Lotse auf Schiff

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A Navigators day on the Kiel fjord

It is 10:30 a.m. As a real splash of color in the gray harbor of Strande - the sun is still struggling through the clouds - it lies there: the bright orange pilot boat. Markus Böhm meets his colleague at the pier. The watch station at the lock in Holtenau has registered 35 ships for this day - and each one needs its pilots. The captain gathers the team and sets off for the Kiel lighthouse at 25 knots on a calm Baltic Sea.

The small waves break at the bow of the boat, only to lose themselves roaring at the stern. On the horizon, sky and water merge together. The mood is relaxed. The men can only laugh about the light swell. Here and there, seafarers say things to each other - "lotsisch," Markus explains with a wink. Concentrating, the captain steers the boat toward 54° 30' north latitude and 10° 16' east longitude, exactly where the Kiel lighthouse is located. "Remember? A few days ago it looked like this here," says the captain, holding his cell phone in front of Markus with a video documenting a raging Baltic Sea and a heavily swaying pilot boat. Markus nods knowingly. The 45-year-old has already experienced the water in all its facets, has seen the seas of the world - first as a ship's mechanic, then as a navigator and finally as a pilot.

Loste auf Lotsenschiff

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From the lot of a navigator 

"Either aviation or seafaring" - this was the ultimatum Markus set himself as a Swabian during the orientation phase of his professional career. Since a good friend advised him against aviation, it was off to sea. "Lake Constance was a bit too small for me, so I came to northern Germany," jokes the pilot. After training as a ship's mechanic at Hapag Lloyd and going to sea for a few years, he earned a diploma in nautical science at the Bremen University of Applied Sciences.

After completing his studies, connections from his training days brought him to TT-Line, where he spent six years as an officer on the Travemünde-Trelleborg ferry service. A private relationship? "Yes." Social contacts? "Few." As a sailor, Markus knows what it's like to be separated from family, partner and friends* for months at a time. "In the little time I was at home, I had to almost convulsively maintain or rebuild social contacts," he recalls. And although he loved his job, the vastness of the sea, and occasionally the silence and solitude, something new was needed. "I want to become a pilot," Markus then announced to the GDWS authority (General Directorate of Waterways and Shipping) in 2008 - after a total of eleven years at sea. No sooner said than done. Eight months later, he began his service at the Kiel lighthouse. From now on, he is an advisor to captains, inspects and supervises, is the first contact a foreign ship has with German waters, is the expert in the local fairway and the one who is supposed to guide a ship symbolically into safe harbor - just like a lighthouse.

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Rock in the storm 

After only 15 minutes of travel, the three reinforced concrete foundation bodies appear on the horizon together with the 33.5 meter high aluminum tower. The red and white stands out from the gray that the sky still imposes on the overall picture on this day. The 50-meter-long legs of the platform are at right angles to each other. "This allows the captains of the pilot boats to see on which side of the pier it is currently protected, so that it is possible to moor even in a stronger swell," Markus explains. The surprisingly spacious concrete platform appears cool and rough, and from a distance it didn't seem that big

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The crew of the pilot station knows only too well how the beacon at a height of 29 meters counters all this with warmth and safety at night. Inside the tower reveals an interior with 70s charm. Historic photos of a completely iced-over pilot station adorn the walls of the recreation rooms, reiterating how harmless the sea presents itself on this day. Pilots and watchmen have the opportunity here to fortify themselves, warm up, and even rest in a bed to tide them over until their next assignment. Those who wish can brush their teeth in the bathroom - provided they are not further bothered by the salt content in the tap water. "Even though I don't want to live here on the platform, the lighthouse gives me a feeling of coming home," says Markus, who still has about ten minutes until his mission.

Almost casually, the 45-year-old talks about his freelance function as second elder - the second "class president," as they jokingly call it among colleagues - in the NOK II pilot fraternity for the Kiel-Lübeck-Flensburg area. Here he is responsible for 35 employees, takes care of the administration and even the burial at sea of deceased colleagues. "My job is varied, but also risky," Markus explains. Not only weather-related, but also financially. "No ship, no money." It goes without saying that closed locks reduce a pilot's livelihood at times, to say the least.

Off to new shores

Suddenly, things move very quickly. The car carrier Ems Highway is to be headed for. Markus and the captain run back to the pilot boat. It unerringly sets course for the colossus, which appears out of nowhere at the pilot transfer position east of the lighthouse. After only five minutes, Markus climbs aboard the Ems Highway via the pilot ladder. Now he shares responsibility for guiding the ship safely through the Kiel Fjord by advising the captain on navigation. From the lock in Kiel-Holtenau, it is no longer in his hands. Here, another pilot guides the Ems Highway as far as Rüsterbergen, leaving it in the hands of the Brunsbüttel pilot fraternity. Twice in an eight-hour shift, a pilot is to head for the Kiel lighthouse to be transferred from there to a foreign ship. Second Elder Markus will advise, supervise and confidently guide through unknown paths one more time that day. Afterwards, he heads home, exhausted from fresh sea air and high concentration. Then he turns off the light - and a light goes on at the Kiel lighthouse, ready for the next guest in the Kiel Fjord.