A former border, a bike repair, and war refugees

The light winks three times from the direction of the dark shoreline. I relax– the ‘goods’ are ready. All is quiet. All we have to do now is wait, our own lights off so that the patrol vessels won’t detect us. Our boat is wooden so that it won’t show up on the coastal surveillance radar. The night is moonless, carefully chosen.

The ‘goods’ will be with us in about an hour. I adjust the fishing lines paid out over the stern to make it look like we are just innocent fishermen trying our luck for night fish in the event we are detected. I open the flask and drink the tea in it while we wait, the hot liquid burning its way down my throat. What a world we live in, I think. A country that does everything it can to prevent its citizens from leaving, even to the extent that it will shoot to kill any of them found crossing the border. Perhaps if they had a better system, people might be flocking to live there, rather than trying to escape its repression. The ‘goods’ in this case is a high-ranking official who has had enough, and wants to defect to the West.

Before long, we hear the creak of oars in their rowlocks, the dip of blades in the water. In the darkness, a torch flashes on and off for a second. The small rowing boat we are expecting is nearly here. We get ready to help its passenger to board our boat.

Suddenly there is a throb of engines. A search light flashes on, illuminating a patrol boat a few hundred metres away from us, its machine gun on the foredeck trained on the small boat nearing us. It must have been patiently waiting there all the time, invisible in the darkness. Have we been betrayed?

The machine gun stutters as the bullets trace a line of splashes towards the small boat …

GDR Border Police patrol boat (from Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-35031-0001 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

“You look a bit shocked”, says the First Mate, coming up from the cabin. “Did I surprise you? Here, let me take that cup of tea. I’ll make some more. It’s lunchtime.”

“I was just trying to imagine what it must have been like to have been involved in smuggling people out of the old German Democratic Republic to the West”, I say. “I was about to receive a fugitive from the East when the border police intercepted us. It didn’t end well.”

We are have just crossed the former border between West and East Germany in the Lübecker Bucht and are now in the former GDR. Not that long ago we would have been illegally in no-go land.

The border between the former West and East Germanies.

“Ah, the GDR”, says the First Mate. “Do you remember that time we were in Weimar? We had just arrived late at night and were tired and hungry. We found a pension to stay in, but they didn’t do food in the evening, so we had to go hunting around town to find somewhere that served dinner.”

“I can remember seeing lots of theatre-goers walking the streets all dressed up to the nines”, I continue, “But every restaurant that we found had shut at 6pm. In the end the only place that we could find that was open was the restaurant in the railway station. Even then, we were given a table to share with a young couple who were embarrassed and really didn’t want to talk with us either in German or English, and left shortly afterwards, not finishing their meal. I always felt guilty after that for spoiling their evening.”

Old memories! The First Mate and I had only met a few months earlier, and I was still recovering from an operation on my knee to repair the cruciate ligament. The Wall had just come down a month earlier, and once I could walk again we had decided to drive over to eastern Germany to see what it was like.

“And what about that time we were in that café in Eisenach, and we were listening to these young guys talking about the new cars that they had bought?”, she says. “The problem was that they were all so used to driving Trabbies and the like that they had no idea how to handle the power of a BMW or Audi, and were ending up crashing them on the motorway, or worse still, killing themselves.”

“Interesting times”, I say, philosophically.

We arrive at the small harbour at Timmendorf on the island of Poel. On the way in, we touch the bottom as we stray a little off the narrow entrance channel. Luckily it is only sand.

We tie up next to a motor boat. The occupants are a retired couple from Hamburg. “You speak good English”, I say, as they help us moor.

“I was a ship’s captain for much of my life”, he says. “I travelled all over the world.”

Tied up in Timmendorf harbour, Island of Poel.

There is a lot of activity on the green area in front of the harbour. “It’s a craft fair”, says the retired sea captain’s wife. “It finishes at five.”

“We have an hour”, says the First Mate. “Come on, let’s go and have a look. I always like a good fair.”

We find ourselves at a stall selling home-made spirits and liqueurs, and try a whisky flavoured with vanilla. It’s tasty and we buy a bottle.

Home-made spirits and liqueurs at the craft fair.

Afterwards, we sit on deck eating our dinner and watching the market traders pack up their stalls. Behind, last of the sun catches the lighthouse tower and reflects off the glass to reradiate a soft glow.

“I wonder if they go home happy with what they have made today, or do you think that it is a fairly hand to mouth existence?”, I muse.

“They must have a few overheads to worry about”, says the First Mate. “Their vans, the gazebo things for their stalls, all their merchandise, the fees for the stand.”

“Well, they can’t be doing too bad for themselves – those vans must cost a bit. They all seem pretty new.”

The wind drops, and the water in the harbour becomes like a mirror. One by one the market vans are packed up and disappear. Eventually the green is clear. Two or three couples walk their dogs along the small promenade. A noisy motor bike appears, disturbing the peace momentarily, but roars off again. Small swallows dart and dive around the boats, alighting on the mooring lines and defying their swaying motion. All is at peace with the world.

“I love these little harbours”, says the First Mate. “They are so full of character.”

Peace and quiet reigns supreme.

The next morning, we decide to do a cycle ride around the island. It’s only about 10 km in diameter. We unload the bikes and follow the route on a map the First Mate was given by the harbourmaster. We leave the main road and take a narrow track across fields of barley blowing gently in the wind until we pick up the coast again.

Through fields of barley.

My bike starts to rattle.

“Oh no”, I say. “My front mudguard has come off. Look, the screws that held it on have come undone. Perhaps we can find somewhere to fix it.”

We stop in a village called Am Schwartz Busch for lunch. The view out over the beach is great, but the service is slow and when our lunch does arrive, the portions are small.

“I still feel hungry”, I say, when we have finished.

“Me too”, says the First Mate. “I don’t think that I would recommend this place.”

Beach near Am Schwartz Busch, Poel Island.

As we leave the village, I suddenly stop.

“Why are you stopping here?”, says the First Mate. “I thought we wanted to press on?”

“I saw a sign for a bike rental shop”, I say. “Perhaps they have some screws that I could use to fix the mudguard.”

The man in the bike rental shop looks at the bike and then the mudguard.

Ich denke wir können das reparieren”, he says.

He brings out a huge box of assorted screws he has accumulated over the years.

“Where do you come from?”, asks the First Mate as he searches through it, looking for a screw that will do the trick. “Your accent sounds a bit like it might be from Hamburg?”

“Born and raised on the island”, he responds. “Lived here all my life. Seen it all – communism, wiedervereinigung, capitalism, you name it.””

“Is it still an issue between East and West?”, asks the First Mate.

“Not now”, he says. “It was at first though. We in the East felt that the West dominated everything – any thing from there was just better without question, anything from the East was inferior. We would have liked to have had more time to sit down and discuss how to select the best of each system and merge them together into something unique. But that didn’t happen.”

“But over all, it was good that wiedervereinigung happened”, he continues. “It’s right that we are one country again, and our standard of living has improved. I have a much better pension than I would have had otherwise. The only thing is that we don’t like that the government is bringing in too many foreigners. Tourists like yourselves are OK, but all these refugees, there are just too many of them.”

“What, do you mean the Ukrainians?”, asks the First Mate.

“No, the Ukrainians are all right”, he responds. “It’s not their fault they were attacked. No, it’s all the others I mean.”

The First Mate presses him to explain, but realising that he might have already said more than he wanted to, he refuses to be drawn.

“There you go”, he says, tightening up the screw. “That mudguard should be fine now. Have a good trip.”

Back on the road.

We press on. On the north coast the paved cycle path gives way to a smooth track through the woods. Through the gaps in the trees, we can see the sea.

Through the woods.
View of the Baltic Sea from the woods.

“It’s absolutely beautiful”, says the First Mate. “I wouldn’t mind living here.”

“You say that about every nice place that we go to”, I say.

We cycle back round in a loop that takes us to Kirchdorf, the village in the centre of the island, and have an ice-cream overlooking the bay and the harbour.

“We could have brought Ruby Tuesday in here”, I say. “But it is quite a bit longer and a very narrow channel up the bay.”

“I think I like it better where we are”, says the First Mate. “There’s something about these small harbours.”

Harbour at Kirchdorf, Poel Island.

The next day we decide to take the bus to Wismar. It takes about 50 minutes. At one stop on the way, a large group of people are gathered, mostly women and children. The bus stops and they clamber in.

“Probably some sort of group tour”, says the First Mate.

Each one is carrying a shiny new blue passport.

“I think they might be Ukrainian refugees”, I whisper. I catch a glimpse of one of the passports. Sure enough, it says Republic of Ukraine. It looks like it has been newly issued.

Ukrainian refugees board the bus.

“It’s so sad”, says the First Mate. “When you see the pictures on the news of the horrendous destruction that the Russians are doing to their cities – apartment blocks and houses completely wrecked. They could be the homes of some of these people. And their husbands and fathers might have been killed.”

“It’s all so senseless”, I agree. “What sort of strategy is it to unify similar people by bombing their cities to pieces and forcing them all to flee to neighbouring countries? That’s one of the justifications for the war, after all. Weird logic.”

The group of Ukrainians gets off at the Lindengarten stop.

“Perhaps they are going to a language course somewhere”, says the First Mate. “You know, to learn German.”

We get off at the bus station, and walk towards the city centre. We end up in the Market Square in front of the Rathaus, where there is a market on. In one corner of the square is the Wasserkunst, an ornate structure that was built in the 1600s to dispense water to the citizens. Behind it is the Alte Schwede, supposedly the oldest house in Wismar, originally built around 1380, but later lived in by a wealthy Swedish merchant when Wismar was ruled by Sweden from 1648 to 1903. Nowadays it is a restaurant.

The Wasserkunst in the foreground, the brown Alte Schwede behind.

“Oh, look”, says the First Mate. “Here is a market stall selling Thüringia sausage. That was always one of my favourites growing up. Let’s get some for lunch.”

“How was it?”, I ask afterwards.

“Disappointing”, she responds. “Not as good as I remember it.”

The First Mate trying to relive her youth.

We come to the St Georgen Church. Like many of the churches we have seen in these northern German cities, it is massive, soaring 80 m into the sky. But on this one, you can take a lift to the top and get a great view out over Wismar.

View from the top of St Georgen church, Wismar.

The view certainly is stunning. But looking down on the church below, I am filled with awe at its forgotten builders. With no cranes as there are nowadays, it takes a certain type of person who is comfortable climbing to such heights and willing to do a day’s work putting bricks in place when there. I am not sure if I could have done it.

Not far from the church is the UNESCO World Heritage House of Wismar, originally built by a wealthy Hanseatic merchant. Houses built in the Hansa cities at that time had to follow common building regulations – all had to be built with bricks and have a firewall between neighbouring houses, for example. Refurbishment started in the 1970s under the GDR government and has continued until the present day. Of particular interest is the restored wallpaper depicting the Greek mythological tale, Travels of Telemachus on Calypso’s Island. Wallpaper was a relatively modern invention when this was first put up in the 1820s.

Part of the restored wallpaper in the World Heritage House, Wismar.

On the way out, I sign the Visitors’ Book and read some of the comments.

“It’s so great to see the spirit of preservation and reconstruction”, says one. “So different to the destruction that is going on in Ukraine at the moment.”

The next day is very windy, too strong for pleasant sailing. We decide to stay on Poel another day.

“I think I might take the bus into Kirchdorf while you work on the blog”, says the First Mate. “We need to do some shopping. Is there anything you want?”

“Not much”, I say. “Perhaps some fruit. We are running a bit low.”

“I’ll be back later in the afternoon”, she says. “I’ll call you when the bus gets back, and you can come and help me carry things.”

Catching the bus to Kirchdorf.

She arrives back at the boat around an hour later.

“That was quick”, I say, putting the finishing touches to the blog. “Did you manage to get everything?”

“No, she says irritably. “The whole place was closed because of the Himmelfarht holiday, and not all the buses are running. I had to get the next bus back again or else I would have had to wait four hours with absolutely nothing to do. I completely forgot about Himmelfarht.”

“So it was a fruitless journey?”, I say.

If looks could kill …

An amber beach, a broken tooth, and prosperous traders

“Look, there they are!”, says the First Mate pointing over to the left as we leave the marina. “It’s the Heiks – Heiko and Heike, and their Flying Fish. They’re just getting ready to leave too.”

Sure enough, we get a cheery wave from the couple on one of the boats tied up at the marina next to ours. We had met them while our two boats were on the land, and had got to know each other as we prepared our respective boats for our voyages. They are planning to spend the summer sailing up the west coast of Norway, while we are heading for Sweden, but are spending the first few weeks exploring the German Baltic coast while we wait for my long-term Swedish Visitor’s Permit to come through. We had agreed to keep in touch.

Approaching Schleimünde and the Baltic Sea.

We motor out of the Schlei fjord and enter the Baltic Sea proper. The rays from the early morning sun dance on the surface, seemingly beaconing us to further adventures. There is a stiff westerly breeze blowing directly on to our stern, so we decide to use the genoa alone, and before long we are making six knots, heading south eastwards en route for Heiligenhafen, our destination for the day. The lighthouse at Schliemünde fades into the distance and eventually disappears.

The day becomes warm and sunny, so we lie on the foredeck sunning ourselves while Ruby Tuesday steers herself.

“It’s somehow nice being back on the water, isn’t it?”, says the First Mate. “So relaxing. I’m looking forward to our trip.”

On our way at last.

The peace is disturbed by the VHF suddenly coming to life.

“All ships, all ships. For an update on the maritime situation due to the construction of the Fehmarnbelt-Querung tunnel, please switch to channel 68.“

Out of curiosity we do so, even though it is not where we are heading. There follow details of where shipping must and must not go due to the construction of a road and rail tunnel under the sea from the German island of Fehmarn to the Danish island of Lolland, a distance of 18 km. I had read that the scheme to connect Scandinavia with the rest of Europe had long been talked about and was originally conceived of as a bridge, but in 2010, the Danish decided that a tunnel would be the best option. Even so, it still took another decade to plan it and obtain all the necessary approvals, but work eventually started in January 2021, and is scheduled to be completed in 2028.

“It’s quite an ambitious project”, I say after the transmission ends. “I wonder if we will even have the opportunity to drive along it?”

“I wouldn’t like to be driving along it if it suddenly sprang a leak”, says the First Mate. “What do you think they would do? Seal off the affected section with giant doors with the unlucky cars trapped in there?”

We reach the end of the spit protecting Heiligenhafen harbour and turn back on ourselves, taking in the genoa and motoring the last mile or so, and tie up in the Sailing Club marina to our left. The harbourmaster appears and helps us to make fast our bow lines.

“How long are you thinking of staying?”, he asks.

“A couple of days at least”, responds the First Mate. “But it depends on what there is to do in Heiligenhafen.”

“Ah, there’s lots to do”, says the harbourmaster. ”There’s Graswarder Reserve across there, for a start, the new holiday resort area, and the ‘zig-zag’ bridge. They have recently modernised the old town, but kept the same character. You can take the bus over to Fehmarn Island, or to the train station to get the train down to Travemünde and Lübeck.”

In the morning, we take his advice and walk out to Graswarder Nature Reserve, the spit of land protecting the harbour area. It consists of small curved lagoons of brackish water left behind as the spit extended eastwards, which now provide habitats for a wide range of birds. From the watchtower, we spot oystercatchers, tufted ducks, eider ducks, geese, and swans. There are even supposed to be white-tailed eagles, but despite keeping our eyes peeled, we don’t see any.

View out over the Graswarder Nature Reserve, Heiligenhafen.

“Apparently here is a good place to find amber washed up by the waves”, says the First Mate as we walk back along the beach.

We fervently scan the sand in front of us as we walk, but apart from finding lots of shells, some odd-shaped stones, and some interesting bits of driftwood, it seems that it is not an amber day for us.

The First Mate searching for amber.

“I am not really surprised”, I say. “I would have thought that what with the Vikings and the Hanseatic League trading the stuff, that most amber would have been found by now. The Amber Way was the route from the Baltic to Italy that it used to be transported to be worked. It’s now a long distance cycle-way.”

“Nevertheless, I read that if you are lucky you can still find bits of it washed up here”, responds the First Mate, as we re-enter the town. “But it seems that the only amber we will see today is that traffic light over there”.

“Or we could have a glass of amber nectar at this bar here”, I say.

Witticisms out of the way, we arrive at the so-called ‘zig-zag’ bridge, in reality a multi-angular pier that juts out into the sea and affords a good view back of the beach and town.

The ‘zig-zag’ bridge, Heiligenhafen.

“Look at all these locks”, says the First Mate. “They are called Love-locks. Couples put their names on them, and lock them to the fence. It’s supposed to symbolise their everlasting love.”

“I wonder if they come back and remove them if they split up or divorce?”, I ask.

It is nice to leave the brashness of the new resort and explore the picturesque old city centre. It is quiet as it is Sunday and none of the shops are open.

The Market Square, Heiligenhafen.
The Old Railway Station, Heiligenhafen.
Mural art, Heiligenhafen.

In the morning, we leave Heiligenhafen and sail for Travemünde. Once through the bridge to Fehmarn, the wind picks up and we have an exhilarating sail on a beam reach down into the Lübecker Bucht.

Approaching the Fehmarn Brdge.

But as we approach Travemünde the wind dies as quickly as it arose, and we are left with our sails flapping. We furl them, and for a while we drift in the slight current. A warship passes us.

“I wonder if it is something to do with the Russian war in Ukraine?”, says the First Mate.

Checking us out?

“Come on”, says the First Mate at last. ”I’m getting hungry. We need to get to Travemünde and find somewhere to tie up for the night. I suggest we head for Böb’s Werft marina. The reviews in the Harbour Guide all say that it is very popular.”

“Take the first left, then immediate right, then the second left”, the hafenmeisterin at Böb’s Werft tells the First Mate over the VHF. “Then berth number 73 is on your left.”

New marinas always make me apprehensive, this one particularly so. The fairways are narrow, there are a lot of expensive-looking boats on each side, and there is quite a strong cross-wind. We find berth number 73, a box berth. We are getting used to box berths now, and normally rig slip lines to each of the four corners to make it easier on the way out. We inch into the berth, and I slip the looped lines over the two rear posts when they are level. The First Mate waits at the bow with the bow lines. But this berth is longer than most, and our stern lines are not long enough for the double line needed for a slip. Before I realise, their free ends run out and drop into the water.

“Hurry up”, shouts the First Mate. “The wind is starting to blow the bow around. The anchor is getting pretty close to the boat on our left. We don’t want to take a gouge out of it.”

“I have to go back”, I call out frantically. “I’ve lost the stern lines. We have to start again, and use single lines, not double.“

Faces appear on neighbouring boats, drawn by our shouting. We reverse slowly until I am level with the stern posts, the poor First Mate trying to keep the bow straight. I lasso each stern post in turn, then pay out the single lines as we edge forward once again. We have more than enough for the stern lines now.

“That’s it”, calls the First Mate. “Stop!!”

I use the stern lines to stop the boat and tie them off. The First Mate does the same at the front.

“Phew, that was a bit of a palaver”, I say. “I think that is the longest box berth we’ve been in.”

We finally get those stern lines attached!

“It’s not over yet”, says the First Mate. “The next problem is getting off. The pontoon is lower than normal. It’s too far from the anchor to the ground for me.”

For me too.

“Perhaps we should try another marina”, I say. “Why is this one so popular?”

“We’ve got the little steps that we bought last year in Denmark”, says the First Mate, ignoring me. “We can use those.”

But they don’t help much.

A giant leap for womenkind?

One set of small steps, but still one giant step for womankind, I think. As Neil Armstrong might have said, but didn’t.

“I know”, I call. “We can climb over the neighbouring boat. Luckily it is reversed in, so we can get on it easily, then clamber across to ours. It looks like no-one is there at the moment, so we won’t be disturbing anyone.”

“Great idea”, says the First Mate.

It works. We use that method of getting on and off for the whole time we are there.

“Why don’t we try reversing into these box berths like they have done?”, asks the First Mate.

Why not indeed?

We finally make it on board.

We prepare dinner.

“I have put some croutons into the salad”, says the First Mate. “Hopefully they’ll be OK for your teeth. But take care.”

In the last couple of years, I have been having trouble with several teeth as they begin to wear out, and have been trying not to eat anything too hard that might tempt trouble.

“I’m sure they will be fine”, I say. “Anyway, I like croutons.”

Halfway through dinner I feel a crack.

“I think I might have broken a tooth”, I say, somewhat pathetically.

“I told you to be careful”, says the First Mate unsympathetically.

Sure enough, I retrieve a piece of tooth trying to hide in the rocket. My tongue finds the gap instantaneously, and, despite my best efforts, spends the rest of the evening exploring it.

“You’ll have to try and find a dentist in the morning”, says the First Mate.

The hafenmeisterin has the phone number of a dentist not far away.

“Can you come straightaway?”, says the receptionist when I call in the morning.

Naturlich”, I reply. “Sofort.”

I find the dental clinic nestled in between two supermarkets. The door looks from the outside like it might lead to a storeroom of some kind, but opens out like the Tardis into a spotlessly clean and bright dental clinic.

I tell the receptionist that we are travelling around Europe in a boat when she asks me my address.

Warten Sie hier für ein paar minuten, bitte”, she says, indicating the dental chair.

Waiting for the dentist to arrive.

The dentist arrives. He tells me to open wide and scratches my tooth with a pointy thing.

“What sort of boat do you have?”, he asks me in faultless English.

“Irrrrsssshy oooota”, I respond. Why do dentists ask you questions when they must know you can’t answer, I wonder. Don’t they realise?

“I am quite a keen sailor myself”, he continues. “But I don’t have my own boat. I usually go out with friends. I think they only have me along as the muscle to work the winches.”

“Thhhhassss iessss”, I say.

He stops poking my tooth.

“Well, the tooth is broken alright”, he says. “But it is very healthy – no cavities or signs of decay. It’ll be fine. I’ll just smooth off the rough edges to stop your tongue damaging itself. At some stage you could get a crown fitted, but there’s no immediate hurry for that. Just when you get home again.”

We chat about boats and cruising for a few minutes.

“He was really friendly”, I tell the First Mate when I get back to the boat. “And I think I got off pretty lightly with my tooth. It’s fine.”

“That’s good”, she says. “But all the same, no more croutons for you on this trip.”

The Russian trader narrows his eyes and strokes his beard. “Nein, das is nicht genug”, he says in halting German. “Furs are scarce this year. The winter has been hard, and the hunters have not been able to travel as far. Wheat yields have been lower. And the snow has made it more difficult to bring the timber to here. You have to give me better prices.”

I know that he is bluffing. I look past him to the gloomy forests behind the small trading kontor. My sources have told me that the winter has been more lenient than usual and there have been more wolves and bears trapped, and wheat is plentiful. But of course, we have to go through the motions of bargaining each other down. It all comes down to how much he wants my fine wines, clothes and other items manufactured in Europe for selling on to his wealthy buyers in the Russian hinterland. My guess is that it is a lot. Not that I don’t want his timber, wax, resins and wheat, but there is no point in paying more for these things than is necessary.

Nimm es oder lass es”, I say. “Take it or leave it.”

“Sie sind ein harter Mann”, he says. “OK, a man has to live. I accept.”

Easier than I thought. We shake hands.

Hanseatic Museum: Bust of a Russian trader.

“Have you got the jitters?”, says the First Mate, behind me. “I know you are probably in one of your daydreams again, but why are you shaking your hand up and down?”

“I was just imagining I was a Hanseatic trader doing a deal with a Russian”, I say. “It’s just amazing how much trade went on between Russia and Germany in those days. But then it is not much different nowadays judging from the amount of oil and gas that Germany imports from them.”

Hanseatic Museum: Reconstructon of a ship at a Russian trading post.

We are in the European Hansemuseum in Lübeck looking at a display of a boat full of goods at a remote Russian trading post. We had left Ruby Tuesday in Travemünde and taken the bus down to Lübeck for the day, the main city of the medieval Hanseatic League of Baltic trade. We had alighted at the Holstentor, the westernmost gate of the city, and had worked our way around the old city, exploring the grand churches, the picturesque houses, and the narrow alleys (gassen) between the houses leading to the inner courtyards.

Holstentor, Lübeck.
Inside one of the gassen, Lübeck
Town Hall and Market Square, Lübeck.

We had ended up in the museum, and are learning how the Hanseatic League formed in the late 1100s to become the most influential trading bloc of its time.

“Yes, it says here that the Hanseatic League was a kind of prototype of the European Union”, reads the First Mate. “It was a loose association of city states, with an agreed set of rules and procedures that included not just trade and tariffs, but also the way that houses should be built, legal procedures, weights and measures, and so on. Membership was optional, and believe it or not, the cities of London and Edinburgh were also part of it, as was Novistok in Russia.”

Part of a Hanseatic trading agreement.

“This one says that it declined in the 1500s due to changing economic circumstances”, I read on the next board. “The development of overland routes in Europe meant that sea trade was of less importance. Also, the Dutch and English were rising as sea trading powers, and although they were part of the Hanseatic League, their focus shifted globally.”

“Funny how history seems to repeat itself”, says the First Mate on the way home. “The EU, Brexit, Global Britain, and all that.”

“We’ll see”, I say. “But the world is a very different place today to what it was in the 16th century. I am not sure that the Brexiteers appreciate that.”

A sea temple, a Frisian king, and back in the water

The tide has turned and the waves begin their race up the beach, reaching further and further each time. Bearing the remains of the Wise One, the small procession wends it way along the sandy path from the village, smoke rising lazily from the huts nestled in the trees behind. Keening wails rise from the women at the rear of the procession, calling the spirits of the land and sea to receive the Wise One into their world. I stand, my arms upraised, while the body is laid gently into the cradle formed by the roots of the upturned oak tree in the centre of the sacred ring of trunks, newly cut for the purpose. Their bark has been left on specifically to symbolise the connection with the land. Once the flesh has been picked from the body by the birds of the air, the remains will be transferred to the second ring of tree trunks further along the beach, their bark removed to signify the brightness of the sea and sky. Our Wise One is on her way to join her ancestors through these portals to the OtherWorld.

The waves begin to lap at my feet as the procession of mourners deposit their gifts of grain, newly born lambs and calves at the base of the trunks. They will provide the Wise One with the food she needs on her journey to the next world. The chanting begins and I renew my calls to the spirits. A breeze springs up, signifying their arrival. A seagull, the messenger of the spirits, alights on one of the trunks, eying the body.

“Excuse me”, says a woman gently touching my arm. “Are you feeling OK? It’s quite stuffy in here.”

It takes me a few seconds to remember that I am not the holy man of the tribe in Bronze Age Norfolk, but in the British Museum at the World of Stonehenge exhibition. I am standing in front of Seahenge, the remarkable ancient monument found on the beach near Holme in Norfolk in 1999, and loaned to the Museum specifically for the exhibition. These are the real tree trunks cut down in the spring of 2049 BCE that I am gazing at, not some modern reconstruction. They are 4071 years old, almost to the day!

The Seahenge display at the World of Stonehenge exhibition, British Museum.

The woman has the intense look of a retired history teacher at an expensive school. I put my arms down and move on. Her eyes follow me, wondering whether to call the museum staff or a doctor.

We had driven down the day before from Scotland, staying with friends in Bedford, and I had taken the train from there down to London to attend an interview at the Swedish Embassy for a long-term Visitor’s Permit which enables me to stay up to a year there and also visit other Schengen countries. Since the UK had left the EU in January 2021, life has become more difficult for cruising sailors, as the maximum time permitted in whole Schengen area is now 90 days total in any 180-day period. However, a few countries offer longer-term visas, Sweden being one. For that, though, I have to attend an interview in person at the Swedish embassy in London. It had gone well, so in the afternoon, I had decided to treat myself to the Stonehenge exhibition.

Swedish Embassy, London.

The next day, we continue our journey down to Dover. The news on the radio the day before hadn’t sounded good. Apparently, there is chaos at the port and huge queues tailing back up the M20, not only because of Brexit but also because of the laying up of the P&O ferries as a result of their sacking their staff and replacing them with new cheaper people. Luckily we are booked to travel on DFDS, but it is apparently still chaotic due to P&O passengers trying to find alternative ways to get to France for their holidays.

“It doesn’t look too bad”, says the First Mate, as the satnav indicates only five miles to Dover. “We haven’t seen any queues yet. I fully expect to see the start of one around this corner.”

But there isn’t. We arrive in Dover, and everything seems normal. We find our lodgings for the night and I drive down to the local filling station to top up with fuel before we cross the next morning. There have been rumours of fuel shortages throughout Europe due to the Russian-Ukrainian war.

Every pump has a ‘Not in Use’ sign on it.

“You won’t be able to buy fuel in the whole of the south-east”, says the filling station attendant, with an air of weary resignation. “We have been expecting a load for a week now, but nobody knows when it will come. Another week, perhaps. Maybe two. The war, and Brexit, you know.”

It’s the same at the next garage. And the next. Luckily our tank is about three-quarters full, so we don’t have an immediate problem. Perhaps France will be different.

“I hope you are right”, says the First Mate when I get back. “I don’t fancy running out of fuel in Belgium somewhere.”

Our crossing the next morning is at 0800, but we need to check in an hour beforehand. We decide to get up early to avoid the reported queues. Bleary-eyed, we drive down to the ferry terminal through the slowly waking town. Temporarily, a rubbish truck blocks our way and we fret and fume helplessly while it swallows its breakfast, but we are soon on our way again.

And still there are no queues. We pass through passport control and customs and before we know it we are waiting to board the ferry, third in the line.

“Perhaps the queues were just the trucks”, says the First Mate. “Although we didn’t see them either.”

“And I am puzzled as to where all the P&O passengers have got to”, I say. “I had expected it to be heaving. But it is all very relaxed.”

P&O ferry suspended from duty for bad behaviour.

As we drive off the ferry into France, we notice that the car deck is only half full. If the P&O passengers are here, there are not many of them. Plenty of space for more.

“Did you get your passport stamped?”, asks the First Mate as we leave the port area in Dunkirk.

Panic! She’s right. Now with Brexit, we are considered a third country by the EU, and we have to have our passports stamped to prove when we entered the Schengen Area.

“I didn’t see anywhere to have it done”, I say. “I can’t understand how we missed it. We have to go back and find it. Otherwise I will have no proof of entry and could get fined.”

We drive back to the port area. I am still adjusting to driving on the right, and nearly go around a roundabout the wrong way.

“Look out!”, shouts the First Mate. “That truck nearly hit us. I know we have medical insurance, but I don’t want to end up in hospital so soon into the trip.”

We find the passport control booths for car passengers leaving France. One is empty and I knock at the window. The official slides it open. A car pulls up behind me. Then another. And another.

Vous auriez dû le faire tamponner au Royaume-Uni avant de monter à bord du ferry”, says the official.

I manage to work out he is saying I should have had it stamped in the UK before we left.

I tell him in Franglais that they must have forgotten to stamp it in Dover and that I need to get it stamped here. I am not sure he understands me, but with a Gallic shrug he takes my passport and stamps it. With his pen, he changes the sign in the bottom corner from an arrow pointing out to one pointing in. Pragmatism at its best. At least I am officially in Europe now, I think. Or should that be ‘I hope’?

Merci, merci”, I say profusely.

He waves me away impatiently. The cars behind me move forward.

We find a filling station and top up. No shortages here. We fill the jerry cans just to be sure. If we don’t use them for the car, we will be able to on the boat. That’s what they are for anyway.

In the evening, we approach Kappeln. It’s been a long day.

“I hope we can get across the bridge”, says the First Mate. “I’ve heard that it was closed due to repairs.”

“I think that was just the lifting part for boats”, I say. “I am hoping that it will be OK for cars driving across. Mr Google hasn’t said otherwise. At least we overwintered Ruby Tuesday on the right side of it.”

The lifting mechanism of the bridge across the Schlei fjord in Kappeln had broken over the winter and was being repaired. Another bridge further up the fjord at Lindaunis also wasn’t working. Boats that had overwintered in marinas between the two bridges were trapped between the two, not able to put to sea or even explore the upper reaches of the fjord. A rush of schadenfreude comes over me. Normally that would be us, but by pure luck we had made the right decision for once.

Broken over the winter.

We spend the next week preparing Ruby Tuesday for launching. With her out of the water, it makes sense to take the opportunity to antifoul her. The last application had been done at Ardrossan on the west coast of Scotland three years previously, and it had lasted well given that it is supposed to be done every year or so. The next couple of days we spent underneath the hull scaping off any loose material and painting on the new dark blue layer with a roller brush. The latter is messy work and I need to cover up.

Scaping off the old flaking anti-foul.
Painting on the new anti-foul. Yes, it is me!

“You’ve got blue blotches everywhere on your trainers”, says the First Mate, “And little blue speckles all over your glasses.”

“I was wondering why you were looking bluer than normal”, I respond. “I thought you were feeling the effects of the cold evenings again.”

We work our way through the to-do list as the scheduled date of launching looms. Many of the jobs can be done once she is in the water, so we focus on making sure everything is completed below the water line and on the mast. We fit a new anchor light on the latter.

A new anchor light gets fitted to the top of the mast.

The day of launching arrives. The trailer arrives exactly on the dot of the scheduled time. German efficiency at its best. Vorschprung durch Technik, or words to that effect. The giant crane lifts her off the trailer, and I take the opportunity to paint antifoul on the small squares on her hull that were missed where the cradle supports had been. I manage to spill some on the ground.

Vorsicht, vorsicht!”, shouts the crane operator angrily. “Jemand könnte da reintreten.

I feel like I am back in kindergarten the day I made a mess with my paints.

Ooops! Naughty me!

The crane swings Ruby Tuesday around, and lowers her gently into the water. A smaller crane lifts the mast back on, and it is secured with the shrouds. She starts to look like a yacht again.

In she goes!

Back in our berth, we re-attach the boom and the kicker and hoist up the mainsail. Everything seems to be running smoothly. Then a glitch. I try to turn the furling drum of the foresail, but it sticks tight. After some twisting and turning, I manage to get it to move, but it is so stiff as to be unusable. Liberal doses of WD40 don’t seem to make much difference. We speak to the rigging expert.

“It’s probably corroded inside”, he says. “It’s a known problem with the early versions of this type of drum. The circlips that hold the bearings in place are made from mild steel and not stainless steel, and sea water gets in and rusts them. Why anyone thought of using mild steel in a marine environment is beyond me. You can try dismantling the drum and seeing if the circlips can be replaced with new ones, otherwise you will have to replace the whole thing, I am afraid.”

Jammed furler drum.

We try and undo the bolts that hold it together. It’s as if they are welded and won’t budge.

“The only thing I can suggest now is that we take the drum off and try and dismantle it in the workshop”, the rigger says. “We can probably get the bolts undone by applying heat. But we will have to use the crane to take the whole furler off. We can then let you know if you can repair it yourself or whether you need to replace it.”

It is starting to sound expensive. But we don’t have a lot of options, as we have planned to drive down to stay with the First Mate’s folks in Nord-Rhine-Westfalen for a few days, so we leave it in the rigger’s capable hands while we are away.

The journey down is supposed to take five hours but takes nine due to stau, or traffic jams, around Hamburg. We arrive tired and grumpy. Over the next few days, we do a few cycle rides in the surrounding countryside to restore our spirits.

“You know”, says the First Mate, propping her bike on its stand. “In all the years that I was growing up here, I never came to this bit. I can’t understand why we never did. It’s a great view.”

We are standing on top of a huge mound of tailings, the remains of the Radbod coal mines that were an important part of the local economy of Hamm in the first part of the 20th century. It has been rewilded and there is a lookout tower on the mound giving a good view out over the city. Behind us, we can see the two giant headframes that were used to lift the coal up the shafts. Immediately in front of us is the Lippe River and the canal that was constructed both to control its flow and provide a harbour to load the coal on for transport. To the east is the Radbodsee area that is now a large lake for watersports.

Headframe at the Radbod coal mine, Hamm, Germany.

“We were always told as kids that Radbod was a 12th century king of the Frisians”, she continues. “But I was reading the other day that when they built the mine here, they initially named it after St Radbod, a local archbishop. When they tried to recruit Protestant miners, however, they found that they weren’t too keen on working in a mine named after a Catholic priest, so they changed the story to it being named after Radbod, the King of the Frisians, to give it more universal appeal even though he didn’t really have much to do with the area. It seemed to work, as lots of Protestant miners were recruited.”

“There’s advertising for you”, I say.

Cycling along the Lippe Canal, Hamm, Germany.

Below us, we see a police car driving furiously along the road beside the canal, its siren blaring raucously.

“Dooo-daaah, dooo-daaah”, it goes.

“Flens-burg, Flens-burg”, I sing in harmony.

“Why are you saying that?”, asks the First Mate. “We are in Hamm.”

“Every time I hear a police siren in Germany, I am reminded of the time we were in Flensburg when there seemed to be a siren every ten minutes”, I answer. “Even throughout the night.”

“That was because we were tied up just next to the police station”, says the First Mate.

In the evening, we get an email from the marina to say that they have taken the furler drum off and that it is completely corroded inside and beyond repair by normal on-board tools. They recommend that the drum is replaced with a new one, and can do it before we get back. Not wanting to waste time, we give the go-ahead.

Corrosion in the old furler drum.

Two days later, we take the train back to Schleswig and catch the bus to Kappeln. I take special care to remember my fleece after my mini-adventure in Holland last year. When we arrive it is pouring with rain. A taxi takes us to the marina.

On the way back to Kappeln by train.

The new furler drum has been installed and turns easily with one hand. At least we can finally get going now. I try not to think of the bill.