Captain March: A world traveller by land and sea

From humble deck boy to a captain. Johannes March speaks of curing seasickness in the bosun’s locker, globalisation on the west coast of South America, and a life with genuine camaraderie and good friends.

If you spend some time with Johannes March, you can journey far back into the past of seafaring. It was a time when deck boys were sometimes treated like slaves, bullied by the seamen above them who didn’t know any better and often had a lot of alcohol in their blood. It was a life at sea with storms and stories of things that could only happen in the pre-container era. But it was also a life with genuine camaraderie and good friends with whom you – as a young man – could discover foreign ports, countries and cities that still looked quite different in the 1960s than they do today.

Captain Johannes March in figures: 77 years old, 47 years with Hapag-Lloyd, including 17 at sea and 30 on shore. His job took him all around the world: once in Tokyo, then to a port project in Saudi Arabia, five years with his family in Santiago de Chile, four in London, then to the Hapag-Lloyd headquarters in Hamburg, three years in Korea, and then back to the Hanseatic city. It’s was a life on the move – on water and on land.

“At the time, my mother didn’t approve of my wanting to go to sea,” March recalls. “Unlike my brothers, I wasn’t particularly interested in school. Sports – and football, in particular – was my thing. I already knew as a young boy that I wanted to be a captain when I grew up. When I stood at home in [the western German city of] Neuss and watched the half-unloaded coasters head seaward on the Rhine River and disappear into the sunset, I was seized by wanderlust.”

At 17, March turned his dream into reality. “While my brothers were graduating from high school, studying at university and starting middle-class lives as historians, teachers and high-level administrators, I was regarded as the prodigal son,” March says. “I only redeemed myself years later, when I came home with a master’s license and a good bottle of wine. ‘Mother’, I said, ‘Your son is now able to sail any German merchant ship of any kind and size on all the oceans of the world.’ That made her proud after all.”

Following his training period on the training vessel “Deutschland”, March first sailed toward North America on the “MS Innstein”. It was a rough time. “As a deck boy in the late 1950s, you were neither a man nor a seaman; you were supposed to become one on board,” March recalls. “The crew consisted of several older seamen who’d been in the war. Many of them drank, and they let us do all the hard work.” He ran into bad weather on his first voyage, and the high swell led to his first case of severe seasickness. “To ‘cure’ me, the seaman sent me into the bosun’s locker in the foremost part of the ship,” March recalls. “There, the bow whooshed up and down like an elevator, and the anchors loudly banged against the hull’s wall like a drum. I puked my soul out of my belly. There’s no other way to say it.”

When he switched to the “MS Buchenstein”, life abruptly changed for young March. “It went to the west coast of South America!” he says. “I finally met like-minded young people who, like me, wanted to earn their master’s license. They were interesting people, and we enjoyed great camaraderie.” Plus, there were the southern latitudes, the new continent and the weather. “That was like heaven, a great time!” March continues, adding that there were two things the future captain took with him from this period. “Nowhere are there as many different people than among seafarers. There were simple and highly intellectual people among them, and I even met an artist.” What they all shared in common was an indispensable loyalty to the ship. “Even though it didn’t belong to us, it was our steamer,” March says. “And we took care of it together!” To this day, March has not let go of this sense of responsibility.

March earned his master helmsman qualification at the age of 23, and he had a master’s certificate in his pocket by 27. As a chief, second and third officer, he sailed on general cargo ships in East Asia and Central America and on the first containerships on the North Atlantic. In 1971, he got a chance to experience globalisation up close and personal. He was there when Bremen-based shipping company North German Lloyd merged with the Hamburg-based carrier Hapag to form Hapag-Lloyd. And he was there for the changeover from general cargo to container shipping. “I suddenly realised that I might not be a captain until I was 50,” March says. “Over time, 30 containerships would handle transports worldwide instead of 116 general cargo ships. There just wasn’t a need anymore for so many captains on board.”

In the period that followed, he repeatedly sailed on various ships to his favourite region: the west coast of South America. And after working as a project officer for a conference study on “Determining the Most Economical Ship System for the South America Service”, Hapag-Lloyd offered him a position as a representative in South America who would help with the rollout of semi- and then full container service. For March, getting off ships and having solid ground beneath his feet was a new experience.

March spent five years with his wife and two daughters in Santiago de Chile. “It was an exciting time – not only for me, but also for my wife and children,” March says. “The nature! The climate! For at least three months of the year, you could go swimming or up into the mountains to ski.” From Santiago de Chile, March managed the containerisation of the main ports along the coast.

After five years, when he got an offer to move to London and be the managing director of the Caribbean Overseas Lines (CAROL), March and his family packed their bags again. “CAROL was a group of four shipping companies – one British, one French, one Dutch and one German – which was led by one manager on a rotating basis,” March explains. “I really worked a lot during that time. But we also enjoyed the cultural things London had to offer.”

After four busy years, March moved to Hamburg and a job on the Ballindamm. His new position was as a manager overseeing the Indonesia trade. “Steering, operating, marketing, controlling and cost management – we reported directly to the Executive Board, and it was all about a lot of money and responsibility,” March says. “I’d never had a nine-to-five job, and I was a real workaholic.” But was that always the case? “Looking back, I would say that the advantages outweighed the disadvantages,” March concludes.

The globetrotter also spent three years in Seoul, South Korea. “There, it was about breaking ties with an external agency and opening our own branch,” March says. “That’s something I pressed ahead with in the 1990s.” However, when the then-55-year-old was offered an extension, he turned it down and chose instead to take a new position that would allow him and his family to return to Hamburg.

When he retired at 65, his colleagues predicted that he would have trouble adjusting to life after work. “I never felt that way once,” March says as he shakes his head. “There is life after work. And I could finally do what I had never had time for before!”


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