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Master Florian Böttger is a passionate seafarer who has been sailing for Hapag-Lloyd for 16 years – five of them as a Master. Here he talks about starting out on Swedish car ferries, excursions in Peru and Sydney, and a fire on board the “Yantian Express” that stretched him and his crew to the limit.
Crew change at Burchardkai in Hamburg. Master Florian Böttger is handing over the “Cartagena Express” to his Polish colleague Krzysztof Kaplon after a nine-week round trip to South America. “Unfortunately, we were unable to go ashore in South America due to the pandemic, which was pretty hard for the crew!” says the Master. “However, we enjoyed our free time in other ways, with barbecues, sports tournaments and film evenings together.” Now he looks forward to spending time with his family. Soon he will head to Bremen, where he’ll start by building Legos with his sons Ben and Nick. “And I’m looking forward to seeing my wife, of course. We met 21 years ago, on my first voyage to South America.” In the usual way, on shore leave? Yes, in Paita, Peru. I was still a cadet at the time and had gone to a club with two colleagues who were friends. Adriana walked in with a couple of friends and we hit it off right away.” It helps when your mother has a ballet school back in Germany that also offers salsa courses: “I had just finished the class and simply asked my future wife to dance.” She must have been pleased: the Böttgers have been happily married for 15 years.
It was also love at first sight with seafaring: as a small boy, Florian Böttger travelled regularly with his parents by car ferry via Sweden to Finland, where his mother Erja is from. “I was completely fascinated by the passages,” recalls the 43-year-old, who drew his first pictures of ships when he was just six. Countless holidays and ferry journeys later, he applied to study Nautical Sciences at the City University of Applied Sciences in Bremen as a graduate fresh out of high school. The required training to become a nautical officer’s assistant took place on – no surprise – a Swedish car ferry. “However, after six months back and forth on the Travemünde-Trelleborg route, I knew every buoy on the Baltic Sea. I wanted to go out into the world, so container shipping was my chance!”
With a completed degree and initial work experience at a shipping company in Bremen, Florian Böttger contacted Hapag-Lloyd in 2002 to ask whether an application would be worth his while. “The man on the phone simply said, ‘I already have 200 applicants on the list. Shall I add you to the bottom?’ – ‘No, the top!’ I replied, somewhat cockily. But it was clear to me that the timing was wrong. Hapag-Lloyd still required dual licences at the time. And I didn’t have them!” So the Hamburg native sailed for the shipping companies Hansa Mare and Bertram Rickmers, often as the only German alongside Croats, Burmese and Filipinos, before making a second attempt at Hapag-Lloyd in 2005. This time he was successful. The Master still clearly remembers his interview: “I was asked what I thought about dual licensing and I gave an honest answer – that I didn’t think anyone could cover both areas perfectly. They still took me on!” exclaims Florian Böttger.
He sailed as second officer for two years before being promoted to first officer. “We were travelling on board the ‘Maersk Dayton’, now the ‘Glasgow Express’, when my boss was asked whether he thought I was ready to be the First Officer. So I was promoted while at sea, had one week’s training, and off I went,” says Florian Böttger. He was finally allowed to assume responsibilities: “Garbage and ballast management, cargo control and ship stability, as well as deck maintenance – that was a huge step,” says the man with the calm voice. And as much as he loved the South America route at the beginning, he now learned to appreciate the eastern hemisphere: “From Singapore to Fremantle, Melbourne, Sydney and back – they are all great cities and ports with very laid-back people!” Böttger fondly remembers various excursions, such as a visit to the TV tower in Sydney: “When you’re standing on the glass floor of the Skywalk at a height of 268 metres and all of Sydney is at your feet, it’s a crazy feeling,” he enthuses.
In his nine years as First Officer, he got to know the world, seafaring, and even himself better. He became calmer and more thoughtful; and as a Master, he includes the opinions of others in his considerations. Florian Böttger: “Our job sounds very easy at first. You have to bring a ship safely from port A to B to C. However, plenty of surprises come along that you have to be ready to deal with at any time.”
Florian Böttger will never forget one of these “surprises:” the fire on the “Yantian Express” two and a half years ago. “It was the 2nd of January 2019 at around midnight when the Second Officer called me out of bed to the bridge. We were on our way from Colombo to Canada, 800 miles south-east east of Halifax. As I made my way to the bridge, I could already see the glow at the front of the ship – a fire had broken out.” And it was in a bay where no dangerous goods had been declared. “I raised the general alarm and called for all hands on deck.” The crew did what they had practised many times in routine drills; only now it was not a drill, but a serious situation. The men hacked at and pierced holes in the containers, unrolled fire hoses and attempted to flood the burning containers. “But we had the weather against us, force seven to eight winds that kept reigniting the fire. It seemed hopeless; the flames were simply jumping to the nearest containers.”
For three days and nights, the crew battled the fire without interruption, pushing constantly towards the flames. “We liaised closely with the emergency team on land. I was in continuous phone contact with the human resources manager, Arnold Lipinski, and his team. ‘Mr Böttger, you also need to sleep,’ he warned. I tried to, but was up again ten minutes later – when your ship is on fire, you can’t just go to bed!” A short time later, there was an explosion – the fire had spread to the next bay and ignited a dangerous goods container. The cargo hold was also already affected. “We adjusted the nozzles to create a wall of water so that the fire would at least not spread further towards the stern. ”In the meantime, Hapag-Lloyd had commissioned a tug to help extinguish the fire from outside. However, as the weather continued to deteriorate, a decision had to be made. “Arnold Lipinski and his team suggested that we all disembark, get onto the tug and wait for better weather.”
He first evacuated just half the crew, while the remaining members prepared the “Yantian Express” for an emergency towing operation the next day. Then the rest of the seafarers disembarked, with Florian Böttger the last to leave: “Leaving the ship was the worst moment of my career. However, I had no choice, so I put on my survival suit and climbed onto the pilot ladder.” Disembarking proved to be more difficult than expected: “The waves were four metres high and the line was thrown to me from the rescue boat, but I grabbed at the air and crashed backwards with the ladder against the side of the ship. The 72 hours without sleep were showing their effect; I was able to just catch myself.”
Böttger was successful at the second try; he caught the line and jumped into the Atlantic. “The rescue boat pulled me away from the ship at full speed. It was only when I was on board the tug that I saw the full extent of the fire: the burning containers and a plume of smoke that stretched for kilometres up into the sky.” After a debriefing that included high praise for his exhausted crew, Florian Böttger fell into a ten-hour deep and dreamless sleep.
Two days later, the weather cleared. The next tug reached the “Yantian Express” with a salvage master on board who specialised in vessel fires. “I went aboard again with him, the chief engineer, the first officer, the second engineer and our apprentice. That was the most beautiful moment for us! We were finally able to get back to work.”
A third tug brought an entire salvage crew from Rotterdam. “Dressed in full protective gear, they punched holes in the container walls and went into the containers, one after the other.” The crew of the “Yantian Express” moved to a sister ship and was able to disembark in Halifax. For Master Böttger and his fellow combatants, the end was still a long way off: “The five of us remained on board and were able to steer our ship under its own power to Freeport, The Bahamas. Small fires continued to flare up and we only managed to extinguish them shortly before our arrival. On the 2nd of February, we disembarked.”
The executive Board was greatly impressed by Master Böttger’s courage and level-headedness and his strong teamwork with the crew and Arnold Lipinski’s emergency team. All those involved were later invited to Ballindamm and honoured accordingly. Master Böttger proudly displays the watch on his wrist: “Anthony J. Firmin, who was on the Executive Board at the time, picked these out for us. They’re watches that were specially designed for firefighters.” Did he ever think of giving up after the incident on the “Yantian Express”? “Not for a second!” says Florian Böttger, shaking his head. “If anything, the experience made me stronger. What could possibly blow me away now?” he summarises, thinking of what Managing Director Richard von Berlepsch said to him when promoting him to Master: “At some point, something is going to happen to you, Mr Böttger. At the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of your career. Regardless of when it happens, we must be able to count on you. If we lose communication with you, we lose the ship – and that cannot happen under any circumstances.” The “Yantian Express” continues to sail, in no small part thanks to Master Florian Böttger.