“Everything will be all right in the end”

Dennis Schwartz really only wanted to see the world. During his apprenticeship to qualify as a ship mechanic and then as a chief officer on the bridge, he discovered that life on board has much more to offer. On his path to becoming a captain, he did have the occasional doubt. But, today, he’s proud that he stuck with it – and happy to pass on what he’s learned.

Finally, someone who wasn’t born predestined for a life at sea! And that’s because Dennis Schwartz is the one and only seafarer in his family. “During a high-school exchange year that I spent in Iowa, I realised that I was perfectly capable of dealing with foreign surroundings on my own,” he recounts. “I asked myself, ‘Why not discover the world by ship?’ So, after finishing school, I applied to train to become a ship mechanic at Hapag-Lloyd.” His excellent grades helped him get accepted. But the wide world was still far away from the Schleswig-Holstein Maritime Academy. “Suddenly, I found myself squatting on the Priwall Peninsula in Travemünde in a four-bed room with my roommates and a shared shower,” the 36-year-old says. “This was something completely foreign to me.” And he quickly learned that there were a few things that he wasn’t very good at. “Take metalworking, for example,” he says. “All my workpieces were always a millimetre or two off, and I felt like everyone else was better than me. On top of that, I really missed my girlfriend. I called her in every spare minute I had, which left me with a staggering phone bill.” When starting on his first training voyage on board the aged “Frankfurt Express”, Schwartz was already thinking of quitting. “I felt like I was on a fake class trip, wrote pages of emails to my girlfriend, and was determined to disembark for good in Hong Kong!” he recounts. And that probably would have happened if Captain Gerd Rohden hadn’t have taken the unhappy apprentice under his wing. “Captain Rohden invited me to share a bag of crisps in his office and listened to my concerns,” Schwartz says. “And he encouraged me to just give the whole thing a chance.” 

Captain Schwartz came to shipping with no family background at all. After initial problems, he decided to stay in shipping and has come to love it.

From the engine room to the bridge

Schwartz gritted his teeth and stuck with it. “Banging off rust, cleaning tanks and separators, and wiping down signs – that’s what I did from Singapore, to China, to the Red Sea, to Aqaba and to Yemen. And then came Christmas at sea, one of my most beautiful experiences ever,” he fondly recalls. “The other apprentices and I were usually in our own rooms, but now we were allowed into the officers’ mess, where we could talk one-on-one with the officers while enjoying a decorated Christmas tree and some good food. And what they told us about seafaring sounded exciting. All of a sudden, everything felt right!” Schwartz describes his second voyage, this time on the “Chicago Express”, as a stroke of luck. “The ship was brand new, the captain and crew were a well-oiled machine, and the 56 days simply flew by,” he says. It was on that voyage that Schwartz also figured out the direction that he wanted his career to take. “Already after the job interview, HR Manager Klaus Heinig had told me that he would prefer to see me on the bridge rather than in the engine room,” Schwartz says. “And he turned out to be right! In 2009, I enrolled in a programme to study nautical science.”

On the "Chicago Express" Dennis Schwartz noticed where he wanted to go professionally - a job on the bridge appealed to him more than a job in the engine room

Dangerous goods in New York, world religions in Jerusalem

In addition to graduating in less than three years with very good grades, Schwartz was also promoted to chief officer shortly after logging the required amount of sailing time. “In retrospect, I think that it was a bit early for me to take responsibility for overseeing eight to 10 people and for organising the loading operations on top of that,” he admits. “That was really quite challenging for me.” He has clear memories of when a dangerous goods container was mistakenly placed above a heavy fuel oil tank in the Port of New York. “That’s an absolute no-go because of the possible heat dissipation,” he explains. “The hatch was already full to the brim, and now everything had to come back out. But the stevedore was making a big fuss and saying that we could do it in the next port. So, what was I to do? I asked him to write me a note on which he assured me that he was assuming full responsibility for it. Well, it didn’t take long before everything was restowed. I had gotten my way.”

Schwartz made six voyages as chief officer before being appointed captain, and he has now been able to see the world, too – from a rodeo competition in Houston to a desert safari in Aqaba, Jordan. “I have particularly fond memories of Israel,” he says. “I was pretty exhausted after working through the night, but I didn’t want to miss out on this experience. We went on an all-day guided tour starting in Ashdod. First we took a bus to Bethlehem. But since this is under Palestinian control, we had to get a new driver, a new guide and even a new car because the licence plates had to be switched. We joined a long queue of people from all over the world in front of the Church of the Nativity, which is built over what is thought to be the birthplace of Christ. It was an incredible feeling. And it was the same later in Jerusalem. The Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Jewish Western Wall and the Muslim Al-Aqsa Mosque, all in an extremely tight space. That was my most impressive shore leave yet!”

Schwartz has particularly fond memories of Israel. Not to be overlooked in this picture is the Muslim Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem with its golden dome / Photo credit: Pixabay

Captain for 100 metres followed by a “cuddly” voyage

On land, Schwartz also helped out at Hapag-Lloyd’s headquarters on the Ballindamm in 2018. “Fleet Management needed some temporary support, so I filled in for a few months,” he says. “It was an interesting time, as I learned a lot and met some great colleagues. Today, I still benefit on board from the experiences I had there.”

In 2021, then-Senior Director Marine Human Resources Silke Lehmköster invited Schwartz for an interview. “I knew it would be about my promotion, but I was hesitant,” he admits. “I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to be a captain yet.” He was encouraged to take it by his wife, Dorina, who also works for Hapag-Lloyd. And after his conversation with the HR manager, he had made his decision. “My first voyage as captain didn’t even last 100 metres," he laughs before explaining: “After the overlapping from Rotterdam to Hamburg, I took over command of the ‘Osaka Express’, and I initially only had to move it around, meaning to repark it. With a tugboat and a pilot, we sailed from one berth to another at the Container Terminal Altenwerder, where we docked again.” Things only really got going the next day. Schwartz describes the voyage on the “Osaka Express” as “cuddly”. “I didn’t know anyone on board except the chief mate,” he recounts. “But the crew was so well coordinated and professional that it was just fun – and that even though our engine broke down en route to India. Yet it only took three hours to repair the damage. I can’t say often enough how much respect I have for our engineers. What they achieve each and every day is downright impressive!”

Contending with customs officers, 28 ports in two months

There’s always some kind of adventure on every voyage, the captain knowingly says. “Sometimes you have to deal with armadas of fishing boats that you somehow have to navigate through, even though they look like a whole city on the horizon,” he explains. “And sometimes there’s an official who wants ‘presents’.” For example, a customs officers once demanded outright to be given goods from the ship’s canteen, he continues, adding: “I said I was sorry, pointed out our strict guidelines, and told him that my hands were unfortunately tied. When he realised that he wasn’t getting anywhere with his demand, he searched through several cabins, opened all the drawers, and peered into every suitcase. After failing to find anything forbidden, he disembarked from our ship grumbling and empty-handed.” On his most recent assignment, Schwartz sailed on the “Colombo Express” in the Gulf East Med (GEM) service, the most challenging he had experienced so far. “After calling at 28 ports in two months, you know what you’ve done,” Schwartz says.

Life as a captain is sometimes stressful - Schwartz finds his balance in sports in the weight room and reading

On board, the sporty man likes to unwind in the weight room. “I manage to do it three to four time a week, and it feels damn good,” he notes. “And I like to read, though I don’t get to do much of that at home because my children – who are one and four – take up my time. It was great to spend eight months of parental leave with them.” He and his wife divide the parenting duties as best they can. In any case, Schwartz doesn’t try to hide the fact that his job means that his wife is frequently looking after the children on her own. “But having gone to sea herself for a while as a nautical officer, she knows very well that these aren’t holiday cruises,” Schwartz adds with a smile.

Reacting in emergencies, and grandma as a role model

When asked if anything has ever gone wrong in his rather straightforward career, Schwartz takes a moment to think before saying: “While studying, I went on three assignments as a ship mechanic during my semester breaks. On one of these assignments, a fire broke out in the engine room. It was my birthday, and I had just finished unwrapping my presents in my cabin. When I entered the engine room, I saw the fire and instinctively ran back out. I was so shocked that I didn’t know what to do at first. But then the general alarm sounded – seven short blasts followed by one long one. At that moment, something in me switched to automatic, and I helped to carry out the firefighting operation just as we had practised it over and over again. This incident made me realise just how important all the onboard emergency training is. It helps you do the right thing automatically in an emergency.” Whenever Schwartz has had doubts or encountered difficult situations, he has been helped by something that his grandmother – whom he describes as a “big role model” – says. “My grandmother sees the good in everything and is incredibly adventurous. Even as an 80-year-old, she went on rollercoasters with us – and she even lost her wig once,” the captain notes with a laugh. “In Low German, she always says, ‘Löpt sik allns torecht’, meaning ‘Everything will be all right in the end.’”

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