Summa summarum: a complete revolution

Interview with Clemens Raabe

Clemens Raabe,
born on 06.03.1936

Ship’s captain and long-time HHLA manager, from 1967 head of Burchardkai, later responsible for sales & marketing at HHLA’s head office.

Can you still remember the first containers in the Port of Hamburg?

The first containers came still as deck cargo aboard a conventional general cargo freighter, being shifted by the normal shipboard cargo handling gear.


That was at Burchardkai in 1966?

Yes, at the end of the 1960s we had a multi-purpose terminal there that was rebuilt for specialized container handling. Container development proceeded at dramatic speed. Berth 3 had been equipped with the first container gantry cranes that could be bought on the market at the time.


What ships and volumes were you handling then?

In autumn 1968, four or five full container ships per week were already calling at Burchardkai, ships of USL, the British OCL consortium as well as Scotland-based Ben Container Line. Very soon, Hapag Lloyd specialized with its “Sydney Express” and “Melbourne Express”. These initially had a capacity of 780 TEU, then 1,000 TEU for the North American trade, while on the Australia route containerships were deployed at a very early stage with 1,660 to 1,800 TEU. Then the third-generation containerships were deployed on the Far East-Asia route, especially by such Japanese shipping companies as MOL or NYK, but also by Evergreen from Taiwan.

How did the workers feel about the new technology?

The “old soldiers”, or dockers who had previously really had to shift loads, as well as the gang supervisors were rapidly retrained for the new technology. Initially the boxes were still loaded on to rail by a one-off piece of equipment manufactured by Coles, a technical monstrosity with swivelling telescopic arms that could itself straddle containers. Very soon, we were running straddle-carriers as transport and stacking vehicles, which could initially only stack two-high, however. These straddle-carriers were also used for rail loading: for example with the straddle-carrier with its containers lining up directly above railcars that had been shunted into separate groups of five.

All-round dockers became specialist skilled workers?

Not at once. To put this container-general cargo revolution on a rational footing, the workers were employed in changing functions. First on unloading the vessel, then in stripping the container. The entire rates structure also changed tremendously. The traditional quay tariff was revamped and the administration had to contend with completely new remuneration structures and with container handling rates. First of all, naturally, the sales department had to negotiate the new basis for rates with the shipping companies. Summa summarum, or all in all, a complete revolution took place in both handling and the composition of rates.

And ship planning was relatively quickly made computer-based?

In this phase we experimented and improvised in a way that nobody can any longer imagine. We drew up stowage plans by punching data for each individual container on to punch cards. And initially the foreman would drive around the site with the stowage plan, checking the numbers of the boxes. This type of container identification was very soon overtaken.

So at that time you could still see what was in the containers? Which goods were transported like that in those days?

Initially, canned foods and a lot of textiles from East Asia, later also TV sets and the motor-cycles already mentioned. General cargo was initially packed box by box, not even being put on palettes. That only changed gradually.