Between Bochum and Buenos Aires

Germany’s Ruhr region is better known for steel production than for seafaring. But Britta Schippmann was still drawn to the sea at an early age. Here she explains why, what she experienced on her first voyage as a chief mate, and why she loves her home so much.

Bochum in November. It’s pouring rain outside. But inside Britta Schippmann’s cosy flat, the mood is bright and full of excited anticipation. In a few days, she’ll be signing on in Hamburg on the “Cartagena Express” for her second voyage as a chief mate. “I’m really looking forward to it because in addition to sailing the exciting South American route, we’ll also be going into drydock in the Danish city of Odense afterwards,” the 26-year-old says. “All the ships in the ‘Valparaíso Express’ class have to have their classification inspection now, and it’s finally our turn with the ‘Cartagena Express’, too.” On the chest of drawers in her bedroom is a pile of presents brought by friends and family as well as all sorts of everyday items – Schippmann will be celebrating her birthday on board somewhere on the Atlantic off the coast of South America. Her assignment will last four and a half months, and packing her suitcases, around 40 kilograms in total, is like a logistical tour de force.

A good fit – Chief mate Britta Schippmann is delighted to wear the three stripes – and that the uniform jackets are finally available in a fitted version

Schippmann, who has been a chief mate since June 2023, describes herself as a true product of Hapag-Lloyd. “When I was 17, I took part in the ‘Vacation Voyager’ summer programme of the German Shipowners’ Association (VDR) on the ‘Düsseldorf Express’,” she explains. “It was an unforgettable experience. From the start, we were taken seriously and treated almost like real trainees. Plus, I’d never been so far from home.” Previously, Schippmann had often spent her holidays with her parents in Horumersiel, a village on the German North Sea coast, and as a child she loved visiting the German Naval Museum in Wilhelmshaven. “I was in year 9 when I decided to go to sea,” she says. And she didn’t waste any time. After graduating from high school, she trained as a nautical officer’s assistant with “her” shipping company, studied nautical science at the university in Emden/Leer, and joined Hapag-Lloyd as a second officer on a permanent contract. “If Bochumers want something, we do it. And if we don’t, we don’t,” Schippmann says with a grin. “One example: a new and bigger stadium is currently being planned for our football club, VfL Bochum. But the local fans are against it. Everything should stay as it is: down-to-earth and not fancy.” Schippmann is also downto-earth and attached to her home. “The Ruhr region has been changing for years, but a lot of people still have the greyness and soot of the mines in their heads,” she says, adding with a laugh: “People from out of town sometimes ask me if the sun ever shines here.”

Schippmann only needs a few sentences to get at the heart of what she loves about home. “Whether city life, the outdoors, the mining museum, the planetarium, the musical ‘Starlight Express’, the renowned Bochum theatre or our Jahrhunderthalle event hall – there are plenty of sights to see. On top of that, there is our Ruhr University with almost 43,000 students and, of course, Herbert Grönemeyer,” she says, referring to the German actor and musician sometimes compared to Bruce Springsteen. “Nevertheless, life in my neighbourhood is like in a village, and the sidewalks are rolled up at 7 p.m.” Schippmann also loves the variety and diversity of her job. The voyage on the “Cartagena Express” was “particularly exciting”, she says, as it was herfirst as a chief mate. “I felt completely concentrated on doing my job,” she explains. “The alarm clock went off at 3.30 a.m., and my shift lasted until eight, when I usually had breakfast with the captain and the chief engineer after doing my first round on deck. Then came paperwork and emails, and it was already noon. In the afternoon, I slept for two and a half hours, had some coffee, and then continued working on the bridge and in the office until eight in the evening.” This also included the assignment planning for the crew’s painting work and rust knocking, calculating how much time is needed when it rains, and allotting the work well so that the crew members don’t always have to do the same thing. “I had a super nice and experienced Filipino bosun that I worked it out with.” Schippmann continues: “The automatic rudder failed once, and everything had to be done manually. Your plans flies out the window, and you have to think carefully about your priorities. In port, several things have to be disposed of, include waste, and spare parts need to be loaded – so every hand is needed. In the evenings, I sometimes fell into bed like a rock.”

In any case, the enthusiastic seafarer thinks that the east coast of South America is awesome. “First, you see a new port almost every day and, second, ports like Buenos Aires or Montevideo have very narrow harbour basins,” she says. “And the draught can’t be more than 10 metres, so you can really work up quite a sweat on board pumping out ballast water.” Schippmann’s eyes light up as she talks, and you can feel how proud she is about having tackled all the challenges. “But that was also thanks to the captain,” she notes. “I could ask him anything at any time.” For the first time in a long time, Schippmann also enjoyed a few shore excursions during her voyage. “When I started at Hapag-Lloyd in March 2020, the coronavirus arrived and nothing happened for ages. But now, spending time on the beach with the crew in Santos and meeting so many nice people has been simply fantastic. And in Buenos Aires, a colleague and I booked a classic hop-on-hop-off tour. We rode through the artists’ quarter and had lunch watching people dance the tango – a wonderful escape from everyday life!”

It has gotten darrk in the Höntrop district of Bochum, and it’s still raining. Schippmann invites us to go for a little spin. We drive to the famous mining museum with what was once the world’s biggest shaft tower, take a look at Germany’s oldest musical theatre and the shining silver planetarium nearby, and then make a short detour to the Jahrhunderthalle – a former gas power station converted into an exhibition space. The former machine hall is now the centre of the “Ruhrtriennale”, an international art and music festival. It has stopped raining. One last photo? “Sure, I’d love to!” Schippmann says with a relaxed nod. “But, starting tomorrow, I really have to pack!”

The house that Britta Schippmann lives in is the only one in the street that was restored to its original state after the Second World War
Schippmann in front of the German Mining Museum in Bochum. At a depth of 20 metres, you can marvel at the imposing machinery and get a glimpse of the miners’ arduous working day
Today, the famous Ruhrtriennale music and arts festival is held on the former site around the blower plant and the water tower

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