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Test voyage to Asia: Underway on the world’s first large container ship converted to LNG

Hapag-Lloyd’s “Brussels Express” is the world’s first large container ship to be converted to LNG propulsion and, in mid-June, it arrived in its home port of Hamburg for the first time. But not everything is running smoothly yet. In this report from on board the 15,000 TEU vessel, Captain Jens Vogt shares how the ship is sailing and the challenges he and his crew are currently facing.

Anyone who wants to sail on a gas-powered ship must first undergo extensive training – and the practical part of this training is done on an LNG ship. The first and most of the second crew of the “Brussels Express” had completed their training on board the “Arctic”, a feeder vessel, on the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. But Captain Jens Vogt has only been able to familiarise himself with this kind of propulsion directly on board the “Brussels Express”. To do so, he boarded the vessel earlier than his part of the crew when it was in the Suez Canal.

Captain Jens Vogt on board of the Brussels Express

“Last autumn, I had brought the ‘Brussels Express’ – when it was still called the ‘Sajir’ – to the shipyard in China and monitored the conversion work with my crew. But it was my college Captain Kowitz who then put it into operation,” says the native of the north-western German region of Westphalia. In a nod to the European Green Deal, Hapag-Lloyd has renamed the ship the “Brussels Express”. In addition, the phrase “Shipping for a cleaner future!” adorns the breakwater on the forecastle. “So it wasn’t until the Suez Canal that I was able to see the ship in its ‘finished’ form and sailing on the water for the first time.”

When asked what it’s like to sail on a gas-powered ship, Captain Vogt says, “It’s actually not very different.” At the same time, it should be mentioned that the “Brussels Express” isn’t operating exclusively on LNG yet, but rather only for occasional test runs. “There’s still some fine-tuning to be done, and our chief engineer has his hands full,” Vogt adds. “But some things are going even better than expected.” While the ship was berthed in Hamburg, colleagues from Technical Fleet Management dropped by to look at the converted equipment now that it has been put into real-world operation. “So things are still exciting,” Vogt says.

Hapag-Lloyd is focusing on liquefied natural gas as a medium-term solution, as it reduces CO2 emissions by around 15 to 25 percent and emissions of sulphur dioxide and particulate matter by more than 90 percent. Fossil LNG is currently the most promising fuel on the path towards zero emissions. The medium-term goal is to have ships that operate in a carbon-neutral way using synthetic natural gas (SNG).

For this reason, at the end of 2020, the company had already ordered six 23,500+ TEU ships. Then, in mid-June, Hapag-Lloyd announced that it had ordered another six vessels of the same size from the South Korean shipyard Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering. Thus, the fleet will be expanded by a dozen 23,500+ TEU ships in total.
The large container ships will be outfitted with a state-of-the-art high-pressure dual-fuel engine that will be extremely fuel-efficient. Their engine will operate on LNG, but the vessels will also have sufficient tank capacity to operate on conventional fuel as an alternative.

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