Port of Hamburg

A world in constant flux

The port of Hamburg is a symphony, a maritime medley made up of shifting tides, passing faces, deals being done. Creative energy has enabled Germany’s top trading port to adapt to the winds of time. Yet here too, in the shadows of the gantry cranes, the coronavirus pandemic has left its scars.

Typically on the move: barges at the St. Pauli landing stages at the northern edge of the port.

Shortly before midnight on the final day of 2020, a near-empty subway train pulls into Baumwall station at Hamburg’s waterfront. Here, where tens of thousands would normally be teeming to see the New Year’s fireworks on the far shore, a middle-aged couple disembarks along with a handful of other passengers. A few paces later, they pause on the platform. From the riverside road where emergency vehicles speed along with lights flashing, a disembodied voice can be heard booming up to the newcomers: “This is Hamburg Police! In line with the COVID-19 restrictions, public assemblies and alcohol are banned along the banks of the Elbe River. Fireworks are strictly forbidden!”

The couple exchange glances but then resume their stroll towards the Elbphilharmonie concert hall, descending to the river that flows as dark as the night sky. At the stroke of midnight, the two of them withdraw into the deepest recesses of the deserted historic harbor, part of the HafenCity; they toast with champagne in plastic cups on the gently rocking pontoon. Suddenly they are joined by a young man who has emerged from a nearby apartment building. Keeping a safe distance, he introduces himself. “Hi, I’m Linus. Would you mind if I set off a rocket here?” No, they wouldn’t mind at all. A few seconds later, high above the masts of a vintage sailing ship, a single orange and yellow plume blossoms with poetic grandeur against the night sky. And at least one spark of joy rings in the new year at the Elbe.

Centuries of growth and expansion
The Port of Hamburg has seen many a dark day, though, and has always risen from the ashes. It has bravely faced hitherto unknown adversity and, if necessary, simply reinvented itself. For instance in 1862, when the triumphant rise of the steam engine radically changed the world. Not only could the railways now be used to exchange goods with the hinterland; more and more steam-powered vessels were chugging inland along the Elbe from the sea. That required a completely different transhipment infrastructure than the old-time commercial sailing ships from the Baroque era. But what? Docks like in London, with brick-built locks to regulate the fluctuating water levels? Instead Hamburg chose a more elaborate solution: a tidal port. Albeit without its own locks, but brimming with warehouses, cranes and quayside railway sidings. The groundwork was laid for further growth – in every direction under the sun.

Even the catastrophic air raids of World War Two could not keep this phoenix from rising to a new challenge. In 1945 some 3,000 shipwrecks had rendered the port’s waters nearly impassable – and some 90 percent of the facilities had been destroyed, catapulting its potential back to pre-tidal times. Yet the reconstruction commenced without delay. Thanks to new transhipment technology such as the forklift, and thousands of hard-working day laborers, just a scant decade later the harbor was primed to usher in the heyday of general cargo ships. Loaded with sacks and crates of spices, coffee and bananas, they set out across the seven seas, destined for Hamburg.

Axel Mattern is looking forward to an economic recovery.

The tin box revolution
The first container vessels followed around 1970, signaling a revolution in logistics. They bade farewell to warehouses and hello to so-called terminals. Ever since, these dockside storage areas have been filled with stacked metal boxes that keep arriving at the port of Hamburg on ever-larger container ships. In retrospect, the open tidal port has proven a good choice; London was forced to close its final lock in 1980 because the latest generation of freighters were too large.

Hamburg is and will remain by far Germany’s most important trading port: its throughput in 2020 was 8.5 million TEUs (short for a 20-foot standard container). This was a mere 7.9 percent less than the previous year, notwithstanding the temporary slump brought by the pandemic. However, on the international stage, Hamburg has been losing ground to its competitors ever since Asia – led by China – rose to become the world-leading manufacturing and container hub. At the latest count, Hamburg was still ranked 14th. In Europe as well, the German port has had to surrender market share to its rivals in Rotterdam and Antwerp. “That’s partly due to the fact that, unlike in Hamburg, the shipping companies hold high stakes in the terminals. The bigger and more powerful a shipping line is, the more containers they channel through these terminals and ports,” Axel Mattern explains. As one of the two directors of Hafen Hamburg Marketing, he speaks for nearly 300 member firms operating beneath the towering container cranes.

It’s a chill day in February as Mattern explains the economics of port management; behind him, gargantuan container ships glide majestically along, bearing the logos of Chinese shipping companies. China is the key ingredient in Hamburg’s current recipe for success, he explains. Every third container in the port either came from or was heading there; the pandemic had struck a critical blow to Hamburg’s operations. But China’s dynamic economy had already consigned it to the past, and its recovery was now benefiting Hamburg as well, Mattern says.

A single titan like the MATZ MAERSK can transport more than 18,000 containers.
From ship to rail, and vice versa. Made possible by the Port of Hamburg.

Veterans of his ilk have their own jargon, their own names for things: container ships are “buckets,” their cargo “cans.” Ever since the most recent deepening of the shipping lane – a project that took a whopping 19 years of planning and dredging – two of Mattern’s buckets with up to 24,000 cans on board can squeeze past one another on the Elbe. This encounter is confined to a special “meeting box” that accommodates vessels up to 400 meters long and 65 meters wide. The term “meeting box” was coined by civil engineers in the flowery idiom of 21st century docks and locks.

Ace in the pack: rail links
Hopes of still larger container vessels have been abandoned here, making another multimillion-dollar expansion of the Elbe unlikely. Ship structures and maneuverability have their limitations; today’s trend is toward energy-efficient and flexible- purpose – i. e. smaller – ships. The strength and unique feature of this port located 90 kilometers inland does not lie in attracting the world’s oceangoing titans; they are better served in deep-water ports or even at sea. No, Hamburg’s trump card is the railroad. After all, at some point maritime containers need to travel the roads or rails to their final destinations – and then back to the sea. Since the late 19th century, the Port of Hamburg has offered an ever more complex constellation of freight-train connections and hinterland container terminals that now extends all the way to Asia. “That really appeals to logistics experts in landlocked countries like Austria,” Mattern says. There are 132 container trains per week linking the industrial centers of Austria with Hamburg. This enables the Alpine republic to move a great deal more goods than, for instance, two trains a week to a Mediterranean port.

An infinite network of rails and roads, of goods and data connections, supply chains and reporting channels, on land and at sea, all link Hamburg with mainland Europe. And this web continues to be spun even wider – and tailored to added efficiency. Deployed at dozens of locations around the city, an army of research and development experts is dedicated to devising the most minor, incremental improvements – and dreaming up bold visions for tomorrow’s port industry. These are people like the engineer Robert Grundmann, a research fellow at the Fraunhofer Center for Maritime Logistics and Services CML.

Digital mariner: the engineer Robert Grundmann from the Fraunhofer Center for Maritime Logistics and Services CML.

A trial-run for the future
Grundmann is like an old seadog on the bridge of his ship. One moment he is steering a fully laden container ship, the next one of the turbo-powered tugboats that will tow this colossus through the harbor’s rabbit warren of waterways. And all from the safety and comfort of his lab at the southern end of the port! This is all possible thanks to his box-shaped data goggles: on CML’s digital ship simulator they present Grundmann with a virtual reality that will become normality in the port’s not too distant future.

“The goal is to remotely steer the port’s tugboats as they maneuver large vessels in and out of the docks,” Grundmann elaborates, outlining the project FernSAMS that is being funded by the German government. “The tugboat crews have a dangerous job; remote control from land makes it safer and enables a more efficient deployment of nautical professionals.” Had coronavirus not struck, the CML team would have tested the remote operation of a real tugboat by the fall of 2020. While the Hamburg trial was postponed until this year, a flesh-and-blood tugboat captain near Stuttgart has already successfully steered a three-meter model through the waters of Schäferhauser Lake – equipped only with data goggles and a console.

The long-term objective: ships that sail autonomously – either partly or completely. One day, Artificial Intelligence will call the shots in the stormiest of seas and the safest of havens, making the decisions that today require human expertise, experience and gut instinct: taking evasive action to avoid a collision, circumnavigating icebergs – or mooring the vessel safely at its port of call. The scientists in Hamburg are already working on unmanned workboats that, in conjunction with autonomous miniature submarines or flying drones, are able to inspect the hulls of ships in the harbor or survey the riverbed in real time. In the Port of Hamburg, the possibilities of tomorrow are redefined daily.

The church wends its way between the barges.

Fostering traditions
But, equally, the traditions of the port’s past are threatened by extinction too: conserving them requires considerable effort. In the spacious nave of the Flussschifferkirche, Christel Zeidlich is preparing her Sunday service. Flussschifferkirche literally means “Nave Church,” and the word “nave” itself stems from the Latin for “ship:” navis. And nothing could be more appropriate in this case: since 1952, a 115-year-old cargo barge, permanently moored between the sightseeing launches at Hohe Brücke, has served as a place of worship for domestic crews – the only operational floating church in all of Europe. Weddings and baptisms also take place on board.

Zeidler, a Lutheran minister and social worker at the church’s support group, the Förderverein der Flussschifferkirche, lights the candles on the rear altar below deck. Then she walks through the wide, wood-paneled interior and turns on an electric bell in the small tower at the bow. For one hour per week during the pandemic, the Lutheran liturgy was replaced by an “open church” service for up to 90 people. Wearing masks, six mostly older congregants have come on board to enjoy a few moments of quiet reflection.

The regular congregation – called Flusi after the church itself – has existed in Hamburg for some 70 years. Maintaining contact with the incoming and outgoing crews demands a great deal of mobility from church personnel. This they have in the shape of the “Johann Hinrich Wichern” launch. When the port is not iced-over, it regularly ferries a chaplain, helmsman and moorer around, and pulls up alongside domestic vessels. In most cases, a spontaneous conversation ensues between the occupants of the two vessels. “Most people are very happy to see us,” says Zeidler. “We bring them the daily papers, fruit, some chocolate. And we’re happy to talk and listen.”

These encounters can sometimes turn tragic: one boatman whose wedding was already scheduled for the floating church reported that his bride had unexpectedly died. And while such devastating bodyblows are rare, “Hamburg’s boatsmen are not doing well right now,” Zeidler says. And she knows why. The port’s focus is consumed by the “big tubs” from the high seas; the river crews are being marginalized. “We try to speak up for them at the port authorities.” This Sunday, there are no comforting voices sounding from the church at Hohe Brücke; the pandemic has put a stop to the singing.

Prayers on board – not just for sailors. Pastor Christel Zeidler lends a helping hand.
Light artist Michael Batz watches the comings and goings in the “Warehouse City.”

Mega-events and noise pollution
Night finally falls once again on the Port of Hamburg. Only the silhouette of the partially-lit warehouse quarter stands out against the darksky, as it has done since its construction in 1888. One person who understands historic settings is the Hamburg-based light artist and theater man Michael Batz (69). Twenty years ago, his circumspect illumination of the mileslong, hitherto nearly invisible rows of brick warehouses was confined to a few accents in a neutral, whitish shade. The aim was not to outshine the sublime splendor of the ensemble, but rather to orchestrate its story. The effect was spectacular, and the temporary installation became a permanent source of “enlightenment.”

Another virtual festival of lights is the “Blue Port” that Batz choreographs every two years in conjunction with the ship parade on Hamburg’s “Cruise Days.” Up to 400,000 people throng to this huge event – to marvel at ships, cranes and rooftops illuminated by blue neon lights. But COVID-19 has caused its postponement to 2022. “Blue Port” is clearly an object lesson in urban marketing, a visual firecracker – and above all extremely popular. This would seem to contradict the artistic aspirations of its creator; Batz would like to depart from tourist clichés. “There are two worlds here in the port, the north and south banks. In the north you find the world of fun with its restaurants, lounges and tourist buses. The south is the world of work. Nobody there would dream of describing the port as a powerful attraction, let alone a sanctuary of longing.”

Yet since the inauguration of the Elbphilharmonie concert hall in 2017, port tourism has grown in leaps and bounds. All summer long, buses and high-octane motorbikes line up outside the old warehouses. Growing noise pollution was a factor in the closure of Batz’s open-air theater festival “Hamburger Jedermann” in 2018 – after a quarter-century of performances in this historic setting. Aren’t artists gradually losing interest in the Port of Hamburg? “No, but sometimes I need to take a break from it. You can’t view the port as a stationary phenomenon. A port is all about coming and going.” And fortunately, that often involves returning.

Oliver Driesen is a journalist and author from Hamburg.

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