Everything for the crew - Sasa Giljaca

Sasa Giljaca has been sailing for Hapag-Lloyd as a captain for two and a half years. Here, the native of Montenegro tells us how it felt to switch to Hapag-Lloyd after many years with other carriers and why he locked himself in his children’s room to do so.

If you come from Montenegro, the path to seafaring isn’t long. “Almost every family here has relatives in seafaring,” Sasa Giljaca says. “For us, it was my grandfather. Unfortunately, he died before I was born. Later, when I went to see, I actually met seafarers who had known him and who only had good things to say about him, which touched me a lot,” the 40-year-old says with a smile. We had agreed to meet at Hamburg’s Container Terminal Burchardkai on the “Al Zubara” – 400 meters long, 59 meters wide, 19,870 TEU. In two days, it will set sail for China. Giljaca is looking forward to a few hours at the seamen’s club and a bit of sightseeing in Hamburg. He has been sailing for Hapag-Lloyd as a captain for two and a half years. “The shipping companies I used to sail for were all fine; there’s nothing to complain about. But, at HapagLloyd, the standards are exceeded in every respect,” the captain notes. “Professional development, online courses, video forums, and trainings on board – I’ve never experienced that before. The food is a whole lot better, too, and all the seafarers are looked after very well here.”

When asked if he still remembers the first ship he sailed on as a young man, Giljaca says: “Yes, of course! That was the ‘MOL Golden Wattle’ of the Japanese shipping company Mitsui O.S.K Lines, where I started right after my nautical training. I had also dreamed for many years of playing professional football, but an injury forced me to give it up. When it worked out with my application, everything fell into place. In November 2004, I was sitting on a plane bound for Singapore.” Going from the small port town of Kotor to a metropolis of roughly 5.7 inhabitants was a big adventure for the then 22-year-old. “And I didn’t have a clue about shipping yet, either,” Giljaca says. “Luckily, there was an officer cadet sitting next to me in the plane who had already been on a voyage and who prepared me quite well.”

The “MOL Golden Wattle” sailed from Singapore to Australia via Malaysia. “The ports of Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth – a dream!” As Giljaca sees it, Australia is one of the most gorgeous places on earth. “People are relaxed and friendly, and no one is overly stressed,” he says. “We should all take a leaf out of this way of life.” The interview is interrupted by a young engineer who needs a few signatures for completed repairs. Giljaca quickly supplies them, grimacing about all the signatures and stamps that are needed here, adding sarcastically:“All this paperwork is just great!”

He say that his life has always been relaxed, adding: “When things were not going well at Mitsui after a year, I applied to an Israeli shipping company. Friends had warned me about the rigorous recruitment process, but everything went perfectly. I already got a call on my mobile phone on the way home. I got the job. And, two weeks later, I landed on the ‘Zim Jamaica’. A brief anecdote proves that Giljaca was already well versed in nautical matters back then. “When certifying my patent for the Israeli flag, they had mistaken me for the first officer. And since I had answered everything correctly, the guy issuing it held out the certificate to me and said in confused disbelief, ‘I thought you were a third officer!’ So, then, I of course also sailed as the third officer.” Giljaca had also applied to Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) at the same time as the Israeli carrier. There, they put his application on file and promised to get in touch if anything opened up. That happened in 2007. “From then on, my destiny was ‘fast promotion’,” Giljaca says. “After one voyage, I was a second officer. After four voyages, I was chief mate. And, after six more voyages, I was a captain at the age of 33.”

His first voyage as a captain held two challenges in store. “We were in the Port of Seattle and then set off for Oakland when the weather deteriorated,” he recounts. “I had formerly been on the shipping company’s largest ship, but now I got a smaller 5,600 TEU one due to my promotion. As we left the port, the weather grew even worse. I wasn’t used to smaller ships anymore, as their stability isn’t comparable to that of the big ones. So we sailed with a less stable ship into even less stable weather conditions. For a day and a half, we fought our way through the waves, having to follow a literally zigzag course because the swell was also coming back from the nearby coast. That was my baptism of fire.”

Giljaca worked for MSC for a dozen years. “In that time, I learned everything that a sailor needs to know,” he says. “Then I noticed a job posting online at UASC, sent in my application, and was promptly invited for an interview. I was at home at the time. To be able to speak without any disturbances, I had locked myself in the room of our small son,” the father of three says with a grin. “The next day, I got an email saying that I would have a second interview. Was it a second chance? Another test? I had no idea what was coming. Then I sat in front of the computer, and opposite me was Friedrich-Jan Akkermann from Hapag-Lloyd, who said: ‘Don’t worry. If you see us, it means you’ve actually already made.’ Of course, I had to introduce myself again, but everything was much more relaxed. ‘You got your license at a bar?’ Akkermann asked me with a grin. Bar is the name of the city where my certificate was issued – he was just kidding me.”

Giljaca has sailed on three assignments so far, all without complications apart from the coronavirus and the resulting delays with the “Umm Salal” on its first voyage of a good six months. During the pandemic, Giljaca has filled the times waiting off ports with barbecues, whichhadn’t be held on board for a long time.“My parents run a small grill restaurant near Kotor, and I have a fantastic burger recipe from home that I gave to our cook,” he says. “Now we all barbecue together at least once a month.” In his free time, Giljaca plays basketball with the crew or sometimes video games. To stay fit, he regularly does cardio training. What impresses Sasa Giljaca most about Hapag-Lloyd is the respectful and friendly way that people treat each other. “Regardless of your rank or nationality, whether on land or sea – everyone here looks out for each other,” he says. “And I can do exactly what’s important to me: be there for my crew whenever they need me.”

On his social media channels, Sasa Giljaca shared a little story that says a lot about how he sees himself:

Sasa Giljaca, Captain

"When I was a cadet for the first time, I knew a whole lot. Then I became third mate and knew everything. Then I was promoted to second mate – and quickly realised that I wasn’t as smart as I thought. When I was promoted to chief mate, I knew I still had a lot to learn. Then I became a master, and I realised just how much knowledge I still needed to acquire. But that wasn’t a problem, because my third officer knew everything already."

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