A Life in Shipping - Part 1 

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This is the first article from SCARA member Christian Kuepers.  While Christian was technically with "the competition" (his words!), the roles he played, including when attached to Trio and Cobra, meant that he worked closely with many in OCL and P&O Containers.  

In Part 1, Christian talks about joining Hapag-Lloyd in 1972 and his involvement with the early days for the Trio/Europe-Far East service.  Initially based in Hamburg, he moved to London in 1978.  We also hear about being in Venice for an AECS meeting at the same time as a former member of the Beatles!   Christian rounds off this edition with his return to freight forwarding in London before joining the Cobra Tonnage Centre which will feature more widely in Part 2.

We thank Christian for giving his permission for us to publish this article which was first written for the World Ship Society monthly journal, Marine News.  Sincere thanks also to the Society for kindly allowing us to use the ship images below from their photo library, the WSPL.   

BREMEN EXPRESS - Rotterdam New Waterway - 01/09/1973 - George Garwood/WSPL

Shipping came to me in 1972, one of the rare periods when Hapag-Lloyd (H-L) were actively looking for shore staff.  I had completed an apprenticeship as a Freight Forwarder, done my national service and some ‘real’ forwarding work until then.  Having been accepted by H-L, I was put into the Far East Incoming Marketing department and put in charge of South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines.  That was about the time trade weighting changed from the dominance of the German and wider European to Far East export trade to the import trade becoming the more important.  The first of the new Far East trade containerships, HAMBURG EXPRESS, had been delivered and I was among those invited to look at the second, BREMEN EXPRESS, in July 1972 as she was handed over in Bremerhaven.  Being empty she was much higher in the water than usual and seemed duly gigantic.  Today of course her capacity of about 3.000 TEU makes her a large feeder.  

Later I was lucky enough to be invited on a small boat for the launch of TOKIO EXPRESS at Blohm & Voss, Hamburg and was most impressed by the way or little boat lifted once TOKIO EXPRESS hit the water.  There were some sharp intakes of breath when moments later it looked like she was about to be blown into a pier head a few 100 metres down the water.

At the time, H-L were still running a conventional back-up service in particular for Thailand and the Philippines whose main export cargoes at the time were canned pineapples, timber and Copra Expeller.  Our Owners’ Representative in Manila told us he’d never seen so many ways of using pineapples for food!  We carried a limited number of containers on deck, a somewhat perilous operation as the sea washing over the deck would sometimes lift and shunt them or even wash them overboard. 

TOKIO EXPRESS - Rotterdam New Waterway - Tony Stacey/WSPL

HAMBURG EXPRESS - Rotterdam New Waterway - 14/07/1983 George Garwood/WSPL

Trade patterns have changed substantially since then – what little exports China had all came through Hong Kong and South Korea’s exports at that time were feedered to Japan.  On one memorable occasion we managed to load two lots of feedered tobacco onto the same mainline vessel contrary to the importing cigarette manufacturer’s instructions.  We were threatened with a substantial claim should the cargo be lost as that would result in their having to shut their factory for a week.  That turned into my first experience of Lloyds of London as no German insurer would consider such a low risk but potentially expensive cover.

The Trio Service, a consortium involving OCL, Ben / Ellerman, NYK and MOL as well as H-L was a relatively late starter, the Japanese were the first to start operating and ScanService, run by EAC, Wilhelmsen and Swedish Lloyd also were well under way before our ships and those of our British partners came into service.  

The four H-L ships were conceived well before the two companies merged and of two different designs – HAMBURG and TOKIO EXPRESS designed by Hapag with Blohm & Voss whereas BREMEN and HONG KONG EXPRESS were designed by Norddeutscher Lloyd with Bremer Vulkan.  More importantly, beer supplied on the former two was Holsten whereas it was Becks on the latter.  

NEDLLOYD DEJIMA - Rotterdam New Waterway - Tony Stacey/WSPL

KORRIGAN - Rotterdam New Waterway - 21/06/1974 - George Garwood/WSPL

Vulkan was more adapt in using the designs to their advantage as two Nedlloyd vessels, DELFT and DEJIMA were later built largely to the same design.  

The eight British ships were also built in Hamburg by Howaldswerke / Deutsche Werft (HDW) and again the design of the three Ben / Ellerman vessels recycled into Messagerie Maritime’s KORRIGAN to which we shall return in a moment.

Maersk were still a conventional operator outside the Far East Freight Conference carrying mainly high volume / low value cargoes like plastic toys from Hong Kong.  They were building their first container ship SVENDBORG MAERSK and did ask to join Trio.  They received a blunt refusal as did Messageries Maritime (later CGM) whose newly built KORRIGAN consequently spent a few weeks sitting idle at Cuxhaven whilst her owners negotiated joining the extended ScanDutch consortium.

Meanwhile my bosses had noted my interest in England and relatively good proficiency in the English language and invited me to join a newly formed Pools department where I was put in charge of the AECS and Trio consortia.  Whereas Trio was an entirely operational set-up where each line marketed their service independently, AECS worked on a joint marketing basis where each owner looked after a particular area for the entire service with H-L looking after Germany and Eastern Europe.   In Australia, the Continental Lines shared one agent (Seabridge) whilst OCL ran their own agency.  Whilst the Trio meetings were mostly mundane and held in London, AECS took me to more varied destinations like Paris and Trieste and eventually one of my best business trips ever – five days in Venice staying at the Danieli Palace Hotel just down from St. Mark’s square!  These were critical discussions concerning the extension to New Zealand and most of the time the chair was in discussion with individual lines to sound out their political positions and strategies.  The rest of us were free to explore Venice at our leisure!  I’ll never forget the look on my boss’ face when he returned to the conference room to announce that Paul McCartney was sitting in the foyer – Wings were doing a concert in St. Marks Square the coming weekend.

SVENDBORG MAERSK (with tug WATERCOCK) - Thames - June 1975 - George Garwood/WSPL

FRANKFURT EXPRESS - Rotterdam New Waterway - April 1986 - Tony Stacey/WSPL

On the Trio side, my main experience was the introduction of a fifth vessel, the FRANKFURT EXPRESS.  H-L were having to buy increasing capacity from their consortia partners and also saw capacity shortage arising from a growing incoming trade.  Although the ship was custom built for the Far East trade, we did make sure that if things went drastically wrong she could also serve Australia and New Zealand.  Financing the ship was critical, at some stage it was suggested that a Swiss investor could put up the funds, leading my director to shout “I don’t care if we have to call her ALPEN EXPRESS as long as we get the ship” and at another time “If my predecessors spent half as much time discussing the original four ships with our shareholders than we spend on this one, I’ll eat my hat!”

Over the six years I worked in Hamburg, H-L had approached me for foreign engagements in Korea and Taiwan, both of which I declined for personal reasons. Eventually the call came – “So where exactly would you like us to send you?” and the answer like a shot – “London”. And so it came that in 1978 I first had to get married – H-L would not allow girl friends to accompany – and then set of for six weeks in the Tower Hotel to be introduced to the new job by my predecessor in Trio Tonnage Centre (TTC), next door to the Houndsditch Warehouse. That office was effectively five little offices, one for each line, consisting of a commercial representative like myself and different numbers of ship planners. We also shared a number of support staff like telex operators, tea lady and receptionist. Telex was the main means of communication even when we had one of the first fax machines – the size of a fridge and no such comforts as automatic feeding or stored numbers. The telex room was busy as a lot of messages had to go to the five member lines in the same wording. The ticker tape was fed into the first machine and the first line’s number dialled. When sufficient buffer was built the tape went on to the second and later the third machine, only for the operation to be repeated for the fourth and fifth recipient.

Our planners would visit each of our ships in Southampton and I sometimes went along to see port operations or talk to the terminal operators.  Occasionally crew were taken ill and we made sure they were OK until well enough to return to Germany.  Soon after I arrived we had the sad task of collecting a deflated life raft from our lost LASH carrier MÜNCHEN at the bulk carrier that had found it and take them to Southampton for onward transport to Hamburg.  My planner colleagues knew some of the crew which lost their lives and it was a sober time for all of us.

At that time, Trio had started calling Eastbound at Jeddah which suddenly tipped our operation to full ships outwards.  The Jeddah cargo was particularly dense and quite a few sailings left Southampton very close to the maximum draft mark.  Our Japanese partners were not keen on Jeddah and there were many worried phone calls in the middle of the night when one of the Japanese planners asked permission to sail before cargo operations were complete.  They were hard enough to understand face-to-face in our conference room – at night on the other phone line it was often a matter of “Who? What? Perhaps? Yes? No!” and hope for the best. 

MÜNCHEN - [Netherlands] - August 1974 - Patrick Blaise collection/WSPL

HONGKONG EXPRESS - Rotterdam New Waterway - 22/06/1974 -  George Garwood/WSPL

My own position was particularly difficult as operational decisions were taken on a majority basis – with two British and two Japanese lines largely voting together, my vote often determined what would or would not happen.  Once we turned HONG KONG EXPRESS around mid-Channel as views kept changing on whether Southampton’s Dockers could be bothered to handle her.  The port of Le Havre made good money from Southampton’s problems – at some stage we had to use a newly developed berth to discharge and store UK cargo.  The cranes were in place, but no Van Carriers.  ‘No problem’ said our stevedore – we’ll drive some across from the regular berth.  Fine – until they came to an overhead power line too low across the road.  ‘No problem’ said our stevedore – my friend the builder will make a lower path in the sand next to the road.  The sight of four van carriers swaying through the sand dunes was one to behold said our man on the spot carefully watching the proceedings.

At the end of our two-year term my wife and I came to the conclusion that we liked life in England much better than what we had in Hamburg.  My director was much more understanding of this than I had expected – he told me that at the end of his 10-year term in Japan, he and his wife had the same discussion and it turned to be a very close call whether to stay in Japan or return to Germany.  Still it meant I had to find another job and I returned to my old profession of Freight Forwarding at the small London office of a privately owned Hamburg forwarder.  Although I enjoyed a trip to South America (Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Santos) at their expense, it soon became clear that that industry had changed in a bad way and I was in touch with H-L within the year to see if they had another opening.  That turned out to be the case and I had another eight enjoyable years working in Cobra Tonnage Centre looking after the South Asia trade for OCL, H-L, Nedlloyd, CGM and CMB.  The story of that and my subsequent experiences with Blue Star, Furness Withy and Hamburg-Süd will be the subject of another article in the future.

Christian Kuepers

We eagerly look forward to Christian's Part 2!