In the aftermath of the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945 the spoils of war were, no doubt, extraordinary and various. One of them was a collection of yachts based in the Baltic city of Kiel, the centre for Hitler’s enormous U Boat fleet. The base itself had suffered extensive bombing and its huge concrete submarine pens lay crumpled and blasted, but the British Army established a sailing club on the western side of Kieler fjord, where these windfall yachts were moored.
The British Kiel Yacht Club (BKYC) 1969
Wind the clock forward to 1969 and the British Kiel Yacht Club still had a small number of these ‘windfall yachts’ as they were known; some 30 sq ms, a couple of 50 sq ms and one 100 sq m classic wooden yacht called Kranich, built in 1936. (For explanation of sq m ‘square metre’ see note). In addition they had a fleet of modern GRP ones that were used to teach the rudiments of sailing to British Army personnel; these were without engines!
Some ex-German ‘windfall’ yachts
I hadn’t sailed much as a child, one simple sailing holiday with my father when I was 10, but in 1968 sailed around The Solent a bit in a little 19ft yacht called Barbican …… and on a very wet yacht in Cyprus ….. and rather liked it. You might say I took to sailing like a, er, duck to water? So when my Regiment was posted to northern Germany, the obvious place to indulge the interest was in The Baltic. To refresh your knowledge of geography, The Baltic is the name of the shallow sea that is almost enclosed by European countries – Sweden, Finland, The Baltic States, Poland and Germany, and flows out through the low lying islands of Denmark, through the Kattegat and into the North Sea. It’s got a low saline content due to its mix of salt water inflowing from the North Sea and outflowing fresh water draining from a land mass four times larger than the sea itself.
Two shipping channels run between the large islands of Funen and Zealand and between Zealand and the western coast of Sweden. Otherwise the Danish waters are quite shallow, making for short sharp seas when it’s windy and always interesting navigation. Channels are marked by upturned broom sticks; some had one bundle of sticks lashed to the pole, others two and sometimes three. So typically Danish!!
Before going off to university, I was in Germany for 9 months in 1969, and took part in Kieler Woche, the country’s equivalent of Cowes Week, the sailing festival on the Isle of Wight in UK. I sailed on a long keeled yacht called Uomie, named as it was taken in payment of a debt!! We did well during the week and particularly coming first in our class in the Fehmarn Light Race. The skipper gave each of the five crew members a little silver schnapps cup.
After university I rejoined my Germany-based regiment ….. and naturally went back to sailing in the Baltic. The first time was actually racing from Cowes on the Isle of Wight to Skagen, right on the tip of Denmark. (See note) We then passaged south to Malmö in Sweden for a regatta. Teaching soldiers the benefits of teamwork through using the forces of nature, ‘adventurous training’ as it was euphemistically called, was considered a good thing!! The attraction was obvious; hundreds of little islands, narrow channels threading their way between them, charming villages and towns with enchanting names like Aerøskøbing, Middlefart, Juelsminde, Kerteminde, Lohals and Faaborg.
The Lohals marina was not there in 1973!
In my 5 years in Germany I must have developed a reputation for often being away from barracks sailing. Once, during a leadership course for junior NCOs, the Regimental second-in-command, Major John Harman, was explaining some aspects of the vital cooperation needed between the artillery and infantry. I won’t bore you with the details but at some point he asked, by way of confirmation that they had understood: “And where would you expect to find Golf 31 (my radio call sign) Captain Yates during this particular phase of the battle?” A wag at the back of the classroom shouted: ‘Sailing in the Baltic sir!’
In my room in the Officers’ Mess, I hung up on a wall four Danish maps sellotaped together so I could plot the course of each trip; after a couple of years it looked as though a drunken spider had walked into some red paint and then all over the map! Apart from trips up the Als Sund north from Sønderberg, drifting in and out of islands around Lohals on Langeland, and finding enough crabs for supper in a rotten rowing boat just alongside where we had tied up in Aerøskøbing, one major trip involved sailing St Barbara II, a 42ft Rebel, up to the Norwegian capital Oslo, when the engine had been taken out for its annual overhaul. This meant that we had to charge the battery, needed for navigational lights if nothing else, every time we went into a harbour. Going into a crowded marina without an engine was a tricky and anxious time and occasionally we gratefully took a proffered tow.
The Oslo crew on St Barbara II
On one trip sailing a ‘windfall’ yacht, we had just tied up alongside the village quay in Juelsminde and were getting down to the serious business of having a drink. People get attracted to yachts and boats in harbours as the poles of magnets to each other and we often had rubberneckers peering down on us. One particular old chap came wandering down the harbour wall and stopped; “Guten abend. Wie Gehts?” he greeted us. Then he proceeded to switch to Pidgin English. “Zis iz a lovely yacht, ja! Sehr schön. You took zem from us after ze war ja?” and with that, shaking his head as to what might have been, he shuffled off back into the village.
Generally the islands between the mainland of Denmark, Jutland, and the island of Zealand, on which Copenhagen is situated, provided ample enough cruising grounds, but one year I actually sailed into Langeline Harbour in Copenhagen, before continuing south through the Stege Bugt to Stubbekøbing. In Denmark’s capital city, down in the harbour, lies the delightful statue of ‘The Little Mermaid’, sitting on her rock since 1913. Her head is of the ballerina Ellen Price, but as she didn’t want to pose naked the sculptor persuaded his wife Eline Eriksen to pose for him.
The memories of sailing in these delightful waters will stay with me forever; although I have few still photographs, I have many hours of Super 8 Cinefilm, transposed to VHS Video and then to CDs as technology made one means obsolete! And so will the Danish sense of humour. Did you know that a ferry service runs between the Swedish city of Gothenburg and the Danish town of Frederikshavn on Jutland? Well, there is one and it’s rumoured that the skipper doesn’t need a chart, he simply follows the line of empty green Carlsberg bottles thrown over the side by Swedish passengers pleased to get away from the ruinously expensive alcohol of their home country!
Richard 24th September 2017
Note: The Skagen School of artists exists because the daylight at this particular place on Denmark is very special.
Note: For those technically minded, these ‘square metre’ yachts are measured by a difficult formula. R Metres = (L + 2d + √s – F) ÷ 2.37 where L is the waterline length, d the difference between skin and chain girth (?), s the sail area and F the freeboard