Save the Best (and most dramatic) for last

When we left Falmouth we were behind schedule and with unusual winds coming from the East, so exactly against us, the prediction for making up time lost in the North Atlantic storm wasn’t too optimistic. This last leg of the journey to Kiel was therefore full of uncertainty regarding our arrival date and there was a long list of jobs that needed to be done before getting to Kiel.

The route consisted of sailing through the channel and the North Sea, which was much harder and longer than on the way out. We had wind from the front and the currents against us at most times, similar to the leg from the Azores.

So we had to motor against the wind at painfully slow speeds, 3 hours at 3.2 knots, then down to 2.3. for the next few hours. It felt like we weren’t really getting anywhere.

It was so bad that we actually started to think about contingency plans for late arrivals in Kiel beyond the scheduled Saturday morning, something that has never actually occurred on a KUS journey. One of those plans involved us landing in a North Sea harbour and being bussed to Kiel so we’d not get there any later than Monday. A big discussion on board resulted in all of us agreeing that we really wanted to arrive in Kiel with the Thor and would do whatever we could to make that happen. It would have been awful to end the journey this way, without all the parents on the pier in Kiel seeing us arrive on our beautiful ship. without a proper goodbye to our floating home.

Then another issue arose: A day after leaving Falmouth one of the students showed signs of blood poisoning. It was quite scary because it’s something that we can’t treat on board so our on board nurse had to call the Coastguard to have him picked up and to take them both to the nearest hospital. We expected a coast guard boat but to our surprise they informed us they’d send a helicopter. At this point we weren’t very far off the coast of England so we knew that after calling the helicopter wouldn’t take very long to get to us.

So we got the ship ready: all the sails had to be boomed out so that they were almost perpendicular to the ship, the board nurse and the affected student had to get ready for the helicopter ride with bags and warm clothes.  They both seemed quite okay with the idea of the helicopter coming to pick them up, but I guess that’s what you get in an emergency, acceptance. It was the only way to get him to hospital quickly enough.

We saw the helicopter coming on our AIS unit before we actually spotted in in the sky. As it neared our ship it was clear that it was going to be difficult to get the two crew members off our deck and up into the helicopter because it couldn’t get very low or close to us because of our tall masts. and the ship isn’t really large enough to have a lot of empty space. In the end the helicopter crew lowered a line that was tied onto the side of the ship. A coast guard officer abseiled down on that line and helped our two shipmates to be winched up from there.

While they were on the poop deck we were all allowed to sit on the deck house and stand  open the main deck but out of the way of everyone. It was eerily silent apart from the helicopters noise. None of us wanted to talk or distract anyone else.

Once they were gone, everything went back to normal. We just got on with our stuff, but we did change our course to head closer to land, and of course we listened out for any news to hear how our friend was and when he and our nurse would be back.

As it became clear this wouldn’t be resolved that day we decided to go into Portland Harbour near Weymouth for one night to have the opportunity to swap out the adult with the student in hospital so we could continue our journey with the nurse on board.

This was also the start of our third Schiffsübergabe  (hand over of the ship to the students). With complex navigation ahead, pressure to make up time and the unfavourable winds this was going to be a real challenge for the students in charge and we all welcomed that this time round we had a training phase. This is a new step in the Schiffsübergabe process where the students selected shadowed their adult counterparts and vice versa. It really helped to let us move into our new roles more seamlessly.

I was ‘Projektleitung’ (project leader). In the photo above I’m sitting with my colleague in this role and one of the student first mates. You can tell how tired we all were by this time! The project lead role is responsible for all planning such as galley duty, watches and provisioning. We also had to organise everything for the end of the trip, a full inventory, preparing for the legal requirements of arriving by ship in Germany such as customs declarations and generally having the overview of what needed to be done on the Thor to ensure we’d all arrive in an ordered state and would be ready to go on land without leaving chaos behind. So we were delegating necessary tasks and tracking them as we went along. It was something which I normally couldn’t imagine myself doing but I really enjoyed it when it got down to it.

2 days after leaving Portland Harbour we made another unscheduled stop in Newhaven for the best possible reason: Our sick KUSi had responded well to treatment and was pronounced fit to rejoin us on board so we picked him and our teacher, who’d been with him on land, back up and were once again all together.

The last few days on board seemed to fly by. There was always something to do. I found it inspiring how in the Schiffsübergabe everyone was more mature and stepped up to their roles. Despite the complex shipping lanes, tides and the huge amount of traffic the student crew did an amazing job. The machinists were full on as we were motoring the entire time and at best possible speed so we’d get home on time. It was great. A real sense of purpose and working as an efficient, seasoned crew.

Even the weather improved. Whilst at first we still struggled to make good speed because of the continued headwind, this later abated a bit and so we finally made up lost time in the North Sea and got to the entrance of the Kiel canal on time.

The Schiffsübergabe ended with us entering the lock at Brünsbüttel, where a signal K ripped everyone out of bed at 3 am. This may sound crazy but I think it was a great way to end the Schiffsübergabe. It was the first time that we were back in Germany after almost 7 months, it would be a shame for anyone to miss out on something this significant, such emotional event for all of us.

It was only really at this point I realised that this incredible journey, this adventure of a lifetime, was coming to an end: The people helping with our lines spoke German to us and not English or Spanish. A sudden wave of acknowledgement crash over me, bursting the protective dam of daily chores and deliberate mental avoidance I had built to protect myself from the reality of the trip ending.

That end was now just 36 hours away. Luckily we were back on schedule and so still had an evening in the Kiel bay and our Captain’s dinner to look forward to, a last evening amongst ourselves to let it all sink in before going back to our normal lives on land.

I can’t believe what an amazing last leg of the journey it has been. I had so much fun and I lived every single moment to the fullest. I don’t regret anything. Despite the many challenges and with the only regret of not being able to sail, this last leg definitely contained some of the best and most dramatic moments.

Next time: Goodbye Thor!

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