Finally a captain!
Blog of the week by Hapag-Lloyd. Jonathan Pompe was promoted to captain in June 2020. In the following interview, he shares how he transitioned from sailboats to container ships, how his first voyage as a captain went, and why he and his family are moving to Malaysia.
Right after being promoted to captain, he set sail on a long voyage that would last five months. “Vancouver, Japan, Singapore, Halifax, then back over to Singapore and back to Halifax – that was one long voyage,” the 35-year-old says. The coronavirus was notorious for the impact it had on sailing schedules in 2020, but Jonathan Pompe is able to shrug it off. “I still had just as much time off work after I got back,” he says on board the “Kyoto Express”, which is berthed at the Container Terminal Altenwerder in Hamburg. “On top of that, I really enjoy sailing in the Asia service. I like the Asian way of life – and my wife is from Singapore,” he adds. In any case, he and his ship will be setting sail tomorrow at 5:30 in the morning. And, this time, the voyage will be for just under three months – unless of course something unexpected comes up.
Beginnings on an artificial lake
Jonathan Pompe didn’t discover his love for seafaring in some romantic spot, such as on the North Sea or off Hawaii. Instead, he found it on Südsee, a man-made lake near an autobahn in the central German city of Brunswick. Here he learned how to sail with his twin brother when they were five years old. “We were on the water as often as we could, first with small Optimists, later on Jollyboats, catamarans and Lasers – in other words, on everything that our local sailing club had to offer. Then, once we were teenagers, my twin brother and I took over the training of the younger sailors. And, of course, I also watched the big ships during my many sailing trips on the Baltic Sea.”
Though still in high school at the time, the young man thought that seafaring might be a career worth pursuing. But what pushed him over the edge was a tour he took of the old “Hamburg Express” in the Port of Hamburg. “Right after graduating from high school, I applied for an apprenticeship to become a ship mechanic,” he says, adding that he only shared this with his father once his application at Hapag-Lloyd had been accepted. “He would have liked me to be an optician in one of his two stores. But I wanted to get out and stand on my own two feet – and today he is proud of me,” Captain Pompe says with a smile. After a two-and-half-year apprenticeship, he studied nautical science at the University of Applied Sciences Emden/Leer in north-western Germany. And then he went straight to sea, where he climbed the ranks.
Typhoon off Hong Kong
Jonathan Pompe encountered his first real storm as a young officer of the watch off Hong Kong. “That was with Captain Van der Hoff, who was on his first voyage on the ‘Stuttgart Express’ at the time. We were moored at the quay when a typhoon started approaching. The authorities instructed us to leave the port immediately, as there is a lot of fear there about damage caused from ships breaking loose. Once out on the open sea, we were greeted by rain, storms and high waves – and it ended up being a very long night for everyone. We didn’t have any cargo on board, and the ship reacted very unstably. We tried to anchor ourselves. But due to the bad weather, the anchor didn’t take hold at first, and we were only firmly anchored after several hours. By the next morning, the sea had calmed down. So we pulled up the anchor – along with the countless fishing nets and wires that had got caught in our anchor chain. It took us a while to untangle everything.”
An unusual first departure as captain
When asked about his first time casting off as a captain, Pompe says: “I was a bit tense, but also super-focused. The coronavirus had unfortunately changed our port rotation, so I only received a very brief handover in the Port of Vancouver. But I am familiar with the ‘Kyoto Express’ from my days as an apprentice, and I also worked on it as a ship mechanic. So it’s a great feeling to be in charge of it now. In any case, a few days after casting off, the chief engineer suddenly fell ill. At first, I thought he had blood poisoning. But we later learned that he had actually developed a thrombosis on the plane. So we had to turn back. This means that in my first week as captain, I also performed medical first aid and did my first anchor manoeuvre off Vancouver.” As no replacement was available for the seafarer who had fallen ill, Second Engineer C. Pappe took charge. “But our chief engineer came back on board a bit over five weeks later in Kuala Lumpur. We were thrilled that he was well again and that we were whole again as a crew.”
Jonathan Pompe must have done something right on his first voyage as a captain, as some crew members from it have already signed on to join his second voyage. “I like to keep things family-like and to talk with people. Even when I was chief mate, I always kept my door open,” he says in describing his leadership style. Of course, he adds, you have to check to make sure that everyone is doing their job well. “But I do that more in passing by dropping by for a brief chat with people. No one should have the feeling that I’m watching them like a hawk.” Nevertheless, it takes time for this kind of self-confidence and openness to develop. “I used to be rather shy and reserved, but seafaring changes you. When you get around a lot, you also get to know a lot. These days, I love small talk, and I’m happy when customers come on board and I can give them a tour. And I think I owe that a bit to my wife. She has made me more cosmopolitan.”
Asia – his great love in all respects
Pompe met his future wife, Sheue Wei K., in Singapore when he was a young ship mechanic. “I was working for a shipping company that specialised in heavy lift cargo because I was interested in how it worked. We were laying at anchor there for three weeks. Then, while on shore leave one evening, I stopped by the legendary Long Bar in the Raffles Hotel for a drink. And that’s the first time we encountered each other. When the captain found out that I had met someone there, he gave me some time off during the day. That made it possible for Sheue Wei and me to spend more time together – and to fall in love.”
That was a decade ago. But after two years of a long-distance relationship, Sheue Wei – an interior designer – moved to Brunswick for the love of her life. They now have two children: Karolina, who is six, and Konstantin, who is almost a year old. And after some mutual shyness at first, Sheue Wei now gets on so well with her in-laws that she even helped her father-in-law to redesign the interiors of his stores. For some time now, she has spoken fluent German. The young family has usually spent its holidays in South-East Asia – not only to visit relatives, but also to explore the countries and cultures. “We are crazy about travelling, and backpacking with a child is simply fantastic! What’s more, I like the Asian mindset, the openness with which people interact with each other. There, you don’t make a date to have coffee with people – you just drop by.”
And this could be happening more often starting in July, as that’s when the entire Pompe family will be pulling up stakes and moving to Malaysia. “My father-in-law needs a bit more help and, after all these years in Brunswick, we decided to live in my wife’s home country for a change,” Captain Pompe says. “We are moving to Johor Bahru, just across from Singapore, where life is more relaxed and less expensive. Karolina is also looking forward to this new phase of our life, and she also speaks Mandarin thanks to my wife.”
Jonathan Pompe will now learn about container shipping from a customer’s perspective, as all of the family’s furniture, household appliances and toys will be starting their voyage to Malaysia this summer in a container. In any case, he plans to stay true to Hapag-Lloyd, and he can also imagine being able to step in as a substitute if a captain is needed at short notice in Singapore.
Regarding his employer, the good-natured man only has positive things to say: “Hapag-Lloyd is one of the best German shipping companies, and everyone should really appreciate that. This includes the provisions and life on board, the 1:1 time-on/time-off rule for sailing, and the unique and well-harmonised collaboration between its employees on land and at sea. You won’t find that with any other shipping company!”
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Hapag-Lloyd offers a fleet with a total capacity of 1.7 Million TEU, as well as a container stock of approximately 2.8 million TEU including one of the world’s largest and most modern reefer container fleets. A total of 121 liner services worldwide ensure fast and reliable connections between more than 600 ports on all the continents.