With the Elbe pilots towards sunset

You need to be flexible

In November 2014 I started m new position as head of transport, harbour and shipping at the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce. In order to fully understand the shipping business I wanted to go on a container vessel down the Elbe river. The Elbe pilots were kind enough to give me an opportunity to join. I just had to call a shipowner regarding the schedule for their next Ultra Large Container Vessel (ULCV) and off I was. Well, it was not that easy... Since I wanted to join on of the biggest vessels calling the Port of Hamburg I had to be very flexible timewise. These ships mainly start from China and call many harbours on route to Europe. And even within Europe you do not really know what day they call Hamburg. China Shipping sent me the draft schedule of their big vessels calling Hamburg. But my contact did not forget to mention that this list was not too reliable timewise. Some phone calls later combined with a lot of flexibility I arrived at Container Terminal Eurogate Hamburg on May 6, 2016. With this blogpost I would like to give you an idea of what it is like to go on a very large container vessel down the river Elbe. Besides shooting pictures I also shot some video that day. I hope you also like my video about the trip. Make sure to check this, too.

With the CSCL Saturn on the Elbe river towards sunset
With the CSCL Saturn on the Elbe river towards sunset

Leaving the Port of Hamburg

13.30 h

Check-In at Container Terminal Eurogate Hamburg: Since I was pre-registered I only had to show my ID and name the vessel I was headed for. A shuttle was waiting for me ready to drive to the quay to the CSCL Saturn. 366 m long, 51 m wide, built in 2011, 13.300 TEU capacity, 98.000 horse power. The first challenge was to climb the first step of the gangway since it did not reach to ground level. The end of the gangway was roughly 30 m above sea level and I was already quite nervous about disembarking at this height with a vertical ladder in full speed a few ours later on the river Elbe. A short ID check with a Chinese seaman and than 8 floors up with the elevater to the Ukrainian captain. The cargo was already fully loaded.


15.45 h

We left our position at Waltershofer Hafen and started manouvring with the help of the two Harbour pilots. The pictures give you an idea of how small the Waltershofer Hafen is regarding the size of an ULCV. You have the Eurogate terminal on the one side and the HHLA terminal Burchardkai on the other. Whenever an ULCV enters or leaves this part of the harbour every gantry crane on both sides has to stop working and open for the passing ship for about 30 min.

I really like this picture showing the "shadow skyline" of the CSCL Saturn leaving Waltershofer Hafen.
I really like this picture showing the "shadow skyline" of the CSCL Saturn leaving Waltershofer Hafen.

With the CSCL Saturn towards sunset

My initial contact for this trip was with the Elbe pilots. Pilots are mandatory in many areas like ports and rivers for ships of a certain size. The Elbe pilots consult the captain along his journey from Teufelsbrück (at the border between Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein) until an area at Deutsche Bucht, called Elbe 1. The pilots run a stationary ship at Elbe 1 where it is safe for the ULCV to find its way to the next port without local knowledge. Since the Elbe district is so long it is divided in two parts. Hamburg to Brunsbüttel where the Kiel Canal meets the Elbe river and Brunsbüttel to Elbe 1. Originally I just wanted to go from Hamburg to Brunsbüttel (about 3 hours), then disembark with the pilots and drive back home. But since the CSCL Saturn is an ULCV you can not change pilots in Brunsbüttel due to the wind you have to sail straight towards the Deutsche Bucht. Therefore, I spontaneously got an even longer ride than planned.


On the first part of the journey the Harbour pilots consult the captain. They advise regarding leaving parking position at the Container terminal and the port itself until Teufelsbrück. The first gallery picture below shows the Harbour pilots disembark. It was only then that I realised that I also did not have to climb a 30 m vertical ladder at full speed when leaving later with the Elbe pilots. All the modern ships have a pilot door in the lower third of the hull. You just have a few steps down a ladder to make it to the pilot boat or tender. Still a bit nerve-racking for the first time, but fine.


Weather was just perfect that day and it was a special pleasure to listen to the Chinese National Anthem when passing the Schulauer Fährhaus (so called Willkomm Höft) in Wedel. A long-lasting tradition (since 1952) of every large ship passing and also special to the crew because it is the only place in the world where they get a welcome/farewell like this!


So here I was in the middle of the Elbe river going towards sunset and still not knowing how to get back home later on. After passing Brunsbüttel starboard we had half the way done towards Elbe 1. Later on, Cuxhaven was portside and still 90 min to go towards Elbe 1. It was nice to see the island of Neuwerk from the vessel (belonging to the city of Hamburg). A few weeks after this trip I walked to the island for the first time. You can find this blogpost here.

The CSCL Saturn crew was kind enough to offer me the Owner's cabin for the short ride! Neither expected a cabin nor that much space. It was a two room cabin with an en-suite bathroom. Pretty simple style, but huge space. Thanks guys!

Food is important when you are away from home for a long time. The Chinese seamen enjoy the treatment of their own Chinese chef, the Ukrainian seamen get a more European style food. I was invited but unfortunately picked an odd time and had to eat on my own.

Although the Elbe river is up to 15 km wide after Cuxhaven, the fairway itself - so the channel that the CSCL Saturn can use regarding its depth - is only 250 m (at Brunsbüttel) or 400 m (at Cuxhaven) wide. You really would not think that looking at this picture.

This is what the Elbe river looks like after passing Cuxhaven.
This is what the Elbe river looks like after passing Cuxhaven.

Disembarking in the middle of Deutsche Bucht

21.00 h

After more than six hours it was about time to leave the Chinese seamen, the Ukrainian captain and the CSCL Saturn for Elbe 1. I joined the two Elbe pilots and we went down to the lower part of the vessel for the pilot door. Starboard was an ocean-going tender (they have three of these) waiting for us at the same speed as the container vessel (about 11 knots). Took the ladder to climb six spokes down and got a helping hand from the tender. I was at least able to snap a few Iphone pictures leaving the vessel. You can see the pilot door and letters "SH" of CHINA SHIPPING LINE. It helps getting on idea of the size of this giant. Since the weather was just perfect we had a stunning sunset out at Deutsche Bucht. Next up was the check-in on the pilot boat Elbe 1 about 10 min later. It is quite a large ship that is permanently at its position to cater the needs of the pilots checking in when they finished their ride from Hamburg or checking out headed for the port again. The Elbe pilots are a bit short of 300 people - all experienced captains - working in a rolling system. Once you check-in coming from Hamburg you are the last to leave again Hamburg-bound. So you get your cabin to have a shower, get some food, have a chat and prepare for the next ride. You never know who you meet and how long you will stay there. So you also do not really know when you are back home. Normally, a trip like this takes you up to 18 hours door to door.


So here I was in the North Sea, barely internet connection and again in my own cabin. Got another shower, some food and a bit of TV programme that Friday night. Question was, how to get back home? The captain of Elbe 1 told my that I was free to choose with whatever ship I would like to go back home. Be it another large or a smaller container vessel, a bulker or a cruise ship. Since it was Harbour birthday weekend in Hamburg there were two Aida cruise ships Hamburg-bound. It was a very special occasion that both the Aida Aura and the new Aida Prima were about to pass Elbe 1 at around midnight. An opportunity not to miss! I decided to go with the Aida Prima - a new cruise ship modell that was just returning from its first week cruise in North-West Europe. The map in the gallery below shows the position of Elbe 1. This was the North-Western most point of my trip - about 6 hours from Hamburg by ship. I could even see the lighthouse of Helgoland about 20 nm from here lighting up at night.

Going aboard the AIDA Prima

23.45 h

It was about time to get ready again, pack my gear and go with two different Elbe pilots aboard the Aida Prima. First from the Elbe 1 ship to the ocean-

going tender, than through the pilot door on the lower deck of the Aida Prima. The first two pictures of the gallery show the Elbe 1 stationary ship and than the well-lit Aida Prima. Since we started on a Friday afternoon in Hamburg it was party time already at around midnight on the cruise ship. It is quite strange seeing such an illuminated  object in the pitch black Deutsche Bucht.


00.15 h

Next up was checking-in Aida Prima and walking all the way from the stern to the bow. Since this was a brand new cruise ship we could enter a new and nicely carpeted elevator and therefore easily get to the 14th floor to the bridge. Quite a difference to the style of the Chinese container vessel some hours ago. A carpeted and very comfortable bridge with lots of technical equipment and only German seamen. Got introduced to the captain and even offered a cabin again! Took the opportunity to get some sleep in my balcony cabin (no. 5233) between 1.00 and 4.30 am. But unfortunately no light to enjoy the view. The cruise liner was on its way to Hamburg following the sister-ship Aida Aura. The Aida Prima was scheduled to get baptised next night and Aida planned to shoot some video of a helicopter when entering the Port of Hamburg during sunrise. The ship made about 15 kn and was fully booked with 3250 people on board and one additional guy from the local Chamber.

Leaving AIDA Prima for sunrise in Hamburg

04.30 h

Wake-up call, getting another shower (third time in 17 hours), packing my things again and accessing the bridge for a very early morning coffee. The Prima already closed the gap to the Aura when I arrived on 14th floor.

05.00 h

We passed the border between Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg and I prepared to leave with the Elbe pilots. Meanwhile the Habour pilots checked-in to take over responsibility for the final cruise to the port and the cruise terminal Steinwerder.

05.45 h

We left the Aida Prima at 5.45 am before sunrise. A pilot boat picked us up and dropped us 10 min later at Teufelsbrück station. This is were the Elbe pilots have their headquarters. My trip was officially over. You can see the pilot door of the cruise ship in the gallery below. I waited at Teufelsbrück for the cruise liner to pass by. The sun was about to rise. What a special moment to be on this new cruise liner the day it was going to be baptised in a huge ceremony in your hometown during Harbour birthday! The very last picture is from the Altonaer Balkon in Hamburg where I saw the Aura and Prima one last time. Here, I also saw the two helicopters taking aerial footage during sunrise. I left the Elbe river with an SD card full of pictures, video footage and good memories, went home, took another shower and got ready for the official Harbour birthday tour at 10.00 am in the morning.


My special thanks go to the Elbe pilots for letting me watch over their shoulders and to China Shipping Hamburg for offering me the opportunity to go on the CSCL Saturn. I will never forget this perfect day!

Write a comment

Comments: 2
  • #1

    Grünfeld (Thursday, 04 May 2017 08:24)

    Super Doku und fantastische Bilder... Sehr gut gelungen!!!

  • #2

    Stefan Behn (Sunday, 21 May 2017 12:15)

    Sehr guter Bericht. Man merkt Ihnen den engagierten Fotografen an. War aber auch eine schöne Schiffsauswahl. Vielen Dank!