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Working on the Baltic Sea – long shifts and a close community

Working on the Baltic Sea – long shifts and a close community

| Text and photo: Marie Preisler

The ferries between the Nordics and the Baltics are important transport corridors and keep a lot of people in employment. One of the boats doing the crossing is Aura Seaways, where 52 crew live and work for four weeks at a time.

Onboard the Aura Seaways ferry, the afternoon is buzzing with activity as usual. It is owned by the Danish shipping company DFDS and employs 52 people who are busy preparing the ferry for its next departure. Right now, it is docked at its terminal in Karlshamn on the Swedish south coast, and will soon set course towards the harbour city of Klaipeda in Lithuania.

This is an important goods and passenger route across the Baltic Sea. On the car deck, workers in yellow and black jackets emblazoned with the DFDS logo are busy guiding the last cars and trucks onboard.

The car deck

The ferry is an important transport route across the Baltic Sea for goods and private cars.

The containers that will make the journey are already delivered and secured tightly, in case the ferry encounters heavy seas when it is in the middle of the Baltic Sea a few hours from now. 

Ready for departure

Below the car deck, head engineer Henrikas Siurblys and his team of marine officers have begun starting up the vessel’s four gigantic ship engines. On the upper decks, stewards have cleaned the cabins after the previous crossing. In all the cabins, white towels on recently made beds await the next group of passengers who have started to board.  

In the kitchen, café, restaurant and bar on deck 9, service staff are getting ready to serve food and drink during the 13-hour crossing. 

At the top – on the bridge on deck 11 – Captain Sergej Sved and his chief mate and second mate are getting the latest weather forecast and messages from the deck and machine control room. Through binoculars and the ship’s radar screens, they monitor the shipping activity that the ferry will encounter when it soon sets sail.

A low rumble tells us the engines have started and are ready to move the 17,250 metric tonnes vessel. A light breeze is blowing as Aura Seaways slowly glides out from the Karlshamn harbour past a picturesque archipelago along a shipping lane that in some places is not much wider than the ferry itself, which measures nearly 32 metres across. 

“The ship has top modern and fully automatic steering and controls systems, but we also use binoculars and steer the ship manually in all challenging situations. Entering and exiting ports require extreme precision, so we always steer the ship manually then,” explains the captain.

Sergej Sved

Captain Sergej Sved and crew on the bridge.

28 days at sea, 28 days at home

At 230 metres, it is longer than two football fields. It can carry 600 passengers, 273 lorry trailers and 73 cars. Aura Seaways and its sister ship Luna Seaways are the largest and newest ferries in the DFDS fleet.

They sail each evening from one side of the Baltic Sea and arrive on the other side the next morning, where the staff empty the ship of cars and passengers, clean, maintain and prepare for the next sailing that same evening. 

Aura Seaways has 52 crew, most of them from Lithuania. They live and work onboard for 28 days at a time. They then have 28 days of shore leave, when they abandon their staff cabins and go home for a 28 days break while another crew come aboard.

A lifestyle

Working like that is a lifestyle which does not become everyone. Some leave. Others become so attached to the freedom and the camaraderie with colleagues onboard that they do not want to return to an ordinary 8 to 5 job, five days a week with two days off, several crew tell us. 

“I am just starting to miss my family when I have been onboard for 28 days, and after 28 days off I am ready to come back onboard – where we are also kind of a family,” explains electrical engineer Artur Kovalenko.

His superior in the machine control room, Henrikas Siurblys, nods in agreement. He has been at sea for 40 years and says that in many other offshore jobs, you spend far longer away from home. 28 days is a very nice amount of time, he agrees.

Machine controll room

Engineer Artur Kovalenko (left) and Julius Urbonas (right) in the workshop next to the machine room.

Indre Vaskyte has had the same experience. She is 30 and head of service onboard. So far, she has spent nine years working for DFDS and on ferries, moving up from being a steward cleaning cabins. Today, she and her colleague are responsible for all the service onboard apart from catering. Before she joined DFDS, she cleaned ships for another company with an onshore base.

“I could no longer enjoy an ordinary job. We have to be one big team both day to day and when something unforeseen happens. It provides excitement and a sense of belonging that I really appreciate,” says Indre Vaskyte.

It can also be difficult to be 52 very different people living and working so closely together over a long period of time, she explains. You need to be very flexible, and as a female employee and middle management in a pretty male-dominate workplace, she also has to be a bit strict at times. 

Should she get children, Indre Vaskyte would consider finding another job.

“Several of my colleagues onboard have children, but I'm not sure I can see myself working like this with small children, even if I sometimes can go home for a few hours when we are docked in Klaipeda as I live very near the ferry terminal. But it will be sad to say farewell. Working like this is a real adventure for me.”

In the kitchen onboard we meet 22-year-old Diana Petrikauskaite. She also does not have any children but does not think it would end her offshore career. 

“If I have a child, my family would look after it when I am at work,” she says.


Diana Petrikauskaite and her colleagues make breakfast and dinner for the passengers every day.

Spends spare time onboard sleeping

The crew work 12-hour days and have 12 hours off. Spare time is mostly spent in their cabins and most of that time is spent sleeping, several of them tell us. The 12 hours of work are typically spread across several periods throughout the day and night. It is important to catch a few hours of sleep when you can. The staff eat in a common personnel room which resembles the passenger restaurant higher up on the ship.  

Many of the crew live in Klaipeda and can in principle get home to see their families when the ship docks there for 11 hours every second day. They do, however, need the Captain’s permission to leave the ship during working hours. 

“Crew are allowed to go onshore when needed as long as they take into consideration that during the hours we are docked there are many daily and important tasks to be solved as well as maintenance and safety procedures that we must follow, including regular fire drills,” explains the Captain. 

Personnel salon

The crew eat in the personnel salon – including Captain Sergej Sved.

The Captain’s word is law

DFDS is a large shipping company operating many ferry routes, divisions and management levels. But onboard, when it comes to the daily operation of the ship, the Captain is to all intents and purposes commander-in-chief. Not only is he responsible for steering the ship safely from harbour to harbour, he is also the de facto head of HR and has the last word in many personnel issues, he explains. 

“As Captain, I am responsible for the entire ship and all the crew onboard, so I must decide on all kinds of things. But I always encourage new crew members to ask their nearest superior onboard whenever they are in doubt about something.”

Sergej Sved has been with DFDS for the past 13 years, the past nine years as Captain. This last year he has spent on Aura Seaways which has now left the Karlshamn ferry terminal. With barely a sound she glides out through the narrow shipping lane with cliffs and small islands on both sides. While the Swedish coast disappears behind us, the Captain allows the crew on the bridge to take it in turn to go down to eat supper. He eats last.

Night onboard

Night is descending over the Baltic Sea. Inside on the bridge, it is also very dark so that the crew can get the best possible view across the sea. It remains calm in the steady breeze and the less than two metres tall waves are barely discernible onboard. When the ship hits open seas, the speed is set to around 18 knots. The engines can push the ship faster, but that would burn far more fuel. 

The forecast is for a bit more wind in the night, but the Captain assures us that this is nothing that will disturb the passengers’ sleep in their cabins or the serving of food and drink in the restaurant, café and bar.

“This ship is fantastic, and she is strong,” he says. 

He carries on talking about the ship, which he in proper Captain manner refers to as a “she”.

“She is so long that she cuts through the waves rather than chopping at them. Even in really high seas, she remains steady on the water because we also have stabilators which stop her from rocking.”

The ship will not sail if winds of more than 25 meters a second are forecast. A few times each winter the waves grow eight metres tall, and the ship remains docked. The lovely lady can handle up to six-metre waves in style, however.

Machine room

The ship's four engines are monitored from the machine control room by chief engineer Henrikas Siurblys (at the back to the left) and his colleagues.

In the machine room 10 decks below, chief ship engineer Henrikas Siurblys and his colleagues have started the night’s non-stop staffing of the machine control room and are doing rounds in the machine room itself to control the operation and carry out maintenance. There is always one engineer and one engine expert on duty together. 

Just like on the bridge, the machine control room is full of control equipment. An alarm sounds in the machine control room each time the equipment detects a big or small inconsistency. Henrikas Siurblys sends a man to investigate.

Cheering in the bar

While calm reigns on the bridge, on deck and in the machine control room, the bar is lively. Most of the passengers onboard are Lithuanian truck drivers and commuters on their way home. A fair few of them are sat watching the bar’s TV screen which is showing the Lithuanian national basketball team, Žalgiris Kaunas, playing an important match against another European top team.


It is a tense atmosphere among passengers in the bar as Lithuania's top basketball team play an important match.

Basketball is Lithuania’s national sport and the people in the bar are shouting, biting their nails and applauding as their team oscillates between being on the offensive and defensive.

Žalgiris Kaunas secure victory in the last second which is celebrated by many with another beer, poured by a visibly emotional bartender who explains that he is from Kaunas and has been following his team since he was little – for him this is really big. 

When the last guests have drunk their beer, he kindly asks them to find their cabins because the bar is now closing. It is night onboard. 

The last five centimetres

6 am the next morning, all passengers in all the cabins are woken up by a clear message over the speaker system that breakfast is now being served. The ship will soon arrive in Klaipeda. The Captain has entered the bridge after a few hours of sleep. His cabin is right next door, so he can be fetched by the mate on duty within a few minutes.


The Sun rises over the Baltic Sea as the ferry approaches its destination.

But he did not have to be woken last night. The crossing has been calm. The ship is about to dock in Klaipeda and this demands the Captain’s full attention. The approach is a one-kilometre-long, narrow lane with a lot of traffic, where the Captain and his crew on the bridge must turn around the 231.5 metres long ship before docking. While they execute this manoeuvre, a container ship passes close by.

Container ship

The approach to Kaipeda is narrow, where Aura Seaways meets a container ship.

The Captain and mates use binoculars and assess the situation. The passage goes well, but the distance between the two ships was not as large as the Captain had wanted, he explains.

The last meter before docking also demands the Captain’s and mates’ full attention. The ship must be completely still before it can be secured. Five centimetres out and the large ship cannot be tethered properly. The ship gets into position and the process of unloading starts on deck. 

The engines are shut down from the machine control room. The service workers enter the abandoned cabins. Preparations for the next evening’s crossing are already underway.

Captain Sergej Sved

steers the ship and leads the crew on the Aura Seaways (above holding the binoculars). Next to the Captain is able seaman Igor Kuzmiciov.

Aura and Luna Seaways

Began sailing the Karlshamn-Klaipeda route in 2022 in order to increase capacity on the crossing, where the shipping company has experienced constant growth in goods and passenger transport since 1993.

The ships sail under Danish flag with nearly all-Lithuanian crews. This is because they dock in a Lithuanian port and Lithuanian labour is highly qualified, explains Anders Refsgaard, Head of the Baltic Region for the past ten years. 


Photo: HenSti, Wikipedia

Ferry crossings in the shadow of war

Ferry map

The war in Ukraine is having a clear impact on life onboard the Aura Seaways and her sister ship. Since war broke out, passenger volumes on the Karlshamn-Klaipeda crossing have fallen by around 20 per cent, says Anders Refsgaard, DFDS Vice President and Head of the Baltic Region for the past ten years. 

Anders Refsgaard

Anders Refsgaard, DFDS' Head of the Baltic Region

“The war affects us quite a lot as a shipping company. Until 2022 we only saw growth, but this has changed because of the war, higher energy prices, inflation and sanctions against Russia.” 

The Baltic Sea and the Baltic countries are busy transit routes for the transport of goods between the Nordics and Western Europe to the region east of the Baltics – including Ukraine and Russia. But the war and sanctions against Russia mean cooperation is severely reduced. DFDS stopped all activity in and with Russia when the war started.

Anders Refsgaard expects the return of growth to the Baltic crossings when the war in Ukraine ends. 

“Much of the goods transport on the route consists of building materials, and we expect a large increase in that when the war finally ends, and Ukraine needs rebuilding.”

The war has an impact on the shipping companies’ employees too, he says Anders

“Nearly all our employees on the Karlshamn-Klaipeda crossing are Lithuanian, but the shipping company also employs quite a few Ukrainians and Russians. There is good cooperation between all nationalities, but the war in Ukraine is not something that people talk about at work. It is a private matter.”


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