Quest in the Frisians

~~~ Axel's & Stefan's sailing canoes in the Riddle's islands

Hier kannst du Axels deutschen Reisebericht lesen

Previously published in Small Craft Advisor, May / June 2015, Issue No. 93

Have you read The Riddle of the Sands? I implore you to. Maybe start today.

The Sands are the East Frisian barrier Islands in the North Sea off Germany. Erskine Childers published Riddle in 1903. The Shadow in the Sands is a thoughtful sequel by Sam Llewellyn, 1998. Childers wrote Riddle to warn England of Germany's offensive potential.

The Frisians are as flat and shallow as the west coast of Florida, but in the Frisians it can blow ice as strongly as a tropical storm blows warm rain, and Frisian tides are two to four times Cedar Key's four foot range. Islands familiar to Riddle readers are, from east to west: Spiekeroog, Langeoog, Baltrum and Norderny.

Fictional Carruthers, in October of 1902, narrates Riddle from aboard Davies' thirty plus foot by nine foot centerboard ketch Dulcibella. Smaller boats are essential to both books.

Vor Spiekeroog 2014, September 16th, Swiss Axel Schmid was on the middle day of a five day trip, sailing his "Bufflehead" canoe, Sir Joseph Banks, downwind in a Beaufort Force Five (17-21 knots) from Langeoog to Baltrum. Running is the riskiest point of sail for canoes. Off the wind there is little to hold back Axel's hull, fifteen feet five inches by thirty three inches, or his German friend Stefan Müller's Solway Dory "Little Egret", fourteen feet three inches by thirty inches - and steered by paddle, no rudder. Both had reefed about forty percent.

That morning in Langeoog, Axel had been cold and was out of his tent early. Wind thrashed through corrugated steel buildings. He questioned life's decisions. He thought of the aimless Carruthers at the start of Riddle.

Vor Spiekeroog In the harbor, halyards rattled and shrouds sang. They decided to try it.

As they sailed, Axel wondered about his curiosity driven passions, and waves "to eternity." He remembered the horse in harness at Langeoog that morning, waiting to haul tourists "every single day of his life." Riddle was forgotten - gybing was on their minds. They paddled the last quarter mile, rigs down, relieved.

"A memorable day," Stefan had said. "Alles gut."

Axel, forty seven, sailed Optis when he was fourteen. Stefan, fifty, is a yacht racer, including a leg of the Whitbread Round the World Race of 1989-90. He heads one of the oldest canoeing clubs in Germany, organizing its open canoe event, Kanoe Criterium. (Axel won in 2013 in SJB.) Both are scientists in the pharmaceutical industry.

Stefan auf dem Weg nach Baltrum After cartopping to Neuharlingsiel, the first day was partly sunny with an easterly Force Two to Three, a reach from the mainland to Spiekeroog. Every day's goal was to make the destination at high tide - any tide lower was a problem from powerful currents and chaotic waves to no water. Landing in Spiekeroog, it had been warm enough to shed neoprene.

The second day, to Langeoog, was warm again, Force One to none, then fog. Axel recalled Davies' piloting during Carruthers' and Davies' famous dinghy ride. Like them, Axel and Stefan followed birch saplings stuck firmly in the sand.

Auf dem Weg nach Langeoog The fourth day, to Norderney, "was a blast." It was still a Force Five run, and, with current, they seemed to fly by a dozen seals watching from a sandbank.

Nearing the watershed before high tide - a watershed is behind each Island - the current went eastward suddenly, while the wind came stronger, still from the east, producing a crazy, tumultuous, chop. Later he saw, "white streaks on the water, and I forced my empty Zen mind to notice - 'Looks like Force Six.'"

Bufflehead Segelkanu Soon, "a second gust shook the boat and made my non-Zen mind ask, 'What now?'" He rolled in more reef to about twenty five percent left, eleven square feet.

They had feared gybes and capsizing as they'd followed the weaving course of the birch markers. "But," Axel said, "it was okay if reefed enough."

Bufflehead Segelkanu That evening Stefan asked Axel about his non-stop, beaming smile. "We had a fair wind. It seemed tricky sometimes, but we made it."

Axel slept "cradled" in Sir Joseph Banks.

The last day's morning was sunny with a kinder easterly, Force Two to Three. They rode the flood south toward the mainland. Stefan was caught in a dead end tidal creek, and continued by walking, pulling his Little Egret nearly a mile till the flood brought helpful water.

Bufflehead Segelkanu und Solway Dory Egret From Norddeich, Stefan's wife drove them back to Neuharlingsiel.

Axel was happy for it all, "and for every Zen moment." Stefan relished the comparison to big boats, their sailing canoes and captains being more a single creature of the fluid interface, without crew to blame or laud. "Alles gut."

Fictional Carruthers had written in 1902,"... the essence is always the same; the (merry) pursuit of a perilous quest."

~ HH

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