I am writing from Brunsbüttel at the beginning of the Kiel Canal.
To those who are following me, you will presume that I finally crossed the German Bight from Helgoland and sailed up the mighty Elbe. This is true and that is the good news…
Nature is full of dichotomy and for me it has been no different, for yet another disaster has occurred, related to the awful grounding in Helgoland harbour.
Firstly I shall recount the former, positive part of the epic, and I don’t use that word lightly!
I sat for hours, meticulously planning my passage so that the tides would aid me all the way up the River Elbe. To reach the estuary from the sea when the Elbe is ebbing (water going out to sea) and the wind behind me, would present very nasty large waves as the wind and tide oppose each other; however, with the tide behind me (the flood) and the wind sympathetic, I should be able to sail the whole river as far as Brunsbüttel without the engine.
I knew there could be no mistakes, due to the uncertain reliability of my gearbox; the less I used it, the more chance I would have of making the Kiel Canal. This was going to be the most skilful and brave sailing I had ever done and the timing had to be perfect. The facts were simple…
Screw this up and your sailing life is over.
This time everything went perfectly. Once the tides had changed I was able to shut down the engine and sail. Never has ‘Free’ sailed so well in big seas and I reached speeds of over seven knots in the river due to the big flood tide. What a marvellous feeling to get one’s planning perfect!
Soon Cuxhaven was behind me and the Elbe became more recognisable as a river and less like a vast open expanse of water and sky.
Eventually I reached the sluis at Brunsbüttel and then my problems began in earnest…
When a boat arrives at the sluis it must use VHF radio for contact and then await instructions. This I did and started the engine in the waiting area until my turn to squeeze in amongst the huge ships also passing through to the Baltic. After a few minutes of easing backwards and forwards to stay still, I could smell that something was amiss. The engine sounded throaty and unusually rough. My heart hammered and the sickening knot of fear began to clutch at my stomach. Not now… please.
A quick examination of the engine room confirmed my fears. Clouds of steam were rising from the stern gland area where the prop shaft goes through the hull. There was oil everywhere around the gearbox and it was obvious that failure was immanent.
It felt like an eternity before I was instructed to make my way into the sluis ahead of a huge Leviathan. The poor old gearbox somehow managed to oblige in a tired, throaty fashion. Finally the locking was over and ‘Free’ chugged out into the canal. I was relieved to be out of the tidal river at last.
“One final attempt, my beloved, please. Just get me into the little harbour two hundred meters away.”
As in so many times before, my steadfast little ship strained all her heart to finally come alongside and bring me to safety.
Forgive me for sounding a little emotional at this point; it had been a really trying day. The harbour master was lovely and somehow we managed to communicate in a weird fusion of German, Dutch and English! He offered to contact an engineer to visit me the following morning and true to form, Simon arrived at nine on the dot! He confirmed what I already knew, that my gearbox was kaput. Two hours later he returned with a colleague and they had it out of the engine-room and on its way to their workshop. I dread to think how much this is going to cost but if I had been in England there’s no telling how long I would have had to wait for help. The only consolation is that I have probably picked the best country in Europe to have a major technical catastrophe.
Since I arrived here I have been amazed by the immensity of the vessels passing through the sluis. Their size makes one feel so tiny and insignificant.
And right now, that’s exactly how I feel. My limits never seem to surprise me, but I feel truly humbled by the sheer power of the sea and the vulnerability of being out there alone, using every ounce of courage and skill to outwit the brutal elements.
How will I ever be able to live on land again after this?