On Board the Behemoth

Endless passageways, a frugal engine and Arab culture: A visit to the giant container ship “Barzan”

It’s meant to be a joke. “You will wait or suffer,” says the Egyptian man with black trousers, a white shirt and black curls. Then the ship officer shuts the door of the already full elevator. Wait or suffer? Looking up into the steep stairwell with gray stairs isn’t all that encouraging, but my ambition has been aroused. The way up can’t really be so bad, can it? Even if this is a really big cargo ship. So, on foot it is. Stair by stair. Deck by deck. My thighs are burning, and I’m gradually losing my sense of direction in the neon light. If I had only waited for the next elevator...

Deck 12, at last. Standing there again is the Egyptian officer, with a grin on his face. Welcome to the bridge. Behind the monitors, Dariusz Kmetyk is already waiting for the stragglers. “I’m the captain of this big baby,” says the native of Poland, whose words sparkle like the four golden stripes on his shoulder epaulets. Kmetyk is proud, and he can hardly conceal it. His “baby” can carry just under 19,900 standard containers (TEU), or more than almost all other cargo vessels in the world. The ship is called “Barzan,” and it’s a ship of superlatives: 400 meters long and almost 59 meters wide, with a bridge towering high above the deck. On this windy October day, Captain Kmetyk is navigating this colossus up the Elbe River toward Hamburg – and now he’s receiving visitors. There are cream cakes and cola cans where you’d usually find binoculars. Behind Kmetyk, the officers are standing in a row facing display screens.


The “Barzan” is important for Hapag-Lloyd. The container ship has only belonged to the shipping company for a few months - thanks to the merger with the arabian shipping line UASC. Since then, the “Barzan” and five other sister ships of identical construction have belonged to Hapag-Lloyd’s fleet. Prior to that, the largest ship in its fleet could only take on about 13,000 containers (TEU), which is quite a bit less. In the shipping industry, that counts as average. But those days are past now. “UASC’s young and modern fleet was a big driver of the merger,” says Thorsten Haeser, Hapag-Lloyd’s Chief Commercial Officer (CCO). Thanks to UASC, Hapag-Lloyd’s fleet now has 219 vessels, and the company has claimed the spot as the fifth-largest liner shipping company in the world.

The bridge is astonishing. At almost 60 meters wide, it stretches across the entire breadth of the ship. Outside on the observation deck on the starboard side, the wind is hissing. Far below, the transport vehicles – known as “van carriers” – are diligently rolling around the Container Terminal Burchardkai. In the distance, you can make out Hamburg’s landmark St. Michael’s Church. Rain is pattering down.


Stretching out in front of the bridge are thousands of containers – orange, blue, brown and green. Scattered among them are gleaming white boxes: the refrigerated containers known as “reefers.” There are 22 rows across, and there are sometimes 11 tiers of cargo below each one above deck. There are many gaps between them – and, as if the whole thing were the computer game Tetris, in your mind’s eye, you can already see containers floating through the air and plopping down into the gaps. A blue box here, an orange one there – that would make a perfect fit. There would be plenty of room, as the ship is in no way full. It only took on 6,000 boxes, Captain Kmetyk says. That’s due to the location of the Port of Hamburg and to the Elbe. Giants like that “Barzan” can only sail on the river with reduced cargo, as their draught would otherwise be too deep.


Up top, there’s jostling again at the elevator. It brings the guests down into the ship’s belly . Having arrived below, the visitors march along a passageway toward the stern, toward the engine room. As the minutes go by, we keep walking along the red-painted floor. A scooter would be nice now. Or some roller skates. Running along the walls to the left and right are white pipes, and the squeaky-clean floor tells you just how few people use this ship, which is just a bit over two years old. The ship sails with a crew of only 26 people. In addition to many Filipinos, there are mainly Egyptians working on board.

At a certain point, the smell of diesel hits your nose. A steel door leads into the engine control room, and then a steep steel ladder goes up to the ship’s engine. The 10-cylinder main engine stretches three and a half decks high. It chugs, it clatters, it rattles, it drones. It is a green-painted giant with about as much horsepower as 150 Porsche 911. Everything appears to be gigantic. Standing next to the engine is a spare piston as thick as a wine barrel. The oversized fire extinguisher would hardly fit into a house’s entrance hall.

Of course, Captain Kmetyk had warned us beforehand not to be deceived by sheer size. Compared to other cargo vessels, the “Barzan” has a modest engine. “We sail with a relatively small motor,” he said. And that’s intentional. It’s supposed to save fuel and – and it’s supposed to be protect the environment. Haeser, Hapag-Lloyd’s CCO, says that hardly any ship in the industry has lower carbon dioxide emissions and fuel consumption per container. On top of that, the ship could also sail with eco-friendly liquid natural gas (LNG) if it were modified, he says, adding, “The vessel is ready for LNG.”

Captain Kmetyk hints that it’s time to leave. As soon as the weather plays along, he wants to cast off and head toward the North Sea. From there, he will steer the massive container ship first to Rotterdam, then to Le Havre, then through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal before heading toward Asia, where he will call at several ports, including Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai. After that, he’ll steer it back toward Hamburg. “One round-trip last three months,” he says. When asked whether much has changed on board since the two carriers combined, Kmetyk shakes his head. Until May, UASC’s majority shareholders were from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. That’s why life on board is culturally Arab. For example, there is a prayer room and a digital compass pointing toward Mecca.  

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