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Between home and high seas

When Freya Otte isn’t sailing the seas as a chief officer for Hapag-Lloyd, she spends a lot of time on her family’s farm. Here, she talks about her experiences as an intern and what can happen when she is challenged to an arm-wrestling match

From the very first phone conversation, one can already tell that she is someone who likes machines. “Freya is standing at the circular saw right now,” says Freya Otte’s mother. “Just one minute. I’ll go get her.” The screeching sound of the machine comes through the receiver. Then, after a brief moment of silence, the 33-year-old is on the line. One day later, Freya Otte welcomes the visitor from Hamburg, about 70 kilometres away, to her family’s farm near Neumünster. “I grew up with agriculture and machines, and I have always repaired and welded things with my father. An office job was out of the question for me,” she says.

Otte Is just back from an assignment on the “Hanover Express”. “Only 30 days,” she says. “No big deal.” She certainly could have taken over the farm at some point. “But after a school internship at the pilot station in Kiel, my mind was made up: I wanted to go to sea.” She fondly remembers the first time she was permitted to steer feeder, container, bulk and tank ships through the Kiel Canal, the most important waterway between the North and Baltic seas, at the age of 16. “The fact that I could manoeuvre such large vessels with a small wheel and minimal movements was something I found fascinating!” She then switched to a technical high school and took the advanced courses in mechanical engineering and physics that would make her well prepared for an interview for her job interview at Hapag-Lloyd.

Keeping an eye on everything: As the oldest of four children, Otte learned to take on responsibility at an early age

“I applied to several shipping companies, but Hapag-Lloyd was the quickest to respond,” she recalls. “And then I sat in the Maritime Academy on the Priwall, a peninsula on the Baltic Sea coast of Germany, and was peppered with questions for 90 minutes. A compressed air motor and five different screwdrivers were lying on the table, and I had to show that I was using exactly the right one. On top of that, I had to explain a complicate techni cal drawing.” Two weeks later, she received a written offer from the shipping company.

In October 2008, she set off on her first voyage on board the “Chicago Express” and headed for Asia. “We were a dozen apprentices on board, and I was the first to get behind the wheel when we sailed out of Hamburg,” she proudly notes. “It was a nice first voyage with lots of shore excursions. Visiting the pyramids and the Great Wall of China were fantastic experiences, and when we were docked in Hong Kong and later anchored offshore, we got to take the water taxi into the city every other day.” Before going to university, Otte did another round as a ship’s mechanic on the former “Hamburg Express”, where she was already relieving the third engineer. “I was responsible for the separators and compressors, so really right in the middle of the work!” Then it was off to study in Flensburg, a city near the border with Denmark. Shortly before graduating, Otte added a sixweek tour as a nautical officer cadet so that she could get a taste of what things were like on the bridge. After that, she signed on with the “Kyoto Express”. From then on, she demonstrated her skills on various classes of ships – sometimes as a ship safety officer, other times as a navigation officer. She has been a chief mate since 2017.

Does she have one or two adventures to share? “I can’t tell you any big hurricane stories like our old sea dogs can,” Otte says almost apologetically. “These days, we are so well provided with weather data and equipment that if there is a storm, we either weather or steer clear of it.” But Otte knows all too well that things can go wrong while loading or discharging cargo. “It happened on the ‘Guayaquil Express’ in the Port of Cartagena in 2019,” she recounts. “I had been a chief mate for two years. The officer of the watch called me at five in the morning, saying: ‘Chief mate! Chief mate! Something has happened!’ And that was true. Two 20-foot containers full loaded with soya seeds had fallen from the container crane and crashed with full force into the forward hold, and the spreader had been torn off the crane together with the cargo. Fortunately, there was still a layer of containers in the hold, so the tank bottom and the rest of the ship weren’t damaged. But around 15 containers were lying about in the bay, some of them slit open and looking like dented cola cans. Vegetable oil was pouring out of one of the damaged containers and onto the scattered soya seeds. It was like one big sauce! But at least the seeds soaked up a bit of the oil!” Otte says, noting that it was also pouring rain the whole time. “Then we had to get the containers out, the seeds out, and everything else out,” she continues. “The hold had to be emptied completely – a devil of a job for everyone. Plus, we weren’t allowed to occupy the pier for the whole time. After midnight, we sailed around the corner into the old port and moored there. An hour later, the watchman called me and said: ‘Chief mate! The ship is moving!’ A bollard had been ripped out of the foundation of the pier because the old port hadn’t been designed for such a big ship. Our watchman was still quick enough to pull up the gangway. Then some tugboats pushed us back to the pier. On the next morning, the work continued. It took three days to get the hold clean again, and then we finally headed home.”

The Chief Officer doesn’t see any contradiction between being very worldly and very down-to-earth, like the way she grew up. “Since I’ve been working with Filipinos for a long time, I thought that I really had to see their homeland,” she says. “So, three years ago, I went on a tour of the islands on my own. I met some relatives, friends and acquaintances of our Filipino staff, which was great.”

Worldly woman: To become more familiar with the home country of her Filipino colleagues, Otte toured their island nation

Do her fellow seafarers accept her status as a leader? “I have nothing to complain about there,” Otte says. “The guys quickly see that I’m also willing to lend a hand and that I don’t think it’s beneath me to fix something fast. I like to shoulder responsibility, which may also have something to do with the fact that I’m the oldest of four children.” During a party on board the “Yantian Express”, she was once asked by the deck crew if she would like to be challenged to an arm wrestling match. “You have three guesses as to who won,” Otte says with a laugh. Has she ever felt discriminated against or treated differently because she is a woman? “Basically, no,” Otte says. “On board, it’s all about having mastery of your craft, and no one can beat me at that so fast.” However, she adds, it’s pretty interesting to see how people react in places like Arab or Asian ports. “Once I was sailing on a route with Captain Sheila Esser and Second Engineer Svetlana Timm-Vengerov. When the pilot came onto the bridge in Jeddah and saw me and Captain Esser, he asked if he could take a photograph. And later in the office, where all three of us were sitting, the astonished agent wanted to know where the captain was. Three women on board? He’d never seen that before!” Otte finds it touching that a provision supplier in Singapore sends flowers with the order when he knows that there are women on board, saying: “I’ve experienced that several times.”

When asked if there couldn’t be a few more women on board, Otte responds: “Absolutely! After all, for the most part, it’s no longer hard physical work these days. But you should be interested in technical matters and need to bring along a good bit of decisiveness and self-confidence.” Otte has her own professional future firmly in sight. “My job as chief mate is incredibly fun,” she says. “But my dream is to become a captain.” 

Connected to home: At home, in her family’s farm in northern Germany, Otte enjoys her free time and works hard on the farm – not only at the circular saw. “Whether it’s with the tractor in the field, milking our 120 cows in the morning or rearing calves, there’s always something to do – and I really enjoy it all.” In any case, she adds, the two worlds share some things in common. “We are a self-sufficient family on the ship. And we are the same thing here on the farm.”

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