German canals - bulletin two
100 YEARS ON THE MITTELLAND CANAL. TO THE MIGHTY RHINE!
We are currently lying in the comfortable surroundings of the Dusseldorf Marina, in a temperature of 31 degrees C, having survived our first day on the awesome Rhine, of 5-knot current, pursued and harried by huge barge trains, each one vying with the others to have the privilege of smashing us to matchwood and iron lumps - not to mention the fates that await the unfortunate occupants, the hapless Charlotte, Ian Hamilton and Don. The fact that the other two seem not to have been on the same trip and have spent the day exclaiming with pleasure on the passing scenery just shows BT how little they understand what has been going on around them.
Hamilton has brought with him a book entitled 'Coping With Anxiety'. At first BT felt a pang of concern for the poor chap, but then it became apparent that he and Charlotte were reading tit bits together, whilst giggling and looking surreptitiously at the brave skipper. They then had the gall to suggest that Don might find it interesting.
Good God! They thought the book would be helpful to BT! He who had conquered his totally rational terror of Killer Wavelets and was currently grappling with the impending arrival of the deadly Rhine Bore, driven on by torrential Alpine melt-water. Furthermore, neither of them seem to realise the ever-present danger of giant barges, driven by homicidal alcoholic Poles crazed by 140 proof pepper vodka . Anxiety indeed! It is rumoured that the Mosel is even more hazardous with new perils lurking round every hairpin bend......
But we are getting ahead of ourselves........
We would like to spend this bulletin sharing some of our peerless experience of long-distance cruising through another of our eagerly-awaited tracts on the Art of Impeccable Cruising.
But before that, a little about the Mittelland Canal, the medium that has carried us from Lubeck on the Baltic to the Rhine. This is the most boring piece of water ever created by man, even more tedious than Tracey Emin's bath water after a hard and sweaty day in bed.
The title of this piece came from a German postage stamp, celebrating the centenary of this vital bulk transportation highway, used by enormous barges from the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany and Holland. Aggregates, scrap metal, oil and coal are the main cargoes carried; coal coming mainly from Poland to fire the enormous power stations and blast furnaces of the Ruhr valley, which adorn the scenic banks of this great waterway. And the grace and beauty of Polish scrap iron barge trains surpasses BT's literary abilities.
Here is a description of an interesting day on the canal.
Start from small canal-side yacht harbour 9.30 am, having used exciting toilet and shower, exclaim with new wonder and pleasure on the remarkable straightness of the canal, and the creative way it's builders have sought to avoid distracting travellers by building up the banks so that one cannot see over them. 11 am - Great Excitement, a small spot appears on the horizon - could it be a barge approaching - or possibly a pleasure boat? Plenty of time to speculate, as each boat's average speed of 5 knots means that we will be passing by lunchtime. It's a small yacht!! It passes, with much frantic waving from both crews, who, exhausted by this drama, can now settle down to a bit of concentrated Steering The Boat In A Straight Line For Many Hours, until the appearance of another spot on the far horizon. Now imagine this for 6 days and you will begin to understand the nervous exhaustion of the unfortunate crew.
However, this intensely boring canal afforded the experiential raw material for the first of our two-part new series of Master-classes in Peerless Cruising.
First, Immaculate Berthing - a Catastrophe in Two Parts.
Some people may think that merely tying the boat on to a pontoon is such a basic operation that it does not bear remarking upon. This simply demonstrates their ignorance.
Imagine this scenario. It has been yet another impossibly eventful day on the Mittelland. We have overtaken our first barge (took about an hour - more of this later) and motored for 8 hours at an average speed of 5.536 miles per hour. Time to stop. According to our canal guide (now available for auction to the highest bidder), there were no mooring up places available in the vicinity. Then Charlotte spots a lovely piece of vacant pontoon, which is not besmirched by a notice along the lines of 'Achtung! - Liegen Verboten'. This is our place! We draw smoothly alongside and tie up to the solid metal bollards so considerately provided. Time for a walk. We are just about to don our walking shoes when a small German arrives and volubly declares that the pontoon is unsafe. "Whatever", says Don, used by now to Teutonic fussiness. The German illustrates his point by grasping one of the stout metal bollards and pulling it and the plank to which it is attached right off the pontoon. This was a bit of an attention-grabber, so we decided to tie the boat on with a few more ropes. In the end, we are tied on in 6 separate places. Now for that walk - perhaps we might run into a Gasthaus selling beer, such are the excitements available on the Mittelland Canal.
As we tie our shoe laces a barge passes, causing the usual surge in the canal. Suddenly, there is a ghastly ripping and splintering noise. Christ Almighty!! Deneys Reitz has surged big time and pulled all six of the stout metal bollards from the obviously rotten wharf! We are untied! Luckily we are on the boat and can pull in the ropes, start engines and creep from the scene of destruction, to find another spot. But first we creep past the pontoon and deposit the six stout bollards in a neat pile.
Time was getting on, so we had to go in search of another stopping place. Eventually we come on a small snicket off the canal. At the end are moorings, so we creep in trailing mud off the canal bottom like a snail. At the end is a small pontoon, which we might just fit on to if we leave the boat's stern hanging into the channel. When we say 'into', we mean 'across', blocking two thirds of the channel. On the other side of the pontoon are two cheerful Danes in a smallish boat, who help us to moor up.
At last - a place for the night.
We retire to the cabin and crack open a bottle of finest wine. The first glass is just being raised to the lips, when there is a violent lurch, followed by a splintering crash. Up on deck, it becomes apparent that a barge has passed on the main canal at the end of the snicket; creating another violent surge, pushing all 25 tons of 'Deneys Reitz' on to the pontoon, causing it to lean at an alarming angle. Two gibbering Danes bring home the fact that we have destroyed another wharf. Time to leg it again! So, uttering grovelling apologies to the Danes, we creep from the snicket, trailing more thick mud and into the canal in the gathering darkness. Eventually, we come upon further and stout moorings, watched over by an old chap who used to sail on ferries to the UK and who worked in Maldon, Essex. "Ich bin Essex Man", he proclaimed proudly.
So we told him our story. He listened gravely and then grinned. "It is high time that somebody destroyed that rotten wharf", said he. "You have done many sport boat owners a favour". We smiled gently, just as though it was deliberate.
(More gripping tales of mooring up later)
Next time, we will demonstrate How to Pass a Barge Train in Two and a Half Kilometers.
We will also bring you Charlotte's anthropological observations on the Germans, drawn from a scientifically constructed sample in yacht clubs and bars, plus the Adventures of the Singing Dog.
The SASS and twinning with a German partner - an affair of state
But, before we go, there is the small matter of the SASS. To explain, the SASS, or Saint Audrey's Sea Scouts, is a venerable institution founded several years ago in the quaint Suffolk village of Cretingham, home of more eccentrics and positive piss artists per square foot than most other places on earth apart from most of the central United States, where they will believe any rubbish. Saint Audrey's was the local mental hospital, where in the old days they incarcerated those who were suffering from mental illnesses. Not so funny nowadays, but you should see the members of the SASS, of which we are proud to be members. The SASS sponsors events like the Filldyke Race, run in February down the River Deben, which flows through the village, full to the brim in the winter. The race is for plastic or wooden dinghies with crews of two. Many a time during the course between Cretingham bridge and Brandeston bridge crews have to get out and tow their craft over shallows, thus getting soaked in freezing river water. Then there is the scramble up a muddy bank to drink the obligatory foul alcoholic liquid from the “optics” on the bank. All in all, it is a race only for the gently barking mad. (I know, having capsized with Vic the landlord of the Cretingham Bell pub in one of the deeper bits).
The Commodore of the SASS, a democratically elected position, marked by an annual election with more corruption than the whole of Russia, was in this particular year Gilbert Sills, who had asked us to be on the lookout for European partners.
Our quest seemed to be coming to fruition when we found a mooring in a small canal-side marina and were greeted by the harbourmaster, who was dressed in a vaguely familiar uniform. But he was friendly enough and gave us fulsome information on the availability of bars and supermarkets.
Next day, as we were preparing to leave, a small party of uniformed figures, led by a man with several gold-coloured rings on his sleeve, decamped from a minibus and sauntered to a distant corner of the marina where were moored several motor cruisers painted in naval grey?? Our friend the harbour master explained that he was a Petty Officer in the German Navy Old Comrades Association and the man with the rings their Kapitain. Then, they boarded their grey motor cruisers and left the marina in perfect line astern formation! We had encountered the Deutschekriegsmarinealten kamaradenverbindung! A prime opportunity for international twinning with the SASS!!
This is our report to the Commodore of an exciting prospect of twinning with a German organisation:
ESTABLISHING AN SASS GERMAN CONTACT NETWORK.
Lieber Kommodore - Heil! Respected Members - Unsere Grussen !
As part of our foreign emissary duties, we have been making discreet enquiries about compatible German organisations which might share our values and approve of the sacred missions of the SASS.
Members will be quietly pleased to hear that our endeavours are being rewarded by some modest success. We were warmly welcomed by the Deutsche Kriegsmarine Altenkamaradenverbindung (Uberseeboot Division), whose members dress in appealing uniforms, with big peaked hats, wear banks of medals, salute each other in a manner that seems vaguely familiar, and paint their boats a tasteful shade of grey. Their Kommodore was fascinated by the SASS salute, which he felt could be modified to suit their purposes, using a slightly stiffer arm action. He is keen to meet you, lieber Kommodore, to clink frothing steins of Pilsner and brimming goblets of schnapps and share experiences of the Good Old Days.
You will all be excited to know that their burgee is in the very best of taste, in vivid red, black and white with an artful black cross in a red circle in the middle.
Exciting possibilities lie ahead for collaboration. The Kommodore went so far as to suggest a joint meet of the Kriegsmarinealtenkamaradenverbindung members and those of the SASS. If this exciting event is to take place, we will need to design and make a ceremonial uniform for the SASS Commodore, as the Germans will hardly take someone dressed in civilian clothing seriously. We have long believed that the lack of a ceremonial dress for the Commodore has been a problem. Now we have an opportunity to rectify this disadvantage. We suggest an Elizabethan ceremonial costume, in the style of Drake or Raleigh, with an impressive burnished codpiece or a double D Cuirass with tasteful decorations in polished brass for female Commodores.
We can also report that we were received with interest and respectful silence by the customers of the Fuhrer Bierkeller, as we described the constitution and purposes of the SASS. As we hurriedly left, we both felt that some of the drinkers secretly shared the values of at least some members of the SASS.
Finally, a visit to the Hitzler Schifffabrikenwerke convinced us that Herr Goebbels, the Geschaftsfuhrer, might be a valuable contact for the future.
We hope that you, lieber Kommodore, will see fit to approve of our efforts on behalf of all. Possibly a small token of your appreciation, say a small Eisenkreuze mit Oak Leaves might be minted for the next Laying Up Supper.
Your Faithful Emissaries,
Yours aye from near Koblenz after 620 nautical miles.