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Sunday, July 5, 2009, in Liepāja, Latvia

Hi all. Well, last week, we were still in Germany, waiting for weather that would allow us to continue east. It finally arrived in mid-week, so we had to spend the early part of the week amusing ourselves in the area we’d been for a while.

We took the train back to Rostock, to see it with Dave and Patti. I think Dave just wanted to see the big electronics store Saturn.

Besides our obligatory walk down the shopping street, we visited an attraction we’d missed the first time around, the thirteenth-century Marienkirche. This was a worthwhile addition to our day; the nave is exceptionally tall, about 32 meters or 100 feet, the walls are extraordinarily ornate, and the baroque organ was so colossal that I gasped every time I caught a glimpse of it. Like St. Nicholai in Stralsund, there’s an astrological clock hiding behind the alter. It’s too bad we weren���t visiting at noon �� or midnight. At that time, one of the doors along the top of the clock and six of the twelve apostles do a sort of square dance around Jesus. The feature of the church that we did manage to take in was a photo exhibit of 1943-1945. Though I wished that I knew enough German to understand the captions, the photos themselves were sobering.

Our next day’s sail took us to the German island of Rügen, a harbor called Sassnitz. Instead of the strong easterly winds that had thwarted us for nearly two weeks, we would see weak easterly winds for as far as the forecast went. Unlike the strong winds that kept us prisoner in Stralsund, though, this lack of wind would keep us from sailing but not from cruising. We could motor to a harbor on Rügen as a jumping-off point for going farther east. The sea was calm and grey-green, coursing up to unending sandy beaches.

The island of Rügen is beloved by Germans for its natural beauty and its pristine beaches. Bismarck, Thomas Mann, and Einstein were among its visitors. So were Hitler and GDR honcho Erich Honecker. In any case, we weren’t planning to add our signatures to the island’s guest book.

As the day turned out, we were able to sail for a decent chunk of it, and the weather was warm, almost hot by late afternoon. As we approached our destination, the fog surrounded us. Radar helped us see buoys and other vessels, but we wondered whether it would disrupt our ability to dock once we entered the harbor. Then Dave saw sunlight ahead of us on the water.

This light bore down across the sea, as if to guide us. Inside the light, after we’d sailed into it, we could see around us as far as the shore. Somehow, this beam of light must have decided to follow us into the harbor, and the fog receded into the distance.

We arrived at Sassnitz and got ourselves tied up well after six. There’s a large ferry port in the harbor, and town looked discouragingly far from where we were docked. We’d been onboard the whole day, though, so we decided to walk along the seawall and hope that it led to land. We never got that far. About one-third of the way to the edge of town, a boat that probably hadn’t gone to sea in decades beckoned us with beer and dinner. By the time we finished our meal and walked back to the boat, the sun was descending and the air was chilly again.

Our next day’s sail began very early and ended in Denmark. The wind was light and we could sail some, but less than the previous day.

The island of Bornholm is equidistant between Germany, Poland and Sweden and a bit farther away from Denmark’s Jutland. It takes a vivid imagination to decide that this island should be Danish. It’s far enough away that the people speak a sort of Danish dialect that Danes have more trouble understanding than do Swedes.

Not too long ago, there was news about very old Bornholm. A hundred and thirty years ago, a creature that was part bird, part lizard found its way to Bornholm. This animal is called a dromaeosaur (a raptor, for Jurassic Park fans), about 2-3 meters (7-10 feet) in length, and weighing 80 kilos (about 175 pounds.) We know about this because in 2000, a young woman attending a geology course on the island found its 2-centimeter-long tooth. This was the first proof of prehistoric life on the island, and it’s created a stir among paleontologists. There are artifacts from the Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Viking period, as well as buildings that have lasted since medieval times.

Bornholm fell to the Germans in 1940, along with the rest of Denmark, but the main part of the country was liberated on May 4, 1945. The German commandant on the island decided that Bornholm was behind German territory in Rügen, so he refused to surrender to the Russians, whom he called “savage”. So poor little Bornholm suffered a bombardment by the Russians for two days, destroying all but 400 of the 3400 properties in the main city of Rønne and damaging nearly every building in Nexø, our destination. Local resistance fighters had been unable to contact the Danish Foreign Minister, whom locals believe would have sent a British representative and achieved German capitulation. Many Bornholmers still refuse to put candles in their windows to celebrate the May 4 end of the blackout, or fly the flag in honor of the May 5 liberation. Once the town was in ruins, Sweden ferried over 75 wooden houses to help restore living areas. These buildings are still part of the city’s landscape and serve as a reminder of the devastation suffered by Nexø.

The main city Rønne is on the western side of the island, but our course took us to Nexø, a smaller port town. We got in early enough that we could stop for fuel, tie up against the quay, and still have time to see the whole town before dinner. But then, the whole town is about the size of a football field.

And thus we allocated some of our full day on the island to a visit to Rønne, the largest community on Bornholm with about a third of its population. Our bus ride gave us a tour of the interior of the island, which looked exactly like the Denmark west of us: varied shades of green across rolling farmed land, giant modern windmills turning slowly as they collect energy, and compact farmhouses. But we also got a glimpse of one of the pure white round churches that dot the island.

The citizens of Bornholm built these churches between 1150 and 1200 at a time when there was a real threat from pirates. The walls are 2 meters (7 feet) thick, and the halls between the entrance and the protected quarters at the top of the buildings are purposely so narrow that pirates who made it inside would be dissuaded from going upstairs.

Rønne was once called Rodne, or “rotten”, due to the overpowering aroma of marsh and decaying sea-weeds. Now it isn’t rotten at all, and filled with charming half-timbered houses along uneven cobblestone streets. The tourist office was kind enough to supply us with an English-language guide to the buildings and sights in town. We wandered about, visited the main square with its ultramodern sundial and stayed for an outdoor lunch, and wandered about some more. Then we took the bus back to Nexø.

The weather made it possible, finally, to sail east. The winds would still be in our face, but at least they wouldn’t be so strong as to prevent us from motoring and possibly even sailing some of the way to Latvia.

We motored much of our first day at sea, a mirror, with five knots of wind behind us, almost unnoticeable. Visibility went from dense fog to clear vision of foggy puffs resting on the water around us. Our one bit of excitement occurred with lots of warning. The AIS display showed us a ship twenty miles away whose path was the exact reciprocal of ours. If nobody blinked, we’d pass within 200 feet of each other. The number never went up very much beyond 200 feet, and one time I looked, our “closest point of approach” was estimated to be zero. That’s a little close at sea. When he was about five miles away, we altered our course and passed well away from him.

Now that so many vessels have GPS, lots of sailors set a course, sometimes from buoy to buoy, and then set the autopilot. All of these electronics are so accurate now that there’s little deviation. So we’ve heard that there are well-traveled routes, such as between Florida and the Bahamas, where sailors risk collision because everyone is sailing a tightrope of GPS coordinates.

Visibility was very good, so we could amuse ourselves by checking out the ship traffic was saw on our AIS display. A tug was towing something on such a long lead that we shuddered that someone could encounter them on a dark night and not realize that the two vessels were attached. The barge was carrying what looked like most of a train, including a steam locomotive. So it appeared that a train was blithely traveling by, somewhere at sea, with no horizon visible. I knew that Europe liked mass transit, but not this much.

We did manage to sail a little bit, though not enough. There was just enough wind for us to keep trying, and hoping, and giving up. We made moderate but steady progress, and began our crawl through the sea at night on a downwind sail. I took over from Art at midnight and concentrated on the few sounds around me as we sailed. Six knots of wind behind me were barely perceptible. I heard only the squeaky metronome of the autopilot moving the steering wheel as the hull swung lightly to port and starboard, punctuated by the clink of the shackle and the occasional flutter of a sail. I drank coffee and took a sweeping look at the horizon at five minute intervals. The clouds masked the Milky Way, which is a lucky planetarium on some night watches, and there were no stars. But the moon sank as a burning yellow disk before it hid behind the clouds on this balmy night.

I’m unchangeably a city girl, but nights like these help me understand why many people find solace in open, empty spaces. The lighted ship dots on the horizon were reassuringly matched by the AIS display. Our paths wouldn’t come within miles of each other. It was comforting that we’d recently replaced our AIS receiver with a new one that had a transponder. Now all these ships that we were watching could see us too.

The wind dropped and so did our speed. A troubling strobe of light kept interrupting my peaceful encounter with the sea and sky. I finally caught one of the flashes as it hit, well off to our port side, and realized that we were an 80-foot mast in open water, being approached by a thunderstorm. I got Art up. He’d had forty-five minutes to rest.

We sat on watch together and monitored the movement of the storm. It was very far away. Most of the time, it seemed to be moving aft of us. Some of the time, we weren’t sure. For a short time it poured rain and the winds picked up so that we could sail as fast as we could motor. Finally, when the storm appeared to be no threat, I went down below and to bed. Art stayed on watch. By this time, at about 2:30 AM, the sun was already lighting the horizon for a new day.

We’d had an uneventful sail, even though there’d been almost every kind of weather: fog, thunder, rain, heat, mirror-like seas, everything but sustained winds.

Art had called the harbor in advance of our arrival, and we tied up in Liepāja, Latvia at about six-thirty in the evening local time. We’d changed our clocks by an hour. A brightly-painted wooden ship entered the harbor carrying what appeared to be a wedding party. This boat had a red lion as a figurehead and looked as though it had been designed by a pirate of the Caribbean, in the flashy colors of hot climates. It’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t encounter at sea; you’re more likely to find one in a man-made lake at Epcot. The wedding party was dazzling, and they stepped off the boat and ambled over to a steak restaurant on the quay. The bride wore gold and carried a nosegay. From the looks of her waistline, the couple had already had their honeymoon sometime last January.

We had arrived on a memorial holiday. Latvia has three categories of holidays: national holidays which are official days off (there are nine of them), memorial days (there are twelve) and festive days (which number nine.) On July 4, 1941, several days after the Nazi invasion of Latvia, Riga’s main synagogue was set on fire, burning alive anyone who’d been trapped inside. Latvia estimates that 70,000 of Latvia’s Jews were killed during the Holocaust. This holiday commemorates all of the Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. It’s not like there’s a parade or anything. I just thought that it was a nice thing for Latvia to do.

The dock was on the premises of a five-star hotel, the Hotel Promenade, and it was an obvious choice for dinner after our two days onboard. By the time we were seated in the terrace area overlooking the boats, a piano player was in the middle of a medley of tunes. This man never lifted his hands off of the keyboard for his whole set. We enjoyed a relaxing meal and looked forward to starting our visit to Latvia on Sunday.

We haven’t even crossed the street to get to town, so I’ll hold off on more about Latvia until next week. Hope you’re all having a fabulous holiday weekend.

Love, Karen (and Art)