The only spectacular thing about Alexander Rugenstein’s work station is the view from his window. Ships pass through the Köhlbrand, a branch of the river Elbe, and you can see the enormous container gantry cranes working at HHLA’s Burchardkai terminal. Otherwise, there are only a phone and five large monitors on his desk that are filled with information tables and a multitude of graphics. It might be the desk of a bank employee – if one of the screens didn’t show an interactive map of the Port of Hamburg.
This is where Rugenstein works for a company that is unique in the maritime world, as part of an 18-member team. 24 hours a day, the Hamburg Vessel Coordination Center (HVCC) schedules the arrivals and departures of nearly 3,000 large vessels per year, as well as the terminal calls of more than 7,000 feeder and inland waterway ships. “It is very helpful to have a good overview and nautical experience,” says Alexander Rugenstein. He gained this kind of experience as the First Officer aboard a cruise ship.
Ships come and ships go – it’s all in a day’s work at every port. Why do they need a guiding hand? Gerald Hirt, Managing Director of HVCC, has anticipated the question: “Hamburg is a very busy port and the ships are getting bigger and bigger. As a result of its geographical location, which requires passage of the river Elbe, in addition to the four large container terminals and the multitude of other terminals in the port, careful coordination and cooperation is required between all the companies involved.”
HVCC ensures the needed planning reliability. This makes sure that procedures are as efficient as possible and that there are few delays in arrivals and departures, as well as in the rotation in Hamburg. A selection of the many ship calls demonstrates that this is necessary: every year, well over 200 of the largest container mega-ships call here, as do around 1,800 feeder vessels, 5,200 inland waterway ships, 100 bulk carriers with large draughts and more than 80 cruise ships.
Unfortunately, it is not enough for these ships to simply announce their arrival at the relevant terminal. One look at Alexander Rugenstein’s monitors is enough to make this clear. There are a myriad of regulations and restrictions that need to be complied with. The draughts of large vessels must be coordinated with the various tide windows of the river Elbe. Or a ship turning in the port of Waltershof may block parts of the waterway.
“On top of this, there are wind conditions, water levels, and ship encounter situations on the Elbe that have to be scheduled and continually monitored,” says Rugenstein, explaining the nautical necessity of the HVCC. “The length, width, service speed, current location, destination terminal, expected layover, etc. – of every ship we assist!”
The amount of information that Alexander Rugenstein and his colleagues have to juggle every day is so extensive that complex software developed by HVCC is required to support them. “Without this kind of system, we would not be able to plan in advance or continuously monitor the schedule,” emphasises Gerald Hirt. “For example, our software synchronises 50,000 ship positions in northern Europe with our planning data every minute.”
The Nautical Terminal Coordination team (NTC), which Rugenstein is a part of, must keep an eye on all ships coming and going in the port for the current day and the following days. Which explains the many monitors. The initial estimated schedules become more detailed by the hour. Rugenstein speaks with his closest colleague, who normally sits opposite him, on the phone. To be on the safe side, they alternate between working in the office and from home so that they do not infect each other with the coronavirus.
The agent has just announced the arrival of a container ship that has loaded more cargo than announced at a previous port and therefore has a deeper draught. Will the water level still be high enough during the planned arrival? Rugenstein and his colleague get on the phone to coordinate with everyone involved, and a decision is finally made: “There’s not enough time,” is the verdict.
Rugenstein keeps his cool and begins planning all over again. The new schedule affects all traffic at this time, and must once again be coordinated with all those involved in the port. Is the berth still available later, and will enough personnel be available to process the ship?
Rugenstein establishes that it would be better if the freighter arrived the next day instead. He works out a suitable time window with the proper water level. The agent is informed and, after conferring with the shipping company and the ship, announces: “That’s fine.” There is a simple reason for Rugenstein’s ability to keep his cool in such a situation: “This is our daily routine. The fast pace is the reason HVCC was established!”
Finding a manageable solution for everyone involved is the great art in this business. The HVCC team have obviously mastered it. They create what are known as passage plans for all container mega-ships calling at Hamburg after visiting previous ports such as Rotterdam or Southampton. “We tell the ship crews exactly when they need to leave the previous port and what speed they must maintain in order to arrive when it suits the traffic conditions,” explains Managing Director Gerald Hirt.
The plans are naturally not set in stone – each change of procedure is incorporated into them. The captains know that they can rely on the Hamburg company’s calculations. “They ask us as soon as they have docked in the previous port and are starting to plan their upcoming voyage to Hamburg,” Hirt says. Should the ship’s handling be delayed, HVCC automatically receives a notification via an IT interface from the previous port’s systems.
The entire thing is more than a great service provided by the Port of Hamburg. “We enable the terminals, shipping companies and all stakeholders to use their resources more efficiently: precise scheduling of arrivals and departures ensure that the capacities of the port’s facilities are optimised and the ships use less fuel,” emphasises the Managing Director. Not to mention that efficient coordination also reduces emissions. The benefits thus extend to the environment and people in the Hamburg metropolitan region as well.
The ideas of efficiency and environmental protection were the inspiration when HHLA and EUROGATE, its competitor in container handling, founded HVCC as a joint venture in 2004. The initial phase of ship coordination began with what is now the Feeder Logistics Center department (FLZ), since the feeders and inland waterway ships travel not only between ports of origin and arrival, but also between the various Hamburg terminals. This needed to be coordinated better, which worked out so well that HVCC soon expanded its range of responsibilities.
HVCC is now a service provider for a number of companies in the port – not just shipping companies and terminals. Coordination with the HPA’s Vessel Traffic Service Centre also works beautifully. Hirt summarises: “The result is that shipping companies can focus on their core business and don’t have to get bogged down in the details of port operations, which is a major contribution towards optimising port calls overall.”
Its success is no reason for the HVCC team to rest on its laurels. Together with various partners, HVCC is working on the increased digitalisation of its processes. In 2021, the first pilot project of its kind in the world was conducted with the Digital Container Shipping Association (DCSA) to test digital coordination between shipping companies and ports. Prior to this, HVCC worked with Wärtsilä to test the transmission of passage plan data to the electronic nautical chart of AIDA cruise ships – a concept that is now to be rolled out in container shipping.
“Our long-term aim is real-time dynamic data exchange between a wide range of process participants. This improves planning data over time and thus the coordination of shipping overall,” Hirt says of his task. Overall, this leads to increased cost efficiency for many companies that dock at and work in the Port of Hamburg. And over the long term, it will increase the predictability and stability of the maritime transport chain.