A day in the life of a cargo superintendent

Sebastiaan Pyck is a cargo superintendent at our terminal in Zeebrugge, Belgium. He explains why no two days are ever the same, and what it takes to be responsible for both vessel cargo operations and a large team of stevedores.

Sebastiaan Pyck

Sebastiaan, you’ve been with Wallenius Wilhelmsen in Zeebrugge for three years. What was it that attracted you to the cargo superintendent role?

As a cargo superintendent you’re in charge of up to 100 stevedores every day. It’s a challenge to coordinate them in a business environment where the stakes are high and time is of the essence.

I didn’t want a nine-to-five job, stuck behind a desk. This role keeps me on my toes, and it’s intellectually stimulating too.

Tell us a little bit about your background.

I trained in civil and nautical engineering. In fact, I have a Masters’ degree in nautical sciences from the Antwerp Maritime Academy. My initial plan was to sail as a deck officer on large ocean-going vessels. I even did an internship with the Belgian Navy, sailing on a dredging vessel.

When I started my family, however, a career onshore began to appeal to me. But I very much knew that I still wanted to be involved in the maritime industry.

Describe a typical working day for you at Zeebrugge.

We rarely have working days that follow a set pattern and that means there’s never a dull moment. The shipping business can always throw you a curveball.

When the vessel is in port, we coordinate the entire cargo operation, staying in close contact with all parties involved, including the ship’s crew, our stevedores, shipping agents, vessel operators, vessel planners and the local personnel monitoring and updating sailing times.

Quality handling of cargo to ensure that customer products are properly taken care of is a very important part of my job. I also supervise and raise awareness about health and safety, monitor vessel ETAs to plan operations accordingly, and calculate labour requirements for load and discharge operations.

What’s the best thing about your role?

My favourite part of the job is when we have unique and special products heading our way. We classify this as ‘breakbulk project cargo’ – products that are not self-propelled and require extra planning and attention.

These types of products can be challenging as well as rewarding. We have to calculate positions on the cargo handling equipment, determine the optimal positioning onboard, and work out the right lashing arrangements.

What might people not know about your job?

It requires good social skills. We interact with everyone from vessel crews to shipping agents and teams of stevedores. Each individual plays a crucial role in the supply chain.

Managing these different roles can be a balancing act. Finding that balance is not always easy; it often requires a certain maturity that comes from life experience.

Talk us through your most memorable day at Zeebrugge terminal so far.

It’s hard to pick just one, but one of the most memorable moments recently would be the delivery of our new Liebherr mobile telescopic crane. It’s a fascinating piece of engineering, a marvel to behold and a powerful tool for the job.

Learning about its capabilities and our training in handling and operating this new ’toy’ was a joy!

What are the key considerations you have to make when handling breakbulk?

For some breakbulk, we rely heavily on technical drawings of the product. These contain vital information which determines how we handle and secure the object. For example, weight and its distribution will determine whether we use a forklift or a crane to place it on our rolling handling equipment.

We have to make sure every piece of cargo is shipped in a seaworthy state. We cannot afford for them to become loose during transit. Ideally, we like to see every shipment lashed directly to the deck.

If cargo is not properly secured, accidents are more likely to happen. In order to avoid this, we go above and beyond to ensure the proper handling and securing of our customers’ products.

What expertise and qualities do you need in your role?

An engineering background is helpful for some of the more technical aspects of the job, but in general common sense and a positive spirit are always welcome and help when there’s problematic situations – a cargo superintendent is effectively a problem solver. People come to us for guidance as well as solutions.

Luckily, we don’t face these challenges alone but can count on an entire team of dedicated people to resolve the problem at hand, ranging from dock labour to colleagues at WW Ocean.

What are some of the challenges you are currently experiencing due to Covid-19?

Due to the nature of our work, one of the biggest challenges is social distancing. Stevedores are transported around the terminal in a five-to-one ratio, meaning one driver per five workers. Social distancing means we now have a two-to-one or a one-to-one ratio.

We’re also adhering to social distancing rules in the office and have put in place routines for disinfecting vehicles and office space. Stevedore gangs are staggered time-wise, to avoid their breaks coinciding, while lunch facilities have been tripled in size and spaced out. These are just some of the many precautions we are taking to ensure the safety of everyone involved.

Predicting the future is hard. I’m a firm believer in embracing change as we work towards a better tomorrow.

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