Inland waterway shipping captains: a career with a future

It is nine o’clock in the morning in Lünen. The trainees, Adrian Becker (29) and Oleh Orel (32), reach the Datteln-Hamm Canal in a good mood; this is where the Rhenus Duisburg is already tied up in the port basin and is waiting for them. They receive an initial introduction to their future workplace after going on board today. The two future inland waterway shipping captains board the vessel with a sense of self-confidence and make their way directly to the living quarters of the vessel’s crew, where their colleagues welcome them.  


Following a short tour on board, they sit down together in the vessel’s common room over a cup of tea. Oleh talks about the first days of his apprenticeship. “We got to know the Rhein training vessel and received some safety instructions – for example, we talked about how to handle a rope or how we should move about the vessel. And we picked up our sailor’s log book – so now we can get started!”

Work experience on board a vessel can help you choose the right job

Before the two trainees signed their apprenticeship agreement with Rhenus, they spent some time gaining work experience on board a vessel. “That really helps you to know what you will face during your apprenticeship and in your everyday work at a later stage. You can then work out whether you really want to live and work on board or not”, say the two trainees in total agreement. The work experience stint normally lasts for one week. The future colleagues spend time on board during this time and learn about the daily work and life on the vessel.


Travelling on vessels. At home in Europe.

Oleh has directly brought his working clothes and his safety equipment with him and he stows both away on board the Rhenus Duisburg. This will be his workplace for the next three-and-a-half years. “I’ve only worked as a sailor out at sea in the past. But it’s good to be back on board a vessel,” says the native Ukrainian with a smile on his face; he only came to Germany one year ago. Prior to this, he worked as a mariner for several years travelling around the world’s different oceans.

The crew are not at all concerned about the fact that Oleh is not yet able to speak perfect German. “We have some colleagues on board from Poland and France too,” says Michael Schmalisch, the skipper on board the Rhenus Duisburg, explaining the situation. “We always manage to communicate somehow and our colleagues improve their knowledge of the language over time. It’s rather like experiencing Europe live on board.”


“I always wanted to work on an inland waterway vessel!”

In contrast to Oleh, Adrian has not yet had any experience in the world of shipping. “I always used to watch the vessels on the river as a boy and really wanted to work on an inland waterway craft, but then I chose to train as a landscape gardener,” he says, while checking whether his life-saving collar fits or not. “So I’m used to working outside in all weathers. However, gardening wasn’t really my thing and every time I saw a vessel making its way along the river, I thought to myself, ‘That would be ideal for me! I want to finally work on an inland waterway vessel.’” No sooner said than done. Adrian used the Internet and social media to find out about the job opportunities on board an inland waterway vessel and then decided to train as an inland waterway shipping captain. “I’ll finally get going on the MS Christa at the end of July – and I can hardly wait!”, he says full of anticipation and smiles into the camera.


Rhenus trains inland waterway shipping captains

Rhenus PartnerShip published its job vacancies for apprenticeships to become an inland waterway shipping captain in the autumn last year in order to prevent any shortage of specialist workers in its own ranks and to gain greater public prominence as an employer in the region – and it has been a success story! Michael Schmalisch reports, “I’ve now been a skipper here on board the Rhenus Duisburg for eight years. I’ve longed to have my own trainees for eight years. And I’m absolutely delighted that this dream is now finally coming true and we can train our new recruits ourselves.”

Rhenus is one of the few companies that can train their own inland waterway shipping captains. This apprenticeship is new and was only launched in 2022. “Adrian and Oleh are our first two trainees, but others will follow during the course of the year. We have six vacant training places to allocate and we’ve received more than 80 applications for them in all,” says Kerstin Gerhold, the Personnel Coordinator at Rhenus PartnerShip, explaining the situation. “This not only reflects the great interest in the apprenticeship, but also in Rhenus as an employer. Oleh too made a conscious decision to pursue this career. “Thanks to the apprenticeship as an inland waterway shipping captain, we can quickly assume responsibility and we also have a job that has a real future.”  


How does the apprenticeship work?

The on-the-job-training to become an inland waterway shipping captain lasts three-and-a-half years in all.  It is what is known as a dual apprenticeship, i.e. trainees spend some time at a vocational college and there is also the practical part in everyday shipping operations. The trainees will complete their theoretical training at the Rhein Nautical Vocational College in Duisburg, where inland waterway sailors and inland waterway shipping captains receive the theoretical part of their apprenticeship in three-month tuition blocks – and they live on board the Rhein training vessel during this time, a permanently anchored ship near the Port of Duisburg. The trainees spend the remainder of the time on board their vessel using a defined shift system lasting 14 days each time and they then have 14 days off. “This system is fantastic in order to have a good work-life balance. It means I have much more free time than I’d have in any other job,” says Adrian with real enthusiasm. 

After concluding their apprenticeship, the trainees receive the so-called “Unionspatent”, i.e. the general skipper’s certificate for European shipping. This allows them to move along European inland waterways and then acquire other certificates for dangerous routes and maritime waterways through their time spent on board and examinations.


What does an inland waterway shipping captain actually do?

The tasks performed by inland waterway shipping captains include steering and navigating vessels on inland waterways as well as looking after the vessel and the machines on board. They therefore ensure that the vessel and its equipment are ready for use at any time. The captains also monitor loading and unloading operations on board and they are responsible for planning the personnel and the routes too.

The blog will continue to accompany the trainees on their journey during the next few weeks and regularly provide updates and report on milestones in their apprenticeship. 

Are you interested in an apprenticeship as an inland waterway shipping captain (m/f/o)? This link will take you to the job advertisement.