Faces of Maritime Singapore: Esben Poulsson, the man with a life in shipping

For a man who has been in shipping most of his life, Esben Poulsson has pretty much seen everything, from major economic downturns to catastrophic ship collisions.

But COVID-19 is something else – a generational crisis, one that has completely changed the way people should think about the industry.

“What’s different today is that it’s a crisis of a lifetime that has affected the entire world. And there’s plenty more work we need to do to help fix this,” said the veteran with 50 years of experience.

He believes the biggest issue today continues to revolve around the safety and welfare of seafarers. The global crew change crisis has forced hundreds of thousands of seafarers to extend their service at sea without being able to be relieved or go home. 

This comes as countries imposed severe restrictions on travel and movement, banning non-residents from setting foot on their land, noted Mr Poulsson, who was recently reappointed Chairman of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) for a third term. The 72-year-old is also Chairman of Singapore-based shipowner Enesel.

“Shipping has fulfilled its role extremely well, in my opinion, throughout this pandemic. But the world has not obeyed its own rules. Many governments are simply not abiding by an instrument they had put their signatures to,” he said, referring to how some governments have not acted in accordance with the Maritime Labour Convention, which lays out a bill of rights for seafarers. The restrictions imposed by governments means seafarers have not been able to be repatriated or positioned to work, for instance. 

He noted that the United Kingdom, Germany, Hong Kong and Singapore, among others, have been exceptions. 

“The problem is that seafarers, to the average person, are out of sight, out of mind. But they are our unsung heroes, and we must take action at a time they really need our help.”

The good news is the situation has alleviated in recent months, with the industry responding. The ICS, for instance, worked with International Air Transport Association and numerous other stakeholders to identify practical solutions such as designating a number of crew change airports to facilitate the safe movement and repatriation of crew. The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) has been working with the industry, unions and the Singapore Shipping Association to facilitate crew changes through a “safe corridor” and setting widely accepted industry protocols.

It is clear the maritime industry is more than just a job for him. He sits on multiple boards and volunteers on panels and committees, driven by the passion that he has for the sea.

Apart from Enesel and ICS, Mr Poulsson holds several non-executive directorship posts at other companies. He sits on the board of MPA, is an Advisory Panel Member of the Singapore Maritime Foundation and Vice President of The Mission to Seafarers, as well as immediate past President (2019) of the Singapore Shipping Association.

Pointing to the strong support he has received from the owners of Enesel, he counts himself lucky to be able to devote his time to the industry. “I've been in it 50 years. If I feel I can make a contribution, I’m very happy to do it. And I’ll give it 100 per cent.”

Q: Tell us how it all started for you.

Mr Poulsson: This year, August 31 will mark my 50th year in the maritime industry. That was the day I arrived in Hong Kong, when I started my career.

I was born and brought up in Denmark. My mother remarried after my father passed away, and we moved to Vancouver, Canada with my stepfather, who was a sailor. We bonded through that, joining yacht racing competitions together. When I was 15, he said to me: “Okay, you love the sea. And you have some business acumen, so you are going to be in shipping.”

Six months before I graduated from school, a retired Norwegian captain whom I’d gotten to know and became my mentor, told me I should go to Hong Kong – the future lies in Asia. The minute I heard Hong Kong, I thought, “Yes, that’s what I want to do.” And I did.

Q: In your autobiography A Life in Shipping, you described the sea as an “irresistible force”. Where is your favourite destination to go sailing?

Mr Poulsson: I’m not sure I have a favourite. The Hawaiian Islands are one of the best places, because the trade winds never really stop, they blow at 20, 25 knots almost all the time.

Singapore, at this time of the year, is fantastic too because we’re having beautiful Northeast monsoon winds. We can’t travel because of COVID-19, so I’ve been actively racing in my little Esse750 Petit Bateau.

Q: What remedy would you recommend for seasickness?

Mr Poulsson: During the 1979 Fastnet race, which turned out to the worst yacht racing disaster in history, where 19 people lost their lives due to a major storm, I was in one of the competing boats – cooking. The guys up on deck said to me: “You must be out of your mind. Have you seen the conditions?” My point is that if I can cook a meal in the middle of a violent storm, I don’t think I’m capable of getting seasick!

Seasickness is about balance. It has nothing to do with whether you’re a macho man or a tough person. But I’m told that some antihistamine tablets and patches work very well.

Q: What will shipping will look like in 10 years?

Mr Poulsson: It will of course look very different. A lot of it will depend on attitudes towards free trade, and with things like 3D printing, when you look at how fast technology is changing and developing, how trade flows could change. The goal of a zero-carbon, sustainable future will likely be the single biggest driver of change.

Will the small shipowner with five or 10 ships still be around? I very much hope so, because this is one of the things that has made shipping so successful – it is a free and open business. In shipping, if you comply with the rules, anyone can participate. And I think it is a perfect example of market efficiency.

Published 8 March 2021

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