Milestone after Milestone
An interview with Bernard Meyer

Bernard Meyer has been directing MEYER WERFT since 1982, and the first cruise ship was built under his leadership in 1986. Here he offers a brief insight into the shipyard’s history.

Meyer Werft is celebrating its 225th anniversary – is that down to luck or skill?
Bernard Meyer: Both, because you make your own luck. We’ve often made the right decisions, but we’ve also had our fair share of luck. For example, the relocation of our shipyard in 1973 was followed immediately by the outbreak of the oil crisis, which ultimately led to a major shipyard crisis – the market collapsed. We’d just completed our second construction dock in 2001 when 11 September happened – and then the cruise market collapsed. But these have always proven to be crucial decisions in the long-term. After all, we’ve managed to survive as one of the few shipyards in Germany and the only shipyard in Papenburg.
Do you remember your most difficult project?
Bernard Meyer: No negotiation is easy, but I remember a particularly lengthy one. I travelled to Russia with my father to negotiate a contract for a gas tanker. We really had to stick it out: Everyone else had already gone home, but we stayed in Moscow and finally won the contract four weeks later. Contracts are never concluded in a few hours. Our negotiations with P&O for “Oriana” lasted over a year, and we once spent six years negotiating with Disney. Selling ships is just as complicated as building them!
You recently said, “I don’t make any more decisions without my sons”. Are you finding it hard to hand over the helm to your children bit by bit?
Bernard Meyer: No. We’ve always done things like that in our family. Whenever I see other family businesses where the inheritance is passed down to several hands and then hundreds of people want a say, I know we do things right. The most important thing is commitment. Passion is also important, and then happiness and luck just fall into place.
225 years of family history
The first passenger steamer constructed by MEYER WERFT
The young Joseph Lambert Meyer showed his pioneering spirit in the late 19th century by constructing iron ships for the first time at MEYER WERFT. The first three were so-called “coal pontoon boats”, which were followed by the completion of Yard Number 4 in 1874, when MEYER WERFT launched its first ever passenger steamer. The 35-metre-long vessel marked the start of a new era.
Prinz Heinrich
The good old Prinz Heinrich keeps on steaming

The construction of Yard Number S. 240 was commissioned by Kleinbahn & Dampfschifffahrts AG, a steamship operator based on the island of Borkum. Prinz Heinrich was delivered by MEYER WERFT in 1909. It was a 37-metre-long steamer that operated as a cargo and passenger ship between Borkum and the mainland town of Emden. Prinz Heinrich, which has since been elaborately restored and recognised as a moveable monument by the State Office for the Preservation of Monuments, now operates between Ems and Dollart. It still sets sail for the occasional sightseeing tour, and sometimes even takes trips to Borkum and its native Papenburg – just like it did over 100 years ago.

Graf Goetzen
Graf Goetzen
A passenger steamer hits the big time

The Foreign Office’s Colonial Department commissioned MEYER WERFT to build a passenger ship for Lake Tanganyika in East Africa – the continent’s second largest lake. The vessel was initially assembled in Papenburg before being disassembled, packed into watertight boxes and shipped to East Africa with a few shipbuilders from Papenburg, who were there to reassemble Graf Goetzen on site.

As English troops advanced towards Lake Tanganyika during the First World War, the shipyard workers greased the mechanical components and sank the ship. Thanks to their foresight, Graf Goetzen could be lifted from the depths of the lake after the war without any significant damage.

It resumed its service on Lake Tanganyika under the name “Liemba”, and it still operates there to this day. It only paused once in 1951, when the ship was used for filming and rose to fame overnight. It plays a leading role in the film “African Queen” alongside Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.

The “Durazzo” challenge

A real milestone: When Durazzo was officially launched in 1921, it was the largest ship that had ever been built by MEYER WERFT. The cargo steamship measured 72.9 metres long and 10.45 metres wide.

MEYER WERFT managed to keep to its tight construction schedule and delivered Durazzo to Hamburg America Line (HAPAG) on time. The former head of the shipyard, Franz Joseph Meyer, didn’t get a minute’s peace during the entire construction process and vowed never to build such a large ship ever again. As a matter of fact, Durazzo remained the largest vessel that had ever been constructed in Papenburg until his death in 1951.

Elbe 1
Constructed, sunk, raised, delivered: Elbe 1

MEYER WERFT was commissioned to build Elbe 1 in early 1939. The construction work had been progressing very slowly for many years and was almost complete in the last weeks of the war, when foreign troops began to move in on Papenburg. The shipyard workers greased the machinery and sank Elbe 1 in a controlled manner to protect the vessel from Allied bombing. They were able to raise the ship from the water just a few months later.

All forces were mobilised to provide the Allies with the lightship they urgently needed, and Elbe 1 was soon positioned at the mouth of the River Elbe. It’s now used as a museum ship in Cuxhaven.

Our international breakthrough

It all began with an unusual phone call in 1954… A shipowner from Lingen requested an urgent meeting with a representative of MEYER WERFT. Just a few hours later, Joseph-Franz Meyer became acquainted with Mr Taylor from the island of Mauritius. The shipowner was looking for a multi-purpose ship to transport deck and cabin passengers alongside livestock and general cargo between Ceylon, Mauritius, Madagascar and South Africa. The negotiating parties took four hours to come to an agreement, and the contract was signed a week later.

The 78-metre-long Mauritius opened up new markets for the shipyard in Papenburg. The new vessel allowed MEYER WERFT to attract the attention of shipping companies in Great Britain, Denmark and Norway, Indonesia, Burma and Pakistan. This was a real breakthrough at a time when the word “globalisation” hadn’t even been invented!

Gas Tanker
Gas tankers – a new business area

Another milestone: MEYER WERFT delivered its first gas tanker in 1961. At 60 metres in length and with 900 cubic metres of cargo volume, Kirsten Tholstrup was relatively small. This was followed by gas tankers for German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, British and Russian shipping companies. In the 1990s, around 20% of the world’s gas transportation vessels came from Papenburg. And this business area was further developed in 2018, when Coral Energice was delivered to the Dutch shipping company Anthony Veder. This is one of the most environmentally friendly gas tankers in the world, featuring dual-fuel engines.

MEYER WERFT sails to another shipyard

MEYER WERFT continued to build ships in the middle of Papenburg until 1975, when Joseph-Franz Meyer decided to relocate the company due to a contract for the construction of six gas tankers – and the shipyard was moved to the outskirts of Papenburg. This enabled the further growth of the shipyard and the construction of even larger vessels.

Passenger Ships for Indonesia
Our contribution to better infrastructure in Indonesia

Between the years 1983 and 2008, MEYER WERFT built arguably the largest ever series of passenger ships for the island state of Indonesia. Since then, the fleet of 24 passenger ships has been travelling back and forth between the islands and making improvements to the country’s infrastructure. The oldest ship, the almost 100-metre-long Kelimutu, can accommodate over 900 passengers. The newest and largest ship, Gunung Dempo, was completed in 2008 and can transport 100 containers and more than 1,500 passengers.

The first cruise ship constructed by MEYER WERFT

Homeric was the first ever cruise ship constructed at our shipyard in Papenburg, representing yet another milestone and the beginning of the cruise ship era at MEYER WERFT. It also became the first passenger vessel of its size to be launched sideways – this hadn’t been attempted by any other shipyard in the world! But it worked, as the ship slipped majestically from the slipway into the water on 28 September 1985.

After just two years of construction work, Homeric was delivered to an Italian shipping company, Home Lines, in May 1986. The cruise ship now travels around the world as “Marella Dream”.

NEPTUN WERFT becomes part of the MEYER Group

NEPTUN WERFT, founded in 1850, was taken over by MEYER WERFT in 1997. NEPTUN WERFT has since established itself in the river cruise ship market, delivering various ferries and gas tankers. Nowadays, engine room units for cruise liners are also built there. Around 700 in-house employees and numerous partners currently work at our shipyard in Rostock-Warnemunde.

Livestock Carriers
Expertise in the construction of large livestock carriers

MEYER WERFT has remodelled and delivered 27 livestock carriers throughout its history. One such example is Erdiver, a former Norwegian tanker. As the 244-metre-long ship was too large to navigate along the River Ems to Papenburg, MEYER WERFT coordinated its remodelling with a shipyard in Bremen. Our engineers in Papenburg designed a 110-metre-long, 36-metre-wide and 18-metre-high sheep shed with non-slip decks where the livestock even had a steady footing at sea, as well as an automated food and water supply, a urine drainage system and ventilation facilities.

Once the ship had been remodelled, it began to transport up to 125,000 sheep from Australia to the neighbouring states in the Persian Gulf under the name Al Shuwaikh.

Container Ships
Container Ships
Our container ships are slim, speedy and safe on ice

MEYER WERFT built its first container ships! All four slim and speedy vessels were built for Hansa Hamburg Shipping International. Eilbek, Reinbek, Flottbek and Barmbek are 169 metres long, 27.2 metres wide and can accommodate 1,600 containers. They also feature a special hatch arrangement and boast a maximum ice class rating. The construction of a deck in the bridge house was another new feature in 2005. In addition to the crew, all four container ships could accommodate twelve passengers.

The MEYER Group continues to grow

MEYER TURKU joined the MEYER Group in 2014. Our shipyard in the Finnish city of Turku is mainly used for the construction of cruise ships, such as the Mein Schiff fleet for TUI Cruises and, most recently, Costa Smeralda. The shipyard also delivers ferries to international shipping companies.

Research Vessel “SONNE”
Research Vessel “SONNE”

The SONNE is one of the most modern research vessels in the world. Angela Merkel even called it a “floating miracle” during its inauguration ceremony. And it really is a miracle: Its engine room units are mounted in such a way that they hardly transmit any vibrations to the ship’s hull to avoid disturbing echo-sounding surveys. It also features seven high-performance cranes, a diving robot, a pinpoint positioning system and 17 laboratories across 600 m2. It’s incredibly efficient, economical and environmentally friendly – it’s even been awarded the German “Blue Angel” eco-label.

The SONNE is mainly assigned to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, where it’s helping to answer questions in the field of climate-related marine research and the exploration of raw materials on the seabed.

“Many happy returns! MEYER WERFT employs thousands of people as the pride of Emsland. The shipyard can count on us in the future – just as it has in the past”
Marc-André Burgdorf
District Administrator of Emsland
“Congratulations! The shipyard and the city have been closely linked for 225 years. Shipbuilding has always created jobs and prosperity – it’s made our city famous around the world. And the company’s former facilities have been transformed into the cultural centre of Papenburg”
Jan Peter Bechtluft
Mayor of Papenburg
“We’re working with the shipyard, municipalities, authorities and environmental associations to successfully address future issues concerning the Weser-Ems area. We’re creating joint solutions for the environment and economy. We wish you all the best for the decades to come!”
Franz-Josef Sickelmann
State Representative of Lower Saxony
“MEYER WERFT is an excellent example of the successful family businesses that are driving growth in our region. Many thanks and all the best for the future!”
Dr Dirk Lüerßen
Managing Director of Wachstumsregion Ems-Achse e.V.
“The shipyard and its visitor centre have put Papenburg on the map. Hotels, restaurants and many other businesses benefit immensely. Congratulations!”
Kai Nehe
Managing Director of Papenburg Marketing GmbH