Engine man

Published by Jesper Toft Madsen on 09 February 2018

In one of the largest transactions in the history of shipping, Germany-based Hamburg Süd recently joined Maersk, adding 1,400 seafarers to the global workforce. Meet Gregor Klöttschen who works inside the engine room of the iconic red vessel.

“I like dealing with problems, finding the fault and fixing it. It gives you a feeling that you can achieve anything.” Says Gregor Klöttschen.

Lights out. Everything turns black below deck as the auxiliary engines stop, leaving the ship with no power. Seconds later, the main engine goes into emergency shutdown.

The emergency engine starts, lights on, and the faces of the crew emerge from the dark in front of Gregor Klöttschen. They find themselves at the very heart of the trouble, the engine room, and he is the Chief Engineer, responsible for the beating heart of the ship.

It is one of those rare occasions when container vessel crews face what they call ‘blackout’. When the heart stops beating, his colleagues look to him for direction.

“Everyone looks at you, expecting you to know what you’re doing and waiting for your command. It’s a crucial moment. You must repower the vessel quickly, maybe in dangerously narrow waters, and you don’t know why the engine broke down,” says Klöttschen.

“Experience prepares you for situations like this. Automation is great, but you have to know your manual craft and get your hands dirty. I like dealing with problems, finding the fault and fixing it. It gives you a feeling that you can achieve anything.”

No favourite colour

Klöttschen, an approachable and driven 35-year-old from Munich, works on vessels for Hamburg Süd. When it was announced that the company had been sold to Maersk, his first reaction was a sense of gratitude for his career at the German shipping line – and then relishing the prospect of fresh opportunities.

Integration work is well underway to reinforce the global positions of both Hamburg Süd and Maersk, as well as strengthening the respective customer offerings.

I would see it as a huge professional achievement to operate one of Maersk’s Triple-Es one day.

Gregor Klöttschen

“Hamburg Süd has always made me feel appreciated, from when I was a student until today. I’m Mr Gregor Klöttschen, not just ‘Seafarer 308’. It’s like being part of a family, and I hope it stays this way,” he says.

Living close to Denmark and having Danish friends, Klöttschen believes that the heritage and culture of A.P. Moller - Maersk match his way of life. Operating even larger vessels remains one of his ambitions.

“It makes me proud to operate the biggest ships. Not everyone can do it and I would see it as a huge professional achievement to operate one of Maersk’s Triple-Es one day. I love working on different Hamburg Süd vessels, because it’s challenging, but in this new constellation, it doesn’t matter to me if the ship is red or blue.”

Shaped by the sea

Klöttschen was three or four years old when his father took him and his twin brother out sailing for the first time. Both brothers were swimming without water wings by the age of three and although the family moved six times during his childhood between Europe and the Far East, Klöttschen always stayed close to the water.

Today, he is a seasoned diver and spends much of his time on his Nordic Folkboat, which is a small wooden yacht that needs constant care.

“I got addicted and became a sailor like my father. So why not get a job on the water?”

After a six-month spell in the German army, young Klöttschen joined Hamburg Süd as a ship mechanic apprentice in 2004. After graduating in Ship Operation from Flensburg University, Klöttschen became a third engineer at Hamburg Süd.

“It was like jumping into cold water,” he recalls. “You’re responsible for a smooth operation, from steam production that heats the fuel to auxiliary engines that generate power. I realised how different real-life operations are from math theories and electro techniques. The books don’t teach you how to prioritise or how long it takes to fix things.”

He quickly gained experience and took on more responsibility, such as managing the main engine. Early last year, Klöttschen was promoted to chief engineer at the age of 33.

“It was a special day. And it was not a tough decision. Many young seafarers go back to shore, because they miss home or get bored, but ever since I started studying I’ve wanted to become a chief engineer.”

A seafarer’s life

Being a chief engineer demands more than technical expertise.

“Working on a container vessel is all about teamwork. We work in a small team for up to 10 hours a day, four to five months in a row in a very restricted space with limited privacy. The good atmosphere is so important,” explains Klöttschen.

“As a leader, I try to be open-minded and humble. I don’t believe that old-school shouting motivates people and it’s very arrogant to think that you know everything. No one should be afraid to bring ideas to the table – no matter the rank.”

After years on the water, Klöttschen is well aware of what it takes, but he still gets that special feeling when there is nothing but blue ocean stretching ahead far into the distance.

“It’s a feeling of freedom, that you can go wherever you want. Of course, you can’t decide where to go in container shipping, but the feeling is still there.”

Personally, he is looking forward to working no longer than three months at a time as Maersk has shorter rotations. This means he will see his wife Henrike, their one-year old daughter Mathilda and his Folkboat more often.

“You often feel alone on a vessel, and I couldn’t do this job without my wife’s support. Coming back to your family in a quiet and calm area has become so valuable to me.”