Torben Cordes – a captain who leads by listening

Torben Cordes sparkles with enthusiasm as soon as he talks about his job. And that may also be due to the captains at Hapag-Lloyd who taught him seafaring. “Without their support, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” says the Brunsbüttel native gratefully. He became a probationary captain on the “Santos Express” in 2020 and was later promoted. In the following interview, he tells us what he learned from his role models, how he keeps the crew happy even in difficult times, and what he can’t do without when he gets home.

Captain Torben Cordes is a true “coast child”. He grew up in Dithmarschen on the Kiel Canal, his father an enthusiastic sailor, and the family’s circle of friends included pilots, sailors and water police officers. “I already wrote ‘captain’ as my dream career in the friendship books in elementary school,” the 37-year-old says with a laugh. Nevertheless, after graduating from high school, he first applied to study in Kiel to become a police officer. “That had a lot to do with my youth work in the sports club and the German Red Cross,” he explains. “The idea of making my contribution to society as a police officer appealed to me!” A sports accident intervened and prevented him from starting his studies – in retrospect a lucky coincidence, he thinks. “After that, I took a two-track approach: I enrolled as a student of nautical science in Elsfleth and started the six-month internship semester. And I applied to Hapag-Lloyd in Hamburg at the same time to train to become a ship’s mechanic.”

While Cordes was sailing for the shipping company Rörd Braren on the multipurpose freighter “Bremer Anna” during his internship, Hapag-Lloyd invited him for an interview. “I got off at Brunsbüttel lock, went to the Ballindamm and got back on board afterwards,” he says. The acceptance letter came a short time later. “Probably also because they saw right away that I was someone who really wanted to sail,” the captain says. Even so, he didn’t want to leave before finishing his practical semester at sea. “At the time, I was the only German on board the tramp steamer, the only language spoken on board was Russian, and all I really understood was ‘Dawei, dawei!’, which means ‘Go, go!’ We sailed across the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. We had to lash wood, paper, tree trunks and pallets ourselves, so we opened the hatches and loaded the stuff! And when your ship freezes up off Sweden or Finland and the icebreaker has to dig you out, those were some impressive experiences. A tough school overall, but just right for me!”

A giant sandstorm off Damietta

From the 90-metre-long multipurpose freighter, it was off to training with Hapag-Lloyd on the “Chicago Express,” which is almost four times as big. “When I stood in the engine room for the first time, I was overwhelmed,” Cordes says. “And even more so up on the bridge, as I couldn’t imagine how to steer such a giant. But our captain, Bernd Etzien, just said: ‘We’ll manage’ and took us under his wing. I owe him an immense debt of gratitude!” The captain’s eyes light up as he recounts his first shore excursions with his then-boss in Singapore: “He took us fish shopping at his favourite store, where he introduced us to the owner and we first got a coffee. We felt accepted, even though we were just little trainees!”

It was also Captain Etzien who encouraged him two years ago to try to become a captain himself. “He just said: ‘Torben, you can do this, and if you really want it, I’ll support you!’,” Cordes says. “This mixture of give and take, of being encouraging and demanding, and the realisation that it can only be done together – I learned that from Captain Etzien, but also from Captains Uwe Fiedler and Krzystof Kaplon.”

Cordes then recounts a story involving Captain Kaplon, saying: “In 2018, when I was still chief mate, we got caught in a violent sandstorm with the ‘Hannover Express’ off Damietta. We could hardly see our hand in front of our eyes, and we were practically being sandblasted. Six tugs tried to get us to the pier, but it was all in vain. And even when you’re coming in, you have to manoeuvre through the very narrow channel. Suddenly Captain Kaplon said ‘Chief mate, I’m going in for a moment. You take over.’ He was back after a short time, of course, and then we took turns so that we didn’t both have to stand outside in the sandstorm and one of us could provide support from the bridge. The fact that he trusted me to deal with this situation by myself, even if it was only a few minutes – that was fantastic! Together, we then brought the ship safely into port.”

Challenge accepted!

Cordes has always enjoyed taking on responsibility – whether as a class representative, in youth groups or in sports clubs. “I like looking after people, I like it when there’s a good sense of community, and I admit that I also like being the boss,” the captain says with a grin. In May 2020, he demonstrated just that on the “Santos Express”. “We were on our way from Cartagena to Caucedo when our captain fell ill,” Cordes recounts. “He didn’t have anything serious. But to play it safe, he had to go to the hospital. We had been joking around the whole voyage because I was in his office more than in mine as a result of my curiosity. Then, just before Santo Domingo, we sat together and he said: ‘Torben, we now have 20 minutes for the handover. What do you want to know?’ Then I was suddenly the top man on board. Of course, we had clarified everything with our fleet management in Hamburg at short notice, but it was still a truly exceptional situation for me.” However, the exhilaration was also mixed with a tinge of nervousness, he adds, saying: “There’s your captain suddenly driving away in an ambulance with blue lights, and you can’t ask anyone what to do next.”

The crossing to Rotterdam went smoothly, which Cordes partly credits to the fact that everyone on board stuck together. “With this Captain we always had waffles and coffee on the bridge on Saturdays, so we kept that up and invited the whole crew to join us,” he says. “And when he sent photos from the hospital, I naturally informed the crew that he would be fine.”

The challenges – and joys – of being the captain

After the voyage on the “Santos Express” was completed, Cordes earned his promotion to captain. Just two days into his new role, word arrived in Vancouver of high winds to the south in Tacoma. “Sailing out of Puget Sound with a good crosswind is not without its problems, so I was already excited. When the pilot asked me how long I had been a captain, I was honest, so then he took extra care to guide me. Then we sailed 300 nautical miles on the ‘Sofia Express’ up to Prince Rupert, where the wind really caught us,” the captain reports, adding: “We managed the following five months very well, despite bad weather and many waiting times.”

Closely interacting with others on board is very important to Cordes, even if it’s just asking the oiler or the second officer how they are. “If someone is sad, I want to know why – just to see what I can do,” he says. As an example, he mentions a wiper on board whose contract had to be renewed for the fifth time owing to coronavirus-related restrictions on making crew changes. “He burst into tears in my office, which I could understand,” Cordes recounts. “But I could also comfort him and encourage him. And when we celebrated Christmas before arriving in Busan, playing games and taking photos on top of the Nock with snowman and Christmas hats, the wiper also smiled again. These are very important moments for me.”

While sailing on the “Berlin Express” from May to July of this year, he also knew how to motivate the strained crew again. “After two weeks of shipyard work in Dubai in sweltering heat, with an endless amount of work and virtually no days off to relax, I decided without further ado to organise a cocktail evening as a small thank-you,” he says. “We got food colouring and a little decoration and then invented the matching cocktail ‘Flag of the Philippines’ – of course alcohol-free, especially for our watch standers. Just sitting all together on a Sunday at sea and spending time together – that motivated people again! It only works together and when everyone pulls together and is happy.”

Happiness with family, surfboards and homecoming rituals

And what makes him personally happy? Of course, he could now mention the fantastic mountain bike trips in San Francisco or the breakfast on the beach in San Antonio, south of Valparaíso, that he treated himself to with a colleague friend. “But you might not even tell the trainees about that today, as they haven’t even been allowed off the ship yet due to the coronavirus,” the captain says, adding: “I really hope that will change soon.”

For Cordes, happiness also means coming home. “When I’m on the last leg of the voyage home and I’m sailing our ship on the Elbe near Brunsbüttel, my parents wave from the shore. In Stade, I can greet my godchild with the horn. And when we pass Altes Land, the first thing I see is my wife standing at the Lühe jetty waving with a few friends or neighbours, and I can see our home. Even my wife’s grandparents in Neu-Wulmsdorf realise that I’m back. I can’t imagine a nicer welcoming committee!” the captain joyfully says.

Cordes lives with his wife in Altes Land, a big fruit-producing region downriver from Hamburg on the southwestern side of the Elbe. In his free time, he relaxes by doing DIY projects with wood or spending time with his family and friends. And whenever possible, it’s off to windsurf. “As soon as I’m on the board, I can completely switch off!” he says. When asked if he has a ritual whenever he arrives home, he says: “The first thing I always eat is a raisin roll with onion schmaltz. Very tasty! Everyone should try it!”

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