Respect, order and a lot of fun - on board with Captain Kaplon

If you are going to lead a ship, Captain Krzysztof Kaplon is convinced of this: The most important trait you’ll need is respect. He likes to organize shore excursions for the crew – one of which brought this tennis fan to the Australian Open.

I find that “respect” should be every captain’s middle name. Respect for the ocean’s might. Respect for his crew. No matter which department they’re in, deck or engineering, every crew member on board is equal. Have respect for nature, and have respect for seafarers – in my years with Hapag-Lloyd, I’ve heeded both of these maxims. To date, there hasn’t been a single critical situation – no emergency, no especially rough storm, no serious injury on board.

As far as I’m concerned, every captain is only as good as the team he’s sailing with. My grandmother once told me the German saying “Ordnung muss sein” (“Order is a must”). There has to be order on board a big container ship; it’s of fundamental importance. But if the order and the work are taken care of, I also think it’s important to give something back to my crew for their dedication.

I make sure that the social life on board is right. I call that “integration.” For example, we organize table-tennis tournaments, foosball competitions and dart championships. The winners get a small prize. There’s internet in the ports these days. And, on some ships, there’s a Wi-Fi connection even on days at sea. That’s nice for everyone on board, as being able to speak with your wife or kids gives you an extra boost of energy and motivation. But it also causes crew members to stay in their cabins – which is something I actually don’t want so much. The men should cultivate social contacts on board so they don’t get lonely.

Captain Krzysztof Kaplon, b. 1973, comes from a family of seafarers in the Polish town of Bytów near the Baltic Sea. His uncle and cousin were also captains of ocean-going vessels. He studied at the prestigious Maritime University of Szczecin. He has sailed for Hapag-Lloyd since 2006. At present, he is captain of the “Hannover Express.”

In some ports – as much as the job permits, of course – I go along on shore to buy special foods that don’t come with the normal delivery. If we are lying at a pier in France, I get some cheese; if we’re in a market city, I buy a big fish. That makes the seamen happy. In the United States, we go to a big shopping center. It doesn’t cost the shipping company anything extra; it only takes some effort. But it’s my way of saying “thank you” to the crew for their work.

On top of that, we organize shore excursions. In Houston, we were awed by the NASA space center. We drove to famous waterfalls in Mexico, rode to the pyramids on camels in Egypt, and drove into the mountains near Vancouver. The Gendarmerie and Cinema Museum in Saint-Tropez was a lot of fun, as a lot of crew members were fans of Louis de Funès (a French comedic actor of the second half of the 20th century most famous for his role as a gendarme). The Filipino seamen got to know who he was.

Once, when we entered port in Melbourne, the German tennis pro Tommy Haas was playing against the Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the third round of the Australian Open. We managed to get some tickets – which I, as a tennis fan, was very happy about. In my spare time, I play in the second amateur class in Szczecin, a large port city in eastern Poland near the Baltic Sea, and I also always bring my rackets along on voyages. When the cargo hold is empty, I use the walls to get a little practice in. Our ship’ cook, a German, was really into the Haas match. Once, during a pause in play, he yelled out to the court: “Auf geht’s, Haas!” (“Let’s go, Haas!”). Fans in half the stands turned around and looked at us.


Once we get back out to sea, people spend a lot of time on board talking about the shore excursions. This shared memory is an important topic of conversation, and it bonds the men. Some of the ones who were skeptical at first and didn’t even want to come along end up decorating their cabins with photos from it. That makes me happy.

But I’m also place high demands on my crew. We have state-of-the-art equipment on board that’s reliable. But having blind faith in the equipment sometimes goes too far for me, as a seaman. What are we going to do if the satellite connection fails? Or if there’s a blackout on board?

I learned to navigate at the “Akademia Morska,” the maritime university in Szczecin, when you still had to know how to use a sextant. The first area I sailed in was the Caribbean, where I spent a few months. After holding positions at a Scandinavian shipping company and another one in Hamburg, I came to Hapag-Lloyd in 2006.

I had my worst experience at sea long before that. It happened in late October 1998. I was sailing as a young officer on a small cargo ship – at least compared to the giants we have today – carrying huge rolls of paper from Belem in Brazil to Mexico. We ran into Hurricane Mitch, a storm of the worst category – five – which eventually took the lives of just under 20,000 people in Central America and caused damage worth several billion US dollars.

The waves were 10 meters and higher. Visibility was absolutely zero. The ship rolled like I’ve never seen, before or since. It was my watch, and I was with the captain on the bridge, which was far forward, right behind the prow. We were afraid that a big breaker would smash into the window. After my watch ended, the captain said the worst sentence that I’ve ever heard during my time at sea: “Gentlemen, please grab your survival suits and proceed to the assembly point.”

Nobody said a word. You could sense the fear in the room, but no one was praying. We drank coffee and tried to hold on somehow. The ship rolled tremendously. The waiting lasted seven hours, after which we had made it through the roughest part. The captain gave the all-clear. I still remember how we went to our cabins to sleep. We were exhausted.

Some of the extremely heavy paper rolls being transported on the weather deck had simply been torn away by the breakers. The ocean had taught us a lesson.


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