Wolfram Guntermann loves working at sea and on land equally, and he doesn’t think there’s any other industry that is as exciting and diverse. These days, the captain is proud to be helping seafaring to become more sustainable as Director Regulatory Affairs at Hapag-Lloyd’s headquarters in Hamburg. In this interview, he speak about his first voyages to South America, how he handles negotiations on cleaner fuels in international bodies, and which “fuel” he plants in his own garden.
You can hear a bit of nostalgia in Wolfram Guntermann’s voice as he looks out at the south side of the Elbe River from the Port of Hamburg. “When I was 19, I walked through the old Elbe Tunnel with my heavy duffel bag to board the ship over at Shed 76. I couldn’t carry that much today,” the 1.97-metre-tall (6’5”) man says with a laugh. However, he looks so energetic in his captain’s uniform that you might be tempted to not believe him.
The last time he wore his uniform was 24 years ago in Southampton for the christening ceremony of the “London Express” – but it still fits perfectly . “Yesterday, when I hung out my jacket to air it out, I even found my cheat sheet for the speech I made that day,” he say. The captain fishes out a piece of paper, unfolds it and recites the itinerary, sequence of ports, and cargo on board. “And then it says that the ship performed superbly in a southwest monsoon,” Guntermann continues, before noting with satisfaction: “With military band and the two national anthems, the christening of the ‘London Express’ was an absolute highlight for me!”
The boats that he sailed on during high school in the 1970s were somewhat smaller. “I come from Hagen in Westphalia, and water has always been my element. In fact, I spent every free minute I had on the reservoirs of the Ruhr River. Fours, eights – I loved rowing so much that my father asked me one day whether I had already registered the rowing club as my official residence,” the 61-year-old notes with a grin.
It wasn’t long before Guntermann was setting off on his first voyages from Hamburg. “First we went to Indonesia on the ‘Holsatia’, then on a general cargo ship to South America along the Amazon River to Manaus,” he says. “The foreign culture, the heat, the many small harbours in which we literally secured our ship to a palm tree and loaded Brazil nuts in sacks down a wooden chute – it felt like we were in ‘Fitzcarraldo’, the film by Werner Herzog. These days, a general cargo ship like the ‘MS Heidelberg’ would easily fit on the deck of a container ship.”
After taking various voyages with Hapag-Lloyd and studying nautical sciences in Elsfleth and Plymouth, Guntermann switched in 1985 to Horn-Linie, another Hamburg-based carrier, as there was a hiring freeze at Hapag-Lloyd at the time. “I went to Costa Rica countless times on refrigerated ships,” he says. “Once there, we loaded around 160,000 boxes of bananas onto the ship via the conveyor belt and then headed back to Antwerp. At that time, we still had passengers on board that I had to look after as the third mate.”
While working for Horn-Linie, Guntermann quickly rose in the ranks from third to second and then chief officer. Then, in the summer of 1988, he received an unexpected letter from Hapag-Lloyd. "It was an offer to come back – on the condition that I had to join as second officer and earn my engineering patent on top of the nautical one,” he recounts. “Go back to school in my early 30s? That was a sensible decision.” But, before that, he first had to return to shore, as there was a position to be filled as a stowage planner in the Trio Tonnage Centre. After just one year, he was appointed head of the office.
Since he still needed to earn his engineering patent, Guntermann finally spent two years in Hamburg learning about what holds the engine together at its core. “In March 1992, I sailed on the ‘Sierra Express’ as a first assistant engineer,” he says. “We were put in charge of doing the maintenance work on an auxiliary diesel engine. After finishing the repair, the engine was started – and almost immediately burst into flames! I was shocked by how quickly the fire had broken out. But I was equally thrilled when I realized just how effective the 12-kilogram extinguishers were that we used to put the fire out within seconds.” As a ship operating officer, he was able to develop his full potential both below and on deck.
After completing his engineering patent in the summer of 1993, Guntermann volunteered to train at the Mürwik Naval School to become a reserve midshipman in the German navy. He underwent extensive military training, ranging from convoy operations to ECLO (Embargo Control Liaison Office) training, including a three-week deployment to the White Cliffs of Dover on the south coast of England. With time, Guntermann has advanced to the rank of lieutenant commander in the reserves, and he wants to keep serving in the navy, noting: “The idea of constructive exchanges between NATO naval forces and merchant shipping has significant meaning in the context of the current aggression against Ukraine.”
In 1996, just after turning 35, he was promoted to master. “I relieved Captain Arnold Lipinski on the ‘Heidelberg Express’ in Bremerhaven,” he recalls. “This switching of roles, from chief mate to captain, was quite an experience. You never forget the first time that you are the one to signal the start of a voyage!”
In a service that made calls on three continents, he sailed to the east and west coasts of North America and then over to Hong Kong and back. “I always have to laugh so much when people in Germany complain about the one-hour time change for daylight saving time,” he notes. “From Hong Kong to Bremerhaven, you’re sailing against the clock, and you have to advance the clock a total of 18 times, one hour each time.”
Guntermann is grateful that nothing dramatic has ever happened during his time at sea as a captain, apart from a few cases of severe weather and some minor incidents. “As a young man, even before attending the maritime university in Elsfleth, I once took part in a search and rescue operation in the North Atlantic,” he recounts. “A bulk carrier had broken apart. Some of the seafarers had made it into the lifeboat, but others were no longer to be found. After that, I said to myself – and I can only recommend this to anyone learning this profession: Take your training absolutely seriously!”
As much as Captain Guntermann loves the water, seafaring and everything that goes along with it – he couldn’t refuse one particular offer: “In 1999, there was a search for a successor to work at Marine Operations in Piscataway, New Jersey, in the United States – and I simply couldn’t pass that up!” The two years he had agreed to work there eventually stretched out to nine. During this time, the captain developed his professional skills. But he also met Christina, his now wife, at Hapag-Lloyd America, and both of their children were born there.
“In the early days, before we moved to Red Bank (New Jersey), my wife still lived in Greenwich Village,” he says. “Watching the Gay Pride Parade from the fire escape with a gin and tonic in my hand, seeing people partying late into the night, and then going to the office together at seven in the morning – an unforgettable time!” After all, this is the Big Apple, he says, adding: “From the Japanese punk rock band on the Lower East Side to the Met Opera with Placido Domingo, from MOMA to the Metropolitan Museum – Manhattan has it all.”
Since 2011, Guntermann has been working as Director Regulatory Affairs at Hapag-Lloyd’s headquarters on the Ballindamm. There, he is responsible for global lobbying efforts on environmental issues affecting the company’s fleet. “Together with the leading shipping associations, such as the World Shipping Council, we are working at the IMO to address important environmental issues. In addition, we have a seat at the European Commission’s European Sustainable Shipping Forum (ESSF), where we are also active in the sub-working groups. That is challenging and very interesting – but not for the impatient,” Guntermann notes with a grin. His experiences as a seafarer, he adds, have always helped him in these activities. “It can happen that you sit down with other participants who ask you why you can’t just mix a few different fuels to reduce the overall sulphur content,” he continues. “I can then credibly assure them that this would not be a good idea. As an engineer, I know that mixing fuels can lead to serious equipment malfunctions!”
When asked if he would like to ever go back to sea, Guntermann shakes his head and says: “The environment is high on Hapag-Lloyd’s list of priorities, and I’m proud to be able to get into the action,” he cheerfully notes. When asked what it’s like to live in Hamburg’s peaceful Volksdorf district after such eventful times across the world, Guntermann responds: “Wonderful! We have a great market twice a week, the schools are good, nature is close by, and I go jogging with our dog every morning.” The passionate hobby gardener also grows his own “fuel” in his garden: home-grown jalapeños. “They thrive here and always remind me of the first ‘Scrambled Eggs Mexico’ dish I ate on board many years ago,” he says. “With onions, spices and lots of jalapeños – so hot that your airways are cleared in no time!”
“Scrambled Eggs Mexico” à la Guntermann
There are countless ways to make Mexican Scrambled Eggs. Here’s how Wolfram Guntermann likes to do it: Fry finely chopped onions in oil, add chopped jalapeños and/or chillies, pour beaten eggs on top, let fry and turn as needed. Sprinkle with grated cheese – yummy!