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.