"The most you learn when something goes wrong"

During his one and a half years as a captain at Hapag-Lloyd, Thorsten Schwarz has weathered two storms on the North Atlantic without any problems – including one on his very first voyage. In what follows, he discusses how to get from a small spa town to the wider world, why it can be instructive to run aground, and the role that a “Danube princess” played in his career choice.

“A captain wears a lot of hats – craftsman, doctor, fireman, waste manager, entrepreneur, psychologist,” says Thorsten Schwarz. “And that’s exactly what makes my job so much fun!” While looking at an old tugboat as a 6-year-old on the North Sea island of Borkum, Schwarz decided he wanted to become a captain. “Or at least that’s what my parents like to tell people,” he admits. “Later, I was a huge fan of ‘The Danube Princess’, a TV series about a river cruise ship. I was fascinated by all the officers running around and the atmosphere. And, in fact, we actually did take a voyage on the real ‘Danube Princess’ once, and the captain showed me the bridge and explained to me how everything worked.”

From there, it wasn’t far to the information stand of the German Shipowners’ Association (VDR). “That was at a trade fair for apprenticeships. The man there spent a lot of time with me, and I must have peppered him with questions for two whole hours!” This was followed by an internship on the old “Frankfurt Express”, which was Schwarz’s first encounter with Hapag-Lloyd. “It was an unforgettable voyage,” the 35-year-old fondly recalls. “I come from Bad Salzuflen, a small spa town near the Teutoburg Forest. But when you get to go ashore as a 16-year-old in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, to visit the zoo in Jordan, or to go sightseeing in Jakarta, it’s simply mind-blowing. And I also really liked the work on board. We were allowed to help out with everything, from steering the ship to taking the engine apart. It was just fantastic!”

Schwarz’s parents had hoped he would be cured of his new fascination after the internship. But he actually wanted to drop out of school and start working for Hapag-Lloyd immediately. Klaus Heinig, the Head of HR at the time, didn’t let this happen, though, and instead told Schwarz: “I’ll see you in three years! But first go and finish school!” After graduating from high school, Schwarz was finally able to apply for a job at Hapag-Lloyd – in what was the start of a career that would eventually lead in 2020 to the fulfilment of his childhood dream.

In the 16 years it took him to finally earn his master’s license, Schwarz learned the art of seafaring from the bottom up. As a ship mechanic, he sailed for a long time on the then-collective service from Europe to Asia via North America and back again. After completing his university studies, he became an officer of the watch and then a chief officer five years later.

“Of course, you learn the most when something goes wrong,” Schwarz says before recounting a story of an incident he experienced before his university studies. “That was in 2008, when I was a ship mechanic on the old ‘Norfolk Express’,” he says. “I woke up in the middle of the night because it had suddenly become completely quiet. I had my own alarm panel in my cabin, and everything on it was flashing red. So I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to go down to the engine room now.’ The chief engineer was already waiting for me there, and he just said: ‘Thorsten, it’s good that you’re here. We’ve run aground.’ I couldn’t believe it at first because I thought he was joking. But it was actually true. We were stuck above the Suez Canal for two weeks before we managed to break free. In the first few days, tugboats tried to pull us free, but unfortunately with little success. Then a bunker barge came and pumped out about 2,000 tonnes of our heavy fuel oil, which took another four days. Finally, we tried to jerk ourselves free by repeatedly gunning our engine. And that worked! Then the divers came to see if the outer hull had been damaged, but luckily it had only been dented.”

The voyage was actually supposed to last three months, but the shipping company asked Schwarz to accompany the ship into dry dock. “So we set off for Singapore – and promptly found ourselves in a storm on the Indian Ocean. We had to keep our life jackets on for three days straight, and hardly anyone got any sleep. Things were flying all over the place. Even the heavy wooden tables in the cabins were sliding back and forth. In fact, there were one or two moments when I thought the ship was going to capsize,” Captain Schwarz recalls. “Everybody looked out for everybody else, and a crew grows incredibly tight when they go through something like that together. Captain Bultmann was the calming influence. And I just thought: ‘As long as the captain doesn’t get nervous, everything will be just fine’.” Spending three and a half weeks in the shipyard in Singapore was another new experience for Schwarz. “Entire bulkheads were removed with cutting torches, and the dented parts of the outer shell were replaced. The shipyard staff was working around the clock. These kinds of voyages leave a lasting impression. You gain experiences that you never forget!”

Schwarz was finally promoted to captain in November 2020, and his first voyage as a captain held two storms in store for him. “After I was promoted, I went to Genoa last summer, where I boarded the ‘Vienna Express’. After the handover in Valencia, I had sole responsibility for the ship as its captain – meaning that I had finally made my dream come true! The first storm was waiting for us off New York, but it wasn’t so bad because we sailed around it to the north in seven-metre waves. On the second round voyage, however, a far more powerful storm front passed over the Atlantic. We asked ourselves: ‘Should we stay in port or cast off? And, if so, should we sail north or south?’ That was now my decision to make. I then opted to head south to the Bermuda Islands to wait out the storm for four days – which was exactly the right thing to do.” And that, the captain explains, is the great thing about Hapag-Lloyd. “Nobody really challenges your judgment as a captain, and you have the final say. And that trust gives you an incredible feeling of confidence.”

When asked who his biggest role model has been, Schwarz says: “Captain Peter Rössler. His vast experience, his ability to assert himself, but also his ability to share knowledge – that’s something I’ve picked up from him,” he says with a mischievous smile, adding that he is looking forward to his next assignment.

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