Immanuel Jürgens has been captain for a bit over a year – and he’s only 35 years old. Although he actually wanted to study medicine, now he can’t imagine anything better than safely getting Hapag-Lloyd ships from A to B. In the following interview, he tells us what we can learn from mistakes, how he courageously treated an injured forearm, and why he is now standing at the nappy-changing table instead of on the bridge.
“If there’s one thing I won’t do again, it’s to throw a distress buoy in the rubbish,” Immanuel Jürgens says with a grin. The incident occurred a few years ago on the “Hamburg Express” when he was having the safety store – meaning the storage room for the fire-fighting equipment – cleaned up in Chinese waters. At the time, he was still a chief mate. “The buoy was sitting in the corner, and I thought that the old thing can go now,” he recounts. “We dropped it off in Yantian along with our rubbish and sailed on. Ten hours later, we received an alarmed call from Hamburg, saying: ‘We’re getting distress signals here! What happened?’ The captain was puzzled because everything was in order on board.”
Then it occurred to Jürgens that this might have something to do with the buoy they had gotten rid of. “And, in fact, a dustman somewhere in southern China had triggered the distress signal, and this cheerfully chirped from the rubbish heap all the way to the German Maritime Search and Rescue Service, which then immediately contacted Hapag-Lloyd.” With remorse, Jürgens admitted to his slip-up. "But the captain was fortunately forgiving, and the incident was forgotten after two days. That’s just how it is: When you make decisions, you can also make mistakes.” In any case, the native of Reinbek – a town just a short drive east of Hamburg – couldn’t have made very many mistakes, as he was promoted to captain in the middle of the 2020 pandemic at the young age of 35.
From the hospital to the container ship
Jürgens isn’t one of those captains who gazed longingly at every random ship even as a child. “My father was in the navy, but that was before my time and didn’t really influence my career choice. I was interested in medicine, and I had completed two internships at hospitals after finishing school and my military service. When I didn’t get a place at university, I thought about what else I could do and got into a conversation with a friend who was a shipping agent. It sounded exciting – but I couldn’t imagine myself only sitting in an office. But exploring the vast world by ship – now that sounded much better!”
So, in 2006, Jürgens submitted an application to Hapag-Lloyd for an apprenticeship to become a ship mechanic. But he wasn’t accepted at first. “I guess I didn’t give off the impression that I was very interested in technical matters. But two weeks before the apprenticeship was supposed to begin, I received an offer to start out as a deck cadet.” Thus, as one of eight nautical apprentices, the then-22-year-old boarded a container ship for the first time in his life: the “Chicago Express”, which has been a Hapag-Lloyd training vessel since it went into service in 2006.
“Breathing in loads of information for 10 weeks, familiarising myself with the ship from hull to bridge, standing my first watches, plus some great shore leaves from Rotterdam to Singapore – it was exhausting, exciting and beautiful all at the same time!” the captain fondly recalls. “As an officer and even now as a captain, I don’t like to leave my cargo alone, but I can only give the following advice to all trainees: Enjoy your first time on board and, as soon as it’s possible again, take every shore leave you can.”
On his second voyage as a cadet, Jürgens learned first-hand that seafaring also involves weathering the occasional storm. “That was on the North Atlantic off Halifax,” he recounts. “We had to go through a storm depression, and the ship was rolling like crazy. We were sitting in the mess room when suddenly the ship heeled in such a way that the chairs at the table fell over. A technician travelling with us stood up out of reflex – and was almost thrown against the wall. Luckily, nothing bad happened to him. Then, while taking a round of the ship on the next day, we discovered a lot of dents on the containers and the damage to the ship. But as an apprentice, you’re more of an observer. Later, as chief mate or captain, you bear full responsibility.”
First aid on a forearm – just don’t put too much pressure on it!
Jürgens got his first taste of what responsibility feels like and of what it’s like to make bold decisions as a chief mate on board the “New York Express”. “We were berthed in the Port of Mersin on the southern coast of Turkish. During the voyage, we had prepared the ship to be retrofitted with a scrubber – meaning a new exhaust gas cleaning system – which was supposed to be tested on a ‘Hamburg’-class vessel. To do this, we had to rearrange some things in the engine room, empty out the adjacent cabins, and dispose of the material on land. On the quay, there was a truck with one of our ordinary seamen on the loading platform, who had to receive a number of things, including some metal plates with sharp edges. That’s when it happened: He hurt himself on one of the edges, cutting his forearm pretty badly. I had just arrived in the office when the excited radio message reached me. Should I call an ambulance? Or should I try to perform first aid myself? Then the second officer of the watch and I decided to treat the arm by stapling the open wound shut. Luckily, the seaman was a tough guy, and the situation was not life-threatening. The injured man sailed with us for another three weeks and only disembarked in Singapore,” says the captain, before modestly adding: “There are definitely some even more dramatic situations that we have to deal with on board, but everyday life also shows what every individual is capable of.”
What Jürgens particularly appreciates about his employer is the way it treats its employees. “Hapag-Lloyd takes care of its people and values each individual – or at least that’s been my experience so far. I also find the continuing-education offers impressive, as you really get the feeling that they are eager to invest in their own people. And, in the end, that’s also what fosters the high spirits that we enjoy.” As captain, Jürgens also feels that he is largely responsible for the spirits of the crew on board. “Apart from the cook,” he says with a laugh before adding: “Creating a good atmosphere, not building up unnecessary pressure, trusting people – that’s what I think is important. It’s only when the going gets tough that you learn whether you can really count on people.”
When the engine suddenly shuts down...
Jürgens had his first voyage as a captain in August 2020. It was from Genoa across the Atlantic and back – and everything went smoothly. “The onboarding was great, and all the people on board were experienced,” he says. “So I got off to a good start!”
But already on the second round voyage, the captain had to prove that he can also handle stress. “We were coming from Savannah, and we had already been sailing on the Savannah River towards the North Atlantic for more than three hours. We had just said goodbye to the pilot and were heading towards the open sea. Then the engine suddenly went quiet. Blackout, complete shutdown. And, to make matters worse, the wind force was between nine and ten [editor’s note: between “strong/severe gale” and “storm/whole gale” on the Beaufort scale]. A hydraulic line had ruptured. We dropped anchor and called everyone available to repair the pipe and clean up the engine room. It wasn’t the kind of thing you would be excited to do on a Sunday afternoon, but working, cleaning and repairing the engine together really strengthened our bonds – and, in the end, they did a fantastic job. Plus, everyone knew that if it had all happened just half an hour earlier, the whole thing would’ve been a lot more challenging. So luck is also sometimes part of it.”
The joys of fatherhood!
Such adventures will be on pause for the time being, as the newly minted father decided to take three months of parental leave. He came to Hamburg just in time for the birth, and now he’s happy to be there for his daughter, Jonna, and his girlfriend, Stella. “Jonna’s birth is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced – simply an incredible feeling!” Jürgens says with delight. “We’ve even been on a short camping holiday on Fehmarn, which the little one made it through well,” he adds, referring to a Baltic Sea island between Germany and Denmark. “Now it’s time to change diapers and watch our girl grow up. And I have a good feeling about my employer. Seafaring might not always be family-friendly, but Hapag-Lloyd definitely is!”