A Ship in the Storm – Interview with Captain Henri Scheer

In recent weeks, there has been a lot of media coverage of the destructive power of the tropical cyclones that have hit the Caribbean islands and southeastern parts of the United States. Captain Henri Scheer explains how Hapag-Lloyd’s fleet deals with these kinds of situations.

Captain Scheer, in recent weeks, the tropical cyclones Irma and Maria have passed over the Caribbean and the southeastern United States, leaving a trail of destruction in their paths. The storms have left many dead, destroyed countless homes and severely damaged the infrastructure of entire regions. However, we haven’t heard anything about container ships being damaged or in distress at sea in the affected maritime region. Why is that?

First and foremost, that’s because our ships have been able to avoid these storms. These hurricanes form over a longer period of time, and their paths can be projected quite reliably. Depending on the situation, our captains sail faster to pass well before the hurricane, or they sail slower and let the storm pass by first. But it can also happen that a ship has to seek shelter quick. That happened to me in 2012, when I was sailing from Europe on the “Norfolk Express” and wanted to call at Baltimore on the US East Coast. Raging there at the time was Hurricane Sandy, which was unusually big. After a thorough assessment, it was clear to me that I would not be able to make port in Baltimore at the scheduled time. So I decided to seek shelter in the Bay of Fundy west of Nova Scotia. This detour added up to 1,000 nautical miles. If you consider the fact that we consume 170 kilograms of fuel per nautical mile with this ship, that was a pretty expensive decision. But it was the right one. The safety of my crew, my ship and the cargo had to take priority.

As in this case, is it always the captain who makes the decision and bears the responsibility? Or does someone else occasionally play that role?

No. The decision is always the captain’s to make. And it can’t be any other way, either. That’s what he’s there for. The captain is there on-site and can assess the situation best. He knows his ship, and he knows what he can count on it to do. Of course, he does receive some support from on shore. For example, from an external service provider, he receives up-to-date weather forecasts and route recommendations around the clock. On the basis of these things – and thanks to his own observations and his experience – the captain can then make the right decision.

You are currently doing an on-shore rotation at Hapag-Lloyd’s state-of-the-art Fleet Support Center in Hamburg. What role does the center play when it comes to storms like this?

In this case, our job in the Fleet Support Center is primarily monitoring. The only time we reach for the telephone receiver and call a captain at sea is when we observe something unusual. For example, it could be that this captain can’t receive up-to-date weather reports via email for technical reasons. I recently called the captain of one of the ships we charter because it was lingering really close to the path of a hurricane. But then it turned out that he actually had all the information and was changing course right then. So it was all good. Nevertheless, it’s helpful to keep an eye on the entire fleet.

How close is “too close” to a hurricane?

Our ships should stay about 250 nautical miles away from severe tropical cyclones. Even at this distance, the wind force can still be at eight. In doing so, we’re primarily trying to avoid encountering swell that is too high. The waves should ideally be no higher than six meters. At that point, container ships are relatively vulnerable due to their special hull shape, but mainly due to their exposed cargo. If a big wave goes over the forecastle of a tanker or a bulker, it usually doesn’t result in damage to cargo. But this risk is a lot higher with a container ship because the cargo is exposed. That’s a scenario you absolutely want to avoid. And that’s why we prefer to sail a bit more carefully if we have any doubts.

Wouldn’t it be an option to seek refuge from looming storms in a port?

No. For very big ships, there is no “safe haven” in a storm. In a harbor, they are at the mercy of the forces of nature without being able to maneuver. The risk of damaging or destroying the ship as well as the valuable port facilities is high. That’s why some ports with important infrastructure even request that ships leave port before a storm arrives. And it’s true that, during a storm, the safest place for a container ship to be is out on the open sea. We can avoid the worst weather there and position the ship in a way that minimizes its exposure to wind and waves as much as possible.

How does a crew prepare itself and the ship for a storm? What’s life like on board under these circumstances?

In principle, the cargo is safely lashed at all times, so no special precautionary measures are needed. But things are sometimes different in the crew’s common areas. Especially on the very big ships, which generally don’t move much, this is sometimes forgotten over time. That’s why I personally always post a “bad weather notice” at the entrance to the mess room if I know that bad weather is brewing. This raises awareness among the crew, and they check to make sure that everything is well-secured in their cabins and their work area again so that there aren’t any laptops or chairs flying around. Sometimes it’s also about the little things that used to be givens on the smaller ships. For example, we would dampen the tablecloth so the plates and cutlery wouldn’t slip out of place in rough seas.

If the ship starts rolling, the mood on board really changes. That’s exhausting for both your mind and body. Even people who don’t get seasick – which is something I’ve been spared from, thank God – often suffer. The most strenuous thing is that you can hardly ever have relaxed sleep. You lie there like a beetle in your bunk, trying to wedge yourself in somehow. If you have to go through a 10-day stretch of that, anyone can imagine that’s stressful. Once it’s all over, you’re really wrecked and just happy that the ship is lying in port and not moving anymore.

In recent weeks, severe hurricanes have been grabbing the media headlines. But how unusual is such a burst of very severe storms?

It’s currently hurricane season in the affected maritime region, just like it is practically every year. Like the onset of winter in North Europe, that’s a regularly recurring phenomenon that we can prepare for well. That said, the destructive force of some of this year’s cyclones has been especially strong.