A Personal Account

Dear to my heart

The March 2016 issue of Messing About in Boats (out of Wenham, MA) reprinted an article from the UK Dinghy Cruising magazine (Threading a Maze of Shoals, by Keith Muscott) on 8 uninterrupted pages. I could hardly believe my eyes. It was an article on one of my favorite authors and books, Erskine Childers' 1903 spy novel The Riddle of the Sands. I had read and re-read this book several times, as well as seen the 1978 film by Christopher and Drummond Challis with Michael York and Simon MacCorkindale in the lead roles.

What a story, what a film, what seamanship sailing among the Frisian islands off northern Germany and Holland in that small sailboat, a converted life-saving craft. These North Sea islands are very dear to my heart also, since I grew up in that same region, in Rendsburg, to be exact, where the Eider River and Kiel Canal (formerly known as the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal) join waters for a short distance.
That's where I hung out as a young kid watching the big ships go by on their way from the Baltic Sea to the North Sea and the Atlantic eventually. I then dreamily went home and looked up their home port on my atlas and globe, wishing myself aboard to see the world. The war and post-war years in Germany were grim, to put it mildly. Dreaming of boats and ships sailing to distant shores was my escape.

Shipping and sailing past the Frisian Islands

My grandfather, the old sea captain, who had retired to the same town, is not blameless, since he had told me many stories of distant ports from Sidney, Australia to Iquique, Chile. But not until my student days did I finally decide to "ship out". I worked one long summer on a 1000-ton freighter hauling raw paper sheets (the size of thin 4X8 foot plywood) from northern Sweden (in the Gulf of Bothnia) to Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Antwerp, along the North Sea coast. And yes, I steered through the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal and down the Elbe River into the North Sea several times, just as Dulcibella did. And then we would steam right by all those low, sandy Frisian islands, the names of which I learned on my first trip by.

Click here for a larger version of this map

That was in German, of course, following the mnemonic verse of "Welcher Seemann liegt bei Nancy im Bett?" The first letter of each word is also the first letter of the island's name, in proper order from east to west: Wangeroog, Spiekeroog, Langeoog, Baltrum, Norderney, Juist and Borkum. Believe it or not, even the Kaiser in the film quotes that saying, laughing lustily with his soldiers/sailors. (Strange coincidence: I married a girl named Nancy. So the sailor in bed with Nancy in that verse is definitely me, Reinhard. I'm not sure if my Nancy would "approve this message", in print...)

And then in 2011, I sailed by that string of islands once again on a classic, 75-year-old, 60-foot racing yawl, the Peter von Seestermühe (formerly known as Peter von Danzig) on our way from Antigua, Caribbean to Hamburg, Germany. At "Norderney -i- i" , as the book character Carruthers always insisted, we were suddenly becalmed for a while. Three of us crew members decided to jump overboard to go swimming, even though skipper Christoph refused to attach the boarding ladder, since he did not want us to mar his newly varnished gunwales. So we climbed back on board via the mizzen bobstay and boomkins, even me at age 72, unassisted. (Once a gymnast, always a gymnast!)

Clara's sailing dinghy

And since I always like to read something that fits into the scenery I am paddling, sailing, hiking or biking by, I had brought along my copy of Erskine Childers' book The Riddle of the Sands. Suddenly Skipper Christoph tapped me on the shoulder, beaming: "You know, Clara's little sailing dinghy in the movie, it was mine. And they hired me for a week to teach her how to sail it. And during the filming, I also chauffeured the camera crew around in a small powerboat, for 3 months. Lots of fun!" I could hardly believe my ears. Our skipper, Christoph von Reibnitz, who grew up behind the Elbe River dikes, was actively involved in the making of this film? Just to make sure that's what he said, I have just e-mailed him to verify this info. He answered immediately, saying exactly the same. So now I even have it in writing.

Dead reckoning

But best of all, this was the area where Davies, the young skipper of Dulcibella, did his impressive navigating with nautical chart, compass and stopwatch only, even in the thickest fog. You MAIB readers may remember that I too did use (and still do) the old-fashioned dead reckoning method on all my many long coastal solo sea-canoe trips, down the St. Lawrence, around the Gaspé, Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island, all of Nova Scotia, up the western shore of Newfoundland... Well, check out the table of contents of my website:

Mudflats and sandbanks, as far as you can see

The sands and mud flats behind the East- and North Frisian islands are truly legendary. They are about 270 nautical miles long (from Texel, Holland to Fanö, Denmark) and about 20 nautical miles wide, only interlaced with thin, often very fast running tidal streams. (Pril, pronounced preel; plural: Prile, as they are known in German.) At low tide one can walk from island to island (well, some of them), with an occasional brief swim or wading through those thin, tidal rivers, often marked with tall witches-broom markers, poles with tree brush attached to the tops: brush-up for the port side, brush pointing down, marking the starboard side of the channel.

Anyway, I vividly remember summer vacations in a post-war Red Cross tent camp for kids on the islands of Sylt, Föhr, and in a polder behind dikes in Hedwigenkoog. I was a scrawny little dude, but greatly enjoyed playing in the surf or dunes or going on long walks through the mud flats with our counselors. I even picked up some of the local Frisian/Low German lingo (Low-German, meaning low-land German, spoken in northern rural communities, as opposed to High-German, the German spoken in the higher, southern part of Germany, and now also exclusively in school and on radio/TV.) Our favorite, silly Low-German phrase was: "Wat is dat? Dat is Watt!" ("What is this here? These are mud flats!" Watt being the German word for mud-flats.) You can see, youngsters are easily entertained. But I went on learning this old Germanic version of Deutsch (similar to Dutch and Flemish). I can understand it very well and even learned to speak it quite well.

The boats

So you can see that I was fascinated reading about the The Riddle of the Sands, but also hearing more about Erskine Childers' own sailing experiences along British and Frisian shores and the boats he used. And then there was more interesting info on the making of the film and the construction of, or better, modifications made to, the boat used in that film, the Dulcibella, named after one of Erskine's sisters, which I did not know, for sure. Unfortunately, no mention was made by the author of the article of Clara's boat. But now you MAIB readers also know its origin and history. How about that? That only leaves Dollmannn's big schooner-rigged barge-yacht, Medusa. Anybody know its history?


So, I am herewith sending a big thank-you to Bob Hicks, the indefatigable editor of Messing about in Boats, for including this great UK (ye olde England) Dinghy Cruising article for us New England readers. It stirred a lot of fond Frisian childhood memories in me. And you MAIB readers might also understand why the Davies fellow in the book and film has always been so very dear to my heart: we are both dead reckoning navigators/sailors, a rare breed in these GPS-saturated times. I maintain, I could have navigated and rowed to Juist and Memmert also, as he and Carruthers did in the book/film, in the thick o' fog. We've got the same stuff here in Maine and the Maritimes... :-)

Thanks, my man!

Reinhard Zollitsch

"In Defense of Dead Reckoning" (2005)
"My Turn at the Helm" (2009)
"Peter across the Atlantic" (2011)

Erskine Childers: The Riddle of the Sands. (1903).


© Reinhard Zollitsch