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In the up and down of the waves on the ocean, a conversation about collapsable boats and experiences in foreign countries during a collapsable boat trip

Date: 1930s
Medium: Ink on paper
Credit Line: ANMM Collection Nancy Jean Steele Bequest
Object Copyright: © Australian National Maritime Museum
Object Name: Magazine clipping
Object No: ANMS0542[039]

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    • In the up and down of the waves on the ocean A conversation about collapsible boats and experiences in foreign countries during a collapsible boat trip By Oskar Speck [Photo of Oskar Speck with the caption:] Of collapsible boats and trips in collapsible boats “Plünnkreuzer” is the slightly pejorative name the collapsible boat is called in Northern Germany. This name might have been justified once, especially in the early days of collapsible boats, when the term “collapsible boat” simply applied to anything that could float on water, even just for a short time, and that could subsequently be folded up, either directly on the shore or later. It applied especially to the home-made canvas canoes, which in their shape and make often resembled a huge canvas bathtub more than anything else. And bathtubs they were indeed, since usually no-one could sit in them for more than an hour without feeling that someone must have “turned on the tap”. Our collapsible boats today, constructed in line with the latest principles of boat building, do not deserve to be called that name any more, and the contemptuous wrinkling of the nose prevalent among our sailors from Hamburg will have all but disappeared by now. There has been an enormous upswing in the popularity of the collapsible boat as a recognised sport for the masses during the last few years, not least due to its inclusion amongst the Olympic sports disciplines. Add to that the amazing achievements attained in this discipline lately, in particular in the area of collapsible boat sailing, which cause quite a few opponents or former opponents to cast down their eyes in shame. With journeys on the Baltic, on Norwegian Fjords, Channel crossings and trips around the coast of England, and the numerous trips on the Mediterranean, the collapsible boat has earned the unequivocal right to claim at least the same competency at sea as other small craft. A huge German sporting achievement, so far not surpassed by any sportsman in the world, is Oskar Speck’s trip in a collapsible boat. He gives us some insight into his experiences during his journey unique in the history of water sports. Speck started his journey in Germany on 13 May 1932. It took him down the Danube as far as the Bulgarian border, and then down the Varda into the Persian Gulf in March 1933. Then he went along the coast of the Aegeian and the Mediterranean to Cyprus, down the Euphrates across Syria and Iraq into the Shatt al Arab. From there his journey so rich in events and adventures took him into the Indian Ocean to Karachi, Bombay, across the Adam’s Bridge to Ceylon, and from there to the Southern Indian coast. Speck arrived in Batavia via Madras, Calcutta, Rangoon, Penang and Singapore on 10 September 1936. He spoke about his experiences in talks at Batavia on 28 December and at Bandoeng on 2 January. On 9 January Speck departed from the hospitable location of Batavia in order to go on to Semarang and Surabaya. He will pay the beautiful girls on Bali a visit, too. Then his trip will take him on to Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores, Port, Timor, to the Barbara Islands and New Guinea to his final destination, Australia, which he hopes to reach in August 1937. Let us hope and wish that this German sporting achievement, unique as it is in the history of water sports, can be brought to a successful conclusion. To me as an enthusiast of collapsible boats, even back when it was still a “Plünnkreuzer”, a collapsible boat was always preferable to the ‘love seat’ of dubious repute, also called the canoe. Equipped with things like a countless number of pillows, gramophone, lampions, smoking tables, not to forget the bonbonniere, they slunk across the Alster channels, throwing glances at the distant shores from time to time, to see if there wasn’t a little Hamburg “Deern” [young lady] who would have liked to have them as gondoliers who would conjure up for her the cliche of a Venetian night. Of course there are serious canoeists as well, who completed some difficult trips on white water rivers, but even there the collapsible boat is more suitable than a canoe, and for any trips on the ocean, a canoe could not even be considered at all. Opinions about trips on the ocean in a collapsible boat are still divided and two camps have formed here, too. People in landlocked countries are still quite unsympathetic to the idea of sailing on the ocean in a collapsible boat, but in places where the sea is more accessible, especially in Northern Germany, England, and probably along the coast of Holland, collapsible boats have become much more accepted. The rejection of the idea of travelling on the ocean still prevalent today is quite understandable, especially when we keep in mind the location from where the introduction and popularisation of the collapsible boat started – Bavaria. Without wishing to be spiteful, what do Bavarians know about the sea? As much as about the Hamburg specialties of Kümmel [schnaps] and hot rum. I can very well imagine that for the Bavarian river paddler it is the greatest nightmare to find himself in his collapsible boat on the open ocean, amongst waves as high as houses, which then make him dream of skyscrapers in Chicago. And that when his guts move all the way up to his throat he would not like the idea of extending the sport of paddling collapsible boats to trips on the ocean. In whitewater rafting, no-one can beat him and I am quite prepared to lift my hat to my Bavarian paddling colleague for his fabulous achievements there. But as a collapsible boat sailor, be it on the ocean or in the mouths of rivers measuring miles across, he had better not tell me what to do. That’s where we, whose home is closer to the ocean, have more experience and it’s exactly because we are very much aware of how dangerous this mighty element really is, that we may venture out there, since we know the limits for us out there. And then we must remember one thing: Only the “collapsible” part of the boat comes from Bavaria. The form and general basic idea of the collapsible boat come from the Eskimo kayak, a specifically ocean-going craft. This is not meant to imply that the collapsible boat can go on every ocean everywhere. One will always be limited to cover certain distances per day, since it is impossible to sleep on the water in such a tiny craft. Quite generally, anyone wanting to sleep on the ocean better not use a collapsible boat, since one has to pay attention in order to keep your balance on rough seas and keep mind and body alert at all times. To keep the balance - that’s the trick!- to twist and turn the boat, to constantly shift one’s body weight to avoid waves, and when this is no longer possible, or when the waves are too large, to catch them at the correct angle. One has to acquire a whole new set of techniques for this and here, too, only practice makes perfect. And if one gets oneself into situations, like I did, in the pursuit of a goal that I set myself, where it’s a question of life and death, and where the collapsible boat is nothing but a toy for the furious elements, it takes luck and years of experience to extricate oneself from them time and again and I really don’t wish to recommend it. But going on leisure trips, along some beautiful coastline or moving like dolphins in a stiff breeze, shooting across the gently rippling waves – whoever had a taste of this once will never want to give it up. On Tour to Foreign Lands What an indescribable feeling it was when I was paddling down the Varda into the Gulf of Thessaloniki on those cold days in March 1933. The enormous contrast, a moment ago the dirty brown water of the river Varda, flooded with water from melting snow, and then this wonderfully clear, deep blue ocean. The short trip to Thessaloniki had already decided it: I was hopelessly addicted to the ocean. So when they were trying, at the German Consulate, out of honest concern, to talk me out of my intention to go on to Cyprus, they met unfaltering resistance. They let me go eventually, after having promised them, that I would send a telegram straight away if I actually did reach Andros. I arrived at Andros on Easter Sunday, having totally lost the concept of time and feast days. But I had hardly finished pulling my boat to the shore when I was reminded of it again in the most hospitable manner. A little girl, dressed in festive white, brought me a tray with a glass of wine, some sweets and a small round loaf of bread with three eggs painted red baked half-way into is as a symbol. I stayed on Andros during the holidays and not just there, but everywhere on my trip across the Sporaden islands, the Greek islanders showed me a kind of hospitality that was surpassed only on the Dodecanese islands. Here it was an official competition between the Italian officials and the Greek population, who were all trying to claim the visitor for themselves. After a long and beautiful journey, albeit not without hardship, I arrived on Cyprus via Turkey. My arrival there caused great amazement, expressed in all sorts of small festivities in which wine and Greek Ouzo played a major part. My astonishment was all the greater, therefor, when I arrived at Limassol two weeks later and was told there that another collapsible boat driver was supposed to have arrived before me. Enquiries at official sources confirmed that a young German had indeed arrived there in a collapsible boat. But, I was told by the officer with a conspiratorial smile that he had been dropped by a sailing boat with an engine two kilometres outside the harbour. Even if this was not totally true, he turned out to be quite a clever businessman. He loaded his boat on a camel cart and went around the streets of the capital Nicosia with it, where the gullible Cypriots bought quite a few postcards off him. Later I came across the traces of another “first-timer”. His picture and a model of his boat were even supposed to have been on display at the Museum in Munich once, and are perhaps even still there, and he had “paddled” with them to Palestine in a similar way. The Gulf of Adalia would have almost been my undoing too. Since back then I wasn’t aware that my trip would extend beyond Cyprus, I was tempted to tie my boat on to a little sailing dinghy manned by two German around-the-world-sailors for one night; tempted probably more by the desire to be among compatriots again. But the boat decided to go its own way during the night and the next morning the only proof to my shocked eyes that it had been there was the rope still dangling. One week later the Turkish Police informed me where I would be able to find my boat, which had drifted back to shore. It was the very place where I had committed the odious treachery of preferring a rotten old dinghy to my own boat. [Photograph of a small boat with a sail up] In Cyprus I decided, buoyed by my experiences, to continue my journey to Colombo. Initially I was supposed to have taken the route across the Red Sea. But I was told that I would not be allowed to paddle my boat through the Suez Canal and, given examples of other small craft which were refused passage, I was forced to change my plan. After crossing into Syria, I travelled to Aleppo by bus and from there via Meskene down the river Euphrates, across Syria and Iraq into the Shat al Arab. I arrived at Basra, my legs all blue and frozen, on Boxing Day. After resting there for a few weeks, I continued on to Fao, at the mouth of the Shat al Arab and into the Persian Gulf from there. Experiences in Persia After a horrendous journey across the infamous Chor Musa, driven to sheer despair by hunger and thirst, I encountered the first Persians one month later. I was welcomed in the most friendly manner by the two policemen on guard. They regaled me with rice and chicken, after I had eaten virtually nothing but dates for fourteen days. But I got a frightening glimpse of the poverty of the local population. A local village barber, who happened to be present, as soon as I had finished my meal, devoured the bones I had already picked quite clean, and the dozens of half-starved, mangy dogs hanging around only got the third picking. While I was entertained by one of the officers, who was able to speak Russian and from whom I learned all sorts of things about the local customs and traditions, the other one inspected my tent. Some silver coins, some Hungarian Pengo to be precise, and my fountain pen unfortunately found their way into his pockets during this process. I managed to prove him guilty, but stupidly in the presence of the villagers. The other officer then came up with a plan that entailed a whole precession marching up to my tent. When we arrived there I had to take all my things out of the tent one by one. To make it obvious, I took the fountain pen first, which by no mystery at all happened to be lying on my pillow. It was then explained to the villagers that it was all a mistake and with that the representatives of the police force were thus totally resurrected. I experienced several other mistakes of this kind later, by the way, and when I was finally allowed to leave Persia nine months later, it just happened that the last Persian officials participated in a mistake that cost me 300 Kran. They should be proud to have such officers, not just in the police, but also in all other areas. Quite incredible stories therefor also happen with customs officers on the Persian Gulf. This surely is to be expected if former international carpet smugglers are appointed customs officers in their country. It is probably designed to set an example of what can be achieved in the area of smuggling by a cooperation between smugglers and customs officers. Considering their almost pathological preference of very sweet tea, partly caused by smoking opium, even the government in Teheran ought to notice that no monopolised sugar could be sold in the Gulf, but that thousands of tons of sugar found their way from Europe across to the little villages of Arabia. They came up with the most impossible ideas for how to amend this situation, except to clean up the existing customs hierarchy by experienced Europeans. On the contrary, they dismissed the few remaining Europeans, which met with general approval at the small meeting of customs officers at Bandar-Abbas, where I happened to be staying at the time. So they ended up selling only matches from the monopoly, despite sugar being purchased at the same time. The sugar cones then had paper labels attached to them, with the consequence that all the shops proudly displayed those sugar cones as advertisements, but never sold them. The customs officers made sure of that, since they obviously wanted to sell their wares, too. Every now and then they even caught a smuggler, but he was only taken to court if no agreement could be reached outside of court, which sometimes did happen with these poor wretches. Much of this was also due to the Arabs’ incredible gall, who do not consider smuggling as breaking the law. I myself was pursued and shot at by smugglers in rowing boats, who thought I was a European customs officer. Otherwise I often enjoyed the hospitality of smugglers, officers or not . This hospitality, unless it was by the daring and courageous Arabs, was often a pretence. I also met some Sheiks on my trip and they made for some excellent photo opportunities with their fantastic turbans. Unfortunately I kept offending them all the time since I refused to open the little black box to give them the photo. Of the reputedly beautiful Persian women I saw, apart from really old and ugly ones, only a single one without a mask. All women on the Persian Gulf, from the age of about 12, wear a black mask covering half the face with a flap over the nose, covering the mouth, but allowing them to eat. The other thing I was told about them was that they experience the cleansing procedure of bathing all of three times in their lives: When they are born, the day they get married and before they are buried. Via British-India, Ceylon, Madras, Calcutta, Penang and Singapore to Batavia After finally crossing the Persian border, weakened by malaria and completely weaned from even the simplest concepts of civilisation, I arrived at British Baluchistan and there I started to become human again, at least in dealing with officials. Then I arrived in Karachi and noticed again and again the nearly overwhelming contrast between India and Persia. From Karachi I went up to Bombay, then along the West Coast to Cape Comorin. From there across the Adam’s Bridge to Ceylon. After a good rest of spending three months as the guest of the oldest representative of German culture overseas, the famous John Hagenbeck, I left my friendly host and continued my journey - with Australia envisaged as my final destination. From Colombo I went around Ceylon via Galle and Trinkmalee to Point Pedro, and the back across to the coast of South India. I had many funny and serious experiences on these trips. The risk on the ocean is ten times higher, capsizing becomes unavoidable in the huge waves, I lost my equipment, notes, films, etc. But I had no more exciting times like the ones in Persia, where practically every day brought a new adventure. Funny experiences, like the rumour that I lived on pills, and that I ended up unable to save myself from the crowds who all wanted to see the German, who travelled in a boat that could fly and dive, and who was also in the possession of fish, vegetables, biscuits and whisky pills. Also some experiences with some clever and unscrupulous Brahmins, who invited me to tea parties where there was no tea, but where I was supposed to give a talk, and so on. One experiences all sorts of things on such a journey, one could write books about it and keep telling stories for days and nights. From Madras I continued on to Calcutta, then across the Sundarbuns on to Chittagong. The countryside became more beautiful, the difficulties became rarer, my relationship with officials, which had always been excellent, were reaching new pinnacles of friendliness and both English and native officials offered me help and support at various times. The Englishmen’s innate hospitality, their understanding of my journey, which became apparent on so many different occasions, contributed significantly to my continuing the journey time and again. After my arrival in Rangoon, with the south-western monsoon about to start, I tried to get in touch with one of the smaller Burmese film producers in order to try and make films about some of Burma’s beautiful river regions during the monsoon. Unfortunately the friendly Burmese only ever went as far as telling me that their people had no interest in documentaries and that only love stories had an audience in Burma. Since I hardly possess the characteristics of a Burmese Casanova, I was forced to try, whether I liked it or not, to make the trip from Rangoon to Penang during the monsoon. During my stay on the Mergui Archipelago the monsoon started to blow. The sudden thunderstorms, combined with gale force winds, which tended just to blow my boat miles off course, reinforced my faith in my boat and afforded me a huge amount of experience. After passing Burma, I went up to Penang along the Siamese west coast. I arrived there 2 months late due to the monsoon. I hardly need to mention that the behaviour of the Siamese officials and population towards a German sportsman and visitor was the most cordial. The trips from Penang to Singapore and on to Batavia are probably amongst the quietest episodes of my entire journey. After travelling for almost 5 years, I arrived at Batavia on 10 December 1936, and now the motto is: On to Australia!
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