He knew how to tie knots and splice ropes at the age of five, and he went to sea with his uncle at 15 – the best prerequisites for a career at sea. However, 15 years followed in the office at Hapag-Lloyd before Jan Rüsch followed his dream to becoming a captain
Even Jan Rüsch hasn’t been able to avoid a few storms during his years at sea. “I went to sea as a chief mate in 1990 while I was studying computer science – a great thing, as where else can you earn so much money during the semester break?” the captain says. “We were sailing in ballast on the ‘Figaros’, an 80-metre cargo ship, from La Coruña in Spain towards the Loire when we ran into bad weather. When the waves got too high, we tacked and took the sea two points from the bow, but we had to turn full ahead into the wind at times so as not to turn sideways to oncoming waves. All the time, our ship was bobbing up and down like a cork on the water because we didn’t have any cargo. The motions were so violent that the radio antennas flew off the mast. And things didn’t look any better below deck. In my chamber, a table that was welded to the floor with two tubes tore loose. And later, when I was lying in my bunk, my mattress and I were slammed into the ceiling. But sleep was out of the question anyway. The weather only got better after three days. We survived it, but we really should’ve never cast off in this weather!” He has deeply internalized this lesson: “Good route planning and teamwork are extremely important!”
Even an experience like this couldn’t diminish Rüsch’s love of seafaring. “I come from the Altes Land region along the Elbe river outside Hamburg, where you either become a shipper or a farmer – and my parents didn’t have a farm,” Rüsch says when asked about his earliest childhood memories. “There, on the Este, a tributary of the Elbe near the Pella Sietas shipyard, I would sit in my grandfather’s arm listening to his stories about his voyages.” Both of Rüsch’s grandfathers had sailed as captains, his father was a master boat builder, and his mother had worked on her father’s coaster for several years. “I could tie knots and splice when I was five, and I got my first boat on the day I turned six.”
At 15, Rüsch gathered his first experiences while completing an internship on board a coaster. “I was always sailing somewhere during the holidays, which even shortened my training period at Hamburg Süd later on,” he continues. Rüsch sailed for Transeste Schiffahrt for five years, but then he – like so many of his colleagues – was impacted by the shipping crisis of that time. “I thought about changing careers and decided at the age of 28 to study computer science, which seemed to have more of a future,” he notes. After Rüsch completed his studies, he asked himself how he could reconcile computer science with his love of seafaring. “There was only one option: Hapag-Lloyd!” he recounts. The company was considered a pioneer. The Freight Information System (FIS) project marked the start of the digitalization and automation of all processes in the company. This led to the development of the in-house FIS software.
The native of Lower Saxony worked for 15 years at the headquarters as a Project Manager for IT quality assurance. At that time, he got married and started a family. But then he was thinking again about his original career goals. So Rüsch bought a sailing boat in the hopes of satisfying his craving, if only in his free time. “One day, while my wife and I were motoring through the Kiel Canal and watching the ships go by, she asked me: ‘Do you dream of going back to sea?’ She had noticed long ago what was troubling me.”
Good route planning and teamwork are extremely important!
With his family's blessing, the IT specialist resigned from his job – only to reapply at Hapag-Lloyd for another one. “I came back as a second officer,” he says. “Even though it entailed huge financial sacrifices, it was still the best decision!” His first vessel was the “Liverpool Express”. “When I started my first cargo watch, I thought, ‘Just relax! There’s only one crane doing the loading.’ I discovered later that there were two more cranes in operation, which I had thought were working on the ship in front of us. My last cargo ship before that had only been 135 metres long.” Only three years later, Rüsch was appointed a captain. “My favourite route is the transatlantic one,” Rüsch says. “The North Atlantic throws all kinds of weather challenges at you, but it’s always fascinating.” This is also where a rescue operation took place in 2015, which the captain reported on in the German trade publication “Yacht” in 2022: “We received word that a sailing yacht en route from Halifax to Belgium was in distress about 450 miles off Cape Cod. There had already been storms for days, with rain and waves up to eight metres high. By the time we spotted it, the yacht was only a mile away and, at 18 knots, we were sailing much too fast. You can’t simply stop a ship that is 336 metres long and weighs 130,000 tonnes. I could only slow the ship down by sailing in a circle around the yacht and using the braking force of our huge rudder blade. We then pulled within 30 metres of the boat, and the yachtsman signalled to us with his hands that he wanted to come over to us. Three volunteers brought him on board with the rescue boat. It was a risky manoeuvre and we also lost radio contact during the storm. But we ultimately pulled off the rescue, and everyone made it safely on board.”
And what does captain Rüsch like most about seafaring? “I love the sailor’s life!” he answers. “Not only the sea, the ports and the daily challenges, but also the sense of camaraderie on board as well as the many different people from various cultures and social classes. Whether table tennis tournaments, Christmas parties or the many one-on-one conversations – this kind of togetherness only exists on board.” Appreciation and respect are the most essential things for the 1.98-metre-tall man. As the captain of the Hapag-Lloyd training vessel “Kuala Lumpur Express” for several years, he has always tried to emphasise this to the apprentices: “If everyone treats each other the way they would like to be treated themselves, nothing can really go wrong. By the way, that also holds true for us captains.”