“Vessel planning is like multidimensional Tetris” – Interview with Anja Giessmann

Once a container has been booked, our colleagues in Marine Operations around the world ensure that our customers’ cargo is efficiently stowed on board our vessels and arrives at the desired port of destination on schedule. With her 56-person team of stowage planners, schedule guardians and port superintendents, Marine Operations Director Anja Giessmann plans and oversees up to 45 ships – at the same time and around the clock – on their voyages through Europe, between the Mediterranean, Tangier in North Africa, or up to St. Petersburg in Russia. In the following interview, the 37-year-old explains all the things you have to keep in mind when devising the stowage plan for ships, why reefers and dangerous-good containers don’t make a good mix, and what’s at the top of her wish list when it comes to operations.

Anja, you have been head of the Marine Operations department for over two years, and in this position, you are responsible for four teams with a total of over 50 colleagues in North and South Europe. Can you provide us with some more details about what your job entails?

Owing simply to the size of my team, there’s always something to do (laughs). We are basically the executing link in the internal logistics chain, and we coordinate the loading, stowage and transport of our containers on board the ships, mainly from the office. In addition to 35 stowage planners in Hamburg and Genoa, my team includes the experts from the Regional Coordination Committee (RCC) Europe, who try to head off any potential time delays as early as possible, such as those caused by extreme weather conditions. One of my teams is responsible for inputting and maintaining the long-term and coastal schedules so that FIS is up to date and customers can always see the latest sailing-schedule information on the website. Since last year, we have also been responsible for establishing terminal partnerships with selected terminals, which includes having full-time port superintendents based on site at the terminals. They are the extended arm of the department, so to speak, to help us boost efficiency together.

Anja (right) and the Regional Coordination Committee (RCC) Europe Team

That sounds like a very multifaceted job. What do you find particularly fascinating about the operational business?
Every day is full of activity and no two days are the same, which is what makes it so incredibly exciting. While our work is based on precise planning of our coastal sailing schedules and stowage plans for the vessels, we also need to leave at least as much room for flexibility. This may sound paradoxical at first, but unpredictable internal and external factors – such as insufficient empty equipment at the terminals, loss of cargo at short notice, internal rebookings, crane disruptions or extreme storms – have a tremendous impact on our planning and often have to be factored in. That’s why we work closely with various internal and external partners – such as the Trade Management and our Port Terminal Operations colleagues in the Areas – in addition to keeping in close contact with the crews of our ships.

Your teams – and the other Marine Operations teams around the world – make sure that our customers’ cargo arrives at the port of destination. What are the first steps taken in stowage planning for a container ship?
We have divided the voyages of our ships according to the regional principle. So we in Europe are responsible for all ships on our Europe services from the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal, the American East Coast and the Caribbean. But we also keep a close eye in advance on whether there will be delays, whether the berths will be available in the terminal, or whether a “speed-up” will be necessary. Approximately 48 hours before a ship arrives at its first port, we then determine the most important parameters for our planning using the final cargo data, the sailing schedule and the particularities of the vessel. These include, for example, the so-called “crane split”, meaning the number of container gantry cranes that can be used for the fastest-possible loading and discharging of containers on board our ships.

How are the planning-related tasks divided up?
Based on the figures from our commercial colleagues, we first divide up the available space on the ship in what is known as “prestow planning”. To do this, we determine the position and weight of the containers on board and also how we will stack them on top of each other. One possibility, for example, is the so-called “mix stow” (also called the “Russian stow”), where 40-foot containers can also be stacked on top of 20-foot containers. However, anyone who has ever moved and transported moving boxes with their personal goods inside knows that this requires a certain amount of skill. We then pass the planning on to the terminal, which then applies it to “real” containers. Throughout this entire process, we and the terminal are both in close contact with the chief mate on board, who is responsible for the cargo.

Stowage Planning at work – one last cargo check for our “Al Dhail” in our vessel stowage programme CAPSTAN

What other factors have to be taken into account when doing the stowage planning for a ship?
In addition to maximum capacity utilisation, the primary objective is to keep the vessel seaworthy and evenly loaded throughout its entire voyage. Even in rough seas, the ship must not tip over and lose any cargo. To keep that from happening, the cargo quantities – meaning the overall weight of the containers – the positions of the containers on board (either in the hold or on deck), and the draught must be optimally harmonised. With the help of special stowage-planning software and lashing programmes, our planners can precisely calculate the forces at play on the ship and cargo to ensure a safe state of affairs at all times. In the end, vessel planning is a bit like multi-dimensional Tetris.

One of Hapag-Lloyd’s 1.7 million containers ready to be loaded on board our vessels

Hapag-Lloyd transports cargo of all kinds in a wide variety of steel boxes, ranging from 20-foot standard containers to special containers. What role does the specific type of cargo play in keeping the ship stable?
A good cargo mix is absolutely essential for the stability of the ship. But different types of cargo determine how the ship will be utilised. Space on board is limited depending on the class of ship and various conditions, which in turn places constraints on the cargo mix. For example, dangerous goods are often stowed on deck, where refrigerated containers could also be placed. Oversized OOG cargo, such as machinery, is often placed under the hatch cover for protected stowage, but it takes up space that could be used for other cargo. On top of that, not all types of cargo can be near each other. For example, you can’t put reefer containers together with flammable or explosive dangerous goods, as that would be a bad idea owing to the refrigeration unit on the reefer. The crucial thing is to always carefully consider which special goods can be transported on a ship, as it unfortunately isn’t possible to take along as much as possible of everything.

Why not? What challenges do dangerous goods, such as explosives, present?
The stowage of cargo on board must comply with international, national and internal safety regulations, which must be strictly complied with when you’re dealing with dangerous goods. When transporting particularly hazardous Class 1 explosives, such as fireworks, all other containers to be loaded on board must be planned around the needs of this single box – which, of course, is very complicated. They must be placed at a sufficient distance from other containers with dangerous goods, and they must be accessible at all times in case of an emergency. For us, the most important thing is to be informed about specific dangerous goods well in advance, so that the rest of the stowage can be prepared accordingly right from the start.

Colorful laden “Tsingtao Express” carrying different types of containers.

The coronavirus pandemic has turned global trade and international supply chains upside down. Owing to production, resource and capacity bottlenecks across the world, there are always long waiting times in ports, which in turn cause our ships to be delayed. How has the pandemic impacted your work?
Generally speaking, external, unpredictable factors that cannot be influenced – such as strikes, storms and maintenance work in terminals – are part of our day-to-day job. The pandemic has added another dimension to these factors. For example, there is often a shortage of dockworkers these days due to quarantines or planned vaccinations, which then has an impact on our ships.

Despite the challenges posed by Covid-19, Hapag-Lloyd recently launched a Schedule Reliability initiative to guarantee full transparency regarding the on-time performance of its ships. What added value will this bring to your day-to-day operations?
We’ve implemented some measures aimed at adjusting our schedules in advance in response to delays that can be reasonably expected. More specifically, this means that we are informing our customers about possible delays roughly seven to 10 weeks before the ship is scheduled to arrive at its port of destination. This kind of “early-warning system” enables our customers to plan things better. And the ports benefit, too, as it makes it possible for them to avoid premature deliveries of export containers.

About Anja Giessmann
Born in Wulfsen, a small village south of Hamburg, Anja developed a passion for shipping and its operational side while she was in a dual work-study programme at what is now the Hamburg School of Business Administration (HSBA). After holding positions in Network & Cooperations, Yield Management and Equipment in Area Germany, she then moved to Marine Operations in Region North Europe in 2015, where she has held the position of Director Marine Operations since 2019 – which she describes as “a perfect symbiosis” of her previous positions. In her free time, she enjoys doing yoga to relax. She expects to receive a double dose of good fortune in October, when she will become the mother of twins.

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