by Reinhard Zollitsch

An unexpected opportunity

We are sailing to the Shetlands and need one more crew member. Would you be interested?” I could not believe my ears. I looked around - no, they were really talking to me. I was sitting in position four in a 4-man rowing skiff. We had just finished a 10 km race on the Bay of Kiel (for the University of Kiel, Germany, in first place), and I was not thinking sailing at that very moment. But I saw my rowing and sailing coaches talking to the skipper of the 60' yawl Peter von Danzig, as she was being loaded with boxes and gear at the head of the pier where we were just taking out.  Pointing at me, I heard them say: “He should do fine!”

I had done some dinghy sailing and even a 7-day trip through the Danish isles on a small 4-man sloop, but the Peter von Danzig belonged to the sailing fraternity ASV (the Academic Sailing Club of the University of Kiel), and I wasn't even a member. It was a very special boat in Germany, since it had been built for the trans-Atlantic race from Bermuda to Cuxhaven/Kiel, the opener for the 1936 Olympic sailing regatta held right here in Kiel. (All other events were contested in Berlin, you may remember.) “We are leaving tonight, but you can catch us at either end of the Kiel Canal (at the locks in Kiel/Holtenau or at Brunsbüttel, at the mouth of the Elbe River/North Sea, 60 miles from here).”

“Go on, Reinhard!” I heard my rowing buddies cheering me on. “You are done here, and it's the end of the semester!” - It was the Summer of 1961, the end of my fourth semester as an English  major.

They were so right, I told myself in the joyous exuberance of a young student tasting academic freedom for the first time. And I would hear some real English! Great!

By bike, tram and train I made it home to Rendsburg (a small town at the half-way point of the Kiel Canal) in no time and packed my things, while trying to convince my parents this was a good idea. I then caught the first bus out to Brunsbüttel, with just enough time to purchase sea boots at the chandlery at the canal locks.

And there she came, in tow behind a small service tug, along with two other sailboats. The Peter did not have an engine; none of the club's boats did. It was a matter of pride, not just a financial reason. Bow and stern anchor as well as the dinghy were always at the ready. 12 over-eager students were the motor, as we saw it.

Peter von Danzig  in the Kiel Canal locks at Brunsbüttel

Bound for Edinburgh, Scotland

We headed straight across the North Sea, about 500 nautical miles (900 km), to Edinburgh, Scotland. The North Sea, a relatively shallow and often very windy “bight” off the North Atlantic, was true to form. The seas were lumpy, and our heavy steel-hulled boat, loaded with supplies for 12 students for a 5-week sailing trip, was hitting hard into the waves. Even I got close to donating my breakfast, lunch and supper to mighty Neptune, but finding some chores on deck and scanning the horizon helped me regain my old sea legs.

north sea
North Sea sailing, hard on the wind

When it blew force 11 off Edinburgh (force 12 is hurricane strength wind, 74 mi/hr), the skipper ordered to heave to. With the mainsail and try sail already down, we backed the storm jib, lashed the helm, checked our lights and went below for a grand cheese-'n-wine party in the saloon. The gimbaled kerosene lantern was swinging wildly over the well-seasoned, dark mahogany cabin table, and the wind was howling through the rigging. I had a ball, and had to think about my grandfather, who had sailed on windjammers around the Horn to Chile many times, as well as to Sydney, Australia. I loved it!

With the bow pointing slightly off the wind, we were slowly drifting backwards, leaving a surprisingly smooth bubble path to windward, where no big waves would break.

Well, all good things have to come to an end. (You guessed it, this storm was my high point of the trip!) We made it fine  up the Firth of Forth to the Edinburgh Royal Yacht Club in Leith, where we were greeted graciously, but very reserved, being one of the first German yachts to visit the club after the war. We toured the venerable city, including the castle, but landfalls are never as exciting for me as sailing itself.

firth of forth
Entering the Firth of Forth to Edinburgh  (RZ on look-out)

Into old Viking country - the Shetlands

I was itching to sail on north, about 300 nautical miles (540 km) straight north to the Shetland Islands, our next goal. We had a beautiful night sail, and I especially remember us 12 students vigorously singing the old Viking song “Nacht der schwarzen Wogen” (night of the black waves), about a lonely ship making landfall in the early rays of the rising sun after a dark night filled with big waves. We also started taking turns reading aloud in the cockpit, a German translation of the Swedish Viking book “Röde Orm” (The Red Dragon) by Frans G. Bengtsson, to get in the mood for our next landfall in the tiny harbor of Lerwick.

shetland isles
The Shetland Isles ahead

We could make out the steep shores of the southern tip of the main island from way out at sea. Getting closer, we saw several Pict towers, round stone towers where early inhabitants of the islands would hide when intruders threatened. We celebrated our arrival in port with a lobster dinner, something extremely extravagant for us post-war German kids. I was surprised, though, to still see so many small whaling boats in the harbor with harpoons mounted right on the bow. (I would assume they are gone by now.)

lerwick harbor
Peter in Lerwick harbor, Shetlands

And on across to Bergen, Norway

Like the old Vikings, we then sailed straight east across the sea into the fjord of Bergen (about 200 nm/360 km) in one wonderful night and day, covering our longest 24-hour sail of 187 nm (210 miles/337 km). I remember watching the big seas coming in a bit forward of our port beam, from the open North Atlantic. I had to get it on film. There, that's a real big one moments later I found myself in the starboard lifelines, camera still in hand, but dripping wet. My old Voigtlander camera did not like the saltwater at all and called it quits, but here is the picture! (You have to add the crest of this wave in your mind's eye. But it was there for sure; I felt it! And yes, it would have been better if someone had closed the hatch to the companionway - and I should have worn a life jacket!)

big waves
There comes a big one! (add wave crest in your mind)

Tacking up the long fjord to the harbor of Bergen, Norway took all morning, and then it began to rain in buckets. But sailors have oilskins and sea boots, and we were all over town and up the funicular to the restaurant on the hill. This harbor felt very “Baltic”, very “Hanseatic”, and made us feel right at home. Bergen was a member of the Hanseatic League, a trading coop of about 200 cities, mostly around the Baltic and North Sea, of the 12th-17th century, like Lübeck and Bremen in Germany.

Rounding the southern tip of Norway through the Skagerrak, north of the Jutland peninsula, was another high point of our trip. It is known for confused seas and strong winds, and that is just what we got. However, we wanted to try out our old storm spinnaker and try sail and enjoyed ourselves immensely, barreling along in the following seas, till the spinnaker exploded. After cleaning up the mess, the skipper gleefully explained that it was high time the Peter got a modern fuller-cut nylon spinnaker anyway. Cheers broke out amongst the crew, as well as a round of Danish Tuborg beer.

The island worlds of Sweden and Denmark

Our next stop was the tiny harbor of Smögen, Sweden from where we went “skerry-hopping” through the western Swedish granite "rock garden", through a maze of little islands with deep channels in between. At Marstrand,  near the larger harbor city of Göteborg, we headed back out into the most northwestern bight of the Baltic Sea, the Kattegat, past the island of Anholt to the Lille Belt. This narrow strait between Jutland and the island of Fyn would eventually take us back to the German border at Flensburg and the Bay of Kiel and our university dock.

Danish Islands
Amongst the Danish islands

We had sailed about 1,600 nautical miles (2,880 km) in five weeks. And I cannot tell you what a liberating, eye-opening experience it was for me, sharing such a significant adventure with 11 other young, smart and eager students from all branches of the university. Our skipper, by the way, was a medical student, a few years older than us, but just as young at heart as we were.

The three watch captains wrote up a trip report and sent it to the Cruising Club of Germany, which annually awards a prize for the most significant trip of a German yacht. That winter we were invited to come to Hamburg to receive the 1961 Schlimbach prize – we were beaming and already planning next year's trip: around Iceland! We all planned to be part of the crew again, but as things go, most of us did not; only the Peter von Danzig did. And a few years later my old university sailing club even entered the only German yacht in the first race around the world, the 1973 Whitbread Race. (No boats from the great sailing nations, the US and Australia, were entered.) Our Peter finished without running into any trouble – and came in last, thus getting the most out of that race.

student crew
Our crew of 12 students (RZ far left in plaid shirt)

The trips not taken

I for my part participated in another Peter trip to the Danish island of Anholt (early summer of 1962), but soon thereafter boarded a 10,000 ton coal freighter from Rotterdam to Norfolk, VA to start my graduate assistantship at the University of Maine (see MAIB, June 2009, My Turn at the Helm), eventually getting two master's and a doctorate degree, a solid base for a university career, a family and a home in Maine. But I am absolutely delighted to think that another group of 12 young students were offered the opportunity to sail to Iceland that same year (1962),  then around England in 1963, and in 1973 even around the world. 

My encore across the Atlantic

My other sailing has mostly been family sailing, yearly 2-4 week trips up and down the Maine coast on our small 22 footer (Venture 222 swing keeler), and being invited to sail with friends on bigger boats.  In 1977 I was offered another great sailing opportunity, sailing a two-masted schooner across the Atlantic as a watch captain in charge of wood and canvas (see MAIB, July 15, 2003, Fiddler's Green across the Atlantic). It was a Maine-built wooden Boston pilot schooner, 45' on deck, which we six sailed from Camden, Maine to St. Malo, France, Jacques Cartier's home port, where we arrived just as the 1977 Whitbread Race around the world was getting ready to start.

I had to think about our old Peter von Danzig in the 1973 race, and wistfully wished myself onto one of the modern, awesome looking, huge ocean sleighs, like the 77' Great Britain II moored alongside our little wooden schooner in St. Malo. But family and job obligations wiped out that dream without much pain. I felt very lucky my family let me go at all - for 25 days crossing the Atlantic, totally out of touch with the rest of the world, on a boat named Fiddler's Green (which means as much as Davy Jones' Locker!).

What now?

The past 12 years I have down-sized my boats to absolute minimal size, and have gone on long solo ocean trips (up to 1,000 miles/1,600 km) in a 17' sea canoe (for the ultimate challenge and ultimate reward, as I see it). I have paddled about 5,000 miles around all New England states and Canadian maritime provinces, including around Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island, and in 2008 up the western shore of Newfoundland. The summer of 2009 will see me celebrate my seventieth birthday along the north shore of the St. Lawrence from Québec to Tadoussac and then 75 more miles (120 km) up the Saguenay fjord to Chicoutimi. That sounds like fun, doesn't it?  I can hardly wait.



ASV: Akademischer Segler Verein, Kiel (University sailing club, Kiel, Germany)
Peter von Danzig: 18 m (~60 ') steel yawl; built 1935 in Danzig, Germany (now Gdansk, Poland) for the 1936 trans-Atlantic race from Bermuda to Cuxhaven, Germany (as opener for the 1936 Sailing Olympics in Kiel/Berlin)
Frans G. Bengtsson: Die Abenteuer der roten Schlange - Röde Orm (The Red Dragon). Non-Stop Bücherei, Berlin (also Heimeran Verlag, München; no publishing date).


© Reinhard Zollitsch