Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Germany Part 1: From the Netherlands to the Mouth of the Weser

In our last post we left you at the Dutch-German border.  Today we'll begin our month-long tour of Germany, focusing on the Weser and upper Leine Rivers.

Our first destination was Papenburg on the Ems River.  It's about 25 km east of Bourtange Netherlands, but about 50 km from the open waters of the North Sea.  Nonetheless the Meyer Werft Shipyard has been building seagoing ships there since 1795, and fairly recently has begun to build exceedingly large ones at that.  Although the list of "biggest cruise ships in the world" changes almost monthly, at some fairly recent point it was clear that Meyer Werft had built 5 of the 8 largest ones.  We're not certain, but we suspect that the sailing ship now permanently moored in front of the Papenburg City Hall was probably built by Meyer Werft.  It's certainly a major economic force in this area, with a workforce of more than 3,000 well-paid naval architects and skilled workers.

We had a short cycling day so we could check into our hotel early, change into street clothes from bike clothes, and take the 2:30 pm tour.  Parts of it were interesting, but most was not because it consisted of fast banter in German.  Louise understands no German beyond a few food items, and Jeff can only comprehend spoken German when it is spoken verrrrrry sloooooowly.  So long parts of the tour were spent waiting for the guide to finish yet another agonizingly long monologue.

Two parts of the tour were nonetheless rather interesting. The first was the model of the shipyard we were in.  We were obviously in a giant complex, and the model helped us make sense of it.  There are two enormous covered drydocks where the largest ships are begun.  Each one can work on one enormous  or two "merely" large ships at a time.  As near as we could see, each is divided in two the long way, with one side used for setup and the other for the ship as it takes shape.  In the middle photo of the models, for example, you can see a large ship almost completed in the near half of the building, and the far half is where component parts of it were staged and then incorporated into the ship as it took shape.  The low structures on the left of the third photo are where these component parts themselves began to take shape from so many girders and plates of steel, so many nuts and so many bolts.

This all made more sense when, almost an hour into our tour, we finally got to look inside the larger of the two covered drydocks.  A new Aida ship is nearing completion and you can see two- or three-deck portions in the foreground, soon to be lifted by enormous cranes into position and welded to other parts of the ship that have already been connected up.  So a ship that will eventually have 1200 staterooms might have 50 sections, each one containing about two dozen rooms, separately fabricated, moved into the staging area, then lifted into place one by one.  An enormous dining room might start as half a dozen smaller parts, get combined into one large component, then be lifted into place as a whole.  Those cranes don't lift little stuff!

This first stage is largely superstructure, including of course the hull, with much else coming in later.  It's actually similar to the way a house nowadays largely starts with a wood skeleton, with interior walls only going up once the skeleton, roof and exterior are complete.

We learned that a ship this size takes about 18 months just for drawing up the plans.  Every one of those 1200 cabins has to be designed precisely to fit into the whole and to be ready for all sorts of things like lights and electrical outlets, faucets and flushing toilets.  Ships this size don't use off-the-shelf propulsion systems. And so on and so on.

This spectacular second part of the process of assembling and connecting the "bones" of the ship takes close to a year, and putting most of the interior parts up also takes about a year, but starts about half-way through stage two as the heavy construction occurs in other parts of the ship. Once the hull and superstructure are complete the ship can be floated to a dock, as shown in the models above, while plumbers, electricians, diesel mechanics and others keep working inside.  About three years after the contract was signed, it's finally ready for sea trials and then its maiden voyage.  A model stateroom was on display in the visitor area to get all us visitors thinking about taking a cruise and spending a few nights without piles of dirty laundry, last week's bills and newspapers and the kids' sports equipment filling up our living space.  A photo gave us a glimpse of a Meyer Werft ship in New York on its maiden voyage.

The original plan for the start of our visit to Germany was to begin in Papenburg, then head up to and along the North Sea until we reached the mouth of the Weser.  Then winds got in the way.  For the next 4 or 5 days we were looking at the probability of strong cross-winds as we went northeast and they came from the northwest, at 15-20 mph / 24-32 kph.  Then they were supposed to change.  Into headwinds.  At similar speeds.  Ugggh.

So we changed plans.  The next morning we rode 30 km to the city of Leer, where we caught the first of three trains that took us, in 3 1/2 hours total, to the North Sea community of Cuxhaven.  All three trains were locals (actually called RE or "Regional Express" -- go figure).  We've taken our tandem onto faster IC (InterCity trains, which are express trains), and had some good experiences and some that we can laugh at now but not then, if you get the drift.  As expected, the RE trains were NO problem for our tandem!  Here are the first and last legs of the trip, and the second one was identical to the first.

Cuxhaven is the official start of the Weserradweg, or Weser Cycle Route, but it's not really at the mouth of the Weser, as you can see from the maps.  That honor belongs to Bremerhaven.  So today we will tell and show you a bit about this wonderful town that we first visited in 2016, and in the next blog entry we will  move on to Bremerhaven and the unofficial but more accurate start of our 400 km-long trip up the Weser.

It's also time to talk about time.  The Netherlands and northern Germany are way up north!  Cuxhaven is our most northerly point this summer, and it is just below 54 degrees north latitude.  By comparison, the Whistler ski resort well north of Vancouver BC is at 50 degrees, and Moosonee ON at the bottom of Hudson's Bay is at 51 degrees.  We have also just come through the summer solstice, when days are longest everywhere, but even more so the further north you go (they are 24 hours long, of course, if you get above the Arctic Circle).  We had to laugh when we looked at the weather forecast one day when it was alternating between rain showers and clouds all day, but then sunny at 10 pm!  And it was, for the minute or two until sunset.  In case you're wondering, sunrise is shortly after 5 am.  Spending June and July in these latitudes requires the ability to sleep in a room that is not very dark for some part of the night, or getting by on much less than 8 hours of shut-eye.

 Cuxhaven is on saltwater and it has a beach, but it's not like any beach on saltwater you've likely ever seen.  This is a part of the North Sea called the Waddensee, and it is very, very shallow for a long ways out.  Above high tide there is a sandy beach, but as soon as you get below that point it seems to be muddy.  It's actually a fairly firm mix of sand and a certain amount of mud.  As you can see in the photo of Louise standing on what appears to be a mudflat an hour before high tide, she has not sunk into it at all.  Which is good, since we only have one pair of shoes for off the bike walking.  The device behind her, by the way, is cleaning and grooming the beach.

And the yellow things across much of the beach?  The Germans call them beach baskets, and they provide you with a seat and some protection from the wind.  They were fairly pricey to rent, about 10 euros a day.  We saw several hundred of them in two days of visiting the beach, with no more than a dozen in use.  It was probably the weather, though, not the price that was keeping business down.  As you might have inferred from Louise's clothing choices, it was pretty brisk, high 50s and later in the day low 60s F, 14-17 C.  And windy.

At the most northerly point, where the shore goes from running NE-SW to SE-NW, a short peninsula juts out.  This is the official mouth of the Elbe River, and the shipping channel does run deep.  As a result, one see quite substantial ships fairly close to the beach, even though much of the shore close to Cuxhaven is shallow.  There are also quite a few ships, since the Elbe carries boats up to the busy port of Hamburg.  The Zero-Kilometer mark on the Elbe is a monument called the Kugelbacke, which we walked to one day and biked to the next.

On any beach there is much to explore.  Here we found curious spaghetti-like piles of sand we assume were created by clams or mussels.  There was a deceased crab, a presumably deceased jellyfish despite its glistening surface, and a mass of egg cases from whelk.  We can only tell you that with authority since we later found a sign explaining what they were, in German, and then pulled up our German-English app.

As for that shallow coast -- The map shows what six hours does to it.  It's just over 6 hours from high tide to low tide.  Tides always are more modest when the sun and moon are at right angles to each other, as at first quarter and last quarters of the moon.  On these days the range from low to high tide here is about 8.5 feet / 2.6 m.  On the next new moon in late July of this year, the range will be 13 feet / 4 m.  These are fairly big numbers, larger than on most parts of the Atlantic or Pacific coasts of the U.S.  Add in the shallowness of the Waddenmeer, and results are dramatic, as you can see from the map.

The closer of the two islands is Neuwerk ("New Works"), so-called because the city of Hamburg authorized new military "works," i.e. a rudimentary fort, to be built there in 1299.  By the shortest route it's 10 km from shore, a little over 6 miles, but there's no town at the jumping-off spot so most folks who want to go "overland" so to speak to Neuwerk take the 12 km route, travelling 7.5 miles.  Of those who take the long route, almost all do so by horse-drawn cart.  This started as a mail wagon, and reputedly some mail does go along for the ride for the handful of folks who live on the island.

The route is marked each spring, before the first trip, by carefully seeing how the sand bars have moved over the winter, and then marking the route every few meters with bundles of charred branches.  You can see the route as it leaves the shore in the first photo below.  It swings to the left and only gradually away from the shore for the first 2 or 3 km, when it heads more directly to Neuwerk.  Even half a kilometer / a third of a mile from the shore, you can see that the wheels of the wagons are hardly in the water or the mud.  A short way behind them, a group on horseback is starting to gallop to catch up with and later pass the wagons.

The wagons leave 2 hours before low tide, so the departure time changes every day.  They take about 90 minutes to reach Neuwerk, and the passengers get an hour to check out the place and to walk up to the top of the lighthouse, then 90 minutes back to the mainland.  Occasionally, the weather changes and they end up staying another 12 or 24 hours, to one of the next two low tides, though they try very hard to avoid these occasions.  It seems like an easy enough trip, but we tracked down a description of one online, and the writer described some adrenaline-filled minutes when they had to cross the one deep spot, and the horses got in down to their shoulders and the water was lapping at the bottoms of the wagons.  The writer described how they match a new horse up with an older, accomplished one to keep the young one from 'freaking out' when moments like this occur, but we don't think they do that for the tourists.

We watched them depart one afternoon at 5:30, due back half an hour before sundown thanks to Cuxhaven's crazy sunset times in late June.  After unloading the passengers and storing the wagons, an employee led the horses back to the barn in a most unusual way -- leading them down the street by bike!

The next morning, as we set out for Bremerhaven, we got a closer look at Neuwerk from that point which is "only" 10 km from the island.  Turning a little to the right for the second photo, you can see our beautiful bike path in the foreground, then a bird sanctuary grassland, then many km of mudflats with the Elbe ship canal in the distance, about 8 km / 5 miles as the crow flies from our lookout point.  Turning a little to the left of Neuwerk, we can see the last horses returning from the island, about 90 minutes after low tide.  Nearby were groups of folks apparently out for a nature walk with a naturalist, learning about the joys of Wattlaufen, or "mudflat walking."

We'll continue on to Bremerhaven in our next blog entry.

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