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.