LNG? Biogas? Ammonia? Or maybe hydrogen? Anyone who wants to know what will propel Hapag-Lloyd’s ships in the future would do best to talk to Michael Behmerburg. As is typical for Hapag-Lloyd, the fuel specialist and purchasing manager is not only familiar with this topic, but also has many years of seafaring under his belt. Here, the captain talks about his career, a long minute on the Suez Canal, and a very special wedding invitation.
How does a 16-year-old from a small town in North Rhine-Westphalia get into seafaring? "I just didn't feel like going to school anymore," laughs Michael Behmerburg. Apparently not the worst prerequisite for launching a 1A career with one of the world's largest shipping companies. "I guess I inherited the spirit of adventure from my father. He is Dutch, went to sea himself as a young man, and later emigrated to Paraguay. He lived in Italy for eleven years before coming to Germany and meeting my mother - a real globetrotter!" Encouraged by his father, Behmerburg, a junior high school student, applied to Hapag-Lloyd in 1985 to train as a ship's mechanic. "I already had another contract in my pocket, but when the acceptance from Hapag-Lloyd came, I changed my mind. It was clear to me even then: if you want to go to sea, there's nothing better than Hapag-Lloyd!"
Thirty-seven years later, the good-humoured man is sitting in his office on the Ballindamm. He has been working ashore since 2015 and is now Director Global Fuel Purchasing responsible for the technical part of the global procurement of all types of fuels. The focus is on qualities and buying alternative fuels, such as biofuels and LNG. “At the moment, we’re setting up a new department called ‘Green Fuel’. Hapag-Lloyd aims to be carbon-neutral by 2045, an ambitious goal for which there are several rather than just a single solution,” the experts says.
In fact, as soon as he starts talking about the fuels of the future, Behmerburg is truly in his element. He explains how electrolysis separates water into oxygen and carbon-neutral hydrogen, knows about the pros and cons of biogas, and explains the process of producing green ammonia and why it’s easier to store than hydrogen – who would’ve thought that a captain could also be this passionate about chemistry? But Behmerburg’s job gets even more complex than that. “We have to take countless factors into consideration during planning, especially when it comes to availability and costs,” he explains. “For a long time, heavy fuel oil was an inexpensive waste product of the refinery process that was available in large quantities and particularly suitable for shipping. The new fuels are more expensive, and we’re competing with other mobility sectors, such as aviation and normal road transport. In the long term, a fuel based on synthetic hydrogen will win the race, but it’s still too expensive to produce and these fuels are only available in very small quantities. It’s a challenging but incredibly exciting time!”
Tears in Bremerhaven, swimming in the ocean off Aruba
Behmerburg remembers his first days with Hapag-Lloyd like yesterday. “My parents took me to Bremerhaven, where I boarded the "Allemannia Express",” he recounts. “My Mum stood crying on the pier, and then I was at sea for five months. We crossed over to Savannah, down into the Gulf of Mexico to Veracruz via New Orleans, Houston and then back to North Europe.” As a 16-year-old, Behmerburg continues, experiencing something like that was impressive – and, back then, it wasn’t for the faint of heart. “At 10 o’clock in the evening, the door would fly open and the master would yell ‘Chamber inspection!’. You can imagine what the rooms looked like for us guys,” the father of two boys adds with a knowing grin. He makes no secret of the fact that things used to be a lot stricter on board than they are today, saying: “When the weather was bad, we were sent to practise knot-tying in the bosun’s locker, way forward under the forecastle. One of us would soon get seasick, so the cook would give us an empty tin can, just in case. Something like that would be unthinkable today!”
Despite these hard knocks, the 53-year-old still learned a lot during his training years. “It made me tougher, and apprentices enjoyed a lot of freedom because they weren’t part of the crew,” Behmerburg explains. “For example, on my second voyage, which was on the "Caribia Express" to South America, we were allowed to take the lifeboat off Aruba to the beach of Oranjestad and go swimming. It was fantastic!” And then, of course, he was able to visit many ports and cities around the world. “Vancouver, Seattle, Hong Kong, Singapore and Valparaíso – there’s no other job that let’s you see so much of the world,” he continues. Nevertheless, Behremburg adds that the Port of Hamburg is still his favourite, saying: “Sailing down the Elbe, past Blankenese and the unique Treppenviertel neighbourhood, and having that feeling of coming home – it’s indescribable!”
Breakdown in the Suez Canal and the benefits of having a “double patent”
After his apprenticeship and a year of sailing, Behmerburg earned his vocational high school degree in 1989, studied Nautical Science and Engineering in Hamburg, and went on to earn both his nautical and engineering licenses (the so-called “double patent” made up of the “captain’s ticket” and the “chief’s ticket”) while sailing. Then, at just 34, he was appointed one of Hapag-Lloyd’s youngest captains. On his first voyage as a newly minted captain, he experienced one of the longest minutes of his life. “It was in the Suez Canal. I had only been on the bridge for two hours as a captain on duty when there was a ‘poof’ and the engine went out, a complete shutdown. My heart was in my mouth, and I could literally see them waiting for me at the outlet of the Suez Canal to rip the fourth stripe off my jacket,” Behmerburg recounts. The engine failure had been due to a leakage, which caused the lubricating oil pressure to drop. “Without lubricating oil, the engine shuts down automatically,” Behmerburg explains. The damage was repaired within a minute, and the voyage could be continued – but, overall, it didn’t turn out to be the easiest voyage of his career. “While we were having repairs done in Singapore, my double patent came in very handy,” he says. “I spent three hours tinkering around below deck with the second engineer to start the auxiliary diesel engine and to get a few other things back in order. I remember saying to my wife: ‘Either I’ll have a heart attack after this voyage, or nothing will ever scare me again’.” The latter was the case.
Seafarers are different – and some weddings, too
Behmerburg says that these kinds of experiences were the exception, adding that he has always found everyday life and the sense of camaraderie on board extraordinarily good with Hapag-Lloyd. “Seafarers are a special breed of people,” he explains. “You live together in a very small space, and you can’t simply go to your favourite pub in the evening or order a pizza if you don’t like the food. You come to terms with things and learn to live in the community. In fact, I think seafarers are some of the most socially adaptable people there are.” This also seems to apply to Behmerburg’s private life. He has been happily married for 25 years. However, his wedding in 1997 didn’t come about in the typical fashion. “At that time, we didn’t have email and telephoning was only possible to a limited extent, so everything was done via airmail,” he explains. “I wrote to my now wife to see if we could make it happen before our son was born, but I didn’t receive a reply. The voyage from Singapore back to Europe took 21 days – and seemed like an eternity. It was only in Southampton that we got the next batch of mail. There I was sitting in the mess room with the chief engineer, opening my letters, among which was a wedding invitation. I said, ‘Oh, how nice! Who’s getting married?’ And then I turned pale: it was an invitation to my own wedding. In the meantime, my wife had organised everything. So I disembarked on a Thursday and quickly got us some wedding rings. There wasn’t enough time to buy a suit, so my uniform would have to do. And we got married the following Monday. That only happens to you as a seafarer!”
Supervising construction, defending against pirates, and new onshore challenges
Behmerburg sailed as a captain for 11 years. During this time he was responsible, among other things, for supervising the construction of three Hapag-Lloyd ships in South Korea and for advising Operation Atalanta, an EU anti-piracy mission, as a liaison officer on merchant shipping issues based in Northwood, London. “At Hapag-Lloyd, there have always been opportunities for me to share my knowledge as a captain and to learn something new,” he notes.
In December 2014, Behmerburg disembarked from the “Hamburg Express” in the Port of Hamburg. A month later, the phone rang. “It was about a project to sell 16 ships or recycling them in an eco-friendly manner. They were asking if I could imagine leading this project. When I asked when it was supposed to start, they said: ‘Right away!’ So I responded: ‘Sure!’” Since then, the captain has been working on shore.
Behmerburg’s sons have long since grown up, and he is happy that both have found their own passion in life. While the older one is an IT specialist, the younger one puts his heart and soul into his job as a kindergarten teacher. “Of course, seafaring was a challenge for my family,” he admits. “If you aren’t not home for Christmas or miss a birthday or two, there can be tears. On the other hand, when you’re off, you are there for your family from morning to night. For example, I was able to go on the class trip as the only male chaperone. And I was at the Father-Child Day in the kindergarten. A captain in uniform – my boys were proud of that,” Behmerburg happily notes. “However, at that time, a father from the city’s cleaning service outdid me: He had his sweeper with him, and all the children just wanted to ride on it.”
In addition to riding his high-powered motorcycle, a Triumpf Tiger 1200, Behmerburg is passionate about travelling. For their silver wedding anniversary, he and his wife treated themselves to a four-week trip to the United States in the summer of 2022. “We flew to New York and then drove a rental car down the East Coast from state to state all the way to Miami in unbeatable weather,” he says. “I love big cities like New York, but small towns have their charm, too. For example, there is New Hope on the Delaware River with its mind-blowing natural surroundings, or St. Augustine below Jacksonville. American history comes alive here in the oldest settlement in the United States, and the Spanish architecture of the first conquerors can still be discovered everywhere!” When asked if he sometimes missing being out at sea, Behmerburg says: “I would say that my jobs have complemented each other. As a seafarer, I was practically everywhere, researching the most fascinating corners of the world, so to speak. But now I can share my enthusiasm for travelling with my wife.”