Farewell tour with 600 atlantic herrings

Hartmut Wedekind looks back on more than 40 years of seafaring. And even though the 84-year-old has long since retired, he remembers his time with Hapag-Lloyd very fondly. Here, he speaks about his last assignment, his early days on the “Passat”, his many years as a chief mate – and how diamonds ended up in his cabin.

“Like so many of my voyages, my last voyage, in 2001, went perfectly well. At that time, there was still the 3D service, meaning the route from Europe to the United States, then through the Panama Canal to Hong Kong, and back. I had planned to see everyone I had worked with over the many years again and, for this , I packed 600 Atlantic herrings,” recounts Captain Hartmut Wedekind. “In almost every port in which I hosted dinners, people came whom I hadn’t seen for 30 years in some cases.” Wedekind has particularly fond memories of an agent whom everyone called “Cotton Pickin’ Miller” and with whom he once “harvested” cotton in the 1970s. Cotton? “Well, I was still a third officer then, and we had less cargo in Los Angeles than the paperwork said we should. So the two of us went through the warehouse, opened up some of the cotton bales, picked them apart and made a few more out of them,” the retired captain says with a laugh. Whether it was New York, Halifax or San Francisco, there were parting gifts almost everywhere. One of the most beautiful was a model of an old Canadian schooner, the legendary “Bluenose”. And from this, the energetic man effortlessly takes the conversation back to 1955, the year in which his professional journey began.

Ironing shirts on a four-masted barque, collision in the English Channel

“I had already decided as a child that I wanted to be a captain; it must have been on a voyage from Wangerooge to Bremen,” Wedekind recounts, referring to a Frisian Island in the North Sea. “And before long I was standing, at just 16 years old, on the ‘Deutschland’, a training ship of North German Lloyd, which was docked in Bremen. We were 30 cabin boys at the beginning, and then we were told that the best 10 of us in the training course would be put on the ‘Passat’. What motivation! I real put my all into things and made the cut. So, I completed two voyages on the four-masted barque to Buenos Aires and back.” Seafaring in the 1950s cannot be compared with today’s, Wedekind explains, adding: “We had five weeks of laytime in Buenos Aires back then, and the crew was made up of 80 men, half of whom were cadets. When we were out and about in the city in our uniforms, it was quite sensational. And, of course, we all wanted to experience something!” With a monthly wage of just under 45 deutschmarks, that wasn’t easy. Wedekind diligently ironed shirts for those in the higher ranks to earn some pocket money. And, in general, he always had ideas about how he could earn extra money as a young seafarer. Sometimes he cut the hair of his fellow crew members (“I was paid in beer, which I then sold to others.”); sometimes he played music with another cadet in a pub in Melbourne, Australia. “My friend Ingo Patzer played the accordion and I played the guitar, so the odd thing came together.” Sounds like a wonderful seafarer’s life. “It was a great time. But we all worked hard. And seafaring wasn’t entirely without its dangers, either.” Wedekind recalls a voyage as a third officer on the “Bartenstein”, saying: “We were sailing through the English Channel in thick fog. I was on watch and standing on the bridge when a tanker appeared out of nowhere and was coming straight towards us.” The captain, an experienced 63-year-old seafarer, immediately took over. “He was still able to avoid the head-on collision, but we scraped along each other and sustained considerable damage to the hull and stern. At the subsequent maritime court hearing, I learned what makes a good captain: He took full responsibility without any ifs or buts, and he didn’t let anything get to us young officers.”

Reinvention ashore, with “double patent” for promotion

Wedekind had to wait a long time for his first assignment as a captain. Promoted to chief officer in 1969, he remained in that position – with some interruptions – for 20 years. “After North German Lloyd merged with Hapag in 1970, no one was promoted to captain between 1974 and 1989. But there were plenty of opportunities to join Hapag-Lloyd.” Wedekind reinvented himself at that time. He participated in the founding of the Maritime Works Council, went ashore to work as a dangerous cargo inspector in Bremen, moved to London in that position for six months, and then took on vacation replacement assignments in Rotterdam and Hamburg. “With this knowledge, Hapag-Lloyd eventually asked me to formulate guidelines for the handling of dangerous cargo on our ships. I spent a year commuting between Bremen and Hamburg on a season ticket before going back on board.” After completing just two voyages, he was given another onshore assignment, this time in England. “There, I became the cargo inspector responsible for England, Ireland and Scotland. And I was able to make a lot of things happen for the company. For example, the principle of ‘first come, first served’ had applied to ship handling in Hull for about 300 years. Together with the harbour master, I introduced the slot system and loading according to plan, which reduced demurrage times and therefore also costs.” In the total of six years he spent in London, Wedekind eventually became director of the bought-out agency Brown Jenkinson and head of 150 employees. Dorte and Hauke, his daughter and son, were both born in London, and his wife, Inken, worked in the agency’s accounting department. In 1984, the family moved back to Göttingen, a university city in central Germany, and Wedekind went back to sea as a chief mate.

Did he never struggle with not getting promoted for such a long period? “At a certain point, I got an offer to become captain on the sailing yacht of the Hamburg-based publisher Axel Springer, but after learning that Hapag-Lloyd wanted to keep me, I decided against it. And then, in 1987, came the matter of the ‘double patent’, that is, the possibility of earning a chief engineer’s certificate in addition to the captain’s license, which I tackled at the age of 48.” So, among other things, Wedekind learned metalworking at the Hamburg-based shipbuilding company Blohm+Voss, went back to school in Hamburg, and finally went to sea for a year as a third engineer. “It was great to learn so many new things again! And, afterwards, my wife thought that I was much more useful around the house and in the yard,” Wedekind notes with a laugh. In Kiel, he was put in charge of supervising the construction of the “Heidelberg Express” and the “Bonn Express” and then, after two more voyages, the time had finally come. “Together with five other colleagues, I was promoted to captain.”

Stormy times, highs and lows

Already on his very first voyage as captain, Wedekind was challenged by the forces of nature. “We had bad weather the whole time while sailing the old ‘Leverkusen Express’ to North America and back. Off Felixstowe in England, there were even force 12 [hurricane] winds, so working on deck was out of the question.” On one of the next voyages, he also ran into an unpleasant situation with his ship. “On the way to New York, we encountered two transverse, high swells. I reduced speed to a slow four knots and aligned the ship so that one wave came in from 45 degrees port and the other from 45 degrees starboard. This kept us from making progress, but the lurching motion remained tolerable. Without warning, a wave fed by the two swell directions suddenly piled up and the ship fell into the trough in front of the wave. It didn’t feel like it was going to stop falling until we crashed square into the cone of the wave. My watch officer had automatically stopped the engine, which I immediately started up again at half speed ahead to keep the ship manoeuvrable. After about two hours, the sea had calmed down and we were able to survey the damage. Only one liquid container with acid had broken out of the rack and leaked out, so the ship had survived the ride well. Upon entering New York, the US Coast Guard came aboard to inspect the ship. We were well prepared, had the green US dangerous goods regulations and our papers ready, and I personally showed the inspectors around the ship. Everything was finished after just one hour, and we were able to enter the port.”

Treasure in the head, handicap of 29

Wedekind loved his 10 years as first mate on board and shares many small and big stories from this time, like the one in which he played banker on board . “In Antwerp, the captain once ordered me to watch over a small bag of diamonds, as too many people had access to our safe. I packed the bag inconspicuously in the bathroom with my toothbrushes until we arrived in New York. There, I personally handed over the precious goods.”

After retiring in 2001, Wedekind just kept on working. For a decade, he volunteered to look after young people and enthusiastic amateur sailors on the sailing ships of Clippers, the German youth organisation at sea . “At 78, I thought that I had had enough, as I also wanted to play a bit of golf,” the lively retired captain says with a laugh. His currently has a handicap of 29. “I’m still in pretty good shape, so let’s see if I can improve that in the summer!”

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