I n a conversation with BOTTLE Magazine, the 60-year-old captain tells how the response to his environmentally friendly project has been, how to pass the time on the high seas, why he once sank into a bar in the middle of the Atlantic, although he only wanted to refuel briefly, and why his sailed rum simply tastes better.
BOTTLE: Mr. Bockermann, let's first clarify the important questions: What is your favorite drink?
(quietly): Oh ... well ...
Are you spoiled for choice right now?
Nah ... to be honest, it's white wine.
Are you serious?! You set sail for gin and rum, sail for miles and prefer to drink white wine? I imagined it to be more classic: you alone at the railing in the evening, a glass of rum in your hand, looking out over the sea ...
Seriously! I really like to drink a glass of white wine in the evening. In fact, alcohol is also prohibited at sea. It is said that seafaring and rum are inseparable.
In the past, the seafarers disinfected the water on board with rum or alcohol. That's why they always had one in their tea. Because the water that they had on board in barrels turned bad after two or three weeks and rotted into broth. Many sailors suffered from infectious diseases and died as a result. Rum is great for disinfecting. Today you can produce your own fresh water on board.
That means that you don't have any alcohol on board?
Once a week I invite my seven to eight-person crew to the captain's reception. Then there is a glass of rum for everyone. We drink it and chat together. I also like to drink rum nowadays. We have an excellent 21-year-old rum. It tastes especially good when accompanied by a piece of chocolate. Mmhh, I tell you: this is a poem!
"With constantly fluctuating temperatures on the ship, the barrels are rocked back and forth, washed around by the salty seawater, and we have realised: This is awesome! “
The Avontuur has now set sail for the fourth time from Elsfleth in the Wesermarsch in Lower Saxony, where your two-master lies, to the Caribbean. What is the response to the environmentally friendly project?
At the very beginning it was said: “Who needs something like that?” We could now load the sailing ship three times, we have so many inquiries. Our customers are very satisfied and say: “Man, we want you to transport all of our freight, but that's 1,200 tons from Mexico, you don't have the capacity for that, you can't.” Nope, we can not - but soon! The demand is so great that we have now bought another ship, a three-master, and are going to build larger ships. A new build with a capacity of approx. 5,000 tons is planned to start with, but of course it shouldn't stop there.
You worked for the international shipping industry for almost 40 years and drove big ships. How did the idea for an environmentally friendly cargo ship come about?
It was a gradual process. In Nigeria, I worked a lot for the oil industry for over 20 years, recovering oil tankers, removing wrecks and transporting heavy loads for internationally known mineral and natural gas companies. The Niger Delta is the worst destroyed place in terms of the environment. The operation of ships with heavy fuel oil is nothing more than legalized toxic waste incineration at sea. My wife and I emigrated to Australia because we thought it would be a nicer place to live with the family. We wanted to work on the Great Barrier Reef, on the northeast coast of Australia. But the coral reef is in a catastrophic state. Then I thought: That's enough now, you have to do something about it, it can't go on like this, we're going to open a sail shipping company now. That was in 2013. In 2014 I founded the Timbercoast company.
Your goal is "Mission-Zero", i.e. zero emissions, like the label with which you mark your products transported by sailing ship?
Correct. Timbercoast was designed from the start to reach people and make them think.
At the very beginning I just wanted to drive up and down the Australian coast. But now I feel obliged to enlarge the project and show that we are a real alternative to ocean transport. And we did it. Transporting products worldwide emission-free - that is possible, I am convinced of it. Of course, we also have to make money, but it's not just about the money, it's about the message. Our goods from overseas are the ambassadors of our mission and it should be spread.
Do you have imitators?
Apart from us there are still a handful of cargo sailing ships, such as the “Tres Hombres” from Austria and the Norlys from “Fairtransport” from Holland. The former has been around for a good ten years, the latter are still under construction, but are expected to go into operation next year. Sailing cargo ship transport will also continue to develop. This also means that we simply have to rethink our consumer behavior. Norway and the Netherlands do not want to allow internal combustion engines from 2030. That will also happen in the seafaring sector. I am sure that in 30 years we will no longer use fossil fuels. We don't really need them anymore!
They also ship and sell their own products such as coffee, cocoa, salt, honey, chocolate, gin, grain and rum from the Avontuur sailed goods brand. What distinguishes your sailed goods from others?
We have products that are of great value, are relatively easy to transport and do not exist in Germany. They are not local products because we support regionalism and do not want to compete with local products. That's why we don't ship or sell potatoes, there are enough of them here in Germany. We wanted to offer sailed products. This includes coffee, cocoa or rum from overseas. Okay, rum is also distilled here in Bremen, but from imported molasses, and we at Timbercoast quite deliberately do not have molasses rum, but rhum agricole.
You also ship honey, don't we have that here in Germany, too?
The honey we ship is from the Azores. There the state subsidizes the export of honey to 90 percent. Then what happens? It is flown across the world. So we said, we would do it for them and ship the goods emission-free.
Okay, and what's the difference between molasses rum and rhum agricole?
Molasses is actually a waste product, a type of syrup left over from the sugar refining process, with so much sugar that you can't crystallize, but use. If you dilute it, apply yeast and let it ferment, you have alcohol. Rhum agricole, on the other hand, is made from freshly squeezed sugar cane juice. It is fermented and then distilled to Rhum agricole, which has a much broader range of aromas and tastes fresher. This type of rum is rare. Only two to three percent of the world's rum production is agricole. In addition, rum must also have sailed.
Spirits stored in barrels usually mature quietly in the cellar, with the same storage conditions. We wanted to try the opposite: With constantly fluctuating temperatures on the ship, the barrels are rocked back and forth, washed around by the salty sea water, and we have realised: That is awesome! Maturation is much faster and more intense. The rum changes very positively. And we thought that if you can do that with rum, then you can also do that with grain! We then filled our first three rum barrels with Korn from the north German fine grain distillery Joseph Rosche in Haselünne. Mr. Rosche also said: "Forget that, it won't do anything, let's store the Korn here in the cellar for five to six years, then it will be ripe."
(Leans slightly over the table, smiles, lifts his index finger and emphasizes): Our Korn - I don't want to exaggerate - is the best grain in the world. There is nothing tastier in the world than our Korn! It is the only Korn sailed in the world and crossed the North Atlantic twice on the Avontuur, 13,000 nautical miles on the first voyage and 18,600 nautical miles in former red wine barrels on the last voyage! It is one of our ambassadors for clean sea transport.
Do coffee and cocoa also need the sea for a better aroma?
Not at all! This is a very sensitive load, so the temperature and humidity have to be right. Cocoa and coffee beans are organic goods that are very sensitive. That is the challenge with a sailing cargo ship: care for the cargo must be guaranteed.
Are you roasting the beans right away?
No, otherwise the essential oils will go out. For example, we store our green coffee from Mexico in sacks in Germany and roast it as needed. So it stays fresh longer and does not lose its aromas.
How do consumers find your goods?
Very good. For example, we have developed our own chocolate in three different types, one creamy and salty, one with chocolate chips and one with chili. We once had 300 bars made just for fun, 100 of each type - they were sold in two weeks! We have now reordered 1,000 bars of each type and hope that it will be enough for the Christmas season (laughs).
You also sell gin now.
Gin from the Azores, from Peter Café Sport, a pub in Horta, the main town of Faial. The restaurant dates back to the 1920s. The great-grandpa, the first Peter, founded it. It is the most famous pub in the middle of the Atlantic. The island is a kind of stopover for seagoing ships on their way across the Atlantic. At that time, mail planes landed there and refuelled. The Peter Café Sport has always had gin and tonic. In 1984 I only wanted to stop there briefly, refuel and buy provisions. At that time we transferred a yacht from Guadeloupe back to Germany. After 30 days I said: “If we don't go now, we'll never get away from here (laughs)!” The gin there has always been delicious. Peter Café Sport now produces its own gin and now we are the only ones to offer it on the mainland. Otherwise, anyone who wants to drink it has to sail to the island in the middle of the Atlantic.
Shipping from Elsfleth in northern Germany across the North Sea, the Atlantic to the Caribbean and back can easily take nine months.
How do you pass the time on board?
You don't work all the time, do you?
Of course! We work 24/7. There is a row watch, someone has to be at the wheel 24 hours a day, you take turns every hour, because we do not have an automatic steering system. Then it is repaired, painted, the sails have to be operated, it is set, salvaged, and reefed. This is physically demanding work! In the past, young men around 20 who were physically fit were taken to sea. We're not that fit today (laughs). But of course, we also have breaks.
And what do you or the crew members do during the breaks?
Sleep, read, play backgammon. Today you can also watch films on your laptop. However, to date I have only seen it twice, that someone at sea had their laptop with them and wanted to see a film. Most want to enjoy the sea. People like to sit up in the mast, these are the best places, and look out over the sea. But they have to get hold of the space first (laughs)! And at night, there is nothing more beautiful than the starry sky at sea. You don't have that on land. On land we have light and reflections everywhere, there is no such thing at sea. The light, the details, the depth that the starry sky has at sea - it is unique.
You have been back on land since February. Are you already scratching your feet and want to set sail again soon?
(Laughs) I always strive for the sea and the water. You know, it's like climbing a mountain: you climb, you reach a summit and you see: “Oh, there's still something behind that” and you want to look further and further behind the horizon. The horizon is round on the sea, but still: I always want to go further and see what is behind.