Islands of the imagination, a Scottish dolphin, and a royal slot

I am awoken around 0530 by the sound of shouts and the splash of an engine exhaust as the ecowarriors leave. Through the hatch window I see the top of their mast gliding by, its anemometer spinning in the wind. Then all is quiet again. I snuggle back under the duvet and go back to sleep.

We have a leisurely breakfast and set off ourselves at 1000. It is sunny, the sea is calm, and the islands of Biørnø and Avernakø shimmer in the distance.

“They just look so beautiful”, says the First Mate. “Sort of mystical.”

There is something alluring about islands to the human psyche. My mind drifts back to a book that I read over winter, The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination, by Philip Marsden, given to us at Christmas by Uli and Ian, friends of ours. In it he describes his voyage in an old wooden boat up the western coast of Ireland to the Summer Isles on the west coast of Scotland to honour the memory of a close friend of his who had died in a mountaineering accident.

In the book, he talks about Tír na nÓg, the Land of the Young, an island in Celtic mythology far to the west of Ireland. Tír na nÓg is part of the Otherworld, where the Tuatha Dé, the ancient warriors of Ireland and People of God, live with their families, and remain forever young, beautiful, prosperous and happy. For mere mortals to get there, you need to be invited by one of the Tuatha Dé, and then make an immran, or voyage, along the Mag Mell, the golden path made by the sun on the sea as it sets.

Following MagMell to Tír na nÓg.

In one of the tales associated with Tír na nÓg, an Irish prince called Oisin meets and falls in love with Niamh, a beautiful woman from the Otherworld who invites him to sail across the sea to Tír na nÓg and live with her. He quite likes it there, but after three years, starts to miss his home in Ireland. She reluctantly lets him sail back again, but warns him never to touch the ground. When he gets back, he finds that, rather than three years, three hundred years have passed, and that all his family and friends have long gone. As he rides around looking for familiar faces and places, his horse trips on a stone and he falls off onto the ground. Immediately he turns into an old man as his body rapidly catches up with the intervening 300 years, and he dies, turning into dust.

Marsden never actually makes it to the Summer Isles, instead they remain a focus of his imagination, rather than becoming reality, while the voyage becomes a discovery of Celtic traditions of islands and the sea. In some ways it is better he doesn’t make it, as the isles remain a place of enchantment and meaning rather than crystallisation into a definite experience. A voyage is a passage of the soul, he says. It is the journey rather than the destination that is important.

We feel a little bit the same. We look forward with excitement and anticipation to each new island or town that we head for, we spend a few days looking at the sights and experiencing its character, then we feel the urge to move on to the next. Each contributes to the accumulated experiences of the voyage, even though the specific memories of each may fade. Somewhat superficial perhaps, without getting to grips with the bustle of life underneath, but the depth comes from the synthesis into a wider picture.

Lost in my reverie, it takes me some time to notice that the wind has dropped to almost nothing, and also seems to have changed direction. We are almost motionless. The boat following us a little way behind us is in the same predicament. We both try to tack northwards to catch some wind, somewhat unsuccessfully. A few seconds later we heel violently as an intense gust of wind out of the blue catches us and spins us around.

“What are you doing?”, shouts the First Mate.

I don’t have time to answer as I fight against the wheel to try to turn Ruby Tuesday into the wind. The sails begin to flap noisily, but we eventually regain a vertical position. Just as soon as we do, the wind dies down again.

“Phew, that was a bit scary”, I say. “I am not sure what happened there. From 10 knots to zero, then back up to 20 knots, then back to 10 knots in a minute or so. Some local topographic effect, I suppose.”

A sudden violent gust out of the blue.

We approach Svendborg, following the narrow buoyed channel under the massive traffic bridge that spans the sound. Far above us, we can hear the hum of the cars and lorries crossing from one side to the other.

“Look”, cries the First Mate. “There’s a dolphin up ahead. It looks like he is welcoming us.”

Sure enough, we see a fin and sleek grey body of a dolphin arching in and out of the water in front of us. A kayaker has stopped and is taking photos. I slip the propeller into neutral and we drift with the current for a few minutes watching him. He seems to relish having an audience and runs through his repertoire of tricks, swimming on his back and his front alternately, diving under the boat, and once, leaping out of the water completely. Eventually he disappears to swim off somewhere else. We learn later that his name is Delle, and that he has been positively identified as having come from the Moray Firth in Scotland just north of where we live, where he was known as Yoda!

Yoda or Delle, the Svendborg dolphin.

“No wonder he was so excited to see us”, I say. “He could probably smell the Moray Firth algae on our hull.”

“I wonder what possessed him to come all the way from the Moray Firth to Svendborg”, says the First Mate. “And all by himself too!”

“I suppose it’s a bit like Wally the Walrus who travelled all the way from Norway to the Isles of Scilly”, I say.

We decide to moor in the city harbour rather than one of the marinas on the outskirts. Luckily there is one berth left. From there it is only ten minutes’ walk to the city centre.

Tied up in Svendborg harbour.

Svendborg dates back to the early 1100s, and was an important trading centre in the Middle Ages. After that it fell into decline, but began to increase in prosperity again with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, when rail links were established and the harbour was developed as an active port. Nowadays, because of its relaxed shopping atmosphere, it is also a popular tourist destination.

We walk up the steps from the harbour, and find ourselves in the main shopping street.

“Look, they must have known we were coming”, says the First Mate. “They’ve rolled out the red carpet for us.”

Special treatment.
Vor Frue Sogn, Svendborg.

“I’ve just spotted the Danish version of SpecSavers”, I say. “I’ll see if I can get my glasses fixed.”

My glasses had broken way back on the Frisian Islands somewhere, but since then I had been unable to find anywhere that could or would fix them. I had been told by one that I would need to take them back to the company I bought them from. Unfortunately, they hadn’t had branches in Holland or Germany. But they do in Denmark.

“Yes, our parent company is SpecSavers”, says the girl behind the counter. “I’ll see what I can do.”

The Danish version of SpecSavers.

Within a few minutes, she has glued the leg back on, and strengthened it with a small plastic tube. And all for free.

“They did it, they did it!”, I sat to the First Mate when I catch up with her. “Now I have my old glasses back again.”

“I think I prefer you with your spare pair”, she says. “I’ve got used to them now.”

The next morning dawns bright and sunny with a cloudless sky. Over breakfast, we sit and watch the clouds roll in from the north. The forecast is for good weather in the morning, but rain in the afternoon.

“I know”, says the First Mate. “Let’s go for a cycle ride out to the Tåsinge Island this morning. There’s a place called Valdemar’s Slot that’s worth seeing, and there are some pretty little harbours to visit on the way. We can be back before it rains.”

“It was good of Valdemar to fit us in”, I say.

“Is that one of your jokes?”, she says.

“It was a bit obscure”, I admit. “Don’t feel bad. Not many people will get it.”

I do a Google Translate and learn that slot means castle in Danish, similar to the German schloss. All is clear.

We unload the bikes and set off. To get to the island, we need to cross the Svendborg Sund Bridge that we had sailed underneath as we arrived. From sea level it towers over us, and I wonder how on earth we are going to manage to get up there on our little bikes. Luckily, the route to it curves around gently, and before long we are on top of the bridge looking down. The view is spectacular. Below us, two yachts are just about to go under the bridge, and in the distance, we can see the harbour where Ruby Tuesday is tied up.

View from the top of Svendborg Sund Bridge.

We whizz down the other side of the bridge without pedalling, and turn left to follow the road around the coast.

The First Mate whizzes down the far side of the bridge.

We reach Trönse, which we had been told has a nice marina and that it is a good place to stay for a night or two. However, we decide against moving Ruby Tuesday here as it is somewhat exposed to the north, and strong north winds are forecast. 

Trönse marina – nice, but exposed to northerlies.

We eventually reach Valdemar’s Slot. I had half-expected a stone construction with battlements and turrets, but it turns out to be more of a country mansion. Nevertheless, it is impressive with its gates, gardens, pond and stables.

The castle was originally built in 1644 by King Christian IV for his son Valdemar. Unfortunately, Valdemar went off to fight and was killed in Poland. It was badly damaged in the Danish-Swedish wars of 1658–60, but was subsequently gifted by a grateful nation to the Danish maritime hero Niels Juel for his third victory over the Swedes in 1678. His grandson created the castle grounds with the lake, as well as the different stalls and stables. The castle is still owned by the Juel family.

Entrance to Valdemar’s Slot.

“There’s a sign saying that it is closed”, says the First Mate.

“Does it mean just closed for today, or closed for good?”, I ask.

“It’s not clear, but it looks closed for good, if you ask me”, she says.

Valdemar’s Slot.

There is a man standing by the gate. We ask him.

“It closed for good a month or so ago”, he says. “Money. That’s what did it. Or at least lack of it. They weren’t making enough from visitors to cover the maintenance.”

He doesn’t know what will happen to it now. Perhaps another buyer might buy it. It’s somehow sad. It has a certain beauty about it, and is now facing an uncertain future. Will it fall into rack and ruin?

“It’s certainly very impressive”, says the First Mate. “But I am glad I don’t have to keep it clean.”

We decide to wend our way back to the bridge via small country roads. Along the way, fields of barley lie freshly harvested. Oak trees spread their leafy branches. Birds chirrup in the hedgerows. Cows graze peacefully in the paddocks. A dog barks as we cycle past. We pass several cute thatched cottages. A trip back in time. For some reason, it reminds me of the Rupert Bear books I used to read when I was a child.

Picture postcard cottages.

I suddenly realise that the First Mate is not behind me. I wait for ten minutes, but there is no sign of her. I wait another five minutes, then decide to cycle back to look for her. Just as I jump back on the bike, she comes around the corner.

“Where did you get to?”, I ask. “

“I was picking blackberries”, she says. “Look. Here are some more. Help me get these. Just be careful of the thorns.”

We start picking.

Picking blackberries.

“Aaaaagh”, she shouts.

“What’s the matter?”, I ask, as I stand on one leg to reach some blackberries without falling into the ditch.

“I pricked my thumb on a thorn”, she says.

We spend ten minutes trying to extract the thorn. It’s not easy without tweezers.

“I think it has gone”, says the First Mate. “It’s not so painful anymore. Look – I wish we could reach those ones up there. There are some really big ones just beyond reach. But these will do. You can have some on your muesli and I’ll make jam with the rest.”

On the way back, I decide to look for a bicycle shop. The clacking in my pedals has started again. I think it may be the bearings having loosened again. I need a couple of tools to take the pedal cranks off and extract the bearings and spindles. There is a bike shop not far from the marina.

“I’ll just nip along to that cycle shop”, I say to the First Mate. “Hopefully, I can miss the rain. I’ll meet you back at the boat.”

“No, I am sorry that we don’t have those tools”, the shop assistant says, when I get there. “Most bikes we deal with these days have sealed bearings and use different tools. You could try Hensen’s though. They might have them”

I look up ‘cycles’ and ‘Hensen’ on Google Maps. It tells me the shop is a couple of miles from the boat, but in another direction. Unfortunately there is also a steep hill to deal with. I need the parts though, so I decide to give it a go. Just at that moment, it starts to rain.

I reach Hensen’s bike shop completely soaked. The owner has an enormous bushy beard and his hair tied back in a pony-tail, and is the spitting image of Gimli from Lord of the Rings. So this is where he ended up. I do a quick scan around the shop to see if Legolas and Aragorn are there too, but they must have gone off for lunch. I explain which tools I need.

“I am sorry”, says Gimli, stroking his beard. “We don’t have those tools any more. They are not used very much these days. But you could try Hensen’s Autoparts. They might have them. They are on the other side of the city.”

I realise that this is probably the Hensen’s that the first cycle shop meant. The rain is torrential now. I speed down the hill again. The brakes are not working very well because of the water. Another hill looms through the sheets of rain. Tired, wet and cold, I pant my way to the top of it and eventually find Hensen’s AutoParts.

“Yes, we have those parts you need”, says the helpful assistant. “Is it raining outside? You look a bit damp.”

Back at the boat, I stand in the cockpit while the water drains from my clothes. A small pool forms around my feet.

“You’re all wet”, says the First Mate. “Did you fall in the harbour or something?”

A defeat, a quiet anchorage, and some ecowarriors

We leave Flensburg in the morning after topping up with fuel. The tank is still half full, and it is the first top up since we started. Most of it is because we were required to motor through the Kiel Canal, so we haven’t been doing too badly. So far this season, there has been a lot of wind, and we have been making the most of it.

We arrive at the Sønderborg marina on the south side of the town and tie up. It’s a box berth, but we are getting fairly experienced in box berths now, and we glide in gracefully and don’t even miss lassoing the poles on the way in or bump the bow against the pontoon.

“We’ll have to get used to calling everything a ‘-borg’ now that we are in Denmark, rather than a ‘-burg’ as we do in Germany, or a ‘-burgh’ as we do in Scotland”, says the First Mate.

“Not only that, I’ll have to look out how to do all these ‘ø’s, ‘å’s, ‘ö’s and ‘ä’s on my keyboard”, I respond. “Why can’t you Europeans just keep it simple? Twenty-six letters without all this fancy stuff on top are quite enough.”

We cycle into town and check out the shops. The prices are eye-watering.

“I’m glad that we did the ‘big shop’ in Flensburg”, says the First Mate. “At least we have enough to keep us going for the meantime.”

I shudder. My shoulders still haven’t resumed their normal shape.

Checking the prices!

“Look at all these umbrellas hanging up in the street”, says the First Mate. “I wonder what they signify?”

“Shoes in Flensburg, umbrellas in Sønderborg”, I say. “Do you notice a pattern here? It’ll be underpants in the next town.”

“Don’t be silly”, she says.

Mary Poppins town.

The next day, the water has risen again due to a wind change. We can hardly climb back into the boat from the pontoon which is fixed and not floating.

“I know”, says the First Mate. “We can use those little folding steps that we bought in Hoorn. I knew they would come in useful some time.”

They work brilliantly.

The next step.

The night air chills our bones, and we wrap our cloaks tighter around us and try to snatch what sleep we can. All the way down the hillside are fires, the orange flames leaping skywards as the soldiers throw on more logs. On the hill opposite are the fires of the enemy. I recall playing as a child on the ground that is now under their control. But it won’t be for long. Tomorrow we will show them, and drive them from the land that is rightfully ours, all the way back to the Danevirke.

“We should never have withdrawn from the Danevirke”, says my friend Johan, his face lit by the flickering flames. “It is the border of our country and a symbol of our nation. Abandoning it seems like a dereliction of duty.”

“The swamps at each end of it had frozen”, I say. “The enemy could have ignored the fortifications and just marched around the ends of it. We would have been outflanked. Now try and get some sleep.”

The Retreat from the Danevirke (from Wikimedia Commons).

We are awoken in the middle of the night by the dull thunder of the enemy cannon. Seconds later, the balls strike the wooden palisades of our redoubts, destroying them in showers of splinters. Grenades fly through the air behind our lines and explode in deafening claps. The enemy have launched their attack. We leap to our feet, out bodies still cold, tired and exhausted. The gun-smoke irritates our eyes, making it difficult for us to see what is happening. Behind us, the Dybbol Mill is hit and bursts into flames, lighting up the sky like a portent of doom.

In the morning, the Prussians charge our positions. Our men put up a stubborn fight and manage to beat them off. Heroes, every one of them. Our warship, the Rolf Krake, bombards the enemy positions from the bay. The Prussians have no warships and can do nothing about her. Things seem to be going well after all.

But slowly the tide turns. The enemy outnumber us and have modern rifles that they can reload lying down, while we need to stand up and are easy targets. They mount charge after charge, and eventually break through and capture one of our redoubts. And another. And another. Our men lie dead and dying around us. I look for Johan, but he is nowhere to be seen.

“National Retreat”, Martin Bigum, 1996.

We fall back to cross the bridge over the Alsund to Sönderborg. Defeat is written in the faces of the exhausted and dirty soldiers and the civilians that trudge along the road through the mud and snow. We have lost the battle and the war. What will happen now?

One of the stragglers, a young girl, is struggling with a baby in one arm and a bag of her possessions. I put my arm around her to stop her from falling …

“Hey, what do you think you are doing?”, a familiar voice says. “We’re in public, you know!”

It’s the First Mate, of course.

“I was just giving you a hygge”, I say.

We are at the Dybbol Mill on the hill overlooking Sønderborg, the site of the last battle of the Second Schleswig War in 1864, in which the Danes were defeated by the Prussian Army. I am imagining what it might have been like for a Danish soldier during the battle. It has particular resonance with the Danish psyche as it was the battle that lost them the southern part of Jutland to the Germans for more than 50 years. To make matters worse, the Danevirke, a line of fortifications built in AD 650 as a defence against the Saxons and later the Franks, and nowadays the symbol of their national pride, had been within that lost territory, a situation that continues to this day even though the northern part of Schleswig has been returned to them.

Dybbol Mill and memorial to the 1864 battle.

We cycle back into town to the museum at Sønderborg Castle. The castle was built around 1200 as a royal palace, but was later taken over by the dukes who ruled Southern Jutland (Sønderjylland) stretching from the River Kongea in the north to the River Eider in the south.

Sønderborg Castle and museum.

The focus of the museum is on the archaeology and history of the region, particularly the tussles between Germany and Denmark over its sovereignty. Woodrow Wilson’s principle of a ‘people’s right to self-determination’ and the resulting referenda at the end of WW1 to settle the question are described in detail. While it was probably the fairest solution, it has still left national minorities on both sides of the modern day border.

The point is made several times that archaeology is more than just a science – it is also a tool to establish ownership of territory as part of a nation. In the 19th century, many of the finds were examined minutely to see if they were more ‘Danish’ or more ‘German’. Nowadays, helped by membership of the EU, there seems to be more cooperation between the two sides, and archaeologists focus on working together to further the science rather than ownership of a particular piece of land.

Spearheads and sword blades in Sønderborg museum. Danish or German?

We leave the marina at 0900 the next morning and join the queue waiting for the Christian X bridge to open at 0938.

“I wonder why they chose 38 minutes past the hour to open the bridge”, muses the First Mate. “Couldn’t they have made it a round 40 minutes?”

Whatever the reason, the bridge opens punctually at 0938 and we follow the flotilla of other boats through to the Alsund, the stretch of water between South Jutland and the island of Als. The wind is from the north-west, and is a gentle breeze, just enough to allow us to sail majestically along the sound.

The bridge opens and we join the procession.

We arrive in Dyvig, a small inlet where we have decided to stay the night. Entrance into the small bay at the end is through a narrow buoyed channel about 15 m wide, which we need to negotiate carefully. We drop anchor in 5 m of water on the northern side of the bay where a few other boats are also anchored, and spend the rest of the day relaxing in the warm sunshine.

The next morning I awake to the sight of dappled light playing on the cabin roof reflected through the small side window. I make a cup of tea for myself and go and sit on deck. It is warm and sunny. The water is like a mirror, only the occasional zephyr of wind rippling it momentarily before it returns to its stillness. The other boats drift lazily at anchor, trees lean out over the water, the reflections of both almost perfect images of the real thing. All is quiet.

Except that it is not. As I relax I start to hear sounds that I am not normally aware of, sounds that my brain normally filters out because they are of no use to me in my daily life. Small birds chirrup. Wood pigeons coo in the trees along the water’s edge. A lone seagull mews as it flies overhead. Swans honk on the shingle spit protruding out into the water. A crow calls raucously, then flaps off into the distance. A fish breaks the surface, spreading ever-widening ripples. A cormorant takes to the air, its wing tips beating a rhythmic sound on the surface as it struggles to gain height. A heron stalks primly next to the bank of rushes, from time to time plunging its bill into the water like a stiletto and withdrawing it with a wriggling fish.

I focus still further, and begin to hear a gentle thrum of sound deeper down – the hum of bees, the chirp of insect legs, the rustling of leaves – almost like virtual particles winking in and out of existence, so low that I wonder if I am imagining it. But it is there.

A quiet anchorage.

I close my eyes and allow my mind to drift where it wants. Time stops. I am floating, detached from, and yet part of, the natural world around me.

There is a loud splash. Someone from one of the other boats has dived into the water. The world of humans once again asserts its dominance, and my reverie is shattered. It’s time for breakfast.

We weigh anchor at 1000 and set off for Faaborg. There is absolutely no wind, and we need to motor for the first couple of hours. The First Mate goes down below for a nap.

“You know”, says a familiar voice. “I overheard you talking last night about your visits to Dybbol Mill and the museum, and what makes a nation. So I thought I would do a bit of reading on the web.”

It’s Spencer. If you remember from last year, he found a way of linking his web into the Worldwide Wide Web and has become very knowledgeable on a lot of things.

“But I really wonder if the nation state will continue much longer”, he continues. “Its’s only a relatively new concept in the history of human affairs, and already there are a lot of things wrong with it.”

“Like what?”, I ask.

“Well, a nation is supposed to be a grouping of ethnically similar people with a common language, culture, history and territory”, he says. “Most modern nations are anything but that. Take many countries in Africa as examples – most were created on a map by Europeans with no regard for tribal differences and shared languages, and borders often just represented arrangements made between the European colonisers on their areas of influence. Most of the war in the last 100 years or so have been over territory and resources and who owns them. Even here in Denmark, the way that Schleswig was divided between ethnic Germans and Danes still causes unease.”

“I know the nation state concept is not perfect”, I say defensively. “But it is the best we have, and it works. Sort of.”

“Possibly”, says Spencer. “But the forces of the 21st century are causing it to creak at the seams. Globalisation and the internet, for example, are making a mockery of national borders. Some big companies have budgets greater than many countries and others already do things that governments used to do, such as surveillance and mapping. The wealthy are able to escape national restrictions, and governments have lost control over the flows of money that may be generated in their own countries. Where is the nation state in all of this? What we really need is a supranational form of government that national governments are subject to.”

“I am not sure that a world government would gain much traction”, I say.

A tall ship is approaching us, and I break off the conversation to alter course slightly to avoid a collision.

A tall ship passes us.

“Look at the disaster unfolding in Afghanistan”, Spencer continues after it has passed. “Twenty years the western countries have tried to build a nation there, and it collapses within weeks after they withdraw. Not exactly a success story. Many in the Muslim world have lost faith in the western concept of a nation state as a form of governance, and want to restore the glories of their past empires, based on their religion. Empires, after all, were the main form of governance for much of human history.”

“But they all fell in the end”, I say. “Most sowed the seeds of their own destruction by overreaching themselves so that they couldn’t afford the costs of maintaining them. Look at the Roman and British Empires, for example.”

“True, but some did achieve a lot while they lasted”, he says. “The Ottoman Empire lasted 700 years and generated amazing prosperity and cultural achievement before it finally declined. Look, I am not saying that more empires are the solution – just that we need different forms of government than the nation state to solve the problems of climate change, globalisation, big data, and all the rest of it. They need to operate at the level of global economic flows so they can be controlled, not underneath it.”

We are approaching Faaborg, and I need to concentrate on entering the harbour. We find a place on the inner pier and tie up. I look for Spencer to continue the conversation, but there is no sign of him.

Tied up in Faaborg harbour.

We have lunch and go to explore the town. Faaborg is an old port, dating to before the 1200s. It became prosperous as a trading centre, trading as far afield as England and the Mediterranean. Nowadays its quaint houses and streets make it a popular tourist attraction.

Faaborg clock tower.
House in Faaborg.
If you can work out what’s going on here, drop us a line.

Just as we are thinking of retiring for the night we hear shouts outside, the sound of an engine, and some bumping of wood against wood.

“I think that we have some new neighbours”, says the First Mate.

I go out to see what is going on. Sure enough, a boat has arrived, and is trying to manoeuvre itself alongside the pier behind us. The darkness is making it difficult. I go and help.

“We are sailing around the archipelago and stopping at different harbours to raise awareness about pollution of our seas”, says the woman, as she throws a rope to me. “It is still legal to dump construction rubble in the seas, and many companies are doing it. Some of it contains toxic material, which is permitted below a certain level, but no-one checks, and many companies are dumping material that is above the limit. It’s killing off sea life. By the way, my name is Vibeke.”

In the morning, I chat to the skipper of the boat.

“Vibeke is a politician”, he says. “She is really concerned about the environment. We are old friends, and I am retired, and this year we thought it might be a good idea to sail to different places to protest about the pollution. There is a harbour fete here today, and we are distributing pamphlets.”

Vibeke appears from the boat to make a video of their plans for the day. Shortly afterwards it appears on her Facebook page. Later in the day, we see her handing out leaflets at the harbour fete.

New neighbours tie up behind us.

“It’s good to see some genuine concern for the environment from a politician”, says the First Mate.

A thunderstorm, an English homeland, and a Big Shop

“When I said that we had a whole new set of adventures in front of us, this wasn’t exactly what I meant”, says the First Mate.

We are sailing between Kiel and the entrance to the Schlei fjord. When we left Kiel, there had hardly been a breath of wind, and we had had to motor almost to the mouth of the Kiel Förde. There the wind had picked up considerably, and, coupled with a long swell from the east on our beam, had made the sailing somewhat uncomfortable, to say the least.

“It’s OK, we don’t have that far to go”, I try and reassure her. “Once we are in the Schlei, it should be calmer.”

I am wrong, at least for the first part. It is quite a long way, and if anything, the wind intensifies and the swell grows. Soon we are heeling at an alarming angle. I take a reef in, and we stabilise a little, but it is still rough. It dawns on me that we are the only boat in sight. Do they all know something we don’t?

We have no option but to push on. We eventually see one other boat, which reassures us that we are not the only crazy ones in the world. After what seems ages, we see the lighthouse marking the entrance to the Schlei fjord in the distance.

“I’ll be glad when we get there”, says the First Mate. “This has been the roughest we have sailed since, since… Well, since the last rough time.”

We surf in on one of the swells, past the lighthouse, and into the calmer water inside the breakwater.

“See”, I say. “At least I was right about that. It is calmer here.”

Approaching the entrance to the Schlei fjord.

We reach Kappeln, a small town on the north shore of the Schlei. Ominous dark clouds are gathering over the orange roof tops catching the sun momentarily. It feels like they are warning us away.

“The forecast said there were going to be thunderstorms this evening”, I say. “Those clouds must be them.”

The town has three marinas along the waterfront, all more-or-less next to each other. We do a quick looksee around the first one, but there are no vacant berths. We motor down to the next marina, a few hundred metres further on. The same there. And the third. What shall we do? The First Mate calls one of them on the phone and asks if there is somewhere we can berth.

“If you don’t mind tying up on the edge of one of the entrance ways, you can have there”, he says. “It’s kind of like half a box-berth – only one stern pole.”

It’s not ideal, but beggars can’t be choosers.

We edge in, but the First Mate misses the pole with her lasso. The wind is catching the bow and blowing the stern around, close to another boat. I reverse out and try again. This time she manages to get the line around the pole and hands it back to me. We motor forward gingerly, and manage to get the bow lines attached. I tighten the stern line to position the boat as parallel with the other boats as possible. At least it will do for the meantime.

Twenty minutes later, the thunderstorm starts. We sit cowering in the cockpit enclosure watching it raging around us. Sometimes the lightning cracks directly overhead and we pray that we are not the tallest mast in the marina. The rain is torrential and reminds me of the monsoon in India.

Waiting out the thunderstorm.

Bedraggled birds cling to the mooring ropes waiting for it to pass. At least they are sheltered in between the boats.

Hunkering down against the storm.

The storm abates during the night, and the next day dawns bright and sunny. We decide to cycle into Kappeln town about a kilometre from the marina and explore. A key feature of the town is its bridge, which lifts in the middle to allow boats to pass through.

The lifting bridge in Kappeln.

The Schlei Princess leaves the dock, taking day trippers out to the lighthouse at the mouth of the Schei that we passed as we came in.

The Schlei Princess.

A musician sings Let it Be. The old ones are the best ones. The songs, that is.

When I find myself in times of trouble …”.

On the hill, where it can catch the wind, is the town windmill.

Kappeln windmill.

A mural highlights the importance that fishing plays in the prosperity of the town.

Fishing for compliments.

The next day we take the bus from Kappeln to the town of Schleswig at the top of the Schlei fjord. We had considered sailing there, but there is another lifting bridge about halfway along, and we had heard stories that it is notoriously unreliable, sometimes remaining down for days.

For a while, we are the only ones on the bus, and the bus driver chats to us about the things to see in Schleswig. She drops us off near the magnificent baroque Gottorf Castle which now contains the Landesmuseen Schleswig-Holstein.

“Well worth a visit if you are interested in the archaeology of the region”, she says.

Gottorf Castle, Schleswig.

The cold north wind blows over the moor, chilling the small group of people waiting on the hillock. Mist rises from the pools of fetid water lying between the mounds of higher ground, as the spirits of the dead writhe in their eternal punishment. The clouds part momentarily, allowing the full moon to illuminate the two men holding the young girl. The women in the group begin to wail, their voices rising against the noise of the wind, and bringing tears to the eyes of the watchers. There is fear in the girl’s eyes, as she suddenly realises the nature of her punishment for betraying Nerthus, Mother Earth.

I shiver, and draw the hastily borrowed cloak around me. We had been born on the same day and had grown up together. We had played in the fields surrounding the village, and had watched and then taken part in the same annual rituals of sowing, reaping and harvest. She had been selected to be one of Nerthus’ servants, but we had remained friends. Then this year following the cleansing rites of Nerthus’ cart, robes and body, she had given birth to a male child. The rumour was that the father was from a neighbouring tribe, the Sachsens. The priests had decreed that she must be punished for this transgression of impurity against Mother Earth, but that her son would be spared. It had been foretold that he would become the progenitor of a mighty tribe of people who would eventually conquer many nations and spread their language to every corner of the world.

She struggles, but her captors are too strong. They hold her under the water until she is still, and the priests place the large stone over her body to keep it from rising to the surface again. Nerthus has been appeased.

I start running, running back to the village, anywhere to escape that terrible place and the bodies of the damned. My task now is to nurture and raise Angel, her son, to fulfil his destiny.

“Why are you walking so fast?”, says a familiar voice. You have that faraway look in your eyes again. Is it another one of your daydreams?”

It is the First Mate. In an instant, I am back in the present.

“I just had an idea that the café was about to close”, I say, thinking quickly. “I thought we had better get there soon if we want to have lunch.”

I had been looking at the prime exhibits of the museum – five bodies that had been found in the peat bogs of Schleswig-Holstein, known as the Moorleichen, and had been trying to imagine the circumstances of the death of one of the bodies, that of a young girl in her mid-teens.

Remains of young girl found in peat bog.
Reconstruction of the face of the young girl buried in a peat bog.

Except that it turns out from recent DNA analysis that ‘she’ was probably a young boy who may have died after a protracted illness. So much for daydreams.

We have lunch and explore Schleswig. The old part of town, Holm, is quite charming, originally the quarter where fishermen and their families lived, now highly desirable and expensive.

Holm, the fishermen’s quarter of Schlesvig.

We leave Kappeln the next morning for Flensburg. The winds are fair, and once out of the mouth of the Schlei we sail northwards on a pleasant beam reach. Soon however, we must turn west and directly into the wind, and we need to motor.

“You know, it’s quite interesting”, says a familiar voice. “I was reading on the web this morning that this area used to be inhabited by a tribe called the Angles.”

It is Spencer.

“Yes, I know”, I say. “In fact, on the bus yesterday to Schleswig, we passed a sign pointing the way to a place called Angeln.”

“That would be named after them”, he says. “But did you know that this particular tribe migrated to Britain after the Romans left in A.D. 410? The part of Britain where they lived became known as Angle-Land, or England as we know it today.”

“Well, yes, I was vaguely aware of that”, I say, casting back to my history lessons at school. Spencer could be a bit of a know-all at times. “But I thought that the Saxons were also involved?”

“That’s true”, he says. “They lived a bit further south from here – where you went to visit the First Mate’s sister, in fact. Together they became known as the Anglo-Saxons.”

“Of course”, I gasp. “The descendants of the girl in the peat bog we saw in the museum. It all makes sense now.”

“The Jutes and the Frisians were also lumped in with them”, Spencer continues. “There’s still a bit of a debate about how they all came to Britain. You see, it used to be thought that they invaded and chased the existing people, the Romano-Britons, over to the western side of the British Isles, to where Wales and Cornwall are today. But genetic research has shown that that didn’t really happen, and the Romano-Britons pretty much stayed put. So the latest thinking is that it may have been a kind of Anglo-Saxon warrior elite that settled here and dominated the local population, but didn’t chase them off. Because they were the rulers, their language, known today as Old English, was prestigious and spread through Britain.”

“It’s amazing that a couple of small tribes originally from the swamps and forests in northern Germany eventually spread themselves and their language throughout the whole world”, I say. “I wonder what the girl in the peat bog would think if she knew that would happen?”

“I have no idea”, says Spencer. “But what I do find puzzling is the anti-German feeling that still exists in many parts of England today, which Brexit exposed. Why should they still feel hard done by by the Germans, when they are German themselves?”

“It’s a difficult one to explain rationally”, I say. “But I am sure that everyone has their own theory.”

“You could say the same thing about immigration in general”, he continues. “You are all immigrants if you go back far enough. I wonder what the Romano-British people thought about those hordes of Anglo-Saxons descending on them from the Continent?”

“Well, there’s no record of them having a referendum about it, at least”, I say. “Perhaps they liked the idea of having some fresh blood?”

We arrive in Flensburg and tie up to end of a pontoon in the City Marina, ten minutes’ walk from the town centre. There is something very appealing about being able to sail to a city centre with your own home and use it as a base to explore.

Arriving in Flensburg.

We spend the rest of the afternoon doing just that. Flensburg is an old city, founded around AD 1200, and is a pleasant mix of German and Danish culture. Although now in Germany, there is a Danish library and several Danish restaurants.

A mixture of Danish and German culture.

Although it wasn’t part of the Hanseactic League, many of the old buildings reflect its past importance as a major trading centre. One such is the West Indian Warehouse, now converted into prestigious apartments.

The West-Indian Warehouse, Flensburg.

We are particularly intrigued by the lines of shoes hanging above some of the streets. No one seems to know what they signify, although there are various theories.

“It used to signify that drug dealers were active here”, says one person we asked.

“No, that’s not right”, says another. “There have never been drugs here. Someone dropped their shoes there from a top floor apartment by accident one day, and other people just thought it a good idea, and started throwing their old shoes there too.”

Take your pick.

Hanging shoe puzzle.

Flensburg beer is well-known throughout Germany.

A popular beer.

We find the Captains’ Quarter quaint and peaceful. Previously it was where the sea trading captains lived.

Exploring the Captain’s Quarter of Flensburg.

“Have you noticed that there seem to be sirens going all the time?”, I say to the First Mate. “Every time I hear one in future, I’ll think of Flensburg.”

“It’s because the hospital and police station are right in the city centre”, she says.

City of sirens.

When we get back, there is a big catamaran tied up behind us. The name on it is Anakiwa.

“That’s a very Polynesian name that you have for your boat”, I say to the skipper.

“It’s named after a place in New Zealand where there is an Outward Bound school”, he explains. “I worked there for a while to gain experience, then I came back to Germany and now I run my own Outward Bound courses, mainly on sailing. It’s all about pushing yourself to the limit so that you know what you are capable of. One cohort has just left, and I am expecting another one tomorrow. They love it, and many come back again. My name’s Ben, by the way.”

Memory stirs. I had been to Anakiwa once before, when our parents had taken us on a family holiday near there in the Marlborough Sounds when I was about 10. Ben is astonished that I have heard of it, let alone been there.

“I guess you are getting used to there being little tide here in the Baltic?”, he says, noticing our flag. “But actually, we have what are called ‘wind-tides’ where strong winds from a particular direction for a period of time can push the water to the other side of the Baltic, raising the water level there and lowering it on the other.

“It has been blowing from the west for several days now”, he says. “You can see here on the pier how much the water level has dropped – probably nearly a metre. The wind has pushed all the water over to the eastern side of the Baltic – they’ll be getting higher water in Lithuania, Latvia and the like.”

‘Wind tides’ in the Baltic.

“I think that we should do a Big Shop before we go”, says the First Mate over breakfast the next morning. “It’s so expensive in Denmark that we should buy as much here as we can to last us.”

We dig out our big rucksacks from the recesses of the boat where they have been stored, and cycle to the nearest Lidl store. ‘Nearest’ is relative in this case – it turns out to be 4 km from the marina. Not only that, it is uphill almost all the way.

We reach the Lidl store. Soon we have a nearly full trolley.

Filling the trolley.

“I think we have overdone it”, I say. “We’ll never get all this back on our small bicycles. I’ll go and put some back.”

“Don’t worry”, says the First Mate. “We’ll manage somehow.”

I groan. I have learnt over the years that the ‘we’ in this case is a peculiar variant of the ‘Royal We’. Diametrically opposite, in fact. What she means is that ‘you’ll manage somehow’.

We load up the rucksacks. Mine is 60 litres in volume, I remember from the blurb when I bought it. Plus the pockets on the side. Fifteen litres each.

“You can carry all the wine and soft drinks”, says the First Mate. “They’ll never fit in mine.”

We somehow manage to get all the liquids into my rucksack. And the potatoes. And the leeks. And the meat.

“What have you got in yours?”, I say.

“Bread”, says the First Mate. “Cakes. And a few other bits and pieces. By the way, it doesn’t look like you have put anything in your side pockets. Here, you can put the onions in there.”

As I put on the rucksack, I notice other shoppers coming out staring at me disbelievingly. I smile at them as though I do this two or three times a day for a living. No-one is fooled. I climb on to the bicycle. The front wheel lifts off the ground.

“You’ll have to lean forward to keep the wheel down”, says the First Mate.

Getting the ‘big shop’ back to the boat.

Luckily it is more-or-less downhill all the way back to the boat. My concern is that the brakes won’t stop me once I gather speed down the hill. But somehow they do, and we make it back. My shoulders feel as if they have a permanent bend in them. The wrong way.

“I’ll never do that again”, I say. “I almost had a heart attack.”

“I was thinking we could have got another carton of wine in”, says the First Mate. “We didn’t have anything on the bike carriers.”

I start unpacking my rucksack.

“Hey, I thought you said you had the bread in yours”, I say.

“Did I?”, says the First Mate absent-mindedly, already answering her texts.

Through the Kiel Canal – we reach the Baltic at last!

“It’s a bit of a race for the marina when the lock gates open”, says the skipper of the boat in front of us. “It can get quite full, and if you want a place for the night you need to make a dash for it.”

We are in the lock at the entrance to the Kiel Canal in Brunsbüttal waiting for the gates to open. We had left Cuxhaven around lunchtime to catch the incoming tide, and had had a good sail up the Elbe assisted by the current and a westerly wind behind us, making eight knots at times with just the genoa.

So much so, we had even overshot the entrance to the Canal slightly and had had to struggle to get back against both current and wind. But we had made it, and the skipper of the boat in front had helped us tie up to the floating pontoons inside the lock.

Sailing up the Elbe with just the genoa.

“But we are lucky”, he continues. “Both of us are at the front of the lock, so we have a head start on the others.”

“Come on”, says the First Mate to me. “We don’t want to miss out. Get the engine started.”

Already the other boats have their engines running and are keenly looking for when the gates open. When they do, they all surge forward like greyhounds released from their starting positions. That is if 10 tonne boats with a maximum speed of 6 knots can be likened to greyhounds. But we are not slow off the mark either, and leave the lock in second position behind our friendly skipper. There is some jockeying for position, but we keep our place and enter the tiny marina to the side of the lock before the others. Sure enough there are not a lot of spaces left, but we find one rafting up to another boat with a Swedish flag. Helping hands reach for our lines and we are soon secured. We are safe for the night.

Safely ensconced for the night at Brunsbüttal.

Not that we have a quiet night. As we are so close to the canal, large ships pass by mere meters away from us as they enter the lock, their engines rumbling and their propellers churning the water as they go. In the end, however, it becomes strangely rhythmic and we manage to sleep well until the morning. We just hope that their positioning systems are precise – an error of a couple of meters could spell disaster!

Big ships passing through the Brunsbüttal lock.

The Kiel Canal was built in 1895 by Kaiser Wilhelm II to provide a way for the German navy and merchant shipping to avoid going around the top of Denmark, as the two countries weren’t particularly friendly at that  time. It is nearly 100 km long, and an average of 90 ships pass through it every day. At the moment, as a concession to the coronavirus, it is totally free to use. Sailing is not allowed, so we have to motor the whole way.

We leave at around 1000 the next morning. It is squally weather – one moment a torrential downpour, the next brilliant sunshine. From time to time huge container ships pass us, dwarfing us with their size. We stick well to the starboard side of the Canal to give them as much room as possible, but are surprised how little wake they produce – they slip past, hardly rocking us.

The First Mate holding her nerve as a large container ship passes.

We approach a ferry crossing. Usually these consist of two ferries that cross alternatively from one side to the other, so that there are two to look out for. Not only that, they have right of way, at least for yachts. The problem is that they can set off at any time, so you need to keep an eye on when they are likely to leave by being fully loaded by cars. It is probably just my overactive imagination, but on more than one occasion, I could have sworn that they lie in wait for an unsuspecting yacht and time their departure just as the yacht is approaching to force them to stop!

A ferry crosses in front of us.

We eventually reach Rendsburg and pass under the railway bridge spanning high above the Canal.

The Rendsburg railway bridge.

“The guidebook says that it was built in 1913 to take the railway over the Kiel Canal”, says the First Mate. “It’s supposed to be the longest railway bridge in Europe at 2,500 metres in length and 41 metres in height.”

It’s certainly an impressive structure. Suspended underneath is the transporter unit that can also take cars across from one side to the other like an aerial ferry. We find out later that it is not working, and is taking some time to repair.

We turn left and enter the Eider River branch to the marina near the city centre. We see an empty box berth and go for it. There is a strong cross-wind blowing, and it is difficult to tie up. Luckily we are helped by a friendly couple a few berths along who see our predicament. Before long we are secure. We’ll need to practice these box berths, particularly when they are long ones and the wind is blowing.

Safely tied up for the night in Rendsburg.

In the morning, we explore the town. It is old, and over the years has flip-flopped between being part of Denmark and part of Germany. Since 1864, it has remained the latter. Although it is connected to the sea by the Eider River, it really gained in importance when the Kiel Canal was built, and is now a proper seaport despite being well inland.

The Marienkirche is one of the oldest in the area, having been built in 1286.

The Marienkirche, Rendsburg.

The Old Town Hall dates from the 16th century.

The Old Town Hall.

There is still a market once a week in the town’s Market Square.

The Market Square, Rendsburg.

“I just want to have a browse in that shop over there”, says the First Mate. “Why don’t you wait here for a minute? I won’t be long.”

I inwardly groan. The First Mate’s sense of ‘long’ is quite different from my own. Nevertheless, I do as I am told and wait in the recessed doorway of a department store. At least I can stay out of the rain.

The door of the shop opens. I move to one side to make way for the person coming out. There is nobody. It takes me a few seconds to realise that it is an automatic door and that it is me who has opened it by standing too close to it. I move a little bit further away and continue my wait.

I’m bored. I bend my leg backwards. The door opens and closes. I wait for a minute and move my arm slowly. The door opens and closes. I lift the other leg. The door opens and closes. I put my rucksack down. The door opens and closes. I pick up my rucksack. The door opens and closes. It’s fun, in an eight-year-old’s kind of way.

I notice one of the shop assistants at the perfume counter is glaring at me. With a flourish, I lift my leg one more time, and move out into the street. The door opens and closes.

“Sorry”, says the First Mate, returning. “That took a little bit longer than I thought. I hope you weren’t too bored waiting?”

“Not at all”, I say. “I had plenty to do.”

In the afternoon, we walk to the Fussweg unter dem Canal, a tunnel under the Kiel Canal for pedestrians and cyclists to cross from one side to the other. There is a steep escalator that goes down deep enough to get below the water depth, then a long wide tunnel like those on the London Underground, and another escalator at the other end.

The escalator down to the tunnel.

“It’s amazing to think of the tunnel supporting all those heavy ships passing by in both directions above us”, says the First Mate. “I hope they have done their calculations right. I wouldn’t like being in the tunnel if it collapsed.”

I rack my brains for my fifth-form physics lessons with Mr Butcher. I seem to remember him telling us that a ship displaces the same weight of water that it weighs itself. So there would be no extra weight involved as the ships pass over, as they would have just pushed water with the same weight out of the way. As we pass the halfway mark of the tunnel, I just hope that he knew what he was talking about and that my memory is still good.

The pedestrian tunnel under the Kiel Canal.

The next day Volkmar arrives. Volkmar is an old friend of the First Mate, and now lives in Kiel. He used to sail in his younger days. We have arranged for him to join us in Rendsburg and accompany us along the Canal back to Kiel.

Volkmar joins us in Rendsburg.

“We are passing through the region of Schleswig-Holstein”, he tells us, as we sail past rolling fields and woods. “It’s had a fascinating history. For a long time the Schleswig part of it was under Danish influence, and Holstein was part of the Holy Roman Empire. But in reality, they were ruled by a common Duke, and it all seemed to work pretty well. But in the nineteenth century, things came to a head, and Denmark decided to annex it. The Prussians weren’t too happy about that, so they invaded it, but were beaten back. A few years later, in 1864, they had another go, and this time they won. So Schleswig-Holstein was absorbed into the Prussian Empire.”

“Lunchtime!”, calls out the First Mate, bringing out sandwiches on a plate. “We can eat while Volkmar tells us about the history.”

“After WW1, there was a lot of debate about where to draw the borders of Germany”, he continues. “In this area, they decided that the best thing to do was to put it to the vote and ask the people whether they wanted to be part of Germany or part of Denmark. It turned out that in the southern part of Schleswig the majority wanted to be German, and in the northern part, the majority wanted to be Danish, so they worked out a border that reflected these results. They tried to follow natural features like streams, but this often ended up with farmers with fields in both countries. In the end, they found a way that took most people’s wishes into account, but in one case, the border even went through a house so that one side of it was in Germany and the other in Denmark!”

Did they have to use their passports to go to the bathroom, I wonder?

“I bet they did all their shopping at least on the German side where it is cheaper. Tea or coffee?”, says the First Mate, putting on the kettle.

“Coffee, please”, says Volkmar, pausing.

“Nowadays, there are minorities on each side of the border – Danish in Germany, German in Denmark – but they live happily enough together”, he continues. “The rights of each minority are guaranteed and respected. In the German town of Flensburg, for example, there is a Danish library, Danish restaurants, and so on, while in the Danish town of Sönderborg, there is a German museum.”

“It sounds like a good way to solve territorial disputes”, I say. “It’s a pity that they don’t do that more often in other parts of the world, rather than resorting to war.”

We are approaching the lock at the Kiel-Holtenau end of the Canal. There are a few other sailboats already waiting, so we join the group and wait to be instructed to enter the old lock used for pleasure craft. Something is said in German on the VHF, but none of us catches it. Not that it matters much, as all of the other boats start moving into the new lock used for the big commercial ships. We decide to follow suit. The lock is vast. There are wooden pontoons floating at water level that we are supposed to tie up to.

We tie up in the lock for commercial ships at Keil-Holtenau.

“Careful not to touch the pontoons”, calls out the First Mate. “The fenders are not much use as they are floating on the surface and are not protecting the boat.”

We find out later that savvy sailors tie weights onto the end of the fenders to hold them perpendicular in the water to work properly. I make a mental note to do that next time.

We edge in gently and manage not to damage the hull. There are rings on the pontoons that we attach temporary lines to.

The enormous gates at the far end of the lock eventually open and we motor forward. We have reached the Baltic Sea!

We enter the Baltic Sea!

“There’s quite a nice marina on the other side of the Kieler Förder”, says Volkmar. “You could tie up there the night and I can get the ferry back home again. There are a few things I need to do there. Then we can meet again in the morning for a bike ride. There are some nice routes on that side.”

“I’d really like to get my bike fixed before we get to Denmark”, says the First Mate over breakfast the next morning. “We can ask Volkmar if he knows any bike shops nearby.”

The mudguard had come off her front wheel some time ago. I had tried to fix it, but we needed a small part and we didn’t have anything on the boat that would do the trick. In addition, both of our bikes have developed annoying clacking sounds from the pedals which I suspect are loose crank bearings.

“Yes, there is a bike shop just up the road from the marina”, says Volkmar. “Five minutes’ from here. I’ll take you.”

Sure enough, the bike mechanic says he can fix it. He makes the small part and ten minutes later, the mudguard is firmly attached. Out comes the special tool for tightening pedal cranks, and that problem is also soon dealt with. The bikes are as good as new. We are glad, as the little folding bikes have proved invaluable, giving us much-needed mobility away from the boat.

Getting the bikes fixed.

Volkmar suggests lunch at a restaurant further up the coast from our marina, so we cycle along the coastal cycleway, though leafy forests and sandy beaches, until we get to Laboe.

“The pizzas are great here”, says Volkmar. “And there’s a nice place just a bit further on that we can have kaffee und kuchen afterwards. It’s one of my favourites.”

Tucking into our pizzas.

From there, we continue northwards. We pass a U-boat display – it looks interesting, but the queue to enter is too long.


On the way back, we hear some lilting violin music.

“Look there”, says the First Mate. “There’s an artist trying to attract people to buy her paintings. That’s novel.”


In the evening, we sit on deck and watch the sun go down over the Kielder Förde.

“Well, we have finally made it to the Baltic”, I say. “It took a while, but we did it.”

“Yes”, says the First Mate. “It feels like the start of another chapter, doesn’t it? We have a whole new set of adventures awaiting us.”

Sunset over Kielder Förde.

A Scottish king, lost soap, and visiting relatives

“I think I’ll go and have a nap”, says the First Mate. “These early starts don’t bring out the best in me.”

We had left Norderney marina at 0630, following our usual pattern of catching the last of the outgoing tide to carry us out through the gat into the North Sea then taking advantage of the beginning of the flood tide to carry us eastwards into the German Bight towards Cuxhaven. The sea is smooth, and the wind is on our beam, and we make a good speed.

Somewhere between Norderney and Cuxhaven.

“So how are you?”, says a familiar voice.

It is Spencer the spider. I haven’t seen him since the first day we arrived. I had wondered where he had got to.

Spencer looking for a chat.

“I’ve been pretty busy”, he explains. “That’s why I haven’t had any time so far to chat like last year. It’s all the paperwork I have had to do to travel within the EU. No longer just free-and-easy travel to anywhere – I can stay in each Schengen country for up to 90 days in every 180 days, but I have to get my passport stamped to prove where I was and when.”

“It sounds complicated”, I say. “I can sympathise.”

“Anyway, there is something I have been meaning to ask you”, he says. “When you arrived back on the boat, you mentioned there was something you wanted to tell me. What was it?”

“Oh, nothing that important”, I say. “You remember the night passage that we did from the Humber down to Lowestoft last year?”, I say. “The one where we talked about one of your ancestors being with a chap in a cave who destroyed his web with a sword?”

“Of course, I do”, says Spencer. “But what of it?”

“Well”, I say. “I got back into doing some family history research over the winter, and by strange coincidence I discovered that I am actually a descendent of that chap. His name was Robert the Bruce, the King of the Scots in the 1300s. It turns out he is my (great-)x22 grandfather.”

“Am I supposed to be impressed?”, he says. “You know, there is one thing that I don’t understand about you humans, and that is why you attach so much importance to history. With us spiders, we just are. Living in the present. We just about remember who our parents are.”

“But your mother told you that story of your ancestor”, I say. “That’s spider history.”

“I suppose it is”, he says, thinking it over. “ But I thought of it more as a good story to illustrate a point, not really history.”

“That’s maybe how it started in humans too”, I say. “When we learned to talk, we’d sit around a campfire and tell stories. The ones that illustrated a point, or information about prey, or places to live, or gave some meaning to our existence, would probably be remembered better than ones that didn’t. Over the years the good stories would be passed from one generation to the next, probably with small modifications each time. Then when writing came along, they were written down, there was less room for modification, and some of them came to be seen as universal truths. Now humans can’t get by without some kind of story to give meaning to their existence. Family history is just one of those kinds of story. Religion is another. Even writing a blog like this is constructing a narrative to give some meaning to our trip.”

We are passing through an anchoring area for container ships and I need to concentrate on not hitting any. Even so, there is a loud hoot from the ship’s horn of one as we pass close to the bow. There is no sign of activity anywhere, and I wonder where the crew are, and who saw us. We manage to pass by without getting tangled in the anchor chain.

Passing anchored container ships.

 “I can see where you are coming from”, says Spencer. “But if it is all just a nice story, then what’s the point? Looking for meaning in stories that you have constructed yourself is like looking for patterns in clouds – you’ll see whatever you want to see. It’s all just an illusion.”

“That’s as may be”, I respond. “But somehow us humans need such stories. It’s part of being human. They allow us to create a sense of direction and purpose for our species. And then we can see where we as individuals fit in and what role we will play.”

“All this Robert the Bruce stuff, for example”, he says. “You have constructed a nice narrative that you are descended from a Scottish king, but the reality is that he is only one of your ancestors and that you are descended from thousands of people, and he is just one of them. Why don’t you talk about the murderer that you are bound to have as an ancestor?”

“Well, I suppose I might do”, I counter, ”but so far I haven’t come across one. But I think part of it is the sense of belonging. I kind of feel an added depth that I am part of Scotland where I live. More so than I did before. I know that it is only a narrative, and that people who have just come from somewhere else are as much a part of Scotland as I am, but they probably also feel something similar for their own homelands as well.”

“Has he been on about Robert the Bruce again?”, says the First Mate, coming out of the cabin with cups of tea. “I bet he didn’t tell you that if you work out the number of people descending from Robert the Bruce over 23 generations assuming just two children per generation, that it comes to nearly 4 million, which is only a bit less than the population of present day Scotland? You could say that most of Scotland are descended from him. It’s no big deal.”

“Interesting”, says Spencer. “But you mentioned progress. Do you think human nature has progressed much since your Robert-the-Bruce? I don’t mean technical progress, as that is clearly developed in leaps and bounds since then, but progress in the sort of people we are.”

“You sound a bit like John Gray, the philosopher, if you don’t mind me saying so”, I say. “All things evolve and change, some things faster than others. Slow variables and fast variables, to use Panarchy-speak. A lot hasn’t changed much  – we still need the basics of life – food, shelter, mates, and we will go to extraordinary lengths to obtain them. We still like power and prestige, so if all these things are what you mean by human nature, then I suppose we are much the same. Those are slow variables. But morals have changed a lot since then – we probably value human life more, we respect each other more, we are much more tolerant towards others that are different from us, we probably have greater empathy for people in other countries. So if values, respect, tolerance and empathy are human nature, then yes, we have made progress. Those are fast variables.”

“You sound a bit like Stephen Pinker, the psychologist, if you don’t mind me saying so”, says Spencer.

A police boat passes us. It has a gun mounted on the back, and seems to be looking at us suspiciously.

Police boat on the look out.

“Are you sure you paid the marina bill before we left?”, I ask the First Mate anxiously. “Perhaps they’ve told the police and they have come to collect it.”

“Well, I was a Euro short, but the harbour-master said not to worry about it”, she says. “I hope he didn’t change his mind. And I did forget to wear my mask when I went to the toilet block just before we left. It could be that.”

The police boat ignores us, and continues on past. I feel a little bit hurt that we are so unimportant.

I turn to continue the conversation with Spencer, but he has disappeared. Was it him the police were looking for, I wonder?

Just as we reach the Elbe and the approaches to Cuxhaven, the wind dies, and we are forced to motor. We follow the green buoys in. Lots of massive container ships pass us.

Massive container ships dwarf us.

The First Mate has phoned ahead and arranged a berth for us at the Cuxhaven Yacht Club. We find it without too much trouble and tie up. Some sleepy seals are on the pontoon next to us.

Sleepy seals welcome us to Cuxhaven Yacht Club marina.

In the morning, I walk over to the washing block to take a shower. The system is that you put €1 in a slot meter to get four minutes of hot water for your shower.

I select my cubicle, undress, and put the €1 in the meter. Immediately it starts counting down. What they don’t tell you beforehand is that the timer is not related to the amount of hot water you get. I feel the water coming out. It is freezing. Gradually it warms up, but by this time 45 seconds has gone past.

I jump under the warm water and shampoo my hair and start to soap myself all over. Unfortunately, I drop the soap and it skithers under the dividing wall between the next cubicle and mine. I kneel down to see if I can see it. It’s on the far side of the cubicle and I can’t reach it.

There doesn’t seem to be anyone else in the shower block at the moment, so I decide to take a risk and retrieve it. I open my door and peer out. It is all clear. Just as I reach the cubicle where the soap is, I hear the main door open and voices. I peer out and see a father and son. Hopefully they will go into their own shower cubicles. I wait for a few moments, but they have come to brush their teeth in the basins. I decide I have to get back to my original cubicle, and try to saunter nonchalantly back. I feel like John Cleese in a Fish Called Wanda, but I ignore the astonished looks and disappear back into my cubicle.

Just as I do, the shower timer beeps and runs out.

Back in the boat, the First Mate looks at me in surprise.

“You’ve still got shampoo in your hair”, she says. “Didn’t you rinse it?”

“There was a problem with the slot timer”, I say. “It ran out of time.”

“We should try and get the money back”, she says.

In the afternoon, we get the bikes out and cycle into the city centre to explore. On the way, we pass the Alte Liebe, the remains of an old pier that today is used as a viewing platform to watch the ships pass by on the way up the Elbe to Hamburg. Details of each ship is announced by loudspeaker to any watchers who happen to be there. We wonder if Ruby Tuesday’s details will be announced when we come to sail past, but suspect we are only minnows and to small to be of any importance.

The Alte Liebe in Cuxhaven.

“Apparently, the name of the Alte Liebe, which means Old Love in English, comes from the name of one of the ships that was deliberately sunk on this spot to create the original pier”, the First Mate translates from the display board at the bottom of the steps leading to it.

Nearby is the Semaphore, a complicated mechanical contraption of levers, pulleys and wire cables that was used to signal to passing ships the weather conditions on the islands of Borkum and Heligoland so that the skippers could decide whether it was a good idea to go there or not. It was only used for a short time before radio communications were developed, and is kept nowadays as a curiosity of a bygone age in marine communications.

The Semaphore indicating wind conditions in Borkum and Heligoland.

“It’s amazing that it needs all those levers just to tell the windspeed and direction”, says the First Mate.

Further on, we pass a tower covered in plastic sheeting in a small park.

Christo work of art?

“It looks a bit like one of those Christo efforts”, I say. “You know, the ones where he covers iconic landmarks in fabric. Maybe he is around somewhere.”

I have a quick glance around, but there isn’t any sign of him on any of the paths or in any of the surrounding trees and bushes.

“I think it is just being renovated”, says the First Mate. “And in any case, I think he died a year or two ago, so it is unlikely to be him.”

No wonder I didn’t spot him.

We eventually reach the Schloss Ritzebuettal. This was built originally by feudal lords of Saxony-Lauenburg, and later taken over and used by officials of the city of Hamburg to control the entrance and exit of shipping on the Elbe. Nowadays it is used as a restaurant and for exhibitions and weddings.

Schloss Ritzebuettal.

The next day the First Mate’s sister Petra and her husband Juergen come to visit us.

We walk out to the Kugelbake, or Ball Beacon, the wooden beacon first built in the early 1700s that marks the somewhat arbitrary boundary between the North Sea and the River Elbe, and with its light was also an important navigational aid. Being of wood, it is rebuilt from time to time due to deterioration from the elements. These days it is used more as the city’s symbol.

The Kugelbake (Ball Beacon), Cuxhaven.

After coffee and cakes, we drive back to Petra and Juergen’s place. They live not far away near Wilhelmshaven.

Juergen is into motorbikes. He has a BMW 1200cc and is setting off for a week’s tour to Italy with friends the day after we leave.

“Do you fancy a ride?”, he says.

It’s a long time since I have been on a motorbike, in fact hardly since I had an accident on one when I was young and damaged my knee ligaments. But I say yes. I am kitted up in all the gear, and feel like a spaceman when the helmet goes on.

“Bye”, I say to the First Mate. “Give me a last hug. As First Mates go, you have been a pretty good one. I am glad that we got the Will done.”

“Don’t be silly”, she says. “You’ll be back. Just don’t fall off, that’s all. And in any case, you have to help with peeling the prawns that Petra has bought. You can’t get out of it that easily.”

Setting off on a motorbike ride.

I sit on the back and Juergen takes me for a spin around the town. I hold on for dear life. I don’t want to miss the prawn peeling.

“How did you like that?”, says the First Mate when we return.

“It’s certainly a bit faster than sailing”, I say.

“Well, you can get back to your normal pace of life by peeling these”, she says handing me a bowl of krabben, or miniature prawns.

They are fiddly and not much flesh on each one, but there are lots of them. After a couple of hours we have finished them.

“We’ll have them for breakfast”, says Petra. “They’re delicious with brötchen.”

Peeling the krabben.

In the evening, we go to a local restaurant for dinner. Their speciality is meat roasted over an open fire in the dining room. A ring suspended by chains from inside the chimney is rotated in alternate directions by the waiters each time they go past it to ensure even cooking. There is a delicious aroma of barbecued beef.

Dinner cooking on the open fire.

My 200 g portion of beef arrives. I have heard of slabs of meat like doorsteps and had always thought it was just a figure of speech. It isn’t.

“Where’s your salad?”, sys the First Mate. “You are supposed to eat it as a side dish with the meat.”

“I have eaten it already”, I say. “I was so hungry and I thought it was starters.”

Dummer junge”, she says.