After a week of motoring against the wind through the English Channel and the North Sea we defied all concerns about being late and arrived on time in Brunsbuettel to enter the Kiel canal. Our last full day was spent going along the canal, cutting through northern Germany towards the Baltic sea.
After negotiating the big lock we tuckered along at the fastest speed we had been able to muster in a long time, all the while working as hard as possible to get everything done for arriving and to prepare for the last evening’s dinner, the Captain’s Dinner, which is the traditional closure to the whole KUS journey on board when we are still just among ourselves.
As Projektleitung (project lead), my role in this last “Schiffsübergabe”, I was mainly helping to get documents ready for arrival. That meant dealing with a ship’s inventory and everything needed for our customs declaration and included envelopes for all of the students with their Nautical Mile Certificate, the report cards and effort sheets for all the school work and the documents we brought with us for the journey: our passports and vaccination records.
Others were cleaning the ship in a mega “Reinschiff”, a huge project where everything, above and below deck was scrubbed and polished. This was a serious undertaking since some places on board were pretty grubby even though we had cleaned for an hour every day and more on Saturdays all the way along.
We also packed all of our personal kit. It was a strange feeling to know that we wouldn’t use the stuff we packed on board again. It really brought the reality of the trip ending home to many of us. We were all pretty used to moving, cabin to cabin, throughout the trip, but this was different: We wouldn’t be unpacking again a few doors down the corridor but instead in a house in a town far away from the ship.
An amazing galley duty crew were preparing food all day for the evening event. They were slaving in the kitchen but it wasn’t as challenging as on some days on our journey. Without North Atlantic waves we had relatively steady floors beneath our feet which definitely made it easier to cook.
After about 12 hours we exited on the other side of the canal and anchored in the bay of Kiel. It was really weird to see Kiel in the distance knowing that our families would be there at that exact moment already, anticipating our arrival the next morning.
The mood then changed into one of joy as the party began. Those crew mates who had sailed with us on only part of this journey came back on board. It was great to catch up with them on everything that had changed since we last saw them.
We started the evening with a sundowner on the poop deck, as always accompanied by our on board musicians. The night then progressed with food in the mess and lots of funny and really reflective performances and speeches by members of the crew and the students. It was a wonderful way to finish off the journey with everyone together.
After the official celebrations we faced a new dilemma: did we we want to spend our last 12 hours on board sleeping or enjoying ourselves, talking with friends and just having fun. We had all had 5 hours or less sleep the night before because of signal K (an all hands on deck manoeuvre) and then watch, so this wasn’t as straight forward a choice as you might think. I spent my last night singing along to a guitar in cabin 1 with my mates, tired but happy, doing what I loved most about the trip. It was special. I chatted with the people who were most important to me, the people with whom I had created the best memories on the journey but exhaustion won out eventually and I went to bed at about 2 or 3 am in the morning.
The next morning started at 6 am. I had watch at 6:30 as one of the two people to go the very last watch of this KUS trip. It was an absolutely beautiful morning. A glorious sunrise bathed Kiel harbour in golden light. As the sun came up I was talking with my watch colleague about our favourite parts of the journey, what made us laugh the most, where we had learnt the most and where we would love to go again.
We woke everyone up at around 7 am and it was just like any other morning, the usual routines. There was such a great atmosphere on board, everyone was so happy even though we knew that we would be leaving each other very soon.
We also had a scheduled 30 minutes for official goodbyes where we could all say the last things that we wanted to each person and give a big hug. the tears we streaming down our faces. Amazing memories came flooding back, memories of all the shared times together. It really hit me how much I would miss them. I appreciated that dedicated time for goodbyes and tears, hoping it would mean it would be less painful to part when we were on land and wanted to spend time with our families.
It is tradition for the KUS students to go up into the rigging and stand on the square sails and in the ropes on the way up as the Thor approaches the pier. I love this custom: the people waiting for our arrival can see you and you get to look for your families while you’re up there. You don’t have to think about anything else, only about the emotions that are running through you in that first moment where you see your parents or your siblings or your grandparents again.
As we rounded the corner and I spotted the families waving the flags of the countries that we had visited, I was so happy.
I also felt complete and utter relief: Somewhere in the back of my mind I had been scared the whole journey. My aunt died while I was away and I worried how everyone was coping with that loss and that my parents or sister or grandparents might have an accident or get sick, too, and that I would not have been there with them.
Mixed in with those emotions was pride: I had made it through this journey. I made it! I can say that I have sailed with these 50 people for 189 days on the Thor across the Atlantic twice. It is not something many people can say.
The mooring manoeuvre had to be completed, it felt painfully slow.
But then came the moment that we were all waiting for: I ran off across the gangway and threw myself in my mum’s arms just bursting into tears. I was so happy to be there with her. I then did the rounds of my family, my dad, my sister, Oma and Opa, each getting a huge, bone crushing hug.
All around us other families were doing the same. KUSis were being enveloped in so much love, the air was full of joy. One could feel how much we had missed each other and how wonderful it was to be back together with our loved ones.
The initial reunion over, the ship’s foghorn called us back on board for the last time for the official closing ceremony. There were speeches from the project leads and the ship’s captain. Parent representatives handed out well deserved “medal” carabiners to our adult crew. The students received their school reports and nautical mile certificates with a handshake from our captain and of course there was music. The parents sang a welcome song they had rewritten and we performed our last all ship’s choir piece together “Fare you well Thor Heyerdahl” which made everyone on the pier tear up again.
I will always remember how Detlef addressed us as seasoned decks hands, not as students anymore, and said we’d be welcome to sail on the Thor as crew members anytime we wanted that job. It was an acknowledgement of how far we’ve come, how much we’ve learnt and a huge compliment.
The next hours consisted of getting our luggage off: the heavy seajacks and back packs we’d arrived with 7 months ago and the additional kit acquired along the route stuffed into extra bags: table cloths and shirts made by the Kuna Indians; an Alpaca jacket bought in Boquete, Panama; coffee from the Cafe de la Luna plantation; a fleece that was a rare bargain in Bermuda; cigars, rum and dominos from Cuba and a big wheel of cheese from the Azores. My “Oelzeug” (offshore jacket and salopettes) picked off their hook for the last time, all carted to the car.
Another tour with my family through the ship, handing out the last mobile phones to my ship mates, a buffet with long missed favourite foods, flags signed, and over and over and over we KUSis said goodbye to each other, hugging and assuring ourselves we’d be in touch all the time.
Finally the crowd was thinning and people departed in family groups and as one of the last we did too.
Deliriously happy to be with my family but with a kind of empty feeling about leaving too, not sure how to feel really, just carried along by momentum, I got into the car. I know it will take time to really arrive, to understand it’s over and to re-enter life after Classroom under Sail. For now I’m just grateful I was allowed to have this experience and I am already making plans to see my ship mates again.
As the car turned out of the parking lot I looked behind me for a last glimpse of the Thor, and the last 7 months flashed by in my mind. The Thor was with us every step of the way, central to the whole experience. It wasn’t my first time on the Thor and it won’t be my last time either, I am sure of it.
She has carried us 12709 nautical miles, across the calmest and the wildest of seas, to nine different nations, always keeping us safe. She was not just our transportation but also our home, somewhere we love to be and I know I’ll be again.
So I’m not saying “Goodbye Thor”, just “Auf Wiedersehn”, I’ll see you soon!