“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
Spencer is back! Long may he stay with you and encourage your philosophising!