PREAMBLE: The Psychology of Long-distance cruising
This preamble is not about the wonderful variety of countries we visited, the people we met and the seafaring challenges. . It is about something deeper, something we discovered as the journeys unfolded. It is about the psychology of long-distance boating and the effects on two people of periods of social and cultural isolation from familiar surroundings. It is also about the effects of living on a small island called “Deneys Reitz”, which though large by many standards, is smaller than a two -roomed house. This puts pressure on the crew, in this case Charlotte and Don Young, occasionally leavened by friends who visited, to get on harmoniously. But there were long periods when we were by ourselves in places where communication was difficult - and even if we could communicate, we were outsiders to the communities around us.
What we found - Don's story. 2001.
First it must be said that Don Young appears to be unusually sensitive to atmosphere, and slightly depressive in normal circumstances. When he worked he was known for being able to sense the health of organisations rapidly and usually accurately. So why not whole countries?
At first, on the crossing of the North Sea to Ostend, and into the Belgian and Dutch canal systems, everything was new and exciting. We had several companions and a wonderful dog called Reg. for company. Company lasted all the way to Kiel our first Baltic port, when Reg and his owner Jen, left us.
Unlike all other British crews who we had met in Kiel, we turned right and made our way alone towards East Germany, Poland and the Baltic States.
Gradually, a feeling of isolation, of getting farther from home, began to seep into my consciousness. As we passed into what had been until recently East Germany, another sensation crept upon me - it was clear that the Soviet time had caused great decay of the older built infrastructure. In addition, there was a profusion of reinforced concrete monstrosities, all of them streaked with rust, and horrible housing estates.
But there was something more - it seemed to me that there was something inside peoples' heads - something that we didn't experience in Belgium, the Netherlands or old West Germany. People seemed guarded, suspicious of strangers; the pace of work was slower, “customers” were often ignored, and there was a strong tendency for people in authority to act as though they expected to be obeyed.
Examples were the woman who looked after the yacht harbour in Wolgast. When it came to leaving time, we went to pay. She intimated that she could not take money - that higher authority needed to be called. After a two hour wait, an official car with two black-suited women carrying briefcases rolled up. Not only did they take the harbour fees, they made us fill in many forms, looked suspiciously at our boat documents and crew list plus passports. They did not seem amused by jovial comments of the “surely this is no longer a police state” variety. When they had gone we slipped the nice marina lady two bottles of wine.
In Rostock, in pouring rain, we crept into an empty yacht harbour and moored up. Within five minutes a man rolled up, described himself as the deputy harbour-master and told us we couldn't moor there. So, we politely moved to another similar pontoon not far away. Up ran the deputy HM, shouting “Da konnen sie nicht liegen”. Don was becoming a little waspish. It was raining hard. “Warum nicht?” said he. This produced a fit of frothing anger. The man jumped up and down with rage and told us in no uncertain terms that we were there to do what we were told. So, we asked where he wanted us to go - to a lousy mooring in a corner. “Nein, gar nicht” said we, causing near-apoplexy. So we slowly backed out of the harbour, Charlotte eventually shouting “Oh shut up, you silly man”. Bet people didn't do that in the good old days!
Then we reached Poland, in the rain, via the back way to the port of Swinoujscie. As we approached the waterway leading to the harbour, we passed a moored patrol boat, waved in a friendly manner and carried on. “I think he's shooting at us”, said Charlotte. Sure enough, he had fired several flares in our direction, so we went back and went through the process of passports, boat papers, crew lists and the rest before being let off to enter harbour, where we had to report again to the harbour office, which seemed to be home to several different kinds of police, all of whom wanted passports etc. On mooring up, we wandered over the road to a bar. As we entered, people turned away, looking..... not exactly hostile, but maybe suspicious. So we sat in a corner and drank our beers before returning to the boat. In the morning, Charlotte went in search of charts to supplement our somewhat sketchy Russian ones. She returned several hours later, complaining that charts were not available - military secrets or something.
Hey Ho! Off to sea. So we call the harbour radio channels to announce our departure, no answer. We slowly passed the harbour office, watched by several impassive uniforms. One hour later the VHF burst into life and we were told we have left illegally and must return to harbour under escort of a grey vessel with a gun that has followed us. So back to port for a farrago of an interrogation, a fine of about five pounds and stern orders to check IN and OUT of every port. “It is my job to know where you are every minute of the day”, said the humourless git of a soldier.
So, after a few more miserable decaying ports, the weather turns bad and we were stuck in Ustka, in a snicket surrounded by rusting concrete buildings. It rained. We go to look for a restaurant, sit down and are ignored. Enquiries of the woman at the desk are met by impatient gestures. After 30 minutes we leave, to be ridiculously pleased by a woman in a Pizza place who actually smiled!!
Eventually after more ports and more police, we reached Gdansk, a very beautiful city. Each morning, we are stared at by schoolchildren who use the harbour bar for their morning fix of beer (5.5% ABV) before getting on the school bus. A concert in a large church is an emotional experience in itself. An audience of maybe 500 is regaled by sad music from the Gdansk Symphony orchestra, punctuated by readings in Polish of poetry, obviously describing great suffering. The whole audience, average age maybe 60, wept copiously through the entire performance.
By this time, a grey pall of depression was soaking Don's entire being.
Something terrible had happened to these people in the past; that has become embedded in their psyches. Of course this is obviously the impact of Nazis and Soviets and the terrible suffering of the brave Polish nation.
Lithuania was even worse, people moved away from the visitors' wharf as we approached, refusing to catch our ropes. The three young people who were very friendly moved rapidly away at the approach of two Police Land Rovers. This time there were three different kinds of police, led by the scowling Rosa Klebb - but aged 25 in this case.
The so-called yacht harbour was full of boat bits and debris, the promised fuel non-existent, the facilities long closed and the harbour walls lined by silent men who stood with fishing rods - all night long!!
By this time Don was not nice to be with, sunk in a pall of inner gloom and depression. Charlotte felt rejected, ignored and helpless to do much about it.
Things lightened a little in Estonia, the harbours being full of cheerful Finns.
But a cure only came when we reached Helsinki and the customs man turned up with tourist brochures. “Where have you come from?” enquired he. “Oh, OK, welcome back to Europe and civilisation”.
(It is reported that Poland and the Baltic States are now transformed by EU membership and extensive foreign travel).
Something approaching normality was restored by the arrival of Don's two sons, who helped him polish off the entire beer stock purchased in Tallinn.
It is extremely hard and not a little hurtful to live in a confined space with a person you thought you knew very well and watch him gradually sink into an introspective and generally silent state. Nothing seemed to get through - he explained that he felt very depressed and miserable, and there was nothing he could think of that would lift him out of it. It felt like rejection. He was also unreceptive to my feelings - I ended up feeling pretty rotten too, but he seemed not to hear that. The fact that he seemed to cheer up on the arrival of his sons didn't help either, but he explained that it was the change of atmosphere in Estonia and especially Finland that made the real difference. (Rather than staying up all night drinking and making a lot of noise!!)
This being the case or not, it was a pretty unpleasant experience - not one to be repeated. Luckily we have a very strong relationship and no lasting damage was done.
Moral: anticipate changes in mood - but for us, do NOT spend very extended periods without a break on the boat. See next bit!
Cabin fever - arguments
We were in the pretty Finnish town of Uusikaupunki, at the end of the season, with two weeks to kill before the flight home. It rained a lot, we hired a car, but two weeks with nowhere much to go is a long time. Guess what happens to two people on a boat with nothing much to do and a goodly stock of wine to finish? They argue! And because both are strong characters with strong views, the arguments become drawn out and quite fierce at times!
All was well however on return to a nice house with quite a number of rooms!
The surprise in all of this was that the navigation was not that challenging, and as the boat was the essence of reliability, the only engineering needed was toilet dismantling. So our expectations of difficult nautical adventures were misplaced. What became most important was what was happening inside our heads (particularly Don's, he's a bit depressive anyhow), and how to live closely and harmoniously in a cramped space.
Our solution: shorter spells on the boat without a break. Also take time to get off and see the surroundings by hire car, train or bus.