There are a lot of employees at German Dry Docks who have worked in the shipyard for decades – often already in the third generation. Heinz-Georg Grotheer, Head of Mechanical Engineering at German Dry Docks, has remained loyal to the company for nearly 45 years, including beyond his regular retirement. When Alexander Abraham takes over his position early this year, he will debark without any worries because he has thoroughly familiarised his successor. The name Grotheer will however linger on at the shipyard. It is associated with a career full of stories that nobody can recount as excitingly and with as many interesting details as he himself.
Work clothing: blue overalls
Heinz-Georg Grotheer’s office overlooks the quay of German Dry Docks. Moored at the pier is a modern offshore vessel that, with its raised bow and vivid red colour, looks like an oversized photo wallpaper in the large window front. A short-term emergency case is moored behind it. The RoRo vessel did not quite manage to execute the turn when leaving Bremerhaven, scraping the embankment. Nothing unusual for the shipyard, and certainly not for Heinz-Georg Grotheer.
He’s wearing his work clothing – blue overalls. He only goes into the office to complete the necessary paperwork. That, however, is no easy task and requires a lot of experience with the details, according to Grotheer. That is why Grotheer wanted to thoroughly familiarise his successor, Alexander Abraham; a task for which he has given himself several months. It was important for him to properly hand over his “shop” with its 30 employees. That is not a problem from a technical point of view; there is no question as to whether Abraham will bring along the required skills, Grotheer is not worried about that in the slightest. He could actually already have retired. Under the logo of German Dry Docks, his business card reads: “Head of Mechanical Engineering”. But that’s not really important, as he places no value on titles and honours. Everyone at the shipyard already knows him in any case. Anybody meeting him for the first time will invariably be impressed by his openness.
45 years on the job
When asked how long he has worked for the company, he does not need to think very long. The answer comes promptly and without hesitation. He even remembers the very day he started: on 1 April, 1971. However, he actually learned his profession elsewhere. With the company “Schlotterhose”. Although the name, which means “baggy trousers”, can trigger a chuckle, the company had an outstanding reputation that reached far beyond the borders of Geestemünde and Bremerhaven at the time. This was thanks to patents and fish meal processing plants. Heinz-Georg Grotheer was trained as a machine fitter at Schlotterhose. The company allowed him to travel the world extensively as a young man.
“It’s a great feeling when you see that what you have built actually works,” says Grotheer. Discovering foreign countries and cultures is his passion. He worked in Africa and Chile, where he helped set up fishmeal factories. That was a real programme, he recalls, funded by the Federal Republic of Germany. The story sounds incredible and Grotheer knows how to make it entertaining. The powdered fish waste was processed into animal feed and pellets on a massive scale back then. The high protein and phosphor content then gave someone the idea to use the fishmeal in the fight against hunger and an unbalanced diet. Pressed into typical flatbread, the protein tortillas found their market niche. The product proved to be an effective food against malnutrition even in Chile. It may be hard to imagine, but fresh fish did not feature on the menus of South Americans at the time, although the schools of fish swam right past their coastline. The ships only needed to be positioned along this flow, says Grotheer. He nevertheless sees the unrestrained exploitation of the seas as outrageous and as being the reason that fish stocks have been unable to regenerate since then. Bremerhaven once had a proud fleet of 125 offshore fishing vessels. Many jobs also disappeared along with the fish…
After fishmeal production was no longer a funded export good, he briefly worked on a coaster. The ship owner had saved on provisions, and the ship was not in good condition. When, on top of that, they encountered bad weather in the Bay of Biscay and water spilled through the ventilation slots in the cabin, he debarked again in France and gave up seafaring.
Texans in the shipyard
His start at Motorenwerke Bremerhaven (MWB) is something he remembers quite well. In the 1970s, oil production began in the North Sea. The American captains of the offshore tugs towed the ships in a laidback manner with their cowboy boots on the steering wheel and Stetsons on their head. The Texans often came into the shipyard, on the one hand because they often had problems with the towing winches, on the other hand because of the nearby entertainment districts.
What Grotheer likes most about his work are new projects and challenges. When, in the early 1980s, they were looking for someone to go to Argentina in order to repair an offshore supply vessel belonging to a Norwegian shipping company, Heinz-Georg Grotheer was immediately on board. What had been planned to take two weeks lasted over two months due to the Falklands War. Improvisational talent and patience were required. The supply situation and the treeless landscape in southern Patagonia proved to be quite manageable and the steel plate needed for the repair took weeks before reaching Rio Gallegos from Buenos Aires.
Thanks to MWB’s in-house design department and the company’s courage to invest in new business areas, Grotheer was able to demonstrate his innovative spirit in a variety of different fields. “One particularly interesting project was the ‘Rhineland’ – a special surveying and sounding ship that was built at MWB in 1990. The hull is shaped like a twin catamaran. In the middle, there is a folding pole, which can be moved down and used to safely and quickly anchor the ship in the flow during the measurements,” explains Grotheer. He can describe every last detail about the how and why of the measurements. In some parts of the Rhine, up to 1000 tons of gravel per hour were displaced by the flow. On the busy lower Rhine between Bad Honnef and the German-Dutch border, the “Rheinland”, whose keel juts only 0.90 metres below the surface, is still deployed to this day by the Duisburg-Rhine Waterways and Shipping Office to control water levels and current.
From screws to scrubbers
A shipyard has to face new challenges on a continuous basis, says Grotheer. His profession has little to do with the mere screwing together of machine parts anymore. But that was what always interested him in particular, just like chemistry and physics. With the same precision with which he can trace the course of the Gulf Stream on the map with his finger, he describes the structure and operation of a scrubber. Retrofitting with emission control systems is a new special field for the shipyard. The reason behind the measures are the stricter environmental regulations in the special zones of the North and Baltic Seas, which have limited the sulphur content permitted in the fuel of ships to 0.1 percent since the beginning of last year. For the shipping company Transfennica, German Dry Docks has retrofitted several ConRo ships with the new systems. The shipping company H.-P. Wegener from Jork has relied on the shipyard for the installation of scrubbers and placed an order for two feeder vessels from GDD. The latest customer is Buss Shipping. Hybrid systems will be installed for the company on the two container feeder vessels “Condor” and “Corsair” in January and February of 2016.
On the wall of Grotheers office, the arrival of the “Cap San Diego” is indicated on the schedule. The world’s biggest seaworthy museum freighter is expected in Bremerhaven on 29 February in order to carry out the maintenance work required for maintaining the ship class at German Dry Docks. The project will then be managed by Alexander Abraham, since a new era starts for Grotheer at the beginning of the year. He is not afraid of getting bored in retirement. A big garden awaits him and he wants travel even more. He would really like to visit Abu Dhabi again. This time, however, together with his wife.