“Things are basically going well for our seafarers” – Interview with Silke Muschitz

A lot of people dream about working as a ship captain, but the job also comes with a lot of responsibility. Silke Muschitz, Senior Director Marine Human Resources at Hapag-Lloyd, has being sailing since 2005 and a captain since 2018. Two years later, she came on shore to become responsible for the maritime personnel at Hapag-Lloyd. In this interview of the week, Silke speaks about what life has been like for seafarers during the coronavirus pandemic, which traits are needed to succeed as a ship captain, and what she misses most about the life at sea.

Silke, the coronavirus pandemic continues to hold us in its grip. How are our seafarers doing?

Silke Muschitz: Things are basically going well for our seafarers. But there is naturally a certain coronavirus fatigue on board, as there is for all of us. The pandemic has been forcing us to confront unprecedented challenges. Even before the pandemic, seafarers only had very limited opportunities to go on shore. But now they even have to spend their free time in ports on board. If they then return home when the coronavirus wave is peaking, a lockdown might be awaiting them there. It’s frustrating.

What concerns us most is providing our seafarers with good medical care. The omicron variant of COVID-19 has particularly led to a lot of infections. We have had seafarers who get sick at sea and then not known exactly what to do for them, as adequate medical care isn’t available in all countries. It’s already very stressful when you have a toothache and can’t go to the dentist for three to four weeks. But things are naturally a lot more worrisome with COVID-19 symptoms.

We are also clearly seeing how quickly the coronavirus is spreading right now. Sometimes crew changes are cancelled because somebody has to go into quarantine at home, which has made uncertainty a constant companion for our seafarers on board. But many countries have fortunately changed their entry policies, so we’ve become more flexible again when it comes to organising crew rotations. Nevertheless, even after two years of the pandemic, there are still a few countries where crew changes aren’t possible.

During the pandemic, some seafarers have been forced to stay on board for more than a year. What is that like for our colleagues at sea?

It's a big strain. A year on board a ship means that you have to work 365 days in a row in shifts. No one can do that at a consistently high level, and it also impacts you physically at some point. On top of that, our seafarers often don’t know exactly how their families are doing back home, because they can’t tell how everything really is via their smartphones. At some point, they are not only physically but also mentally exhausted. This eventually effects the entire operation of the ship. Many captains have found great ways to relieve the strain on their crews. But when seafarers spend a year on board a ship, they’re still exhausted when they come home. For example, there have been cases of seafarers embarking when their wives were pregnant and only returning home after the baby has already spoken its first words.

What can captains do to keep up the spirits of the crew?

Of course, the most important thing is to make sure that there is a good sense of togetherness and camaraderie on board. Captains also have to figure out if there are ways to makes adjustments to the working hours that will bring about some relief. In addition, there should be a good range of leisure-time activities. As I remember from my time at sea, there were foosball and table tennis tournaments already before the pandemic. But, given the circumstances that we have today, captains have to make sure that these kinds of things are organised much more regularly. On top of that, they have to make sure that the crew members aren’t spending too much time alone in their cabins on their smartphones checking on how things are back home, as there isn’t much good news coming from there right now. A balance has to be struck.

We are currently looking to bring on more captains at Hapag-Lloyd. What are the selection criteria?

A particularly important criterion is resilience – and this has become even more important as a result of the pandemic. After all, captains are responsible for 22 people on board, and they have to deal with the crew’s problems in addition to their own. Resistance to stress is also required, and the coronavirus has given it a completely different degree of importance. Captains also have to be level-headed, as we need to have reliable people to talk to on board, so communication skills also play a key role. Especially in emergency situations, we have to be able to communicate with them on an equal footing.

Is being a captain different for men and women?

Yes, and they are big differences. If you have the right qualifications, you will be accepted by the crew regardless of whether you are a man or a woman. But there are occasionally reservations in ports because it’s rare for a woman to be in charge on board.

I have naturally also faced headwinds – especially at the beginning of my career. I was often asked whether I really wanted to go to sea. But you can’t let yourself be dissuaded from pursuing your goals if you want to achieve them. Sometimes you have to be a bit stubborn to make your dreams come true. What’s more, the career path to becoming a captain is very clear-cut, because the skills you need to climb to the next level are very clearly defined in seafaring. I think that makes the profession very appealing.

There are also a lot of things I miss about life at sea since I switched to land. For example, I miss the freedom you enjoy on board. This kind of ship is like a city in its own right, and the crew is like a family – so you have a lot of leeway to make things how you want them. I also miss the short “commute” to work. Especially as a captain, it was really nice because I had my chamber right below the ship’s bridge. So, it only took me a minute to get to my workplace. And I basically only had to take two longer trips to work each year, when I had to travel from home to the ship.

You are the first woman to be admitted to the Schiffergesellschaft, a guild of shipowners in the northern German city of Lübeck that has existed for 621 years. What’s more, the German business magazine Capital named you one of the “Top 40 under 40” this year and thus one of the most important up-and-coming talents shaping Germany. How do you feel about these honours?

This hasn’t changed much for me personally or for how I view myself. But what’s nice about this distinction from Capital is that my achievements have been recognised – and not just by my supervisors, friends and family, but also by an independent organisation. This gives me a deep sense of satisfaction – especially after all the trials and tribulations of the last two years having to do with crew changes and the coronavirus pandemic.

The fact that I have been admitted to Lübeck’s Schiffergesellschaft means a lot to me. First, because I have lived in Lübeck for a long time. And, second, because it’s a nice sign that a society that has existed since 1401 is admitting a woman for the first time after such a long time. It means that the pace of change for us women is gaining momentum – and that makes me very happy.

What makes Hapag-Lloyd special for a female captain?

The company has repeatedly reinvented itself over its almost 175 years in existence, yet it has remained true to its core values – and values are the most important thing on board. As a captain, trust is enormously important, not only in the crew but also in the shipping company. One has to be able to convey this sense of trust on board. The feeling of belonging and being appreciated is different when you work for a shipping company rather than for an agency or a subcontractor based somewhere in the world. I can go to the Alster Lake in Hamburg, look at the Hapag-Lloyd headquarters building, and know that I am part of that organisation.

About Silke Muschitz
Silke Muschitz started her career in 2005 as a maritime apprentice at Hapag-Lloyd. She became an officer in 2010 and a captain in 2018. She then came on shore in 2020 to start her current position as Senior Director Marine Human Resources, in which she is responsible for maritime personnel issues at Hapag-Lloyd.

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