Forty years and still in love with the sea

By Felicity Landon

What has changed since Captain Knud Præst Jørgensen, master of the Elly Maersk, first went to sea with Maersk in 1981? That’s an easy question to answer, he says: “I would say that from when I started, almost everything has changed!”

When he signed up with Maersk 40 years ago, who could have predicted how different life at sea would be in 2021? And yet, it’s clear that Jørgensen is still happy to be onboard. He’s 57 now and says he will continue his career at sea for at least five more years. “We have captains who are more than 72,” he points out.

Seafaring was a fairly mainstream career choice for a boy who grew up on the small Danish island of Aero – and his father was a captain before him. “There are a lot of seafarers from Aero and I knew a lot of young people who went to sea. It was an opportunity,” he says. “I could have gone into an office, but I don’t belong in an office. I am not cut out for that. I enjoy getting around and always went ashore when there was the opportunity to see things. I have always been interested in seeing the places I went to. We can’t do that so much now, of course; these big container ships are not that long in port and many of the container terminals are far away from everything. But when I do have the opportunity to go ashore, I take it.”

A bumpy start

Jørgensen went straight from school to the Danish nautical training institute Marstal Navigationsskole for a five- month pre-sea training course. He didn’t have a contract at that stage but applied to Maersk when he graduated in January 1981. Two months later, at the age of 17, he joined his first ship, the Kate Maersk, which carried up to 330,000 tonnes of crude oil.

“I joined the ship in Lyme Bay in the south of England; it was at anchor there because the draft didn’t allow it to pull into Rotterdam fully loaded. They lightened to barges before sailing into Rotterdam.”

He recalls the impact of seeing the tanker when he arrived. “I am from a seafaring family, my father was a captain in an oil company, so I knew the environment. But this tanker was huge, it was incredible.”

That first six-month voyage took him from Rotterdam to the Middle East Gulf, around the Cape to Curacao, back to the Middle East Gulf, and then back to the Caribbean, to Aruba – from where he disembarked to fly home.

He served as a cadet on four ships, then went back to college to get his master’s ticket in 1986.

“I got my master’s ticket but not my Certificate of Competency. I had to gain experience first,” he says. He joined the gas tanker Sally Maersk in his first position as a senior officer. Three years later, in 1989, he switched over to container ships, where he has stayed ever since.

He took command of his first ship, the Gudrun Maersk, in 2001 and set out on a trip never to be forgotten. “I joined the ship in Halifax, Canada. The outgoing master was going to be onboard for three weeks to train me.

We headed down to Newark, where I took over command. We went from Newark to Norfolk, Virginia, for my first arrival as captain.”

With pilotage and towage in place, the vessel headed along the river. “There was a strong current and a tricky sharp turn into the berth. We did that but didn’t stop the starboard turn and ended up sitting on the riverbed for half an hour.”

His immediate reaction? “I thought that was the end of a very short career.” Within half an hour, the tugs were able to free the vessel, which was undamaged. The grounding was found to be due to pilot error, but Jørgensen is swift to add: “The captain is still responsible.”

Welcoming the ISM Code

Twenty years on, he says the biggest change he has seen was the implementation of the ISM Code. “Before ISM, each ship was like an autonomous unit going around. The captain was the ruler on board, and he decided almost everything. The ISM Code more or less standardised shipping and it changed the captain’s role – now we all follow the same rules and directions. That is very significant.”

Pre-ISM, some captains were “very independent” and found the adjustment difficult – but not all people are suited to be independent, he believes. “The ISM Code certainly improved matters for some captains because they can go by the book.”

And then there is the administrative burden on today’s officers. “There is certainly a lot of paperwork and admin. If a captain’s job was mainly on the bridge, now it is behind the desk. There is so much paperwork and communication.”

There is more and more decision- making ashore, he points out. “Of course, the captain is still the highest authority on board, but for issues such as maintenance and budgets, we have much less to say, with decisions being made by the superintendent.”

When he first went to sea, the radio officer communicated via shortwave and Morse code. Perhaps the captain received a few telexes a week. “Today we get at least 50 emails a day. We also have Teams meetings.”

Another notable transformation has been in the matter of speed. Before the global financial crisis the top priority was to get cargo from A to B as fast as possible. “It was full speed all the time. As a captain departing from port, it was full speed and what was the best ETA. Today it is all about controlled speed and reduction of fuel consumption.

“Now we compete more with our competitors on who can make the best cost savings and profit. We are looking for just-in-time arrival and we have software to help us to optimise the load of the main engine, calculating with the current and wind to enable just-in-time with the least fuel consumption.”

Jørgensen has also witnessed the evolution towards international crews. “Forty years ago, my first ship was all Danish. Today I am sometimes the only Danish person on board with Indian officers, Filipino and Ukrainian ratings. It is truly international.”

He says an important task is keeping spirits up among the crew who are away from home for long periods. “In fact, I don’t find it that challenging because they are generally positive people. They come on board with a good spirit and are motivated. And we organise table tennis tournaments, bingo, barbecue parties, and so on.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has been extremely challenging, however. “I was on board in March last year and all crew changes were suspended more or less overnight. The challenging part was keeping motivation up because people didn’t know when they would go home. Uncertainty is very difficult. It was my challenge as leader to keep morale up. Fortunately, I had very good officers and ratings onboard and they accepted the situation.”

Jørgensen was fortunate to only go over his three-month contract time by a few weeks. Later in 2020, the Danish government put measures in place to use Copenhagen as a crew change hub, although the difficulties of quarantine requirements for Filipino seafarers have continued.

Travel high spots

Among the highlights of his career to date, Jørgensen recalls serving on-board tankers in the Middle East Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War in the late 1980s. “Back then I thought I was immortal. We had the right to sign off – but I didn’t. When I look back at it, it seems crazy.”

He says the best service he worked on was the Oceania route from the US down to New Zealand and Australia in the early 2000s, as master of the Jens Maersk. “We went to the Pitcairn Islands – the most remote place on Earth, although we didn’t go ashore. It was traditional for ships heading from New Zealand to the Panama Canal to go right by Pitcairn. With no airport, the islands relied on ships going by and picking up passengers and mail. I took the initiative back in 2002 to have a stop there and take on mail, three times.”

When he is on dry land, Jørgensen says he doesn’t have enough hours. “I am very active with my family, of course, and also the terrible habit of playing golf takes a lot of time. I also enjoy gardening, take care of my house, and travel a lot.”

He has two teenage children from his first marriage, both in Denmark, and remarried five years ago.

As we end our conversation, Jørgensen describes his daily routine on board the 15,500 teu Elly Maersk. “While more decisions are made ashore, it is certainly not all decisions!

There is no management of how we do our jobs aboard, so I plan my work daily. I prefer to do my administrative work in the morning – as much as I can – to have a clear desk by noon. I then use my afternoon walk – at least 10 kilometres every day – to serve multiple purposes, including getting around the ship to check maintenance and talk to the crew. I like to go out in the fresh air. I then work in the evening, after dinner, on whatever emails need my attention, so I have a clear desk before rest.”

Covid-19 has changed port calls though: “Now in China [speaking from the Port of Shanghai], we cannot really interact with any of the stevedores. Wherever we are, the pilots come on board almost in space suits and stay on the other side of the bridge. But we have been able to keep moving cargo without major delays. Cargo work continued to function throughout the crisis and we should be proud of that.”

On a positive note, the pandemic has drawn attention to seafarers, with increased awareness in the media, he says. “Being a seafarer is like being an individual person because no one knows what you are doing. People don’t know what we do – we are invisible. We have had attention in the media in the past year, and my plea is this: once all this is over, we should not be forgotten.”