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Captain Björn Kropp has sailed on Hapag-Lloyd ships since 2012. When he was 33 years old, he was one of the shipping company’s youngest captains. Here he shares how that came about, why seafaring also makes unexpected family reunions possible, and what the native of Koblenz has in common with the novel character Horatio Hornblower.
“Exhausting!” is the honest and concise answer that Björn Kropp gives when asked how his last voyage on the “Callao Express” was. “The voyage itself was fine, and the weather was good. But I was woken up in the middle of the night off the coast of Peru. An ordinary seaman had heart problems as well as chest pains that were radiating to his right arm,” the 41-year-old reports. “We immediately put everything in motion in addition to telephoning a hospital in Cuxhaven, which helped us with the diagnosis and treatment recommendations. But after there were no improvements, they recommended that we quickly evacuate the ailing seafarer.”
However, getting in touch with the Peruvian authorities turned out to be difficult, as the number of the 24-hour hotline had apparently changed. “We were only able to establish contact with the help of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Bremen and then the one of Madrid,” he continues. “The next morning, our local Hapag-Lloyd colleagues actively assisted with organisational and communication efforts. They really do a super job!”
In the end, Captain Kropp did not get the helicopter that the Peruvian authorities said he would. Instead, the ship had to anchor off Chimbote, an industrial port, to have the seafarer picked up. When asked how incidents like this impact how everyone works together on board, he says: “People are actually supposed to get some sleep whenever they can because the many ports on the west coast are very labour-intensive. But, in this case, everyone helped each other out: The third officer took over the midnight-to-4am watch for the second officer, who looked after the poor guy in the ship bay. The chief mate was in contact with the hospital in Cuxhaven. And I handled communications with the central offices ashore, the sea rescue service, Hapag-Lloyd and the agency. While anchored off Chimbote, we then had to discuss how far into the port we would sail. And given our 14-metre draught, I had good reasons for refusing to do so.” In the end, everything went smoothly, he adds, saying: “The ordinary seaman got to the hospital in time, received treatment for his condition, was able to fly home to the Philippines from there.”
Our visit with the captain took place in his adopted home of Oldenburg, a city in north-western Germany west of Bremen. Hanging in the dining room is a harmoniously arranged set of art nouveau posters of North German Lloyd and the Hamburg America Line. Above the sideboard is a picture of the “London Express” gliding across the ocean, which his parents gave him as a present after his first command as a captain. And perched on the windowsill is another container ship, which Kropp’s now-12-year-old son made out of wood in grade school.
With binoculars on the seashore, seasick on the “Wilhelmshaven”
The captain has faced plenty of challenging situations at sea – but he has still never wanted to be anything else. “It’s such a complex, all-encompassing job!,” he says. “Whether it has to do with the engine, bridge or personnel issues – everything has to be perfectly dovetailed to sail a ship. And I simply enjoy that.”
As a 6-year-old, he was already sitting on the beach of the North Sea island of Wangerooge holding binoculars and watching the ships sail towards the Weser river. “Legend has it that I said: ‘I want to be a captain!’ My parents still like to tell that story today,” Kropp says with a grin. Two years later, a bit of damper was put on his early career aspirations. “We were taking an excursion to Helgoland on board the ‘Wilhelmshaven’, a ship that stops at seaside resorts. But I got really seasick,” recalls the native of the western German city of Koblenz before listing off the tree stages of real seasickness with a wink: “Stage 1: You become seasick. Stage 2: You think you’re going to die. Stage 3: You don’t die!” But a bit of seasickness didn’t keep him from pursuing his dream job. “In fact, it has never happened to me on a container ship,” he notes. “And I quickly learned what helps while sailing old ships at holiday camps: Just stick it out and finish your watch despite the nausea, and then just lie down and sleep. After a few days, you always get it out of your system.”
Koblenz, the town he was born in, is where the Rhine and the Moselle rivers meet. But no one from his family has ever had any connection with ocean-going shipping. “But I was in the sailing club from an early age, and I would go out on the reservoir with an Optimist dinghy,” Kropp says. And it wasn’t long before he had his first sailing holiday on the Baltic Sea on board the ‘Seute Deern’, a vintage gaff-rigged ketch. It was here that Kropp met a couple of seafarers who volunteered to keep the old ship in decent shape – and who quickly noticed how much passion the 16-year-old put into his work. One of the old sailors advised him, “Why don’t you go and apply for a holiday internship with the German Shipowners’ Association? Then you can sail on a real ship.”
And that’s how Kropp ended up on board the “Nürnberg Express”. “Six weeks in the Gulf of Mexico, long stays in ports, and great excursions,” he recalls. “Helping with berthing, becoming familiar with the bridge and the engine room, and even a bit of theoretical training. By then at the latest, it was clear to me: This is the path for me!” And that led him directly to a three-hour apprenticeship interview at Hapag-Lloyd’s headquarters on the Ballindamm even before he had finished high school. He got the green light just a few weeks later. And then the only thing he had left to do was pass his A-levels.
First into the shipyard, then around the globe
“For me, the fact that my first voyage as an apprentice went straight to the shipyard in Hong Kong with the ‘Stuttgart Express’ was a stroke of luck,” Kropp says. “In a dry dock, you literally get to know a ship inside out. I mean, when else do you get a chance to safely examine a ship’s hull from below? And we also spent a lot of time exploring Hong Kong and experiencing the hustle and bustle in the streets, the incredible underground network and the unfamiliar smells. Plus, a friend of mine from Koblenz was living there, so I even had my own personal tour guide. I can only recommend to everyone a trip on the Star Ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island to anyone. The old ferry boats have even made it into a couple James Bond films.”
Though perhaps not as action-packed as one sees in the movies, his practical training and theoretical coursework to become a seafarer were still very interesting. “First the East Asia services, then America, and then through the Panama Canal with the old electric towing locomotives,” he says. “And then the onshore excursions were also an adventure, such as the one to Universal Studies in Los Angeles. Later, I was lucky enough to sail on the Australia and New Zealand route as chief mate. It was a really fantastic time!”
The captain also finds the history of New Zealand extremely fascinating. “R.F. Scott’s dramatic Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole started here in 1910, though they would eventually all freeze to death in the ice. It’s unbelievable the kind of challenges that people used to take on!” Kropp says. “Wherever you go, you stumble across names and events of historical importance – not to mention the origins of today’s globalisation. In 1881, the ‘Dunedin’ set sail for London from Port Chalmers on the South Island as one of the world’s first refrigerated ships. When I think about how many reefers are out there today, that’s quite an incredible development!”
The route to New Zealand also facilitated a special kind of family reunion. “My sister and I both studied in Elsfleth, where she majored in logistics,” he continues, referring to a town between Bremen and Bremerhaven that is home to a well-known school of navigation. “She moved to Auckland after graduating,” he continues, adding with a laugh that he was “the first one in the family to visit her for a quick coffee.”
Becoming a captain during a devastating hurricane
After a bit more than six years as a chief officer, the time had finally arrived. “I was supposed to take command of the ‘London Express’ in New York and have a handover voyage to Hamburg via Halifax,” Kropp recounts. “But Hurricane Sandy had devastated half the US East Coast and caused an enormous number of delays. This shortened the handover from seven days to 40 hours and only from New York to Halifax, where the other captain, who had also only been recently promoted, disembarked. From that point on, I was on my own.”
By then, Kropp had already made countless berthing and casting-off manoeuvres. “But when you suddenly find yourself alone, it’s something completely different,” he says. “You are alone with your doubts, but you still have to make the right decision. For example, when we were in Antwerp, there was so suddenly no pilot to be seen anywhere you looked. I immediately thought it was my fault, but it simply turns out that no one had come.”
Today, Kropp looks back fondly on his early days as a captain. “It was just like it was the Panama Canal: The first passage is exhilarating. But once you start going through it six times a year, you get used to it,” he says. “Today, I focus much more on the team aspects, and I try to spend time with and listen to others. From my time as an officer, I remember very well that not everyone dares to openly mention possible grievances or conflicts. But I think that doing so is very important if you want to have a positive working environment.”
Common characteristics of captains
The captain unwinds by running on the treadmill and reading. “Right now, I’m reading the Volker Kutscher novels that the television series ‘Babylon Berlin’ is based on,” he says. “I’m totally fascinated by the time around the 1930s in Berlin!”
And then there is the multi-volume series of Horatio Hornblower novels that he likes to reread every so often. “These books by C.S. Forester are about a young midshipman who has to go through all kinds of adventures before becoming an admiral during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century,” Kropp explains. A film adaptation of the best-selling series featuring Gregory Peck in the leading role was made in 1951, and later there was also a television adaptation. The central theme is the many lonely decisions that a captain has to make again and again. “There’s a lot of truth in these stories about life at sea,” Kropp notes.
But, during the interview, the captain does not reveal a trait that he shares with the hero of this series of novels: Horatio Hornblower also gets repeatedly seasick during his early voyages – something that presumably wouldn’t have happened to him on a container ship.