I’m taking The Less You Know – Tales of the Wolseley Voyager on tour this January. First stop is Winnipeg’s The Forks Market – Sat. Jan 3 (9:30 – 6:30). I’ll be having a sit down at the river harbour for the day to discuss the book and irresponsible boating. On Jan 10 I’m at the Toronto International Boat Show (look for Nautical Minds Books stand G545). Stay tuned for a Vancouver date later in the month.
An offbeat and charming account of one mans attempt to motor a tired old workboat to the Black Sea to prove that living large doesn’t mean spending large. Without prior experience, no real knowledge and a mindset that is one part Libertarian, two parts Red Green and 100 per cent duffus, the author pushes, pulls and drags his 40 year-old four ton boat through the heart of Europe. Along the way he manages to find a place of quiet in his soul while becoming a growing point of irritation and wonder to both the authorities and the people he meets on Europe’s historic rivers.
“Ill advised” – Kustwachcentrum, Nederland.
“?/!” – Royal Yachting Association.
“Stupid and irresponsible” –Wasserschutzpolizei, Deutschland
“A danger to navigation” – Feuerwehr, Wießentherm, Deutschland
“Have you lost your mind?” – Bev Gray
Available in ebook on Amazon.com and launching in print November 21, 2014
I woke on a Saturday morning to hear voices outside the steel shell of Djes’ cabin. I poked my head out and found six German women discussing the boat and what it was doing on their beach. I had fought the river hard for more than 10 hours a couple of days back. When I found the small boat slipping backward against the 12 kilometer current I wheeled her around and found a small slip of sand and gravel and put her on. I was stuck so fast I was really nothing more than a garden shed in front of a row of suburban Koblenz houses. The women were concerned.
Concern often leads to action. I was comfortable with the placement and knew that Djes would eventually find the right wave to set her free, but not so the earnest dammen who now stood with arms crossed and brows furrowed. Elena asked if I had a phone. I handed it over and before long the women had the 20-meter Wasserpolizie boat holding just off shore. I was informed via megaphone that they had apprised the situation and would be back. “Sure,” I thought. I had had other experiences with the Wasserpolizie and knew that they were actually bureaucrats who were involved mostly in river barge paper work. The cabin of the police boat was a large office with central table and workstations. I decided to off load the bike and head into Koblenz, find the yacht club and make inquiries there.
I pedaled away and was soon wheeling through tree filled squares and past ancient churches and manses. My phone rang. “Wo bist du?” asked the voice. “I’m almost in the centre of Koblenz,” I said. It was the Wasserpolizie and they had returned with the Feuerwehr and their boat. I raced back as fast as a 60-year-old Dutch single speed bike can go. The women had convinced the skipper of the fireboat that this was an emergency and they must pull me free of the shore and help me get off the Rhine. The skipper was not completely sure, but then he was a fireman. And, like all firemen, he was completely at the mercy of womanly powers. I jumped aboard Djes and after handshakes and numerous guten tags it was established that this would be a good training exercise for the Feuerwehr crew who were a good 15 years younger than the well seasoned skip. Ropes were tossed and with the Wasserpolizie boat maintaining a safety perimeter about 20 meters out, the fireboat gunned its big Mercedes diesel engine and slowly Djes was again free. After some considerable jockeying due to the current we positioned and the fireboat had me in tow. I was off to Deutsches Eck (German Corner) and the Mosel. I had decided that the current was just too strong for the 23 horses under my hood. I would never make it over what is considered the toughest water in central Europe. My plan was to scoot into the slow moving Mosel and take it up to the Canal de la Marne au Rhin and rejoin the Rhine at Strasbourg where I could go with the current back down to Frankfurt and the Main. The Germans call this the Sauerkraut Route and as I found out marinated cabbage would be the least of my worries.
Off the Rhine for the first time in months, I held easily in the current with engine running just above idle. The fireguys came alongside and a crewman unhooked the ropes. We shook hands and I was off to explore a region of near supernatural beauty.
I was amazed at the new ease with which Djes handled the water. I soon found the entry lock and after an hour was behind the upper gates and cruising the Mosel looking for a place to berth. I found a great spot in Mittelnich, just across the river from Koblenz. With rent of 7.50 euro a day, full facilities and an awesome biergarten, I tied up and readied a landing party. So good was the spot I hung around for more than a week, dining under the trees at night and riding around to check out second hand shops and castles, weinstubes and little towns till the day came when I fired up the Volvo and set out for Trier, Germany’s oldest city, birthplace of Marx, and home to more cabbage based dishes than a man needs to see or digest.
Right off the forward gear started acting up. I made attempts to do a repair, but the complexities of the box and the disaster of spent lubricating oil had me questioning the efficacy of this decision. I would speed along and then lose power often at the most inappropriate times. My solution was to simply aim the boat at the shore, anchor in the shallows and wait till the transmission had cooled before setting off for another run at the river. I would travel a few kilometers, rest an hour or two and then try again. This worked for a day or so till I was anchored, resting the tranny, when a barge crept up with-in centimeters off my port side and sent me slamming into the shore and its riot of basalt slabs. After I finished hurling impolite invective at the crew of the ‘Laborimus’ I secured Djes and hoped for the best. Unable to move I sat at anchor for a considerable period hitting the corners of the hard burnt rock every time a new barge past. After two days of this repeated hammering I began to notice the bilge was rising faster than in the past. It was becoming apparent that my worst fears had become a reality – Djes’s hull had been punctured and water was streaming in. I had some decisions to make and they had to be made quickly. Ahead in Treis was a full service repair facility that could undertake the work. My challenge would be to get there and not become a navigation hazard in the middle of the channel. I bailed into a 40 liter holding tank that I carried so that I would not foul the river, lifted anchor and moved across the current into the lock waiting area. The gates opened and I motored in only to lose power behind a barge and a 10-meter French pleasure boat. The walls towered beside me and I knew that when the locks opened on the other side I would be stuck. Before the gates closed I had made up my mind to turn tail and head back to safer anchorage in Burgen where I had friends. I reversed and pulled her out just as the gates began to move.
It was here at kilometer 37 of the Mosel that I pulled the pin on this portion of the journey. With 10 liters of river water an hour coming in from hull damage and five liters coming in from the aging broken shaft I was feeling grim. To add to the challenge the day was hot and the temperature gauge was already showing 46 ºc in cabin (it hit 52º before day’s end). I had seven kilometers to go to find the docks and I wasn’t sure my little boat could stay afloat long enough to get there. The current was slow and with almost no forward and no real ability to steer I set off for what would be Djes’ last run. At this point my goal was to make certain she did not sink in mid-stream. I had hopes of finding my friends who would be able to take her in hand and get her repaired.
I pushed her for five hours. My suspicion was that it was only the exhaust jet from the engine that actually propelled the boat forward with enough way allowing me to steer her. As I approached the docks I knew I had only one shot. I missed. Fortunately my buddies were still there and they came out to help. With the aid of a rope and a bit of reverse I backed into a slip, tied up and went for a beer. I sat at a table on the dock discussing the problem with a small group and determined that the cost to repair would far exceed the value of the boat. She would have to first go to a facility with a crane, come out of the water and after inspection she would need plates hammered in. Then there was the question of the transmission. “You are looking at least 2000 Euro in repair cost,” said one guy. Another said, that would be optimistic.
The dice had been thrown back in February and over months they had now landed hard leaving me with few choices this hot, hot afternoon. I ordered another beer and sitting dockside with my feet up I knew in my heart that all I could do was find a home for Djes, get on my remaining bike and head home to the elms of Wolseley where I could regroup.
All things must come to an end. So it was that on Friday, August 23 at a floating dock below the shadow of Burg Bischofstein I stepped out of the cabin and walked away from my crippled Vlet as she strained from behind her ropes. With my bike in one hand and my pack over my shoulder I walked off the dock and felt ebullient and free with all of planet Earth under my feet.
Here in Germany bad often means good. This was certainly the case regarding Bad Honnef, a town in which I stayed for six weeks with engine troubles. I sat at the dock, first with a disconnected drive train that required professional tools to rethread the massive iron flywheel, and then with a troublesome forward and reverse that required the skills of Ralf from KO (Koblenz). Fortunately I had the company of good friends of whom some showed themselves to be poorly mannered, greedy and a little cranky. I’m not speaking about the capricious Sigbert Mayer who is special in his own greedy, cranky way, I speak about Wilma and her consort Swan, two of the white geese that worked the docks at the rowing club. Over the weeks they became more like feathered dogs than birds. I couldn’t call them with human noises, but the sound of a bread bag opening would have Wilma muscling hard with her big black feet pushing her fast through the slough. At boat side she would wait expectedly for bits of old croissant or Landsbrot. The prospect of a bit of bread would get her very excited. She would paddle hard bringing her bulk up much higher in the water and reach into the boat with her long slender neck. She would wiggle all over. After I gave her a bit if bread she would settle down and wag her tail feathers with pleasure. All this action would get Swan over to join her. Swan was bigger and sported reddish brown accents to his well-coiffed head. The bits of colour somehow made me think of him as a small town Southern BBQ cashier. I imagined Swan working by day taking cash for briskets with extra mop sauce and then holding KKK meetings in moonlit fields by night. His head and neck feathers were very slick from searching out bits of river bottom. He would wait at boat side glancing first at me and then at Wilma and then at the bread bag. When I reached in to grab a piece they would both rise up and push against the boat with their chests and reach with their necks while I laughed. If I gave a bit to Wilma, Swan would hiss and I would have to scold him before handing over a morsel. If the bread was too big you could see it travel all the way down his neck. I figured that couldn’t be good, so I started using a knife to cut more custom-sized bites for each of my friends.
When I left Bad Honnef I was sad to say good-bye to Wilma and Swan. However, no sooner had I stopped the engines after a day’s running than a new best friend appeared. As I sat on the beach grounded, I could depend on Beak to come by to cheer me up. I watched him and we shared a few loaves of bread. When I got going I discovered that he was following me. As I took cover in a slough near Leutesdorf there he was and so I had company for the night. Not much of a conversationalist, Beak would entertain with his signature grunts and characteristic feeding practices that would have him lower his neck into the water and then tilt his entire body to better grasp tasty river bottom weed tops that he would bring to the surface. His face said ‘Ist Geschmack’.
Leutesdorf is a town with an interesting history. As is often the case among the communities along the Rhine,Leutesdorf found itself at odds with its wealthier and more gentile neighbour. In this case the neighbour is Andernach, a lovely walled community just across the river and over a bit. The Leutesdorfers could not restrain their envy and hatred of the opulent Burghers and their well dressed Dammen in Andernach and so it was decided that the men would don their armour, climb into boats and raid the town in the early morning hours. It was a moonless night and no alarm was raised as the Leutesdorf landing parties made their way across the Rhine to pillage Andernach. However, the early morning is also a time for bakers and so it was that two young apprentice bakers were out delivering their loaves before sunrise. From across the river the two could hear the splashing of oars and the occasional cough. They looked over the wall and to their horror they saw the boats filled with envious Leutesdorfers. It was too late to sound the alarm and even though the apprentices were only boys against the force of armed men, they saw that quick action was necessary to save their town. They devised a plan and waited. As the armed group got to the wall the bakers upturned the town’s bee hives onto the luckless Leutesdorfers. The bees swarmed under the men’s armour and the group ran back to their boats swatting and shouting as the bees stung them miserably. The town was saved and the boys ( and the bees) became heros. The scheming Leutesdorfers went back to invent calamine lotion and dream of revenge.
The fact that Andernach had bee hives in town underscores a continuing fact of life in Germany – small plot mixed agriculture. Yes, the country also has large operations that are needed to supply their incredible wheat and celery root needs, but it is a common sight to see a three hectare farm where there is a fowl house, half acre of wheat, sunflowers and vegetable plot as well as orchard. In Mittlenich where the boat sat for a bit, the yacht club had once been part of a larger farm that had succumbed to urban needs for homes and business. Still, the farmer was managing to keep it real with a very tidy operation. Every day, I would walk past the wide variety of chickens, ducks and geese in a large yard that displayed the intricacies of bird society. The black ducks would play with the small apples that would fall from the tree. One would guard an apple and then push it with his beak as another duck approached. Like a match between the Bruins and Jets, ducks would run as best they could to try and touch the apple. None would ever eat it. It was just a game.
All the birds interacted, albeit in flocks, amid a kind of community where birds of a feather stayed together (much akin to the tribalism that is inherent in German society). Overseeing the action were the roosters. The biggest and most aggressive of the birds, they stood their ground and watched the games of apple hockey with limited approval. The largest of the roosters had a wonderful appearance that made them look as though they were wearing pants and strutting about with hands behind backs (I know chickens don’t have hands). Occasionally, they would dart out at a duck that pushed the apple too close to a hen. I could not help but think how similar these birds were to my friends Swan, Wilma and Beak (you too Nose). Certainly, more aggressive, these chickens with pants were not the hand feeding sort. But, like the swans that glide the river edges and jetties, these birds were part of a community where each had their place in a balance that denied the need for brutality. Could it be that the humans in places like Leutesdorf could learn from the easy social workings of the small scale farm where birds of a feather may flock together but get along in a mutual respect?
I had a dream. Early one morning I awoke after hearing a fish speak out in my sleep. I don’t speak trout or halibut, but I knew as sure as it had gills and lips it spoke to me. I had been reading Günther Grass’ Der Butt (The Flounder) and somehow things had crept into my subconscious and woken me with a fog horn like cadence.
Months later and a world away as Djes lay tied to a freezing rain-soaked platform in the midst of a winter dreary Holland, I too lay in my berth and thoughts of flounders and fish talk came rushing back. I knew then and there in the dark of the chilly cabin that the fish spoke to me of the Rhine as only a German writer’s creation would do. At that point I was making my merry way off the powerful Dutch tributaries and onto the Rhine proper. What was the message?
Really more of a greeting than a message, the fish had offered a confirmation of coming events. It’s dreamy sonic blast foretold flood waters and beached boats, freezing lashes of stinging ice pellets and sun so hot the welds broke on Djes’ steel hatch. The fish was a harbinger.
They say you need a 100 days and 100 nights to know a person’s heart. I say you need 100 days and 100 nights to know the push and pull of a river and how it twists the history of a country mired in its currents. Over the course of months I fought the Rhine with my old boat and it opened up and taught me much. Only recently was I able to finally come off the insane currents and dodge into the Mosel as a sneaky back door route to the Danube that will have me meet up with the Rhine at Strasbourg and take her back down to Frankfurt on my terms. The challenge now as I sit near Gülls is a broken canal lock in France.
The past weeks have been difficult. I had issues in Bad Honnef with repair and was only able to leave the dock after bringing in a boat scientist from Koblenz ( after my friend Buch introduced me to guy who knew a guy ) who did the best he could do without his shop and crane. After a couple of hours of packing grease into shaft cavities and tinkering with flanges and a stuck transmission he pronounced Djes ready as she would ever be. I left the next morning with friends Tom and Christian helping out on the dock. I soon discovered that the power of the river, while well below the rate I had experienced in May, was still a monster that defied taming.
My plan was to take the port side of the river where I could see the curves would allow the easiest run. Not so easy as it turned out. The closer I moved to Koblenz which is 50 K from Bad Honnef the faster the current runs. I could tell it was going to be a challenge when Tom pulled up alongside Djes on his paddle-board and then easily headed into the stream while my ancient Volvo engine screamed Swedish death threats. He shook his head and waved goodbye. Now I was left to carry on with my strategy of holding to port as best I could or ferrying back and forth looking for small breaks in the current.
The first day out from Bad Honnef I pushed her hard for 11 hours in stinking heat that had the cabin thermometer almost hit 50 ºc. Sweat stung my eyes and the wheel was so slick I had to wear gloves. I am not ashamed to say I took all my clothes off and drove the boat naked except for my Mountain Equipment boat runners and elk-hide gloves. All was well till the engine finally uttered one last curse and power fell. I had no choice but to throttle down in the current and look for somewhere to get her off the river and found it. All along the port side the shore was a mix of rocks and sandy shore with a forested dyke 20 meters back. After a brief rest, I revved the engine and crabbed toward the beach finding a nice bit of sandy bottom to give Djes a break. I quickly jumped off and tied her up to a tree and dropped anchor. Trouble was a barge had been making a fast approach close on my stern. As I stood on the beach putting on my pants, the wake from the passing boat lifted Djes high and dropped her well up on the sand. I was marooned with no way to pull 8000 pounds of steel boat back into the deeper water.
As I have said the river has taught me much. I decided all I could do was wait to see what would happen. I unloaded a chair, four beer, a fishing rod and a small table. I made camp where I could watch the coming and going of the various barges and cruise ships and waited. I waited for five days before a Viking Cruise Ships long liner came in close to the bank with massive wake. As I listened I could hear the roar of water and I jumped to action just as the waves smashed into Djes side and pushed her into deeper water. I threw everything on board in a hurry, fired up the MD11 and high tailed it for new water.
I met up with Tom early one morning to hike up the hills behind Bad Honnef to check out the basalt formations and get a little air. Together we wandered the quiet residential streets passing the ancient water pump and turning into the forest for the steep climb. This was all part of Tom’s routine. When he wasn’t with his family or piloting some massive Airbus, he was centering his soul from the back of a paddleboard or pounding the trails behind his house.
We came along a road and there in front of a well-appointed home stood a birch tree festooned with bright ribbons. As I walked on getting more breathless from the grade, I looked. “It’s a Maibaum,” said Tom. I knew Maytrees to be somewhat larger and involved pines on top of poles that had horny German youth dance about with sprightly steps and billowing shirtsleeves. This was different. This tree leaned against the house and Tom explained that in the Rhine region suitors chopped a tree to prove their value as
hard-working men to girls they loved. “The government allows the trees to be cut in one place late at night and then they are delivered the next morning. Some girls get many. Some girls get none,” he told me. I found out later that spurned suitors must remove their trees. In Germany there is ample heartache for both genders.
Several days later I was spending time with friends Mike and Sebastian on the dock. I asked them to tell me more about this custom. Sebastian laughed. “Yes, there are trees for love, but there is also a tree you give if you are angry.” He explained that in some cases those that have been treated cruelly by a partner might cut a tree and decorate it with messages of sorrow or bile. “It is then there in the morning for all to see,” he said.
I asked him, “Could you place a tree at an accountants or at the home of a government official? How about a nasty high school teacher or rip off car repair shop?”
I could see the light go on behind Sebastian’s eyes. “Why not,” he said. “There are more than enough birch trees for both lovers and haters.
Indeed, I thought, stumbling on a pun, “Yeah, I guess love’s a birch.”
Cold beers in hand, both Mike and Sebastian looked up at me and blinked. “With jokes like that you could get your own tree,” they said.
On a dock in the Rhine, a lovely little boat sits tied up waiting. She is not big, just 6.5 meters. She is not strong, just 23 Swedish horses strain under her hatch. She is not young with some 40 years since her last steel sheet was pounded in the Papendrecht scheepswerf.
This morning I closed the locked gate with its razor wire scarf and walked down the gangway to head to the hauptbahnhof for a train to Frankfurt and a flight back to civilization where love and clean socks waited. On the path I looked back at her as she floated easily in the safety of the inside passage. I had clothed her up in tarping like butcher’s wrap and prayed she would be Ok. She had earned her rest.
From the minute I laid eyes on her I knew she was the one. That afternoon in Rotterdam when I went to meet Peter and have a first look. Her engine was thundering under the bridge at her berth in the small boat yard when I arrived. I had no real experience with boats other than canoes but somehow Djes convinced me in those first few minutes. I trusted her. I knew Peter thought I was loose a few screws. I had not started the boat myself and had a hard time steering around in the canals. I suspect he thought I was an odd buyer. Then I told him why I wanted the boat and from his look I knew he was convinced. I told him Djes ticked all boxes. She was the right size to motor single-handed, her engine offered the right economy at two liters of fuel per hour. And, I added, I thought she was drop-dead gorgeous from her rope clad bow to her Papendrecht painted stern. When we docked I had already decided and sat with Peter to get the deal done. I had opened my heart and worked from a point of trust unlike the cynical guerrilla consumer I was back at home in Wolseley. At home a deal like this would involve many phone calls and negotiations and lots of late night pacing before a purchase was made. Here, sitting in the wheelhouse of tiny Djes, it was just a question of how much he would settle for and I wasn’t leaving till he said yes.
Djes is a comfortable boat. She is not big, but her cut and weight give her a stability found in larger craft. At night, she sits well in the water and gently bobs in a way that is like being rocked to sleep. Her cabin is fully insulated between the steel exterior and the wood inside and so even the coldest nights she held the warmth of the two-burner stove till I could get into the sleeping bags. Then, she held the cold so I could leave chicken, coffee milk and other typically refrigerated items near a window to stay nice and chilly till the next day.
Along the way, her uncommon appearance earned me attention and found me friends in every place I moored. Children would pull mother’s sleeves and point to Djes, “Aussehen Mama, ein Mini-Yacht.„
Men would park cars and come down to the rail to have a look and chat about the boat and tell me about fishing the Waal or making way in hard waters. Djes took the compliments with characteristic reserve. After all she is Dutch.
When I ventured out onto unsteady currents and had Netherland’s finest pull me over in their huge bumble bee police power tugs, it was the fact that I was a quiet man in a Dutch boat on Dutch waters that allowed them to let me continue. I could see they loved Djes too. Her lines and the vision of her was a page from their past that they did not want to let go. In Nijmegen the officer in charge of getting me to port came aboard to look and gently ran his hands along her wainscoting and curved roof. Nothing was said but we enjoyed the few minutes and we shared an understanding.
Now in Germany it is a land where the power of the economy clouds vision. Boats here are fiberglass monsters with massive twin screws and powerful benzene fueled engines. Requests to obtain assistance to help Djes go to ears made deaf with too much dough. Certainly this is not everyone, but the mechanics, boat dealers and repair types can’t understand why I would waste my time with a boat like this when I could be in a Princess 47 or a Bayliner. So, Djes waits at dock till I can muster the necessary personnel to get wrenches moving on her broken prop shaft and reverse gear. I have not just hope, but a firm belief that the solution can be found. Indeed, the combination of Canadian determination, Dutch boat building skill and German mechanical know-how will eventually see Djes well again.
For now she is resting quietly in one of the world’s most beautiful settings. Castle clad hilltops look down to the Rhine and the docks at Bad Honnef and the little Dutch boat that pushes back and forth on her lines while she patiently waits for her master’s hand to return.
A lot of things went through my mind when I considered Rhein en Flammen, the annual five date spectacle that takes place along the river between Koblenz (The largest of the five takes place in August) and Bonn (first weekend in May). I had been told that all the stops were removed for this event. Expect up to 200 illuminated boats, fireworks, and music, lots of beer and güt times. I was ready and I was not disappointed.
In my mind I had a vision of some tribal get down with fire lit icons and people singing their ancient songs as connection to the rites of May. My mind had me attending something akin to Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will where leather clad youth would be beating the daylights out of kettle drums and the town elders would appear on a massive dais. What I actually discovered was an event very similar to Canada Day festivities at Winnipeg’s The Forks except here the fireworks go off to salute passing boats that are all decked out in their finest light bulbs.
The party itself is held on Grafenwerth, the island on the port side of the river at Bad Honnef that is home to a thermal spa and other attractions. People start filling up the grass lawns early and the music starts mid afternoon. I rode Bike Too over from the boat to check out the scene. I found lots of families enjoying merry go rounds and kiddies’ bungee jumping. On the stage the act was working through a version of Black Magic Woman with a pretty tasty series of guitar licks. I decided to stay and listen. Next it was Born to be Wild followed by a long string of American classic oldies. I found myself wondering – Doesn’t Germany have its own classic rock? What about Nina or Kraftwerk – ‘on, on, on the Autobahn’. It was also very obvious that this music was for the old folks. It really hit home that the classic catalogue is to my generation what Lawrence Welk and Montevoni was to my grandparent’s group. Here it was being ladled out as well recognized middle of the road music that was safe for all ages. What would Pete Townsend think now that his generation is long of tooth? Wonder if he’s still hoping they all fade away?
One thing about Germany is that there is no gathering without beer. Mixed in with the kiddy rides are stands offering a wide array of weißbier, kölsch and pils. Many just brought their own in plastic cases that hold 20 – 500ml bottles. In fact, coming over the bridge I was struck by how many 20 to 25 year old guys were carrying these cases. I also noticed that girls don’t carry beer. Like the world over girls drink beer, but guys buy it, guys carry it and its guys that take back the empties. Among the 25-year-old males and females that were coming over the bridge most were well on their way to happyland. This left me wondering who was going to drink all this brew they were carrying in? Evidently, the revelers on Grafenwerth were up to the challenge and the next morning revealed not an empty bottle, discarded cup or beer cap with-in the confines of the 20 or so acres that comprises the site. German organization and preparedness had the entire event choreographed right down to late night garbage pick-up.
This efficiency is pervasive with-in the German social order with much in life administered and regulated. Consider the school system. At the end of Grade IV students are tested to determine their futures. Those that score well are placed on an upper track through the gymnasium that takes them into university and the range of professions. Those that may not do quite so well in the tests are marshaled off into trades and vocations. A third group gets the equivalent of a Grade IX education and goes to work on the lower rungs of the employment ladder. I have been told that once the die is cast it is virtually impossible to change tracks. If you are slated for trades at age nine, university is simply out of your grasp unless you wish to attend as a mature student and pay high costs. I have been told as well that later in life university learners are not as valued because of their previous academic standing. Everything goes back to Grade IV. I know if this had been my fate I would not even be qualified to study to become a rodeo clown or outhouse attendant.
This organization has earned Germany an enviable place among the world’s leading economies. While, the country is having a bit of a slowdown at the moment, it still enjoys an unemployment rate between three and five per cent, a rate most social scientists view as indicative of near full employment in a society. To fill those places at the very bottom, Germany is searching the world for temporary foreign workers much like Canada is doing. The flip side is that while Germany is not looking for immigration the temps they bring in tend to stay and find ways to claw up a living in towns and cities where they live in contrast to the closed tribal identity that is mainstream German society. Indeed, at Rhine en Flamen there were very, very few faces of visible minorities. In fact, not a hajib, not a sari, not a fez was visible among the thousands of people. Of the four times I cruised through the site I saw one man of colour and one woman with a headscarf bringing her little boy to the rides after dinner. How different from Canada’s cities where gatherings are a cultural checkerboard where kiosks sell Sri Lankan curry, beside Portuguese fish, beside Ukrainian perogies in addition to booths selling mainstream burnt beef and fries.
Certainly, one thing I will take away from Rhein en Flammen is how the German people are prepared to temporarily put aside their well-considered responsibilities and just enjoy life’s simple things. Already I have discovered that Sunday shopping laws are strongly supported and not just because this is a massively Christian country but also because they can see the value in a day dedicated to connecting with friends and family. Stores close early on Saturday and many open late on Monday. Simply, German efficiency allows its economy to speed along on fewer days open. This gives them an opportunity to go down to the river for a few beers and blow up some stuff every year in May and follow through with a wide range of festivals and holidays that make Germans among the most party hearty Europeans.
One of life’s great questions asks whether man is inherently good, evil or neither? It’s a conundrum for sure. Even cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer might have be seen comforting a crying baby before tossing him onto a sizzling grill. Humans can be so complicated.
In the face of all the crazy scheiße that’s going down around the world with all haters hating I have been heartened greatly by the ease with which so many have offered genuine hospitality and personal kindnesses. As fun as it might seemingly appear to be an evil mastermind (bwahaha) I believe that at the basis of all of us is a shining gem of good that is our guidance. Unfortunate is that for many time and circumstance have worked to scar over the good and the way is lost. For others, and I like to think the vast majority, an act of kindness is the primary default option. We are wired to do good. Here on the river not a day has gone by without someone going well out of his or her way to work with us (the crew) and help us along. In fact, you could say that our tremendous need allows people the opportunity to do good things. We are like a big floating karma generator.
When I think of people like Hans in Dusseldorf who let me stay tied up to his house for four days I am amazed. Consider that our actions are often akin to having someone ring your doorbell long after dinner and say their car has died in front of your house and may they use your toilet, phone, shower, refrigerator and Internet. People like Hans say yes. Then they ask if they may also drive you to the grocery and hardware stores.
On my way to Bonn to use the Internet at Starbucks my German phone rang. Over the clatter of the SBahn a man was trying to tell me that Volvo had contacted him and he wanted to know what was wrong with the boat. He spoke only German. I told him as best I could that I would phone right back. I sped to the coffee shop and found a seat with a wall plug and got in line for a tall cappuccino. In line I asked four or five people if they spoke English and if so would they make a phone call for me. Everyone was too busy. The same was largely true among the 35 or so people sitting along windows and in the big reading chairs. Across the way from my seat, a young couple was deep in conversation. I figured they were about 20 years old. I approached them just as one was about to leave. I pitched. Boran said that yes he spoke English but was just leaving. No worries though, he would be happy to wait a bit and make the call. I dialed and he talked and wrote. Together we got an appointment for Monday with a mechanic 60 kilometers from the boat near Koblenz.
Boran took off his coat and sat back down. He said his appointment could wait and he would like to talk. He was with Enka and they were just finishing their university prep for Economics and welcomed a chance to speak English outside the classroom. He was originally from Turkey and she was Azerbaijani. I asked them what they thought about the future and did they have hope.
“Everything is so uncertain,” Enka told me. “I am not so sure this is a good time for family.”
Boran was a bit more upbeat. “We are studying economics and in our classes we are examining the need for different models where people share more evenly. I don’t think schools would think this way 20 years ago. There is change and I think it can be good if we make it so.”
Back at the boat Christian is working the dock. He comes after dinner or when he has a spare minute to fix things like the gangplank or keep his Carver 22 is showroom shape. Here at Wassersportverein Honnef his volunteer position would be similar to that of a board member at a Winnipeg Community Club. Christian is responsible for the motorboat end of things along the southern slips that are home to 35-foot to 45-foot fiberglass harbour cruisers that dwarf Djes. Christian is a funeral director who tells me he has to keep a constant hand on the business to keep its heart pumping. Competition is hard and the industry is changing fast. His grandfather started the business and Christian took up carpentry before getting involved. “No one gets measured for a coffin anymore. My grandfather would have come in with his tape and then gone back to the shop to make the box. Now people are looking at cardboard to save money,” he says, telling that’s its been hard to even take a vacation because it impacts the order book in his small but successful business. Christain is typical of many Germans in the middle class. He owns his own shop. In Germany more than 70 per cent of employment comes from small and medium-sized business called the Mittelstand. This middle ground has been a backbone of the country’s Juggernaut economic growth over the past 50 years and is today responsible fr more than $3 trillion in business. Yes, Germany is home to Krupp and Bayer, Mercedes and Thyssen, but it’s also home to and incredible array of independent manufacturing like Christian’s casket biz.
Christian has been yet another example of how people will step away from their day-to-day affairs to help if they can. Between funerals, Christian would come down to have a sandwich or maybe a beer on the dock. I would pop my head out of the cabin like some perky hamster in a pet treat ad and walk down the dock and join him while he ate. He would tell me about the morning’s funeral service. Today’s funeral was a sad affair with a lot of weeping and carrying on. As a funeral director you get used to it, he told me. I told him about the fight at my brother’s service where his ex-wife showed up at the ceremony against the wishes of the family and the current wife tried to through her out. Even in death he had girls fighting over his body.
“Nothing like that has ever happened. We would not have allowed her in.”
“You don’t know Carol,” I said back.
When the group on the dock saw the disgraceful bilge I had under the floorboards of the boat, they lent a hand. “The boat must be clean before the mechanic comes. He must not get his hands dirty or he will not want to do the job,” says Peter, a man who is a retired member of the Wasserpolizie. Funeral director Christian agreed. The three of us moved off the bench and I pulled up the floor on the boat. Peter goes to get an extension cord so I can operate the shop vac/bilge pump. He also brings a 20 ltr. Jerry can to store the bilge. He doesn’t say a word. Christian says he speaks no English, but I know he does and suspect he is fluent. He has the look of a quiet observer who likes to measure his responses before hand. Time and again he proves to be a stand up guy who helps out big time when it’s needed.
This day Christian and Peter sat on the bench and asked me how it was all going. I told them I was discouraged getting the boat fixed in Germany. Everyone had ducked the job. I told them I was sure I could get it fixed in Holland and was considering trailering the boat to Nijmegen or Arnhem. Peter nodded and walked away. He called Heinz.
It was no more than 15 minutes before Heinz’s Mercedes wagon pulled up dockside. Out of the car came a man happily enjoying his later-in-life years. He came over and discussed the matter with the German guys on the dock and then came over to have a look. He pulled out a cigarette and smoked as he watched the various lack of actions between the motor and transmission. “Turn it off,” he said. He walked back over to Christian and Peter and spoke to them. Christian said to me, “He knows a man who will come to look at it. He will call him.”
With-in two hours I was standing beside Gerry and the boat was being fixed.
I had thought the repair would be a simple matter for a skilled hand. Certainly, Gerry was able to do the repair, but the age of the engine, and the odd sized Swedish parts made life tough for him as he squeezed his 6’4’’ frame into the tiny engine compartment. Thursday was his day off. He had wanted to get the job done in the morning and spend the rest of the day with friends. Instead, he spent the afternoon muscling the pieces into shape so I could get on the river Friday.
The next morning the engine was fired and all the lines cleared away for a day’s running to Linz and beyond. I edged Djes out of the slip and into the stream for a bit of a test run. We moved easily up and down the harbour doing lazy ‘s’ turns and backing up. All seemed good to go and I made a final turn before heading onto the Rhine for the drive across to the starboard side. The speed of the current caught me off guard as I narrowly missed colliding with the swinging port channel buoy. I swung in behind a labouring barge and settled in for a long day with few kilometers. Across from me the sign proclaiming kilometer 642 stood unmoving. For an hour I had pleaded with Djes to give it a bit more and pass the sign. The best she could do was stay still in the current. I decided to cross the river and see if the current was less on the port side. I swung the wheel and began the quick ferry across. Unfortunately the current was even stronger on the port shore and Djes started to slip back and the engine began to struggle. I was smelling a lot of smoke and a look out the back door showed billows coming from under the rear hatches. I was fighting too hard to get back to harbour and at this moment Djes engine revved down and died leaving me unable to steer in the shipping channel with two ships coming hard. I wish I could say I was calm and relied on my training. As is my custom I immediately swung into hyper overdrive. I attempted to sound Djes horn – four long blasts to indicate I am unable to maneuver. The horn choked barely one toot. I ran along the side gangway to the bow to throw anchor. Peter had already laughed at my anchor telling me it was useless. Now with only five feet of chain in 20 meters of water, useless it was. I threw it anyway. I ran back to the wheelhouse and tried the engine again. It started. The smoke was clearing and I could see that it was coming from the rear most section of the prop shaft. There was oil everywhere. I attempted to loosen the rub but the shaft was simply too hot to handle even with gloves that caught fire while I handled the bolts and flange. The decision was made to beach the boat while I still had maneuverability. A spot was found and I was able to edge her over close to shore and jump out to tie her to a tree trunk. I climbed back in and stood on deck wondering what to do when I heard a whistle. It was Peter. He had been watching and was just a few feet away asking what happened. I told him. “I’ll get another boat to pull you back to harbour,” he said.
I went back to wait. An hour later Christian and his father as well as Peter were calling from the back of the Carver 22 for me to start the engine and come out where they could get me. It was here that I discovered my reverse gear had gone back home to Stockholm leaving me to use a barge pole for backing up. Unfortunately, the barge pole proved ineffective and I had to resort to plan ‘C’. I took off my shoes and rolled my pant legs. I jumped. I found myself waist deep in water. So much for rolling pant legs I thought. I pushed and as the boat caught current I tried to swing myself up onto the bow that was a good two feet above my head. The boat was getting farther and farther into the current and I was holding on to the front rails and being dragged. If only my dad could see me now. Finally, I pulled my sopping mass onto the deck and ran around to the cabin to get control and head over to Peter’s Carver cruiser where the three waited with coiled rope.
The pull back was un-eventful. Christian’s boat handled the action easily. He brought me up close to the docks. I was unhooked. I was able to slowly power into a berth. The question now was what to do with the broken sailor. I had time and I had options. One thing I have learned while voyaging is it’s never wrong to wait on a solution. Ok, some solutions like those that require fire extinguishers ask for quick work, but for many of life’s little conundrums a good night’s sleep or a few days thinking never hurt. Till I come up with a solution to this challenge we are tied up to a dock in Bad Honnef, Germany hoping that circumstances and human kindness will again come to the rescue.