A medieval university town, a king’s chair, and a British submarine

We leave Seedorf the next morning and motor out to the mouth of the river.

“I think that fisherman there is trying to tell us something”, says the First Mate as we reach the sea.

She points to a man standing up in his small rowing boat, waving his hands animatedly.

“He’s saying that we have just run over his nets”, translates the First Mate. “I won’t repeat the rest.”

I look back and see that we have just sailed between two flags. I had noticed one of them as we came out, and had steered clear of it, but had missed the other. Luckily the flags don’t seem to be following us, so our keel must have missed the net suspended below them.

“Just be more careful the next time”, shouts the fisherman.

“Perhaps you should be more careful next time not to place your nets right across a narrow entrance with a sandbank on one side”, I think to myself. Instead, I wave apologetically.

We pass the peculiar structure looking like a floating house that we had spotted on the way in.

Structure for degaussing ships during Cold War?

“I found out what it was”, says the First Mate. “One of the men in the harbour said it was used in GDR days for demagnetising ships so that they wouldn’t set mines off. It was abandoned after Wiedervereinigung. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it sounds possible.”

Another relic of the Cold War, I think.

We have a nice gentle sail across the Greifswalder Bodden with the wind on our starboard quarter.

Sailing across the Greifswalder Bodden.

We eventually reach Greifswald Wieck, a small town on the edge of the Greifswalder Bodden. A lifting bridge spans the river Ryck that leads to Greifswald city, our destination. The bridge opens every hour to let boats through, and as luck would have it we have only ten minutes to wait. But even that isn’t easy – there is no waiting pontoon, and there is a stiff breeze with not much room to manoeuvre, particularly as a large expensive-looking motor boat decides to wait parallel to us.

It is brand new Hanse, and it turns out is being tested by a prospective buyer. The Hanse factory is in Greifswald.

“Did it perform well?”, shouts the First Mate from the bow.

“Perfectly”, comes the answer, in an American accent. “It’s the boat of my dreams.

The bridge eventually opens, and we pass through.

We pass through the Greifswalder Wieck lifting bridge, followed by the new Hanse.

We wind our way up the river Ryck through fields of barley, until we come to Greifswald.

Making our way up the River Ryck.

As we tie up, we spot Astarte, the boat belonging to Axel and Claudia, fellow sailors whom we had met originally in Dover in our first year of sailing, and had met again last year in the Danish archipelago. While we were in Seedorf, they had popped in and we had agreed to catch up in Greifswald. In the evening, we have drinks and snacks on their boat.

We catch up with Axel and Claudia again.

The conversation turns to the war in Ukraine. We all agree that it is terrible.

“I do feel sorry for the Russian people though”, says Axel. “They have no idea of what is going on because of the propaganda that they are fed. Their government has cut off all news outlets except the official ones, and people are being arrested if they speak out against the war.”

“True”, I say. “But how do you know what is propaganda and what is not? Many of the Russians, especially the older ones, don’t see their news as propaganda, they just believe it is true. They trust Putin, and think that if he says that a war is necessary, then it must be. And look at what we saw in Prora – propaganda sold as a wholesome healthy lifestyle. In the same way, how do you tell that what we are told in the west isn’t also propaganda?”

“The difference is that we have lots of sources of information”, he responds. “Different newspapers, radio, TV, the internet. People can read or listen to all these different viewpoints and make up their own minds, not what they are told to believe.”

“But it isn’t really like that, is it?”, I say. “Not in practice at least. Everyone has their favourite newspaper or social media feed because it reinforces their own worldview and they don’t have time to read other different points of view as they get about their daily business. So we all just end up in our own little echo chambers reading and listening to the things and people that fit in with our way of thinking. It’s only people with lots of time on their hands like us retirees that have the luxury of reading lots of different viewpoints. And even then, how many do? Unscrupulous politicians know this and bend the truth slightly and people will believe them if it is reported in their favourite newspaper.”

“I can see your point”, says Axel. “But at least we have the option of getting our information from different sources. In Russia, they don’t have that option.”

The next day we take the bikes and explore Greifswald. The city is another of the Hanseatic League cities, but manages to combine its wealthy trading past seamlessly with academia – it is also home to one of the oldest universities in the world, established in 1456. Like some of its sister Hansa cities, it became part of Sweden in the 1600s and remained so until 1815, when it became part of Prussia. Then in 1871, it was incorporated into Germany.

Restored Hanseatic merchant houses. Rathaus on right.
University of Greifswald library.

In GDR times, the medieval buildings were neglected, although much new housing was built in typical ‘no-frills’ communist style. Since the 1990s, there has been a massive effort to restore the city to its former medieval glory.

City centre housing from GDR times.

It is also now the home of boat-builders Hanse Yachts, although the hulls apparently are built in Poland where environmental regulations are not so strict.

Nice shiny new Hanses waiting to go.

“I’m getting a bit hungry”, says the First Mate. “Let’s get something to eat. Look, this stall is selling pea-and-ham soup. I wouldn’t mind some of that. You can have a fisch-brötchen.”

Just as we are waiting, a stork drops from the sky and pushes her way to the front of the queue. As they do.

A stork pushes her way to the front of the queue ….

“Unbelievable”, says the First Mate. “I have never seen anything like that before.”

“Perhaps she has just delivered a baby, and wants a quick snack to restore her strength”, I say. “At least she could have waited in the queue like everyone else.”

“I think that she is a regular”, the First Mate replies. “Look, the stall keeper is coming out and giving her some food.”

Sure enough, the stork is given her fill of herring to eat, then flies away as quickly as she appeared.

… and is fed by the stall owner.

“I was talking to one of our neighbours today”, says the First Mate over dinner that evening. “She was born and bred in Greifswald. She is a paediatrician and was saying that in GDR times, she had lots of work as the culture was for everyone to have their kids early. Now, after reunification, they are adapting to western customs and are having their families later, so there is less demand for paediatricians.”

“She was also saying that her father was a scientist”, she continues, “and that because of his position, he was permitted by the GDR government to travel abroad to attend conferences and the like. Most people weren’t allowed to, of course. Then her sister met a Greek chap and wanted to marry him, but her father knew that this would mean the end of his travel, as he wouldn’t be trusted any more, what with a member of the family from the West. So they had a long family discussion about it that went through the whole night and well into the next day. The upshot of it was that the father decided to give up his privileges so that his daughter could marry the man that she loved and be happy.”

“Very poignant”, I say. “It’s hard to imagine how restrictive it must have been for ordinary people. Imagine not being able to travel to other countries and to see the world.”

“True”, says the First Mate. “But only if you like travelling. Even in the West, many people are quite happy just to stay in their own country for their whole lives. It wouldn’t bother them at all.”

We leave the next morning for Sassnitz on the east coast of Rügen. At first the wind is almost non-existent, and we drift along, the sails flapping uselessly.

“I think we’ll have to get a spinnaker”, says the First Mate. “Those other boats over there are making much better progress with theirs.”

“It’s on the wish list”, I say. “Perhaps we can get one this winter.”

“We need a spinnaker!”, says the First Mate.

As we round the point of Thiessower Haken, the wind changes around to the north-west and picks up considerably. We have an exhilarating sail close-hauled up the coast of Rügen, past all the places that we had visited on the land – Göhren, Baabe, Sellin, Binz, Prora.

“I should have kept my mouth shut”, says the First Mate. “There’s a bit too much wind now”.

“Well, if you take the average it’s just the right amount”, I say. “Nothing to complain about.”

Unfortunately the wind is coming directly from the Sassnitz direction, and we have to tack to get there. That slows us down. But we make it, and tie up in one of the box berths.

Tacking to make it into Sassnitz.

“You made three mistakes”, the next door neighbour tells the First Mate somewhat condescendingly after we finish mooring. “Firstly, you kept your fenders down as you came in, secondly, you should have got the windward side secured first, and thirdly, you focused too much on the bow, whereas it’s more important to get the stern sorted out first.”

“Pompous old git”, says the First Mate later. “Who does he think he is?”

“Not only that, he wasn’t entirely correct anyway”, I say. “It is true as a rule we should have lifted the fenders on the way in to stop them being squeezed by the poles, but it’s a wide berth and there was plenty of room. Secondly, the wind was directly from behind, so neither side was windward. And thirdly, we do need to get the stern sorted first, but that’s my job, so let me do that while you look after the bow.”

The Pompous Old Git leaves the next morning.

“I’m really glad he has gone”, says the First Mate. “I am not very good at giving people the cold shoulder when they are right next door.”

In the afternoon, we take the bus from Sassnitz up to Königsstühl, the King’s Chair, where there is a visitor’s centre for the Jasmund National Park. As we get off, another tourist bus draws up behind us.

“Quick”, says the First Mate. “Let’s get in before them, or else we will be all day before we get our tickets.”

We make it before the tourists, and spend an enjoyable couple of hours going through the exhibition on the national park.

We learn all about the geology of Rügen from the multimedia exhibition.

A local legend has it that God was making the earth and had nearly finished it when he had completed Bornholm. He had a bit of building material left over, but was too tired to carry on, so he threw the remainder as far as he could into the sea. It ended up against the Pomeranian coast to become the island of Rügen, but he thought it looked too untidy so took some of his plaster and smeared it over to make the chalk cliffs we see today.

A nice little legend. The geological explanation is that the limestone was laid down during the Cretacious Period, about 70 million years ago, by small creatures whose shells contained calcium, which metamorphosed into the chalk we see today. During the glacial periods, this chalk was covered in debris brought by the advance of the ice sheets.

Either way, when the ice retreated 10,000 years ago, beech forests advanced from the south until most of Europe, including Rügen, was covered. Then, of course, came humans, who cleared much of the forest to grow crops and develop settlements. The Jasmund National Park, along with several other national parks throughout Europe, is a small intact remnant of that once-extensive beech forest.

Ancient beech forest.

”That was really interesting”, says the First Mate as we emerge. “I enjoyed that. Now let’s go and see the Königsstühl. Here’s the path, look.”

We follow the path to a viewing platform where we can see the chalk cliffs. They are impressive.

View of the chalk cliffs from the Königstühl.

“One of the stories to explain why it is called Königstühl is that the Swedish king Charles XII sat here in 1715 to direct a battle out in the Baltic between his ships and the Danish fleet”, the guide book tells me. “However, as the first reference to Königstühl was way back in 1586, this can’t have been the case. It is more likely that it came from an ancient practice of aspiring rulers of the local tribe being required to race to climb the cliffs from the beach to sit on a chair at the top, with the one getting there first becoming the king.”

“You men”, says the First Mate. “Always trying to prove yourselves! Anyway, did you know that we are amongst the last to walk on this particular viewing platform? They are building a replacement that will be totally suspended. It is supposed to help stop the erosion of the cliffs.”

Model of the new viewing platform.

We wait in silence holding our breaths, listening to the muted throb of the German pocket battleship’s engines overhead. There is a crump as it fires its depth charges, and moments later the violent impact as the shock wave reaches us, shaking the submarine and knocking a few of us to our knees.

“Check any damage”, I order. “And make sure the crew maintain complete silence.”

“Aye aye, sir”, comes the reply.

The dull orange glow of the radar screen illuminates the tense faces of the men in the control room staring intently at their equipment.

“Water leaking into the torpedo room, sir”, comes back the report. “But it should hold. No serious damage.”

Torpedo room.

The sound of the battleship’s engines fade slowly into the distance. The danger has passed for now.

“Right”, I say. “Time for the hunted to become the hunter. Turn on the machine that goes ‘ping’, Number One”.

The machine that goes ‘ping’ goes ping.

“Arm torpedoes”, I order.

“Aye aye, sir”, comes the acknowledgement.

“Vent the tanks, Number One.”

We rise to just below the surface.

“Up periscope”.

I peer through the lens. About half a mile in front of us is the battlecruiser that had tried to depth-charge us.


“Fire One”, I shout. “Fire Two.”

In rapid succession the hiss of the two torpedoes leaving the submarine is heard, followed by the force of the recoil sending tremors through the boat.

Entschuldigen Sie, bitte”, says a voice behind me. “Kann ich vorbeikommen? Can I get past?”

A woman is trying to squeeze past me.

Ja, naturlich”, I say, moving to one side. “Es tut mir leid.”

For a fleeting moment, I wonder why I am speaking German to a woman in a British submarine torpedoing a German pocket battlecruiser. Then I remember where I am – in the British submarine HMS Otus tied up in Sassnitz harbour. Otus was a Royal Navy Oberon-class submarine launched in 1962 and decommissioned in the early 1990s. A German businessman bought her and converted her into a museum and opened her to the public.

HMS Otus.

“I am not sure that I could have coped on a submarine”, I tell the First Mate later. “Too claustrophobic. To think that there were 68 men on it. Many of them were just sleeping on bunks in the corridor. No privacy at all. Only the captain had his own cabin.”

“What does the machine that goes ‘ping’ actually do?”, she asks.

“I have no idea”, I say. “I just put that bit in to make it sound like a submarine. All the movies have it.”

The machine that goes ‘ping’?

4 thoughts on “A medieval university town, a king’s chair, and a British submarine

  1. Ha ha you’re so right, there’s always a machine, or three, that go ping in the background! I absolutely love reading about your adventures. We definitely need to visit there too!


  2. Probably ASDIC, the machine that sends out a radio signal and measures the time it takes to come back.
    Enjoying your stories, with all the details from an area I know very little about.
    Have passed on the blog to our other cousins.


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