100 years of excellence:
The history of the Wessels Group

Reinhard Wessels – off to new shores with a cable ferry

It all started in 1912 with Reinhard Wessels, the grandfather of the current owner. At the age of 27, Reinhard Wessels instructed the Gebrüder Sibum shipyard in the northwest German river port town of Haren to build a river ferry. It was to be a river ferry with a difference: it needed to be more robust than the usual Ems River ferries because, in addition to plying the river, it had to be capable of crossing the shallows to the offshore islands of the Wadden Sea. On 4 October 1912, this worthy vessel was entered in the Meppen District Court ship register as „a cable ferry, a covered boat made of oak.”

Reinhard Wessels died in 1960 at the age of 75. He had two sons. To Captain Adolf Wessels he left the HEINRICH WESSELS, and to Captain Gerhard Wessels, the LENA KATHARINA.

Captain Gerhard Wessels: the father of the family’s modern shipping business
At the end of the Second World War, the young Gerhard Wessels took on the heavy responsibility of rebuilding his family’s ship-operating business. He gained his master mariner’s licence from the Leer Institute of Maritime Studies in 1949, and in 1950 took over the captaincy of the LENA KATHARINA, a role he occupied for a total of 16 years. It was a time of great change for the European shipping industry. The introduction of container shipping, which steadily came to the fore in the course of the 1960s, spelled the beginning of a major structural change. Shipowners needed to make enormous investments if they were to meet the changed requirement of the cargo shipping market and stay in business. Faced with this challenge, many local Haren mariners and shipowners – Gerhard Wessels included – took the step of forming companies in order to attract the necessary capital. It was a bold move, and one that was no doubt greatly aided by the buoyant economic climate in Germany in the 1960s. Wessels founded Wessels Befrachtungs-und Bereederungs GmbH and embarked upon what would prove to be an extraordinarily successful career in shipping.

Innovative and efficient: the Wessels CARGO LINER
Gerhard Wessels’ very first newbuilding projects set the tone for the innovative flair that characterises our company to this very day. An astute businessman and mariner, he saw where the market was headed and partnered with a local engineering firm to design a new type of vessel: the CARGO LINER, a type of seagoing river barge with a retractable forecastle and a moveable bridge.
The first in this new series, CARGO-LINER 1, was certified for European inland and short/medium-sea shipping and so during its service life plied routes between Strasbourg and Lisbon. Thanks to Gerhard Wessels’ success in penetrating the Iron Curtain, the ship was also to be found sailing on Europe’s inland waterways to the Baltic Sea via Berlin and to the former Yugoslavia. Gerhard Wessels was in fact the only West German shipowner to be authorized to sail the Oder-Havel Canal and supply West Berlin.

Successful cooperation with Komarno shipyard
In 1976, Gerhard Wessels founded River Liner GmbH, a new company whose first vessels included the EMS-LINER, the RHONE-LINER and the KÄTHE WESSELS, all of which joined the Wessels fleet during the period from 1976 to 1979. Other vessels, such as the THEKLA WESSELS, the URSULA WESSELS and the LENA WESSELS, were also ordered during this time, ensuring that the Wessels fleet continued to expand into the 1980s.

Gerhard Wessels pioneered a number of new shipping industry relationships between East and West. In the early 1990s, the winds of change that had started blowing through Eastern Europe in the mid-1980s with glasnost and perestroika brought about the first partnership between a German shipping company and a Czech shipyard in modern German-Czech history.

The Komarno shipyard on the Danube built six RHEIN-type ships for Wessels. Over the years, these were followed by four additional new ship types: the EMS, WESER, ROSTOCK and SCHELDE, with carrying capacities ranging from 2,500 to 4,500 tdw.
Honorary doctorate and commemorative medal from Slovak Republic

Gerhard Wessels was the first Western European entrepreneur to order a series of river- and sea-going cargo ships from the Slovakbased Komarno shipyard at the end of the Cold War – a show of foresight and initiative that earned him widespread recognition. In 1996, for instance, the Slovak Technical University of Bratislava awarded him an honorary doctorate, and in 1997 he was awarded a commemorative medal by the Slovak Republic’s then President, Michael Kovacs.

A Wessels presence in the Netherlands

Towards the end of the 1990s, the Wessels shipping company intensified its initiatives to expand its international networks. Much of the responsibility for this rested on the shoulders of Reinhard Wessels, the older brother of Gerd Wessels. It was Reinhard Wessels who recognized the need for a presence in the Netherlands and in 1997 established Rederij Wessels B.V. in Rotterdam. Soon afterwards, seven ships from our fleet were transferred to the new Wessels base in the Netherlands. In late 2004, when we restructured the Wessels Group, Reinhard Wessels left the company and has successfully taken on a number of new challenges.

A new century brings a new generation to the helm

In the course of the last three years of the 20th century, the Wessels Group realized several other highly profitable projects in Eastern Europe – at shipyards in the Czech Republic, Serbia, Bulgaria and Russia. Although the vessels in question were built in Eastern Europe, about 60 percent of the subcontracted inputs came from the West.

Thanks to the sustained growth achieved over the decades under the careful stewardship of Gerhard Wessels and his colleagues, by 2001 Wessels had a fleet of around 50 cargo ships complete with a healthy and a steadily growing global charter business.
The change at the helm of the Wessels Group took place in late 2004 when Gerhard Wessels’ youngest son, Gerd, took over as managing partner. He was 33 years old and, in keeping with his father’s wishes, brought fresh wind to the sails of the Wessels shipping enterprise. At the end of 2005, our shipping company was renamed Wessels Reederei GmbH & Co. KG as part of a restructuring program initiated by Gerd Wessels.