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Navigator, author, tinkerer and artist: Wolf Kaiser has a wide range of skills. As he enters into retirement, we thought we would ask the captain about his 40 years at sea – and how to create sculptures using nothing more than Korean toilet paper and Mexican wood glue.
Seafarers have long and eventful lives, so it’s hard to know where you should start their stories. Perhaps we should start Wolfgang Kaiser’s during his educational period as an ordinary seaman in the former East Germany and or with the maiden voyage he took to Cuba, which was a world-opening experience for the then-16-year-old? Or with his love of cooking and how he later taught many ship cooks how to make classic German dishes? Or with the years immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, which completely changed his life at sea? Or maybe with a potential stabbing on board, which he bravely prevented?
All these stories are included in “Klor bi Anker”, the six-volume memoirs the captain is currently writing. Over Turkish coffee and Swiss pastries, we sat down with a good-humoured Captain Kaiser in Rostock, the city on the Baltic Coast of Germany where his journey began.
The beginnings: close to the water, far into the distance
“My earliest encounter with shipping was my ‘Grandpa Ship’, a captain with the so-called White Fleet in Berlin, whom we visited often. I was four or five years old, and greatly impressed by how easily he could steer such a ship. Then there was one day when he and his buddy Reinhard were standing in front of a big map of the world in my classroom. We looked at the oceans and the continents, and read exotic names like Surabaya, Jakarta and Singapore. That’s when we really got the itch to travel,” the captain recounts.
His training years began on the “Georg Büchner”, a cargo and training vessel with room for up to 190 apprentices. “I will never forget our first voyage to Cuba. We had been sailing for 14 days, and we had enjoyed good weather the entire time. We spotted the Azores first. The old man sailed especially close to them so we could see more.” The young man never felt the pangs of homesickness. On the contrary, he fell in love with a Cuban woman and enjoyed his time off drinking beer on the beach. At the time, they were mostly loading sugar onto the ship.
Later, he sailed on the “MS Rostock”, twice taking five-month voyages to the Far East. “The fresh air, the view over the sea, shooting stars, knots and navigating – that’s all I wanted!” At the time, he didn’t give any thought to becoming a chief mate or even a captain. “All that responsibility? I couldn’t imagine it!” Wolf Kaiser says. But with time came experience, and the sometimes-rebellious apprentice became a skilled seaman and good person to have on watch duty. “And then you suddenly say to yourself: ‘Man, I can do that. It isn’t magic...” Before long, he had completed his studies and become a third and then a second officer.
German reunification, the path to Hamburg, and how to prevent a stabbing
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked a new chapter in Kaiser’s life. “In autumn 1989, we were sailing on the ‘MS Ernst Moritz Arndt’ to Cuba. When the radio operator told us that the Wall had fallen, none of us could believe it. No one had told us anything officially. Things were starting to get a bit chaotic because some were starting to tentatively question the hierarchy on board.”
Wolfgang Kaiser makes no secret of the fact that he was deeply shocked by the fall of the Berlin Wall. “I needed a few years to process the whole thing. After all, I had once believed in this country, even though the party had become more untrustworthy to me over time.”
The DSR, the national shipping line of East Germany, made a list of those who would have to be let go first. And as a young officer who was married but had no children, Kaiser was near the top of the list. After being let go, he submitted job applications to roughly 30 shipping companies. One of them was Hapag-Lloyd, but his application was rejected. He finally found a position at another shipping company based in Hamburg. This was followed by countless voyages around the world on banana freighters and container ships, and he would earn his captain’s stripes in 1997.
When asked about his writing, Wolf Kaiser says, “I feel like I have always been writing, but writing really helped me a lot as a captain.” He also wrote at that time about an attempted stabbing. “We were sailing in the Caribbean on a 1,700 TEU ship. One of the seafarers on watch duty deliberately neglected his official duties, thereby risking considerable damage to the engine. After some back and forth, an official entry was made in the ship’s log,” Kaiser explains. “Then, at night, I suddenly heard sounds, a wild banging on the wall. I go out to see what’s going on: There in the corridor stood the seafarer who had gotten the reprimand. He had a crazed look in his eye and a long knife in his hand, which he was using to bust his way through the door to the chief engineer’s quarters. I was eventually able to subdue him with pepper spray and a small electric cattle prod,” Wolf Kaiser says, noting with a hint of pride, “I probably saved the chief engineer’s life.”
Switch to Hapag-Lloyd? What a great idea!
After 15 years, the captain inevitably decided to look around again for a new job. A former acquaintance from his years as a student was working at Hapag-Lloyd, and he encouraged Wolf Kaiser to submit an application. This was followed by four job interviews and the question of whether he could maybe wear a suit to the next interview. “But I didn’t have one with me,” he says with a laugh. So he went out that very evening to get a suit and tie, though he probably would have gotten the contract even without them.
When asked whether there were also some adventures to be had with Hapag-Lloyd, Kaiser responds “No doubt!” before recounting another story. “We were sailing on the ‘London Express’ on the Pacific, heading from Asia toward Seattle and San Francisco. It was my second assignment on the ship. The first low was so inauspicious that we had to change course and first sail up along the Kuriles before we dared to make the leap over to the Aleutian Islands. But then a second powerful low with hurricane strength started forming to the south of us, so I decided to stop the ship. During this stop, we conducted a routine inspection and discovered that the main engine had a broken cylinder head, which called for a demanding and, above all, time-consuming repair. At around midnight, I quickly warmed up two tins of sausages and brought them with freshly baked baguettes to the hard-working engineers. They were completely flabbergasted, as they had never experienced anything like that!”
In good times and bad: Time out and then returning to work
A pulmonary ailment put the otherwise robust captain out of action in 2013. “But I fought my way back to survive, and today I’m grateful not only to my wife and a few smart doctors, but also to my employer, Hapag-Lloyd, who stood at my side and gave me fantastic support during those difficult times.
In November 2014, the freshly recovered and fully rehabilitated captain took command of the “Rotterdam Express”. If you ask him today, after all these years, what advice he gives to young colleagues, his answer is unambiguous: “You have to be a doer! If something really grabs you and fills you with a burning passion, go for it. Then, instead of seeing problems, you will only see challenges that will enable you to grow!”
And what, you might ask, about the story involving the sculptures made out of Korean toilet paper and Mexican wood glue? “We had both on board when we were sailing on the ‘Düsseldorf Express’ from Mexico to Japan. And since I prefer to make something instead of drinking beer in the evening, I mixed the two together. The result was this exotic sawfish,” Captain Wolf Kaiser says while pointing to an impressive sculpture on the window sill. And there might just be a few more of those coming in the near future, he adds. “But only once I’ve finished the last of the six volumes of my memoirs!” he says with a hearty laugh.