The story of a retired captain

Blog of the week by Hapag-Lloyd sharing the story of Gebhard Knull who spent 41 years at sea as a cabin boy, officer and master. About the love of seafaring, quarrels with superiors, piracy in the China Sea, and how he came to be nicknamed “K-Zero”.


“Starting with my first voyage, I experienced nearly everything that makes seafaring so exciting,” says Gebhard Knull, recounting his escape across the Baltic Sea on a small coaster in January 1945. “My father had the job in Königsberg, today’s Kaliningrad, of evacuating refugees on ships. He also sent my mother and us four brothers west on a coaster. That first night, I stood on the foredeck with my brother. When the lookout shouted, ‘Vessel four points on the port side,’ we saw a shadowy ship coming straight at us and ran from the foredeck. But the deck was so icy that we slipped and slid right to the place where the ship rammed us. We were lying on deck and could see the bow towering right over us!” the 87-yearold remembers.

Young Gebhard Knull was most impressed by the master at the time. “He reassured us all that nothing bad had happened, and that we could all go below deck. The ship was repaired in the Russian seaport town of Baltiysk, and in Gotenhafen (Gdynia), our mother was supposed to transfer to the ‘Wilhelm Gustloff’ with her four sons. But she refused and would not be intimidated, so we stayed on board of the coaster – and she most likely saved our lives.” Because the “Wilhelm Gustloff” sank after being fired on by a Russian submarine on 30 January 1945. More than 10,000 people were on board, only 1,239 of whom survived. Mother Knull and her four sons arrived at Sassnitz after a four-week crossing on the coaster. All four brothers went on to became seafarers.

Tips from the father gained him respect

Gebhard Knull got his first professional tips from his father: “First of all, as a cabin boy, you have to cook and clean the galley! Remember: if the nooks and crannies of a room are clean, the whole room is clean. Second: there are no ‘ifs and buts’ on board. Third: there’s no such thing as ‘can’t’ – you can always find a way. And finally: keep your name in the conversation!” Gebhard Knull sums up that that last piece of advice has proven particularly valuable. Do you have an example? Master Knull laughs and says, “It happened later, at North German Lloyd. I was Second Officer on the ‘Birkenstein’ and responsible for the cargo. In Hamburg, we loaded beer barrels; in Antwerp, we added 30 cartons of pressed sponges. When we went to unload the cargo in New York, thousands of sponges swelled out at us. The barrels had come loose and damaged the cartons. We heaved the sponges out with a huge cloth and quickly brought them to the shed. In the afternoon, the master summoned me on deck and bawled me outbecause he’d found five sponges in the hatch. When he threatened to write me up for what happened, I blew my top and fired back: ‘If you report anything defamatory about me, we’ll see each other in court!’ We had a lively exchange of words until he suddenly turned to the first officer and said: ‘I’d like to see you do something like this! Good day, gentlemen.’ And then he disappeared. From then on, I enjoyed an excellent relationship with the master. The story spread all the way to the shipping company. I was now respected.”

Pirate attack!

In 1958, Gebhard Knull experienced his first pirate attack as a helmsman. “We were anchored with the ‘Buchenstein’ off Buenaventura in Colombia. The moon shone brightly, music wafted across from the entertainment district, and we were irritated that we had to keep watch. The master had told me to keep an eye on the mangrove forest opposite. A little later, a dugout canoe with eight men came out of the forest and headed straight for us. I sent the watchman to the foredeck with the order to drop the anchor hawse flap as soon as the first pirate tried to climb up. A short time later, I heard a dull plop as the guy fell into the water. The pirates turned around. I took a farewell potshot at them with the signal pistol, as a deterrent.” He got into a bit of trouble for that: “I wasn’t supposed to be on deck until departure for my own safety, because they had it in for me. Word had got around about the shooting.”

After the merger of HAPAG with Norddeutscher Lloyd created Hapag-Lloyd AG in 1970, Gebhard Knull sailed as a first officer until he received his appointment as master in 1973. “I was lucky enough to sail my first voyage on the ‘Birkenstein’, a freighter I really knew inside out.” Only the handover proved difficult. “As the youngest master, I was replacing the oldest master at Hapag-Lloyd at the time. He refused to hand over the ship to me for that very reason. I had no choice but to make it clear to him, in no uncertain terms, who had command of the ship from then on. It was a strange and wonderful feeling to suddenly be ‘the one in charge’.”

A textbook career

In 1975, master Knull became a nautical inspector, and four years later he was Vice President Operations at the U.S. Naviga agency (later Hapag-Lloyd America) in New York. Only then did he switch back to seafaring. At 1.90 metres tall, he sailed for five years on what was then the smallest container ship that Hapag-Lloyd had chartered to a Japanese shipping company. “That was the ‘Windward’, with 970 TEU. It went from Japan via Hong Kong to the west coast of Australia, Freemantle, and back again. I really enjoyed this route because I could be independent in every respect and was my own master. A textbook master’s experience!” says Knull. During this time, he documented the wind susceptibility and fuel consumption of the “Windward” by means of various tests. This earned him a change of ship when he handed over his “research results” in the boardroom. A short time later, he was given command of the “Berlin Express”, which was still under construction in Shanghai.

„Five minutes money or I kill you!”

On the “Berlin Express”, Master Knull and his crew experienced a pirate attack in August 1991 that even made headlines. “It was one in the morning, we were sailing in good weather through the Strait of Malacca towards Singapore. The pilot was a few hours late, so we reduced speed. There was a lot of traffic on the move, and the watch officer and I were busy on the bridge. At about 1.15 a.m. the change of watch was supposed to take place, but the shift relief didn’t respond to our phone call. We sent the lookout below to check. He discovered that my cabin had been broken into and reported it. When we then went down together, we were confronted in the corridor by two pirates armed with machetes and pistols. “You captain five minutes money or I kill you!” they shouted. Three more joined them, pushing the ship’s operations officer in front of them as a hostage. All I could think of in that moment was: ‘Keep calm.’ Together we went to my cabin. But in my safe, there were only 325 marks and the on-board handcuffs. The pirates took my watch, officer’s knife and pen, and handcuffed me. The situation was tense; they wanted more. Since they didn’t know any English apart from their slogans, it was hard to make them understand that most of the money was in the ship’s office safe. Somehow I managed to guide them there. They emptied the safe completely and got away with about 10,000 marks. They also took everything of value. Finally, they shoved us along and onto the stern, tied us together and disappeared on ropes over the railing into a boat waiting ten metres below. The pirate boss was the last to disappear, laughing, ‘No problem, Captain,’ and the nightmare was over!” Master Knull is certain: “If we hadn’t all acted with such discipline and calm, people could have been killed!”


So how did he get his nickname “K-Zero”? “It was back in New York,” Knull recounts with a smile. “When I introduced myself to an American colleague, he asked me what my name meant in English. I just said, ‘K is K and null means zero,’ and that’s how my nickname came to be.”

The choice of MARPRO’s blog of the week has fallen on this article by Hapag-Lloyd.

241 modern ships, 11,8 million TEU (Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit) transported per year, around 13,300 motivated employees in 395 offices in 131 countries. Hapag-Lloyd is a leading global liner shipping company and a powerful partner for you.

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.

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