All throughout the weekend, I’ve been on the edge of my seat.
First an e-mail from my boss Maria telling me, that Tres Hombres is moving fast! We can expect her during the weekend. Then a phone call from deckie Jonas, they slowed down in the middle of Kattegat, no wind, they will be here in the middle of next week. And then Monday, suddenly a text from the chef on board Giulia, they are almost here!
This is how it is to work with Fairtransport. It is a bit unpredictable, because, well… They move when the winds blow. Several people have looked at me with mild desperation and disbelief in their eyes, at the mere thought of not knowing when to expect delivery, and although it sounds like a logistical nightmare to have a fluid ETA, allow me to make the argument that it is the opposite. When we can’t participate in the ever faster moving treadmill of capitalistic supply and demand, when everything is not just a ‘click’ on a computer away, we are set free. There is no truck driver being pushed to drive faster and ignore resting hours, no dependence on fossil fuels, and no company deadline to reach. The process of getting goods becomes fluent and independent. It’s not up to us, we place our trust in the sails of an engineless vessel. What freedom, that is!
Soils and sails
We import natural wines from France. The importance of transparency, when making and selling natural wine cannot be overstated. Natural wine is a grounded messenger of the soils, every drop of wine comes from a certain place and tells a story of biodiversity. The juice comes from a plant that has roots deep in the soil, and it has been worked by people with intention. It’s all about this connection between roots and humans.
The connection to the soil that the natural wines teach us about, made us realize that even though the wines are made with care and focus on the Earth, it doesn’t matter if the wines are then shipped to Copenhagen in big diesel trucks. It removes the wine from the grounded process, and they become just another product on the German highway, stuck in the past, relying on dinosaur juice, and the infrastructure of capitalism.
The reason we work with Fairtransport is to keep the connection to the soils that the natural wines conv. Sailing the wines to Copenhagen keep them grounded, and it makes the wines better. And it makes us all better when we unload the cargo and meet each other and the wines. The awareness of the pure wonder that is getting a bottle of wine from a sunnier place on Earth to our cold corner is humbling and all too often taken for granted. One of the key values of working with Fairtransport is that this wonder is underscored.
The other big reason we work with Fairtransport is, that it is necessary. It is necessary because we need to change how much space we take up in this world and how much disturbance we make.
Transformational power in transportation
I believe there is real transformational power in the stories of natural wine and Fairtransport is a very crucial part of that story. The 19.000 bottles of natural wine that are carried by winds and waves every year in the belly of Tres Hombres all the way from Brest in the Loire to Knippelsbro in the middle of Copenhagen, is a testament to the connection between humans and the Earth. When the crew of the ship and eager Copenhageners help each other unload the many bottles, I get a sense of something greater, something important, that we almost forgot, but are slowly retrieving by warm hands embracing each and every one of the 19.000 bottles with a label that guarantees that it is cargo under sail.
The Earth is struggling with unbalanced human disturbance, and nature and culture have become dichotomies in our minds and our ways. Subsequently, environmentalism has become synonymous with the powerless feeling of being only destructive forces. Fairtransport shows another way, where humans are not only a destructive force to nature and where nature is not just a mass of materiality that we can use but a coworker, a friend and a bearer of culture. It connects us, both to each other when we greet the ships filled with old and new faces, but it also connects us to the Earth and the Sea, they are the ones doing in this relationship, we’re just along for the ride 🙂
Freiwillig und gemeinsam
Die Männer schnappen sich Handschuhe, einer behilft sich mit einer Decke. Dann kommt der Deckel am Ende das langen Kastens weg. Dampf steigt auf. Rasch holen sie die heiße Planke raus. Aber halt: Unter einer Planke stellt man sich ein Brett vor. Diese hier gleicht aber mit 8 cm Dicke eher einem Balken. Sie bringen ihn zum Backbord-Achterschiff der auf dem Trockenen stehenden „Tres Hombres“, wo entfernte Planken ein Loch im Rumpf hinterlassen haben, durch das man das ehemalige Stevenrohr sehen kann aus der Zeit, als das Schiff noch unter Motor fuhr. Routiniert fixieren sie das spitz zulaufende Ende mit Schraubzwingen an der unter dem Loch liegenden Planke fest, pressen es mit einem Balken und Stahlpressen an den Rumpf. Dann wird klar, weshalb Schraubzwingen ihren Namen tragen: Meter für Meter zwingen sie die ursprünglich gerade Planke an den gewölbten Rumpf, geben ihr so auch die notwendige Verwindung. Nach rund einer halben Stunde Hin und Her schmiegt sich das dicke Holz an den Rumpf, kann über Nacht abkühlen und so die Form annehmen, mit der es in die Außenhaut des Schiffs passt.
Stundenlang haben die Freiwilligen, die bei der jährlichen Überholung der „Tres Hombres“ mitarbeiten, in umfunktionierten Gasflaschen Wasser gekocht, den Dampf mit dicken Schläuchen in die Kammer geleitet, die mit alten Schlafsäcken und Wolldecken isoliert ist. Gleichzeitig haben andere an weiteren Planken gearbeitet, aus langen Sperrholzstreifen Schablonen gefertigt, aus den roh in der Sägerei geholten Douglasienbohlen die grobe Form herausgeschnitten, gehobelt, geschliffen. Eine gestern bereits mit Dampf vorgeformte Planke an Steuerbord haben sie eingesetzt, mit Stahlpressen, Wagenhebern, Keilen und Schraubzwingen befestigt, mit einem grossen Schlägel in die Position geklopft und sie dann wieder heruntergeholt, um die letzten Anpassungen von Hand auszuhobeln. Die Endmontage am späten Nachmittag will noch nicht klappen. Sie nimmt fast den ganzen nächsten Tag in Anspruch.
Innen ist das Schiff weitgehend leer. Die Zwischenwände sind entfernt, selbst die stählernen Wassertanks wurden aus ihrer Verankerung gehoben, damit die Spanten zugänglich wurden, an denen die alten befestigt waren und neuen Planken mit dicken Schlosserschrauben befestigt werden. Zugleich kommt man so an Stellen heran, die man sonst nicht entrosten könnte. Der Lärm der mit Druckluft betriebenen Nadel-Entroster, der Handhobelmaschinen und Winkelschleifer, mit denen an verschiedenen Stellen gearbeitet wird, wäre zwischendurch ohne Gehörschutz nicht auszuhalten. Trifft man sich zur Kaffeepause oder Mittagessen, tauchen aus dem Rumpf staubige Gestalten auf. Wer zwischendurch eine helfende Hand benötigt, findet sie schnell.
Was beim ersten Eindruck noch als Chaos erscheint, stellt sich schnell heraus als Ansammlung guten Willens, der mit wenigen Worten zu koordinieren ist. Wie auch an Bord spricht man Englisch. Dazwischen ist Französisch zu hören, Deutsch und Holländisch. Ebenso vielfältig wie die die Herkunft sind die Berufe: Eines Morgens steht eine kanadische Flugzeugmechanikerin mit Pinsel und Farbe auf dem Gerüst, die ihren Job bei Boeing aufgegeben hat. Der Deutsche Elektroingenieur, dem seine Aufgaben in der Autoindustrie nicht mehr gefallen haben, schreinert seine erste Planke. Sie passt. Und als ich beim Ausbau des total verrosteten Türschlosses des Niedergangs zum Foxhole eine Trennscheibe benötige, mit der nicht ungefährlichen Maschine aber keine Erfahrung habe, greift der Ungar mit den Dreadlocks für mich zur Flex. Er bringt sowohl Erfahrung aus der Schwerindustrie mit als er auch als Videoproduzent tätig war. Den Ersatz für das Relief am Bug, das bei der Rückkehr über den Atlantik zu Bruch ging, schnitzte eine junge holländisch Schreinerin, die auf einem Neunmeter Boot wohnt wie anderswo Alternativjugendliche im Bauwagen. Gestrichen wird das Werk dann von der deutschen Holzbildhauerin mit Architekturstudium. Hämmert auf der einen Seite des Schiffs elektronifizierter Rap aus dem Lautsprecher durch den Maschinenlärm, läuft auf der anderen Seite Mali-Blues und Fela Kutis Afropop.
Die Jobs verteilt ein Holländer, der seit Beginn der „Tres Hombres“ dabei ist. Ihn langweilte seine Arbeit auf dem Bau zunehmend, weil es immer mehr nur noch um die Montage vorgefertigter Häuser gegangen sei. Dann wird mit lautem Hallo die israelische Schiffsoffizierin begrüsst, die auch gleich noch eine Freundin in Arbeitsklamotten mitgebracht hat. Der französische DJ, der seine elektronische Ausrüstung auf jenem Schiff installiert hat, auf dem wir provisorisch untergebracht sind, hobelt von außen die neu eingesetzten Planken glatt, während der ehemalige Testski-Fahrer und Outdoorartikel-Vermarkter aus Frankreich und eine Rigg-Spezialistin aus Holland Hanf in die Ritzen hämmern und diese dann mit Teer verschließen. „Love Tar“ – „liebe Teer“ – hat jemand mit einem schwarzen Handabdruck auf den im Freien stehenden Kühlschrank geschrieben, der Butter und Käse für die Zwischenmahlzeiten oder das Feierabendbier beherbergt.
Theoretischer Arbeitsschluss ist um um sechs, aber vor halb sieben beginnt kaum jemand, die Werkzeuge wegzuräumen, die Kabel aufzurollen und die Hobelspäne mit dem Besen zusammenzuwischen. Die meisten sind noch nie auf der „Tres Hombres“ mitgesegelt. Einige hoffen, in Zukunft mal mitfahren zu können, andere sind mit leuchtenden Gesichtern einfach nur so stolz darauf, hier gegen Bett und Essen beim Aufbau einer Alternative mitzuhelfen.
Von Corona gebremst
Mittwoch, Tag-und-Nacht-Gleiche, Herbstanfang: Der Wind ist heftig. Die flache Schale mit der Farbe reisst er mir fast aus der Hand. Tauche ich die Rolle in das Schwarz auf Leinölbasis, reisst manchmal eine Bö einen Farbfaden in die Luft. Solange ein Kollege mit Abdeckband die Wasserlinie abklebt, muss ich deshalb aufhören, um ihn nicht zu bekleckern. Später „verfolgt“ er mich und streicht seinerseits mit kupferhaltiger Antifoulingfarbe den Bereich unterhalb des Abdeckbands, während mit ein schwarzer Farbtropf aufs linke Brillenglas fliegt, als ich den Rumpf über der Wasserlinie mit elegant glänzendem Schwarz überziehe.
Vor anderthalb Wochen haben wir die Whisky-Planke eingesetzt. So heisst die letzte Planke, die den Rumpf wieder verschließt und die – analog zur Aufrichte bei einem Gebäude an Land – mit einer Flasche der entsprechenden Spirituose und einer kurzen Ansprache gefeiert wird. Damit war die Arbeit an der Außenhaut aber längst noch nicht abgeschlossen: Neben dem Kalfatern der Fugen mit Hanf und Teer haben wir all die Löcher, in welche die Schrauben versenkt sind, mit Holzzapfen verschlossen. Neben den neuen Planken wurden all die kleinen Stellen geschliffen und grundiert, an denen der alte Anstrich abblättert. So bekam der Rumpf das Aussehen eines Flickenteppichs – da macht nun der Schluss-Anstrich doppelt Freude.
Trotz des Windes ist die Stimmung fast euphorisch. Zwar hätten wir die Tres Hombres heute ins Wasser lassen wollen. Doch die allgegenwärtigen Corona-Schutzmassnahmen haben den Fortgang der Arbeit verzögert. Aber nun steigt die Stimmung: Überall wird gestrichen, diesmal zu Latino-Rhythmen. Endspurt. Das Schiff soll übermorgen ins Wasser. Die Party werde ich allerdings verpassen: Da in ganz Europa die Corona-Zahlen steigen, hätten meine Angehörigen in der Schweiz kein Verständnis, wenn ich den Aufenthalt verlängern würde. So mache ich mich auf den Heimweg. Aber das Gefühl sagt: Es muss ja nicht das letzte Mal gewesen sein.
So here we are, back in Amsterdam, with an empty cargo hold, preparing for the next trip.
Six months have passed since we first left Den Helder on that grey November day. I still remember the steady sound of the tugboat, like a frantic clock rushing us. Soon the time would not matter that much, but we didn’t know that yet. After 3 months of refit, a perfectly black hull and a whole new rigging, she was most definitely ready to go, and so were we. But we still needed our flag, and that bean soup and Jeroen had a few more teas and spices to give us, and from the lovely people standing by the quay, we still had herbs, potatoes, pumpkins and so many fair winds wishes to receive. I remember being hit by all kinds of unexpected emotions and also not having a second to process any of them. The last hugs were shared as the mooring lines were set loose. As she slowly moved away from the pier and the embraces were no longer possible, there came the handshakes and finally, only words and smiles could connect both worlds. There was a special atmosphere surrounding that moment; serious but not heavy. And as we disappeared around the corner, setting sails already, we had no idea what to expect. Then the North Sea and getting to know these 19 people with whom we were going to share part of this adventure came.
We had a whole new world to learn about and master. Rope names and their functions, manoeuvre logistics, climbing, steering, even simple walking on a moving deck or sleeping on a rolling bunk is a skill that requires practice. Each one of us was pretty soon faced with his and her own battles. Seasickness for some, freezing wet feet for most, tiredness, sleep deprivation, feeling generally overwhelmed, you name it, it was a tough start especially for the ones sailing for the first time!
Then Biscay came and I realised we are more human when we are reminded of our vulnerabilities. A warm soup made by a trainee when I was too sick to work, a pat on the shoulder when bending over the railing, an understanding look that speaks for a thousand words, the relentless work from the experienced sailors on board, allowing the others to get back on their feet…all these were true expressions of love that I will never forget.
It took time for me to be friends with the rolling galley. She would not give in that easily, but I tend to fall for untamed spirits. I had to find out the hard way how to stand and hold my position. Feet were no longer enough since you need 3 points of balance; so butt, hips, knees and back were put to work. Mise en place was made obsolete. All the bowls with prepared veggies would just fly away with the first wave anyway.
You must chop as you go. Elbows, wrists, even the pinkie fingers are fully used daily to keep everything in place. Your senses become alert to any sounds and movements, but careful not to go crazy with the ever symphony of pots and pans hitting the walls. You learn pretty fast that if we are sailing full and by, you shouldn’t make lasagne; the entire top layer will slide out of the tray and burn on the bottom of your oven. You learn that making pasta on a heavy sailing day heightens the mood greatly, but you will need all your prayers to strain that boiling water safely.
You learn about each person’s specificities; how full the bowl should be for each one, who likes runny or hard eggs or who prefers forks over spoons.
Soon after we would be in Baiona rolling empty barrels by hand over the quay and partying with my parents on board and with a new captain we headed south direction La Palma. Some said sailing would be smoother from then on but the sea does what the sea wants. The reliable starry skies were always there though, reminding me of permanence while outside and inside everything was shaking. I didn’t know back then, but there was going to be the last time I would ask myself: can I actually do this? Because then came the Atlantic crossing and a love story were born.
We would be three and a half weeks at sea and, with 70kg of bananas and 30kg of avocados in the cargo hold, we were definitely going to manage. We aimed south until the butter started to melt and then hitchhiked with the good old trade winds all the way to the west.
Downwind sailing, blue skies and sunshine completely changed the mood of the crew. It was time to start living and enjoying life on board. We could finally dry all our damp clothes and have showers on deck. Guitars were taken out and songs were sung and written again. Without much sail handling to do, the days were spent doing maintenance work. Tarring, seizing, sanding, oiling, painting, tensioning, pitching, de-rusting, splicing, sewing; all this needs to be done regularly. It is a lot of work to keep such a ship in shape.
In the galley, life was much easier though. If in fact, life was great! I was feeling more and more synchronized with everything, my body had accepted the daily schedules, the sounds, the movement. And as each meal was served I felt more confident and soon cooking for the whole crew wouldn’t be any different than cooking for myself at home. The days onboard were simple. All actions were concrete and necessary for living; cooking, cleaning, fixing, sailing. And there was always time. It is mind-blowing how much space is left when you are not constantly bombarded with abstract nonsense. I was contented. I felt at peace with my place in the world, at least in this floating world. I remember lying on deck one night, under the most brilliant sky, looking up at the sails and the moon and Venus shining over them. I did not know whether to feel big or small. But I understood then that there is no scale for such feelings of meaningfulness.
One day, when the wind didn’t blow, we decided to put the tender overboard and do a few laps around the ship to take some pictures. That was the day we truly realised it: we are really crossing the Atlantic on a pirate ship. And just like going to space and looking back at Earth, we all stared at her from the distance in awe and reverence. She was everything we had and the only place we were safe within a radius of hundreds, maybe thousands of miles. That day we all came back on board with a renewed sense of care and responsibility, and I wondered how would the world be if more people were able to step out of their lives and take a look from a different perspective.
Anyway, the Caribbean was getting closer and, although I didn’t want the crossing to end, we would finally eat something else rather than pumpkin and bananas and I was also curious for what the West would bring. Barbados was our first stop. We dropped one of our anchors on the bay of Bridgetown and as it touched the ground our captain yelled, “Welcome in the Caribbean” and we all cheered, already imagining all the land pleasures we were going to feast on! But it would take us another 6 hours of hard-core teamwork until we could finally reach land since we soon realised that the anchor wasn’t holding!
With squalls in the horizon and other boats all around us, we had to be quick and pull that anchor up, so we could sail away from the bay and try again. But on a traditional ship like ours, without an engine or modern technology, bringing up an anchor means that the whole crew is taking turns sweating under the sun pulling like crazy. After two hours we were ready to try again. We chose another spot, let go of the anchor, crossed our fingers and waited in silence…damn, it wasn’t holding again! We dropped a few more shackles, nothing changed. We drop our second anchor and still not holding. Now we had two anchors to pull up! Make water bottles ready, we were going to be pulling non-stop for another hour or more. This time was going to be the last time we would try anchoring, since the crew was exhausted and starving after 6h of pulling, tacking, jibing, and running around hoisting and dousing sails. We approached the bay once more, the captain screams “Tres Hombres let go!” and for the third time, we hear the anchor dropping. With four and a half shackles in, she was definitely holding this time!
From then on a different life on board began. Land time became longer than sea time and that had its positive and negative sides. We could rest from the discipline and focus needed at sea but we were also vulnerable again to all land distractions, bureaucracies and stress. But we had a job to do and so we started our island hopping to collect the good cargo. In Martinique, we had a group of people swimming full rum barrels across the bay. We met the Gallant and moored side by side for a memorable barbeque on board. We could taste the French croissants and baguettes again and I discovered the magic of rum punch.
In Grenada, we roamed through spice markets, jumped in waterfalls and met other kindred spirits. We were also introduced to soca music and a bit more rum punch. Arriving in Colombia meant all hands on deck and surviving a storm for one full night. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger they say. In the Dominican Republic, I learned how to negotiate prices, bargain and push my way through the lawless systems. It is undeniable though that problems exist here and in other places we have been. But these issues, such as corruption, for example, derive from deep feelings of unfairness and, as long as there are social and economical disparities in the world, I believe this will be bound to happen. Investing in these countries, helping their internal economies and small-scale businesses, building bridges and connections, rather than just exploiting them for their beautiful nature is, in my view, a good start. And that is what we are doing, on a very small scale.
A friend of mine used to say sometimes that the brightest light casts the darkest shadows. I had to think about that expression when I was in the Dominican Republic because there I have also seen the best in people. I was helped by many strangers and witnessed beautiful and rare gestures of trust and solidarity that made a big impact on me. All hands all day were needed to load our last cargo. I could not believe it would ever fit when I saw it by the quay but it just did. There we would hear about the extension of the coronavirus effects, the border closures and quarantine measures for the first time.
We could not stay longer in the harbour but we also didn’t know where to sail to since the Azores were closing the borders as well as the rest of Europe. But a ship is made for sailing and after the loading was done we were losing our purpose on land. Thus we set sail on a Tuesday morning with a dry store filled with food meant to last for 6 weeks, direction uncertain.
Crossing back though was going to be a very different kind of love story. The trade winds were not going to be there to push us gently from the back. Instead, we would have to navigate our way through the highs and the lows, in an ever colder and wetter environment. I have also realised that the feeling of going back home together with the uncertainties brought by these special times made us less able to truly live and appreciate the present moment. Suddenly time was on our minds again.
When will we arrive? Where will we arrive? Will we have enough food, water, gas? What world will we encounter?
Future sabotaged the present. I also had my own private questions. What will I do next? Where will I go next? When I started this journey I chose to leave everything behind. I left my job, my house, sold my car and most of my belongings. Setting sail with no personal mooring lines was the greatest of feelings but I knew that coming back was going to be confusing, to say the least.
The thing is that after you’ve done one season on Tres Hombres many things you thought were great now seem boring, many things you thought you wanted you don’t want them anymore, and sometimes you meet somebody, they steal your heart and with it all the plans you might have made before. But being confused is good; it is an active state of mind. And being alive is to accept change and flow with it like an autumn leaf in the wind. And if the wind is fair it will get you there.
Now that we have completed our mission, and looking back at what we have done, there are two ways of going about it. In practical terms, we have sailed a ship to the Caribbean to collect cargo and we have sailed it back to Europe to deliver cargo. In total, around 40 tons of cacao, coffee, rum and sugar have been traded. This is what anyway will forever be registered in the paperwork, invoices, logbooks and so on.
But in reality, this was a journey of a lifetime for each individual that stepped on this ship, more so for the ones doing the full round trip. It was confronting, exciting, provocative, awe-inspiring. It stirred all kinds of thoughts and feelings. It opened up different paths and possibilities. It ignited new questions and dreams.
And I can’t help to wonder what the real cargo is in the end, the goods or the people. After all, the fox is right: what is essential is invisible to the eye. So in some ways, I think that the rum we carry is just a necessary mean to make it viable for this vessel to keep sailing and inspiring people. Investing in products with such a story and human beings behind it, is allowing for personal growth and deep life changes, making the world a little bit happier and a little bit healthier a journey at the time. Therefore I must thank everybody that is supporting Fairtransport by buying our products or giving their time and skills to the project. It really got under my skin in ways I am still to process. There is a unique quality given only to things that take time and effort.
So after 200kg of porridge and 176 days of pura vida, if later someone asks me how long my journey was, I’ll say somewhere between 6 months and a lifetime.
I see grey skies looming in all directions. It’s becoming ever more clear that we are moving towards the North as the temperature drops, and the seas start to lose their blue.
The first response of my shipmates and I is to reflect the state of our surroundings in attitude and emotion; See grey, feel grey. This is not the complete process of the experience however, as golden hearts shine through the clouds, always to the Sun as we head East.
Every day I am more convinced that the human body is nothing if not adaptable. I’ve learned that it is the sheer power of will that keeps the body warm and immune, not the obvious comforts we so easily depend on externally. This same power is what keeps the ship moving forward, taking just another form of focus, and determination. If the skies can so directly influence our inner states of being, why then, do we feel so incapable of doing the same, in turn, to the skies? Are they not extensions of our own experience? Do they not hail from the same infinite universe?
Aye, I believe humans have indeed caught a glimpse of eternity’s sunrise and stopped to drink from the fountains of Zion, but we remain human still, blissfully mortal. It is our duty to undergo that which unsettles, and disturbs the world. It is discomfort that makes someone move for more, just as harsh winds fill a sail, and push a ship such as ours through oceans.
Sometimes we forget to reconnect with ourselves, and think past our coldness, but even still, as the ever changing seasons of nature would have it, there is always another stimulant that comes forward to lighten the mood, things as simple as hot food at the end of a watch, clean water to drink, or the sight of whales and dolphins dancing for us, welcoming us home. These things set in motion again, the cycle of that human potential, to overcome, and create our own experience, through laughter and teamwork. Long Live those Men and Women who see an adventure in a storm, or an opportunity to sow in barren ground.