Epe, May 2008 – And there he is again. Back in his little plastic house on a holiday park somewhere in Epe. The wannabe sailor. Captain of a little boat that at present has more (rain)water above the keel than under it, unless you count the groundwater. I have my iPod connected to the stereo and maestro Ivo Pogorelich, well known to all of you of course, plays some beautiful sonatas by Scarlatti. Deliciously easy music with a strong rhythm and an enchanting simplicity. And yet … unfathomably deep. The Italians sure knew what music was about, some three hundred years ago. I am still wearing my Stortemelk sweater. It was presented to me by Marly the Mighty , in person, accompanied by a nod of approval. An honor one does not shed very easily even if it does start to smell a bit. And so it is time to commit this salty adventure to the electronic paper. It all started last Tuesday.
Munching on a cheese sandwich we flew some few thousand feet above the nearly deserted IJsselmeer. The monotonous hum of the engines and the warmth of the sun radiating with full force into the cabin brought a special sense of cosiness in this aluminum cigar of Italian make. We were satisfied. A job above Schagen completed successfully under the best weather conditions possible and now heading back to Teuge to see if we could do some more on this beautifully clear spring day. Below me I saw a few boats and a little further a ketch under full sail. And suddenly I wondered. It wouldn’t possibly be…… I motioned to Jeroen to steer south. Below me that beautiful ship in a cloud of sails, a gaff schooner just like…. Against the sun it was difficult to distinguish the color of the hull but the shape of the bow gave a negative answer. It is not the Stortemelk who cleaves through the green soup down there. The bubble of my beautiful dream shattered. Of course not. It’s way too late in the season. The Stortemelk will already be in Kiel by now I concluded. Every year I get an email from Mike and Marly to bring the boat from the Netherlands to the Baltic Sea. Usually this takes place somewhere in the middle of the Dutch survey season when I can’t possibly leave. And this year has been a bad year for us. The weather just wouldn’t clear. It was only last week that the skies suddenly opened and we have been flying long long hours with three planes ever since. Almost all contracts above Netherlands were now completed, just in time before the leaves opened up on the trees. Now if Stortemelk would still be in the Netherlands this late in the year I possibly could ask to come along.
That evening, against my own better judgment I decided to give Mike a call. To my big surprise he did in fact answer his Dutch mobile number.
“We are now in Urk. Tomorrow to Harlingen and the day after to Kiel. ”
My heart skipped a beat.
“You wouldn’t still have a bunk available would you ?” I asked.
“Of course. If you’re in Harlingen before 12 AM next Thursday you’re gonna be just fine ! ”
That was exactly the answer I was waiting for. You know, sometimes in life things go exactly as they should. As if Lady Luck suddenly makes an effort for a change.
Thursday morning around half past ten I reported at the Stortemelk in full regalia. There I found two old acquaintances, Heidi and Hein, who helped me aboard. Moments later I tasted the pleasure of kissing a sweaty Marly who had just finished her daily run. She does that. The rest of the team was still in deep sleep or had not arrived yet. Mike surfaced a little while later from the captain’s quarters and it was good to shake hands again. Gradually the deck of the Stortemelk filled with the remaining crew, some of which I already knew, some I would come to know pretty soon and some that remained distant by reason of the language barrier separating us. I have to admit, my German language is terrible. Es iest niecht anderes.
I met Dietmar again, Stortemelk Veteran and Linux evangelist. Then there was Frans, brother of Marly the Mighty. Frans was accompanied by his pal Melvin. Frans I had met before, Melvin not yet, but I would soon find out that both Frans & Melvin shared my sense of humor. Some laughs were to be had with this pair in the coming days, for sure.
For the past half hour I had been struggling with my limited German language and feeling a bit handicapped for it. But then someone introduced me to a guy named James. “Wonderful” I thought “now we’re talking !” But I cheered too soon. As I addressed James in The Queen’s English to ask him how he came to find himself on such a wonderful vessel on this beautiful albeit a bit chilly friday morning I saw his terrified eyes scanning infinity in search of a clue to what the blitz I was talking about. Great. Why in God’s name they would choose to baptize a German boy ‘James’ shall forever remain a mystery to me. But, as I would find out later, James was an amiable man who fared much better when addressed in his mother language. Also with Schnapps he fared quite well. With pasta dishes not so much. A Childhood trauma I presumed. After the short conversation with our not so English James I walked over to Hein and Heidi whom I had met on an earlier trip. Heidi’s logbook told me that it had been in 2002. How time flies if you’re busy living and neglect to pay attention all the time. A little outside of the group was a guy called Roland. I call him the silent enjoyer. Really not exchanged a single word with the good kid but that’s okay. To each his own and at least he was visibly enjoying the adventure. And of course the whole motley crew was placed under the strict supervision and immaculate leadership of our Captain Mike The Merciless and his second in command Marly The Mighty during the ensuing hefty voyage across the rough seas. Immediately after the introductions Mike pulled his bonus card and went to do some much needed shopping at the local Appie. Scurvy is your enemy in these heavy, dangerous and most of all very heroic sea crossings.
But before we could set out on our epic journey a hefty manual was taken in hand and all present were extensively briefed on safety rules and procedures on board. Europe’s taste to regulate everything apparently had also reached the Stortemelk who for the first time would sail under some type of ISO certificate of which I have already forgotten the name. It could be a good development, but it brings a lot of paperwork with it. No fun at all. And isn’t that what it’s all about ? Fun ? Why does everything we do always have to be covered in rules, procedures and regulations ?
After the briefing Marly The Mighty briefly told us what each of the (rough estimate) 138 halyards, sheets, lines and ropes were for. Frantically I tried to remember all of them. This in order to avoid, after hearing the command “Pull the flyer sheet!“, untying the wrong rope only to see it shoot up the mast and hearing 300 pounds of gaff drop on the deckhouse behind me . Should that happen, I promised myself, I would very well hold on to that skyrocketing rope, perform a fabulous rendering of The Flying Dutchman and thus take leave of the ship immediately with all the grace and dignity I could muster. The ego of the wannabe sailor, after all, is fragile and any embarrassment in front of grinning fellow sailors should be avoided. At all times.
Around one o’clock it was finally time. Hoist the anchor ! Raise the sails ! Harrrr to all the landlubbers staying behind ! Once outside the breakwaters of Harlingen the wind was quite reasonable. Meandering through the buoyed route in between the shallows we had some nice sailing close to the wind, sometimes even flooding the gangway with saltwater. This ship really sails great if it has enough wind and the sails are set proper. The weather was lovely, plenty of sun, a perfect start. And through the whole procedure of raising and setting the sails I had managed quite well to hide my incompetence amongst all those ropes. Once out on the open sea and setting course for the east the apparent wind turned more aft making the sailing a bit dull. Just enough to keep some progress but that was about all. The distant shores and hours passed by slowly. We were separated in groups. A German and a Dutch team. Our eastern neighbors would do the evening watch from eight to twelve. The Dutch team would do the night watch from twelve to four, followed again by the German team to take over until eight in the morning. Around nine o’clock as the sun dropped below the horizon I retreated to my bunk to try for some sleep. And I must say, I had no problem at all. Sleeping on a sailing ship remains a wonderful experience. The noise of the water rushing past the hull, the slow movement of the ship. Neptune sang his lullaby and slowly rocked my bunk. At half past 11 my phone had to go to great lengths to wake me.
Once back on deck with a mug of hot coffee in hand Deckhand Hans slowly returned among the living. That is to say, living… it was hard to see in the dark. All I saw were some black silhouettes moving around wearing sailing suits making it impossible to distinguish one person from the next. Upon having decided to polish my German language some more with Heidi and wondering where Marly had gone off to, Heidi replied to me in prefect Dutch making me realize I had been standing next to Marly for the last half hour. Very confusing to say the least.
Mike also resurfaced and the German guard went to sleep. The ship was back under Dutch command. Roland, for reasons of ethnic imbalance temporarily designated Spare Dutchman kept quiet and enjoyed his time in silence. The rest of us chatted away through the night. Around us, the sky was cloudy, but right above us was a large hole with a starry sky visible. It made for a magical backdrop effect. Mother Nature really did her best for us tonight and I sat there quietly enjoying the show while drinking my hot coffee.
“Look, there’s the Big Dipper” said Frans The Astronomer as Melvin came back with fresh coffee.
“No need to be rude my friend…” said Melvin The Stout.
and Hans spewed his coffee back into his mug. The stage was set. This is a gonna be fun.
But Frans was right. The Big Dipper was clearly visible, along with several million other stars. It is one of the great things about night sailing. The boat is darkened as much as possible in order for the steersman to see every light in the distance. The result is that your pupils are fully open. And if you then look up to the sky….. pure unadulterated magic. Enchantingly beautiful. On land, you see only a fraction of the stars you see at sea. The sky becomes a spectacle that one can admire for hours on end. The milky Way clearly visible, the faint sparkle of far away stars next to much brighter planets. Sometimes a satellite passes. And ….. after a few minutes I saw a shooting star! As usual I made a wish but didn’t expect it to come true already the next day.
The lighthouses on the horizon brushed our sails with their beams of light. It was the only remaining link with the mainland. On our port side a silent stream of lights on the horizon signified the offshore highway where all the big tankers and freighters stick to their lane. I was really enjoying this special place in the world where I was now. On a nightly sea, propelled by the wind, with people around me enjoying it just as much as I did. A warm mug of coffee in my hand and some mates to bullshit with about everything and nothing. After a while I made a small tour of the ship, gently treading across the deck not to wake the Germans sleeping down below. Looking over the side of the boat I saw the effect of the luminous algae in the water. These plants give off light when they are agitated. The foam spraying from the bow lit up so bright that the white ship’s name on the blue hull was perfectly readable. And looking down it looked like the whole ship was floating on a bed of light. It seemed like magic, but was just another spectacle that Mother Nature had in store for us.
Time for Hans to take the wheel and display to all spectators his flawless navigational skills. That was the plan at least. Since there were no features to be seen on the horizon before us I looked at the faintly lit arrow on the compass. It turned out to be not so easy as I had imagined. Slowly the boat turns off course. You turn the wheel opposite a bit. Nothing happens. You steer a little more opposite. Still the boat turns off course. Ok, so a little more rudder then, and the turning stops. But to your horror when the next wave comes along the boat now swings past the given course to the other side, leaving you to steer the wheel back like crazy. Enough to drive you crazy and Mike to ask “All ok there ?“. It was only after a while that I started to get the trick. To successfully beat the sluggishness of the boat and the lag of the compass you needed to learn the art of not steering. A bit like the survey flying that we do. New pilots that are trained to accurately fly the photo line often experience the same. The GPS system on which they fly has a certain lag but also displays any tiny deviation of the course in tenths of degrees. After a course deviation they tend to oversteer, shooting through the course to the other side. This then turns into a wandering slalom flight hunting the needle that is hard to stop. A well targeted sharp blow to the back of their head sometimes helps. Only after many flight hours the penny drops and they learn the art of not steering.
Boats. Planes. It’s all the same ….
After a while we were passed by the ‘Bisschop Van Arkel’. A sailing ship that had also departed from Harlingen, some hours behind us. The ‘Bisschop’ carried little sail but the dark hum disturbing the nocturnal silence explained its higher speed. We knew that this ship was understaffed, so it was understandable. Later in Kiel we would get to meet the peculiar crew that sailed on this ship. For now, it’s stern light turned out to be a godsend. To hell with that devilish piece of copper in front of me, with its needle that wouldn’t stay put. Right there on the horizon, that little light, that’s what I’ll follow !
Mike told the story of the ‘Bisschop Van Arkel’. Last year it lost both her masts during a sailing cruise. No one was injured, but it was a disaster for the ship. Erik, skipper of the ‘Bisschop’ later told that he had worked for weeks on end to get the boat back in service in time for the summer season. He ordered new masts, repaired the damage to the wheelhouse and deck. Had endless discussions with the insurance people that always look after us so well provided we pay our fees on time and don’t hand them any claims. Thanks to the support of almost the entire sailing ship community in Kiel the ‘Bisschop’ was back in service on time.
Pünktlich four o’clock the German team came back on deck. All of us, tired and numb, were very glad to crawl into our bunks. Neptune sang his lullaby with foamy bass. I barely got past the first verse before falling into a wonderful sweet dream of distant shores, salty adventures and… well… hip swaying mermaids or something.
Ruthless was the alarm clock after four hours. It’s a hard life at sea I thought as I reluctantly got dressed. Remembering the cold of last night I decided to dress warm. Double socks, extra warm hat, woolen scarf and my warm sailing gear all buttoned up for good measure. Every experienced sailor knows that the morning is the coldest part of the day. Satisfied with the outcome, I stepped back on deck. The sun was shining. In the absence of wind the ship’s engine had been started some time ago (I hadn’t noticed a thing, too busy playing with my mermaids). I was welcomed by people in short sleeves and T-shirts. A droplet of sweat trickled down my neck. Someone is slightly overdressed …. it could be me.
We steadily progressed toward the Elbe river. And the closer we got, the more we got passed by large container ships. Some of them 300 meters in length. I felt sad that very soon our sea crossing would come to an end. I’d have loved to spend some more days and nights at sea. Watching starry skies and black waves with white luminous foam. But we shouldn’t complain. The weather was fantastic, plenty of sun to give my pale face a nice tan and I had plenty of time to stare out over the sea to this never boring spectacle of wind and waves. It never fails to organize my mind, straighten it out again. Get stuff in perspective. Keep the good and throw out the useless. Like a spiritual spring cleaning. It was exactly what I needed.
After a long stretch on the Elbe river (always longer than you think) we crossed the lock of the Kiel Canal and moored in a designated spot just behind it to spend the night. Now it was time for a beer. And another beer. And a glass of schnapps. And ok, just one more beer to wash down this terrible schnapps. Not being used to alcohol anymore it didn’t take long before my eyelids succumbed to gravity and with an obligatory “Gute nacht” I disappeared with slightly unsteady stride (land sickness !) down below.
The next morning, eight o’clock sharp, the journey through the Kiel Canal started. A predominantly dull trip, but the giant ships that were steaming past us made up for a lot. We even had to hit the brakes at a certain point because of a temporary congestion of mastodons ahead of us. Mike found time to do some work on the cabin door. The woodwork was weathered, so there was sanding to be done. While the captain was working himself into a sweat with scraper and sandpaper he received from all kinds of unsolicited “good” advice from all of us. While we stood around watching it, hands in our pockets or holding a hot cup of coffee.
After the last lock that we shared with the large container ships who had steamed past us on the canal we moored against the ‘Bisschop Van Arkel’. On the foredeck two lovely young ladies were fooling around with some ropes. Some passengers, I thought. The beer celebrating the day’s end was tapped. I decided this time to stick to just one. I’m a quick learner. Mike had started cooking a fish stew and the crew of the ‘Bisschop’ was also invited. It gave me the chance to meet Erik, skipper of the Bisschop. A very easy and laid-back guy. And with a good sense of humor. We talked for a while about cats (don’t ask me) and the dismasting of his boat. He must have had an enormous drive to get his ship all back in order and he must be proud and satisfied with the result. His crew for the trip was equally beautiful. The two girls I saw earlier on the foredeck. Erik’s human resource management seemed to be in good order and I was wondering if I hadn’t signed onto the wrong ship for this trip. Brave maidens, and my surprise would become even greater.
The next morning I was on deck quite early. With a mug of coffee in hand I talked to Alida, one of Erik’s angels. Radiant blonde beauty, around 20 years old. The previous evening I had already noticed that she had an above average knowledge about sailing ships. She told me she grew up the daughter of a skipper. Her father sails a charter ship from Harlingen. She proudly showed me an article about her father’s ship in a well known English sailing glossy. Not just a passenger, this lady. A real sailor, and famous too. After breakfast they were messing about with some climbing gear. On the foredeck Alida had decorated herself with a giant adjustable spanner of about eight kilos and some other heavy tools. “What’s the plan?” I asked innocently. “Oh, the upper rig needs some tightening …”. Ah right …. she must be kidding … I looked up. Some twenty-five, thirty meters. My gaze fell back to Alida who was very casually attaching her harness. Slowly my lower jaw dropped to the gangway. “Oh. Ok. I’ll make some pictures …” I mumbled. And damn, not even five minutes later they were both at the top of the mast. Good morning. There is still hope for this world!
A little later Frans, Melvin and I made plans for the trip to the Netherlands. Reluctantly, I must say. These few days on the Stortemelk had left me yearning for more. I was ready to sign up as deck-cleaner-with-an-attitude at any one of the ships around us. Roam the Baltic Sea. Polish my German a bit. Visit all the islands. But before I knew it I was sitting in a Mercedes. The smallest they had, but the silly tin can stil managed to do 193 stundenkilometer on the German Autobahn. Far too quickly Kiel disappeared behind me. But I’ll be back. I’m going to prepare my own twenty tons of steel as soon as possible. And then I’ll come back. Around Denmark in preparation for the real thing. Frans and Melvin have already agreed to come along aboard ‘Fair Dinkum’ to see if Iceland really is as beautiful as they say it is. Organize a small barbecue on a volcano. And after that? Around the atlantic? Around the world? Sail away and never come back? We’ll see. I tasted the salt again. It was needed. And the Stortemelk was there in the right place and at just the right time.
Tomorrow is going to be a clear day again. Once again I’ll see what the world looks like from above. Earn some money. Maybe I’ll spot a little boat sailing on the IJsselmeer. Who knows.
Gute Sache na!