After working for a year as Senior Director Marine Human Resources at Hapag-Lloyd’s headquarters on the Ballindamm in Hamburg, Captain Christian Voss is now back at sea around the world. Here, the avid seafarer tells us what he learned ashore, how he experienced a collision in the Suez Canal, and which qualities he finds essential in a captain.
“Being an HR manager for the fifth-largest shipping company in the world isn’t the kind of offer that you turn down,” says Captain Christian Voss. In 2022, after completing only two voyages as a captain, the 41-year-old was offered a chance to work in Fleet Management. Why not get out of the proverbial comfort zone and try something new? “Assignment planning and voyage talks, clarifying labour law issues, new hires – that’s what I found exciting while sitting on the other side!” Voss explains.
Nevertheless, the captain’s heart yearned so strongly for the sea that he left the office again after a year. “I had underestimated the difference between working on land and on board,” he continues. “When I sail for three months, I’m on duty around the clock. When I disembark, I leave everything behind, someone else takes over and my head is free until the next assignment. On land, if you’re away from the office for just a few days, your inbox is quickly overflowing. I couldn’t really switch off at the weekend. Plus, I missed life on board with people from so many countries, the daily challenges, the ocean air, the sea – simply everything!”
That said, Voss still doesn’t have regrets about the time he spent in the office. “It was a great experience,” he admits. “And what I take with me is the respect I’ve gained for my shore-based colleagues. When you’re out at sea, you sometimes wonder what they’re actually doing back in the office. But now I know just how much work and skill goes into running the fleet from on shore.”
Trial voyages on the “Tsingtao Express”; getting started after a single application
We have an appointment to meet on the “Tsingtao Express” at Hamburg’s Container Terminal Altenwerder, where Captain Voss is getting a small foretaste of his future. In June, he will be setting off on the “Kuala Lumpur Express”. Voss immediately dives into conversation with the First mate on duty and the captain, talking shop with them about the new container giants and telling them about how the former UASC vessels that now sail under the German flag. And he discusses in detail the pros and cons of various types of engines from the well-known manufacturers of large diesel engines. His excitement and anticipation about getting back to sea soon are clearly evident.
Voss had actually originally wanted to become a journalist. “During high school, a friend and I wrote articles for our local newspaper in Flintbek,” he says, referring to a small town near Kiel . “After graduating, I studied history as well as German language and literature and, later, I did an editorial department traineeship.” But his studies in Freiburg were history themselves after just one semester. While surfing the internet for new job ideas, the student came across the degree programme in maritime transport, nautical science and logistics at the Flensburg University of Applied Sciences. “Full of starry-eyed optimism, I wrote them an email because it sounded interesting.”
Until then, he had only had a single encounter with seafaring: When he and his parents used to go to Italy on holiday, he liked to read books about ship disasters in the back seat of the car, such as about the sinking of the “Titanic” and the “Bismarck”. “Probably not really a good omen,” he notes with a laugh. Voss eventually received a detailed email in response to his enquiry to the university. A student there wrote to him about the kinds of entry-level opportunities available in seafaring. “He recommended that I approach Hapag-Lloyd, where he had completed a dual work-study programme,” Voss says. “In fact, later, we even sailed on the same ship.” Voss submitted exactly one application – to Hapag-Lloyd. And was immediately accepted.
Full speed to China; bumping bulwarks in the Suez Canal
Voss remembers his first voyage very well. “In December 2004, we set off for China on what was then the ‘Shanghai Express’,” he says. “The ship, the crew and all that goes with it – everything was exciting and new. However, my first assignment on board was journalistic. I was supposed to take photos of the new group of apprentices for the Hapag-Lloyd News.” At that time, Hapag-Lloyd mainly operated in two main trade lanes. There were the PAX services, which sailed westwards to North America, through the Panama Canal to Japan and back. And then there were the so-called loops to the Far East. "We were on the latter,” Voss says. “Starting in North Europe, we went via the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal to Singapore, to China and then back. We used to sail the route at the brisk pace of over 20 knots, which would consume 250 tonnes of fuel a day. But, today, it’s much more eco-friendly because the engines run more efficiently and we go slower. In fact, even though the cargo has more than doubled and the ships are bigger, we use less than half the fuel.”
In 2008, Voss passed his training with distinction in addition to successfully completing his studies. He was one of the last to complete the curriculum that led to a “dual patent”, meaning both engineering and navigating licenses. “Working in the engine room is at least as interesting as standing on the bridge,” Voss says. “Having performed major maintenance jobs myself, such as extracting a piston as a second engineer, as well as knowing how all the technical systems are interconnected definitely gives you a lot of confidence. After completing my studies, I alternated between working on the bridge and in the engine room until 2015.”
During this period, Voss didn’t encounter any devastating storms or huge catastrophes like the ones he’d read about as a child. But he sure hasn’t forgotten about that time when two container ships collided in the Suez Canal. “I was officer of the watch on the ‘Colombo Express’ when it happened,” he recounts. “At about 7:30 in the morning, my laptop suddenly shifted a bit on the table in my chamber. I wasn’t on duty yet, and the Suez Canal was calm. So I thought it could have been something like us trying to avoid a broken-down fishing boat. But, by then, we’d already slammed into the port side of another container ship.”
Continuing with the story, Voss sets the scene, saying: “So, At the northern entrance to the Suez Canal, its two arms come together to form a ‘Y’ shape. Ships that have been handled at the container terminal in Port Said can enter the canal directly. While we were on the main canal in the west, this other container ship wanted to zipper merge into the line of ships from east. The pilots of the two ships were arguing loudly on the radio for minutes, but by then it was actually too late. Owing to the physical inertia, which increases exponentially with the size of the ship, acceleration or – in this case – deceleration procedures have to be anticipated accordingly. Due to the increased speed and the short distance, we didn’t have the time we needed to stop.
Despite all our efforts, the ships moved unstoppably towards each other and ran into each other sideways. As a result, three containers fell overboard from the other ship, the bulwark on our bow was demolished, and the port-side position lamp was bent and broken. However, we were able to repair it in half an hour with a chain hoist and then continue on our way with special permission. No one was hurt, though, and that’s the most important thing.”
In single file to India
Voss has very fond memories of his first voyage as a captain. “I was promoted together with Dennis Schwartz and Danica Menze and, one right behind the other, we all sailed the same route to India, where I’d never been before,” he says. “Dennis’ ship was in front, and he relayed to us key details about pilots, ports and various particularities whenever necessary. That was great. And it shows that there’s teamwork among captains, too.”
But what about the cooperation on board? Was he accepted by everyone as the boss? “Naturally, it’s a bit tense at first. When you look at people’s faces, you can immediately see that they’re asking themselves: ‘So, what kind of guy is this?’ But I just behaved the way I wanted to be treated: respectfully. In the end, life on board only works if everyone is appreciated – be it the wiper or the third engineer, the oiler or the cook. But the cook is especially appreciated, Voss says with a grin before adding: “And you can’t view it as beneath you to sing karaoke with your Filipino colleagues.”
Small port and a “day in hell”
As much as Captain Voss appreciates the big ports of our big world, he is particularly fond on a small one. “The Port of Prince Rupert in British Columbia is one of a kind,” he says. “The landscape is full of fjords, and the only terminal is located right on a forest-covered mountainside. Behind it lies the small town of just 12,500 inhabitants. You quickly strike up a conversation in the pubs. The locals showed us videos of their snowmobiles racing up the mountains. Everything was super informal and relaxed, which I like. Most of the big ports are hours away from the city, so you have to plan your shore excursions very carefully.”
Voss mainly wants to spend his last few weeks on land testing out his new gravel bike, as cycling is his great passion. “Tomorrow, I’ll be participating for the first time in a fairly challenging group ride organised by a cycling community in Kiel. It goes over about 120 kilometres of hills and cobblestones straight across Schleswig-Holstein. The tour is called ‘A Day In Hell’,” he says, adding with a laugh: “ I hope I survive it!”