Interview with Duckdalben: What Makes a Great Seafarers’ Centre?

Out of approximately 430 seafarer centres located worldwide, Duckdalben International Seamen’s Club, located in the Port of Hamburg, stands out as one of the best. Awarded Seafarers’ Centre of the Year in 2011 at the annual ISWAN awards, Duckdalben provides a model blueprint for the management of a successful  seafarers’ centre in challenging times.  To celebrate its thirtieth year of operation, the Seafarers’ Trust caught up with Jan Oltmanns, Director of Duckdalben, to reflect on past achievements and to highlight the many tips of the trade picked up by Jan over his thirty-year stewardship of the centre.

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Jan Oltmanns, Director of Duckdalben Seafarers’ Centre

Numbers of course don’t tell the whole story, but in this instance they demonstrate the popularity of Duckdalben amongst the guests that visit the centre 364 days a year.

“When we started we had 2500 seafarers a night passing through the port. Today it is less than 500 and we see still manage to average about 104 guests a day, 37,000 a year in total. This shows that seafarers really like this place and they need it.” Jan Oltmanns

Compared to the year before, this figure was about 2 to 3 a day less. In times of increasing doubt surrounding the future survival of seafarer centres, Duckdalben’s managed to keep the numbers relatively stable – especially when considered alongside the drastic reduction in the number of seafarers passing through the port.

Like other successful seafarers’ centres such as Immingham, Halifax and the Hong Kong Mariners’ Club, Duckdalben benefits from being situated in a thriving port environment (alongside Rotterdam and Antwerpen, Hamburg is in top 3 of the busiest ports in Europe and the 15th largest worldwide). As Jan states,  Duckdalben enjoys “fantastic cooperation” with the Hamburg Port Authority who provide free Wi-Fi throughout the port for use by seafarers and contribute funds in order to maintain the centre.

Success is not all down to circumstance, however. Relationships between the centre and port officials have blossomed thanks to regular communication and numerous events hosting port staff at the centre. As Jan says, “strangers are just friends you have not met yet.” Such thinking forms an important part of Duckdalben strategy and management ethos.

“You must treat seafarers like friends. You should not have security cameras, for example. Seafarers are very reliable people. Where there are so many rules in the port, the centre should be different. Trust the people and they will be respectful.” Jan Oltmanns

Duckdalben is not a centre, Jan tells me, it is a house. This helps explain the reasoning behind one more useful piece of advice Jan has learned over the years. The importance of reliability.

“If you want to run a successful centre you must be reliable. Seafarers will be happy because they know we will be here 364 days a year. It is better to have shorter opening times and be open every day rather than closed one day and leaving the impression in the minds of some seafarers that the centre is never open.” Jan Oltmanns

BARReliability becomes even more important when you consider that seafarers experience reduced shore leave provision and quicker turnaround times. Nearly thirty per cent of respondents in our Trust welfare survey stated that ship turnaround time was less than six hours. Sixty-four per cent of respondents stated that they had received one or next to no shore leave days in the last 4-weeks of their assignment.

Duckdalben is no stranger to the pressures faced by other seafarers’ centres across the world. The Port of Hamburg, which currently operates at 9 million containers per annum, has capacity for 12 million containers in total. Whilst there is a steady stream of bulkers that go through the port meaning a longer stay in port for the seafarers, the enormous size of the port puts pressure on Duckdalben’s 100-strong legion of volunteers that drive the seafarers to and from the centre. Duckdalben can only be successful if it secures sufficient funding and keeps running costs as low as possible. On the topic of continued support by the Seafarers’ Trust, Jan states:

“Without the Trust this building wouldn’t be like it is. I think the club would be much too small. Without the Trust we wouldn’t have the buses to bring seafarers here. Without the Trust we could not do a lot of things.”

Securing funding from the organisations like the Seafarers’ Trust and other funding groups is only one part of the story behind Duckdalben’s continued success, however. Like any organisation, in order to maintain the everyday running of the centre, Jan and his team must continue to make the business case for low exchange rates and cheap supply deals. In terms of the price of beer, Duckdalben pays almost the same price as they did in 1986! The question remains…how?

“You get a lot of help if you invite people to come and see happy seafarers. We get better exchange rates by showing banks that we are transferring good amounts of money. It is better to have a coffee and tea for free so seafarers have the feeling that they in a home away from home. It’s not only good for seafarers in terms of how much they end up paying for services, but it introduces a varied group of people into the house. It is also good for the public to see that centre is not an outmoded concept.” Jan Oltmanns

BBQAttention to detail, making sure centre equipment is useable and proactively reaching out to seafarers to visit the centre is all part of making Duckdalben great. As Jan tells me, for over twenty years he had assumed that the absence of cruise ship workers had meant that they had no desire to use the centre. It turns out he was wrong. Quite apart from not wanting to visit the centre, cruise ship workers were concerned that they had no time to get back to the ship in time before sailing. Since 2010 Duckdalben has provided temporary “seafarers lounges” to cruise ship workers; only in operation when a cruise ship is docked.  Much like a centre, the lounges located in cruise terminals allow seafarers to access Wi-Fi, telephones, money transfer and purchase goods from a shop.

In terms of the future, Jan remains optimistic. Seafarers don’t just want a reliable Wi-Fi connection for their smartphone but a sense of community and familiarity generated by the presence of a seafarer centre. Jan believes that in order for a seafarers’ centre to be successful, those managing the centre must remain responsive to the needs of seafarers. As Jan puts it:

“Ask everyday what do you want us to do? If you know in advance what the seafarers want you are either very good or you are sure to make mistakes. I don’t know what the seafarers will need or want in future.”

Duckdalben-5-HA-Hamburg-Hamburg



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