he started here as a cadet, and now he’s a second officer. I’m proud to be able to accompany him on his journey!”

Ever get bored? Never!

But let’s be honest: Doesn’t it also get a bit boring to always sail on the same ship? “Absolutely not!” Andrew Longnecker responds defensively. “It’s great to frequently sail a single route. On the one hand, you have a certain continuity; on the other, you always have new people on board. Every voyage is different.”

And then you also have storms, he explains, and the “Philadelphia Express” has also been rammed while berthed, which forced it to spend a few days in dry dock. “But then you have things like what happened a few years ago, when we encountered a lifeboat full of Cuban refugees in the Gulf of Mexico,” he recounts. “Four men and very pregnant woman in a tiny boat. We safely escorted them to the nearest coastguard station.”

Diversity in Bremerhaven, family time in Charleston, and praise from the boss

The crew of the “Philadelphia Express” comes from all over the world. “Honduras, Turkey, Indonesia and Ghana, to name just a few of the countries,” Longnecker says. “And everyone here on board has their own story. Just this morning, I was talking with one of our Indonesian officer cadets. He lives in Wisconsin, but he was telling me how much he misses his homeland, Bali, and the wonderful nature there. When you sail, you don’t just get to know other ports and countries; sometimes just being on board is also like a trip around the world!”

Captain Longnecker has something positive to say about all ports, even Bremerhaven, which the “Philadelphia Express” called at until two years ago. “Even if some people might poke fun at it, it’s nice to feel like you’re coming home. We know the city well, and we know where the good places to eat and shop are. I even have a beer mug with the emblem of Bremerhaven on it.”

But, of course, Longnecker finds there is a lot more beauty in Charleston, where he lives with his wife, Martha, and his two sons, Nicolas and Jacob. “We have wonderful beaches, and the city exudes a lot of history. “When I’m home, I take a lot of trips with my family, such as to go hiking in the mountains. Or I make something with my boys in my workshop. We recently built a weight bench, which was a whole lot of fun.”

When he misses the ocean, Captain Longnecker likes to watch a few of the many Hapag-Lloyd films that can be found on YouTube. “The Marketing department does a great job on them. Every time I watch them, I’m even prouder to work for Hapag-Lloyd afterwards,” he says. “My wife always laughs and asks: ‘Well, do you already want to get going?’”

Rolf Habben Jansen arrives in the doorway right when the interview comes to an end. Captain Longnecker assembles the crew on the bridge. Hapag-Lloyd’s CEO praises the crew with a brief speech of thanks, distributes the gifts, and officially promises them the bigger, more modern ship. After a few quick photos, he has to leave. “This is a dream come true for me!” captain Andrew Longnecker says while gazing over at the “Al Kharj” with a look of satisfaction.

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