“Wassa time?”, says the First Mate, emerging bleary-eyed from the cabin. “Issh still dark.”
We are in the process of leaving Warnemünde to press on with our journey eastwards. The next major port of call is the city of Stralsund, another of the medieval Hanseatic cities. It is more than 60 NM away – while the winds are favourable in the morning, they are due to change in the afternoon, so we have decided to leave while it is still dark to make the most of them.
“Four-thirty”, I say. “I’m just going through our leaving checklist now. Most things are done, I just have to check the engine, roll the sides of the canopy up, and set the tablet and chartplotter going, then we can leave.”
We slip the lines and edge away from the pier, taking care not to catch the piles. All is quiet, the town is quietly sleeping, and there are no other boats yet moving at that time of the morning. We reach the red and green buoys at the entrance to the harbour, and turn eastwards. There is some swell as the wind has been blowing from the west for several days now, but luckily we are going with it. The sun begins to rise.
“It’s gorgeous”, says the First Mate. “But I am still tired. I think I will try and get some more sleep until breakfast.”
I am left alone with my thoughts.
I think over my last conversation with Spencer, that power is the basis for all politics, whether it be communism, fascism, liberal democracy, whatever. According to this, ideological differences are just facades to disguise the underlying driver of power. To preserve peace between nations, a balance of power is needed.
But while it is difficult to argue with, does it explain everything? I can’t help thinking there is something in Fukuyama’s idea that it is part of the human psyche, the thymos, that craves recognition and fame, of wanting to be remembered by history for ‘being someone’.
At the end of the Cold War, the new thinking in Russia was that NATO and Europe were not a threat, that NATO was a defensive alliance not wanting to attack it at the earliest opportunity, and that Europe and the West were more interested in economic prosperity than territorial expansion. And within Europe the belief grew that strengthening trade links with Russia would create an interdependence that would make war not worthwhile and would guarantee everlasting peace.
But only a short time later where are we now? A war within the boundaries of Europe, tens of thousands of people on both sides killed, whole cities razed to the ground, horrific atrocities against civilians committed, a return to the Cold War. There was no need for this war on the basis of power and ideology: Ukraine was not a threat to Russia, it was not governed by Nazis. Instead, it seems driven by one man’s self-professed need to be remembered by history as another Peter the Great, in recapturing lands that ‘belonged’ to Russia in the distant past, and uniting all Russian speakers into a single domain once more. A return to a thymotic mindset that many had thought that the human species had outgrown.
I check the chart. We are passing the promontory of Dasser Ort over to our starboard. In GDR times, Dasser Ort was a naval port for the People’s Navy and was a restricted area. Nowadays it is part of a protected national park, and is a port of refuge only, with entry difficult anyway due to silting up. Here we need to alter our course to the east.
The wind is now directly behind us, and we furl the mainsail and run with the poled-out genoa only. Even so, our speed hardly changes – with the wind at more than 20 knots, we make about 7 knots. But it is rolly and not very comfortable.
“I wonder what bodden means?”, says the First Mate. There are quite a few of them marked on the chart. Kubitzer Bodden, Schaproder Bodden, Barther Bodden, Bodstedter Bodden, Saaler Bodden, Greifswalder Bodden. It must mean something.”
“Ich habe keine Arnung”, I say. “You are the German.”
The entrance to Stralsund is through a buoyed channel just deep enough for our keel. We reach the first buoy and turn south. The waves are now on our beam, and due to the shallowing, are quite large, almost breaking. We wallow uncomfortably, trying to maintain the line between each red buoy and not drift off into the shallows on each side. The chart shows only 30 cm depth in some places.
Eventually we reach the relative shelter of Kubitzer Bodden, and with the wind more variable from the surrounding land, we motor the last leg into Stralsund. With the help of some friendly hands, we tie up at the City Marina at the entrance to the harbour. The majestic buildings of the old city rise up behind, providing a stunning backdrop.
“I feel like a Hanseatic captain returning from his voyages in the wilds of the Baltic”, I say. “It must have been an amazing feeling coming home to a city like this.”
The First Mate has been chatting to one of the neighbours who helped us to tie up.
“You won’t believe it”, she says. “But our neighbour is from Hamm. He knows all the places where I grew up. Like us, he retired a few years ago and bought a boat to explore the Baltic. His wife still works, but she is coming tomorrow. It seems there is a special offer on at the moment – the government is offering a ticket for €9 a month that gives free travel on all buses and trains. They are trying to get people to use public transport more to wean them off Russian oil. I think I’ll get some for us. Tickets that is, not Russian oil.”
The next morning we explore the city. Stralsund is another Hanseatic city, formerly trading herring, grain and beer, and is similar in many respects to the others we had already seen. During the Middle Ages, it was part of the Duchy of Pomerania, then in the 17th century, along with Wismar, it became part of Sweden, and remained so until 1807 when it was captured by Napoleon. Then, in 1815 it became part of Prussia. Since 2002, it has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We start in the Alter Markt, surrounded by the brick Gothic Rathaus or Town Hall on one side, and beautifully restored merchants’ houses on the other.
“Oooh, look”, says the First Mate excitedly. “There’s a wedding, and they have one of those old East German cars. How cool is that?”
It’s an old IFA car, built in the early 1950s with a three-cylinder two-stroke engine and front-wheel drive which could free-wheel to save fuel consumption. Much of the body was made from plastic due to the shortage of steel at the time. The bride is in white.
“And look over here”, I say. “There is a Morgan Plus 4, made in Britain. It was my favourite car when I was young, and I always wanted one but could never afford it. I had to make do with a MGB instead. Stralsund certainly seems to be the city of antique cars.”
“Well, it’s only two so far”, says the First Mate. “So I am not sure how you come to that conclusion.”
We reach the Kneipertor, one of the ancient gates to the city. It was here that General Wallenstein tried to enter and capture the city in the Thirty Years’ War in the early 1600s, but was beaten back. Then in 1790, Napoleon had a go, and this time managed to break through and conquer the city.
We follow the city wall around and eventually reach the Neue Markt and St Mary’s Church.
“Why don’t you climb to the top while I have a look around the market?”, says the First Mate. “See if you can see me when you get there.”
“Do you want to leave your rucksack here?”, says the lady at the ticket desk as I pay. “You don’t have to, but it’s 90 m high and there are 366 stairs, so it might make it a bit easier for you.”
What is it about these church ladies that makes them think I am past it?
I start climbing the stone steps of the tower. There is only a flimsy handrail, and I start to wonder what would happen if I slipped. Would I roll all the way down, bumping from step to step, or would I end up in an ignominious heap on one of the steps? Pushing such thoughts to the back of my mind, I continue on. The ticket lady was right – there are a lot of them.
I arrive breathless at the top. I kid myself that it is because of the view out over the city and not the 366 steps.
On the way out, I square my shoulders, flex my arms, and smile at the ticket lady, hoping that she takes my sweaty red face for the healthy radiant glow of youth. I don’t think she is convinced.
I re-join the First Mate.
“How was it?”, she asks.
“Terrifying”, I say.
We wander on and reach the Heilgeistkloster, the Holy Spirit Hospital.
“It says that this is the oldest public municipal hospital, where the sick, old, wounded, and itinerants could come for shelter”, says the First Mate, consulting the guide book. “It was first mentioned in 1256 AD. The church bit was built in the early 1400s, and this bit was extended in 1643.”
“Itinerants, eh?”, I say. “That’s us. We can come here if we don’t feel well.”
We eventually arrive back at the harbour area.
The orcas circle confidently. The largest breaks off from the pack and propels herself towards the rudder of the yacht overhead. At the last moment, she opens her mouth and takes a bite, her sharp teeth breaking off the base, leaving a jagged edge. Her pupils flap their tails in excitement as she re-joins the pack. A nod from the teacher, and another repeats the exercise, then another, and another, until they have all had a go. The rudder hangs uselessly in the water, the broken pieces lying on the seabed below.
The teacher takes the lead once again, swimming strongly towards the yacht amidships. At the last moment, she swerves to one side, her weighty body catching the hull a glancing blow, diverting it from its course. As before, the young orcas wait for her to re-join them before they too follow suit. One, more daring than the rest, aims head-on for the keel instead, rocking the boat violently. Dazed from the contact with the lump of cast-iron, he swims erratically away, not daring to look at the frown of the teacher. He’ll have a headache in the morning.
The lesson ends. The teacher signals to each of her charges that it’s time to go. She swims one last time to the back of the yacht and holds herself out of the water with her tail, her cold dark eyes locking with those of the terrified humans looking directly at her.
“We’ll be back”, she says. “They have so much to learn.”
I suddenly wake up. We are in the Ozeaneum, the huge ocean museum near the harbour not far from where we are tied up. In the last room of the tour, we are invited to recline on body-curving ‘sea-beds’ and look up to the ceiling where life-size models of the giants of the deep, blue whales and orcas, are suspended. The comfort, warmth, darkness and soothing audio-visual music had conspired to make me doze off momentarily and daydream of the many recent reports of orcas ‘interacting’ with yachts in the Bay of Biscay. Theories to explain this behaviour include playing, learning to hunt, or stress from shipping noise, but so far no one really knows.
We had enjoyably spent the previous two hours following the orange trail around the exhibits learning about the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, and the world’s oceans in general. Realistic models of horseshoe crabs, puffins, penguins, and white-tailed eagles line the trail. Floor-to-ceiling aquaria display a plethora of fish of all sorts.
In one, I spot a sturgeon, and decide to call it Nicola. It doesn’t seem very happy with that.
In another a cod and a turbot play hide-and-seek with one another. The cod isn’t very good at it.
In a third, jellyfish float with a ghostly glow.
Outside again, we decide to have a fisch brötchen, a popular snack food throughout Germany, but particularly in this Baltic coast area. Both of us have become quite partial to them in the last few weeks. I order a matjes brötchen, a bread roll filled with herring fillet, raw onion slices, and a lettuce leaf, all topped with remoulade. The First Mate has a backfisch brötchen, a white fish of some kind deep-fried in batter and also wedged into a bread roll with the same toppings. I feel like a real German now.
“You know, the Ozeaneum was supposedly built to complement its historical surroundings”, says the First Mate. “But I think it must be the most obtrusive piece of architecture imaginable.”
“I agree”, I say in between bites. “But it’s very good inside. I found out all about boddens”.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full”, says the First Mate. “I must have missed that. What are they then?”
“Well, they are bodies of water that formed from depressions in the landscape caused by meltwater from the glaciers”, I say, trying to remember what I had read. “When the ice retreated, these depressions filled with both freshwater from the land and salt water from narrow inlets from the sea. Over time, sediment was deposited, so that they became very shallow with flat sandy sea beds. Most of them are no deeper than 5-6 m, usually less. Their coastlines are sandy and are still subject to erosion, and because their ecosystems are very distinctive, many of them are protected. Apparently they only exist in this area of the Baltic Sea east from Warnemünde and around Rügen. So now we know.”
“Well, there you go”, says the First Mate. “You learn something new every day.”
We finish our brötchen and wander along the quay until we come to an impressive looking sailing ship called the Gorch Fock.
“Gorch Fock was a famous German writer”, says the First Mate. “His real name was Johann Kirnau, but he used Gorch Fock as a pen name. It must be named after him.”
She is right. The ship was built in 1933 as a training ship for the German Navy, but at the end of WW2 it was scuttled to prevent it falling into the hands of the Soviets, but they raised it anyway and took it as part of war reparations, where it eventually ended up with the Ukrainian Navy. In 2003, it was returned to Germany.
“It’s quite a story”, I say. “It’s sad to think that Russia and Ukraine were former allies, but that the larger has now invaded the latter and tens of thousands of people have been killed just because of Peter the Great pretensions. If the Gorch Fock could speak, I wonder what she would say?”