Impressions

At last I am ashore again. I am riding on a train back to Germany. While I am sitting, I am thinking about the voyage. For three and a half weeks, I have lived on board of real squarerigged ship. Only a few of them are still sailing the sea. The rest silently passed away. They just vanished, without many people even taking notice. With them the art of sailing is passing away. The knowledge generations of seafaring men gathered over the centuries is fading away. It is not possible to preserve the expertise of the old masters, since few wrote anything aside their official or deck logs. They were graduates of a hard and demanding life they gladly accepted, handed on to them by generations reaching back into antiquity, which was for centuries the only way upon the seas for Man at all. They learned the hard way: they fitted in and they accepted hardships, traditions, a great ability, and a way of life now discarded.

The leg from the Azores to Brest gave me an impression how it must have been to sail in unfavorable winds. Joseph Conrad wrote in one of his books that in one time there were twohundred ships cruising to and fro in the mouth of the Channel, but were not able to make their way to port for seventy days. Now I think I can imagine parts of the hardships on board sailingships in the past.

There is an ancient belief that waves occur in a pattern, becoming progressively higher and stronger, culminating in the ninth (or seventh) wave, after which the progression begins again. The classic expression of this belief is found in The Idyll of the King, in which Alfred Lord Tennyson describes the coming of King Arthur on a thunderous ninth wave:

…And then the two
Dropt into the cove, and watch’d the great sea fall,
Wave after wave, each mightier than the last,
Till last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep
And full of voices, slowly rose and plunged
Roaring, and all the wave was a flame;
And down the wave and in the flame was bourne
A naked babe, and rode to Merlin’s feet,
Who stoopt and caught the babe, and cried,
“The King!”…

In the last weeks I caught just a glimpse of this life. I remembered the retired captain, who taught me things about sailing on boats and yachts. For thirty-five years now I’ve been in touch with sailing, sometimes in the Baltic’s or Mediterranean times on the Northsea. Most sailing I did on the “Bodensee” in southern Germany. I have gone through all kinds of weather and learned that you cannot quit the game. If you are out there sailing, you have to keep on going, sometimes it has been a rather narrow escape. But only now I understand what my old teacher always told us: “The sea is not only a place, it is a state of mind, a condition of the soul”.

On this voyage I have seen nights so clear and bright like seldom before, I have seen nights where “white horses” were chasing along, under a cold silvery moon, with the wind howling and singing in the rigging. And the main thing I realized is: “We leave no trace on the everlasting sea”.

This voyage changed many things for me, I learned to let go off all the thoughts and habits that made the path of my life narrow and dull, hanging around my neck like a dead albatross I relax and close my eyes, it is very easy to remember the sounds and smells of the ship. I almost can imagine her movement.

On a ship you always have to be aware of everything around you. The changes in her movement and the changes in the different sounds. You have to look for yourself. Never ignore the advice of an old experienced sailor, like the captain in the following verses:

Then up spoke an old sailor
Who had sailed the Spanish Main,
I pray thee put in yonder port,
For I feel a hurricane.
Last night the moon had a golden ring,
And tonight we no moon see!
The skipper he blew a whiff from his pipe,
And a scornful laugh laughed he.

These lines are part of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Wreck of the Hesperus.

I experienced a wonderful voyage on board the “Statsraad Lehmkuhl”. I had nice and friendly shipmates. The trip exceeded all my expectations. It was one of the most impressing experiences in my life.