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Johan Schultz – always eager to face new challenges

First he became a captain, and then a father. Here, Johan Schultz tells us about exciting test runs on the “Brussels Express”, why he prefers to look out of the window instead of at the monitor, and who keeps everybody’s spirits high on board.

If it hadn’t have been for the tooth operation, Johan Schultz would actually be out sailing on the “Ningbo Express”. “They just pulled two of my wisdom teeth out, and it had to be stitched up. So it wouldn’t have been a good idea to go on board with that!” the 36-year-old says. Here in the cosy house of the young family in the western part of Hamburg, two large photos of sailing yachts indicate Schultz’ passion. From humble crew member to navigator, the trained sailmaker has participated in a number of Atlantic regattas, even coming in first place with the “Broader View Hamburg” team in 2017. The Hamburg native says he feels like he’s always been on the water, adding with a laugh: “My father already took me out on his sailboat when I could barely walk.” But now he won’t be doing much sailing for a while. Loud noises from the next room reveal the reason: Yorck, his three-month-old son is hungry – but his wife, Alissa, will take care of him now. “Otherwise, I ideally try to do more around the house than my wife when I’m off work,” he says. “Once I’m back out at sea, she’ll have to do it all on her own – and I have a lot of respect for that.”

With pencil and charts, from small to large

Schultz is in his element when he talks about being out at sea and looking after his ship and crew. “I have always enjoyed navigating in particular,” he says. “Although we work with electronic charts nowadays, I love working with a paper chart, a ruler and a pencil. When I do route planning with the officers on board, the guys sometimes just roll their eyes and say: ‘You know we have all that on the monitor now, right?’ But I think it’s important to know how navigation works and to look out the window sometimes instead of just looking at the monitor.”

Schultz learned his craft from scratch. “After my apprenticeship in sailmaking, I studied Maritime Transport, Nautical Sciences and Logistics in Flensburg,” he says, referring to a port city in near the German-Danish border . “I completed my first practical semester on a heavy-lift carrier, and my second with Hapag-Lloyd on the “Stuttgart Express” and the “Dalian Express”. When you switch from a small heavy-lift vessel that’s 129 metres long to a container ship that’s 290 metres long, it can be quite a culture shock. But, of course, that’s also already small when you compare it to the new 400-metre-long container ships that we have today.” In fact, Schultz enjoyed his practical semester at sea so much that he submitted an application to Hapag-Lloyd in 2012 even before getting back to shore. He also wrote his undergraduate thesis on “Alliances and cooperation in maritime shipping using the example of the G6 Alliance” at Hapag-Lloyd’s headquarters on the Ballindamm. After working briefly at a nautical chart supplier, where he helped develop a programme for correcting nautical charts, he started as an officer of the watch with the shipping company in May 2013. He then sailed in the PAX services for three years – sometimes to Asia, sometimes across the North Atlantic – during which he weathered two severe storms on the North Pacific.” When the ship rolls and is lying on its side, it does feel rather perilous,” he says. “But, at the end of the day, the ships we have these days are very stable.”

Chemistry lab on board, team spirit below deck

The voyages he spent as chief mate on the “Brussels Express”, the first large container ship in the world retrofitted for LNG propulsion, have made a lasting impression on Schultz. “I was able to be part of this project on one short voyage and two longer ones, and I learned an incredible amount. The former “Sajir” of UASC was retrofitted at two shipyards in Shanghai, where a liquefied gas tank and the associated electronics were installed. We picked up the empty ship from the shipyard and then sailed up and down the coast of China with a double crew to test the new technology. Unlike low-sulphur heavy fuel oil, gas is not self-igniting, so a diesel mixture is injected for combustion. So it’s a bit like being in a chemistry lab,” Schultz explains. “The question is also whether you work with high or low pressure. The second engineer and I had a heated discussion about which was better, and his enthusiasm infected me. Finding out which fuel and propulsion system is the safest and most efficient while having the lowest emissions will play a huge role in the future – for container shipping and, ultimately, for all of us.” The phrase “Shipping for a cleaner future!” adorning the breakwater on the ship’s forecastle is carrying this message to the world. Schultz still keeps in touch with his colleagues from the “Brussels Express”. “After all, I want to know how things will go forward from here,” he says. But that’s not the only thing on the “Brussels Express” that the captain will regrettably miss. “I found the close collaboration between the deck and the engine departments truly enriching,” he says. “The understanding for each other and the sense of community were tremendous. If there was still a double patent today, as Hapag-Lloyd used to offer, I would definitely do it.”

Sharing knowledge – giving and taking

Schultz likes to pass on his own knowledge and experience. “You don't know very much yet as a trainee, so it’s good to have someone to take you under their wing,” he says. “I experienced that myself during my apprenticeship, such as with Captain Sheila Esser and Captain Thorsten Schwarz. Both of them were incredibly patient with me and always took time to answer my many questions. I try to pass that on now – not only to our apprentices, but also to the officers of the watch, who are waiting for their next promotion.”

During the test runs on the “Brussels Express”, Schultz felt that he was ready to become a captain. When he received an invitation from the headquarters to have a talk about his career, his heart sank at first. “That’s when you think for a second: ‘Wait a second! Did I do something wrong on that last voyage?’” he says. But the talks on the Ballindamm were positive. "Of course, you are made very clearly aware of what your responsibilities will be from now on, but that’s perfectly fine , too.”

Schultz started his first voyage as a captain in late November 2021 from Jebel Ali in the Persian Gulf. “I sailed to four ports with the captain for the handover, and then I took command of the ship myself once we were back in Jebel Ali,” he recounts. His voyage took him through the Suez Canal, up the Turkish coast to Piraeus, back through the Suez Canal to Jeddah, then on another circuit of the Persian Gulf to Jebel Ali, from where he did the whole thing over again for a second time. When asked how he likes to spend his free time on board, Schultz says with a grin, “I need to force myself to do a bit more exercise, especially now that I’m a captain.” He reads a lot, but also likes to do things with the crew, noting: “It’s important to check on whether people are doing well or if there’s something missing. Is the karaoke machine broken, or do we perhaps need a new TV? And if there are a lot of ports in a row, you can get a bit of a late start or organise a barbecue for as soon as possible. There are two people who determine the mood on board: the cook and the captain.” Captain Schultz was at sea for four months in total. “I thought it was important to signal that I was happy to do two loops so that I could also enjoy the time at home with a better conscience because we were expecting our first child,” he says. “It’s a give and take in our company.”

The young father has enjoyed the three months at home very much, even if it has occasionally stretched him to his limits. “On board, you have a checklist for everything. If a light on the indicator panel comes on, you usually know where the problem is. But babies actually only have one alarm sound – and then you don’t know for a long time whether they’re hungry, tired or just bored. But we’re figuring that out better every day,” the proud father adds with a laugh. “I’ll miss my son a lot, but I am sure my wife will send me lots of pictures and videos. And I’m already looking forward to hugging him again after my next voyage.”

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