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A German classic finds new life in her old roots

The 1853 revenue cutter Rigmor enjoys a blustery day on the Elbe River.

Slowly the black-hulled vessel backs into her berth. A lively cross breeze turns this process into a balancing act, especially for the skipper, who has to work the throttle in reverse while handling the monstrous oak tiller to counter the leeway of the bow. With some help from bystanders, she’s made fast so her guests can disembark and make way for the next group, which is eagerly waiting to board.

The swap is nearly as choreographed as on a plane that’s waiting at the gate for a fresh crew and another load of passengers. Before long, they’re off again, into a freshening breeze from the west. “Reef one and jib,” commands skipper Kai Bruhn, one of the volunteers in charge of the vessel. A dozen hands spring into action.

Going for a spin on an old sailing ship is all the rage here in Glückstadt, a port city near the mouth of the Elbe River in the northern German province of Schleswig-Holstein. That’s especially true when the vessel is as old as Rigmor, a revenue cutter that was built here in 1853, when the Danes still ruled this place and the U.S. Civil War was eight years off.

Rigmor is known as “Germany’s oldest operational sailing vessel,” even though, quite honestly, it’s more the spirit that survived these 162 years than anything else, save perhaps for a few splinters of wood in the keel and some shards of bronze from old fastenings. But the guests don’t mind, which is why she is booked solid throughout the season with charter trips on the lower Elbe and excursions to Hamburg or to Kiel, the sailing Mecca on the Baltic coast.

Rigmor’s restoration is a masterpiece of reconstructive surgery down to the most minute detail, including her simple yet effective cutter rig; manual winches and anchor spill; wooden and leather-clad blocks; sheets and halyards made from three-strand rope; and two heavy wooden sideboards, which were customary on working vessels that operated in shallow water. Her original job was patrolling the tricky waters off western Denmark for the revenue service and chasing down bootleggers who’d been a thorn in the side of the Danish king. Her crew of customs inspectors carried sidearms and sabers, and wore spiffy uniforms with gold brocaded collars and sleeves, and cocked hats with cordons and cockades. A falconet mounted on the foredeck added some persuasive power, just in case.

Planked in oak, Rigmor measures only 52 feet unsparred. She is impeccably maintained by a group of 120 volunteers who are organized in a non-profit, with about 40 of them rotating as deck crew. By today’s standards, the mechanical devices that were rebuilt to imitate her original deck gear are crude, but they serve their purpose well and without fail. If a repair is in order, nothing has to be connected to a diagnostic computer.

Sailing this boat is anything but a pushbutton affair, and that is fully intended: Handling her safely requires an experienced skipper and a group of trained hands who are willing to put their backs into it. Sweating and tailing the halyards, cranking crude winches and hauling hand-over-hand those rough-hewn sheets is refreshingly counterintuitive in a time when disruptive technology is eliminating “expensive and inefficient” humans. Activities such as sailing are affected, too, as more of the brawn and brainwork on board is delegated to powered systems and computers.

The trick that ensured survival

It takes human power to furl Rigmor's sails (skipper Kai Bruhn at left with two volunteer crewmembers) and operate her hefty windlass.

All of that old-fashioned grinding and grunting resonates with participants and guests. “I used to come as a passenger but liked it so much I decided to volunteer,” says Tina Bandes, a senior manager at a local company that makes drinking fountains. “Age and gender are unimportant as long as there is a good personal fit.” Working and sailing aboard Rigmor, she adds, is “like a brief vacation from the job” that helped her rekindle her love for being on the water with other people.

To fully understand why this boat is so successful today, why this humble cutter connects with people so well, it helps to examine her history, which goes back more than a century and a half and is replete with improbable zigs and lucky zags that ultimately led to the happiest of endings. One would be forgiven for suspecting that a benevolent fairy might have had a hand in writing that script.

Her time as revenue cutter No. 5 ended all too soon, when the Danes lost the war to a German-Austrian coalition in 1864. To the victor go the spoils, so she was brought to Germany and sold at auction in 1865. One of her former captains, Gerret Matzen, bought her back and converted her to a freight sailer. Bad-mouthing the vessel’s qualities, as he did before the sale, was a useful ruse that brought down the price.

Over the years she changed hands and names at a steady clip, and in 1917 she was christened Rigmor, a name that stuck. Her enterprising owner at the time fitted her with an engine and a wheelhouse and turned her into a “rockfisher,” which is code for a dredge. Sizewise and in terms of cargo-carrying capacity, she was a joke, but her shoal draft was a unique selling point because she could maneuver in cramped confines and shallow harbors that were off-limits to larger, more economical dredges. Rigmor might have been a one-trick pony, but her trick was valuable to her owners because it made them money. Hence, she was kept in a decent state of repair, which ensured her survival.

Her potential future role as a sailing monument crept over the horizon in 1970, when the venturous Joachim Kaiser discovered her dredging in the Danish islands. He had no idea what he was photographing, except that this vessel that was hauling dirt-encrusted rocks once must have been under sail, as indicated by her low freeboard and clipper bow. It took years of meticulous sleuthing, often aided by chance, before it became clear that this humble dredge, in fact, was built in Glückstadt as a proud revenue cutter.

Persuading the city to buy it back and restore it was a different circus act altogether. But in the fall of 1992 the chips fell, 150,000 Danish kroner changed hands, and this dangerously dilapidated pile of planks chugged down from Denmark and tied up in the very harbor where it was assembled some 140 years before.

A resourceful restoration

The next order of business was to solicit donations and sponsorship so the hull could be dismantled and measured, and lines could be redrawn for the restoration, which turned into a historically accurate rebuild at a nearby yard. Of course, there is this law of physics that applies to restorations: Work takes much longer than planned and always runs way over budget. Rigmor was no exception.

But no stone was left unturned during fundraising, which involved famous maritime artists who donated works for auctions that were held to finance rounds of jobs waiting to be tackled. It never was enough to get over the hump; work continued in fits and starts, corresponding to the ebb and flow in the account. And Kaiser grew desperate. He procured building materials “nearly to the point of theft,” he jokes, trying to keep the project going. Still, after the hull was finished and ceremoniously relaunched in 1995, things practically ground to a halt, leaving Rigmor’s fate in limbo.

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It was politics to the rescue. When Helmut Schröder, a socialist, was elected German chancellor in 1998, he made good on a campaign promise to finance a job-training initiative for 100,000 apprentices. It was the moment Kaiser had been waiting for. “Our application was ready in my drawer,” he says. “All we had to do was fill in the numbers.”

The new mayor of Elmshorn, a nearby city, donated a piece of land in the center of town, and an impromptu boatyard was set up with high public visibility so citizens could observe the progress of the work as this maritime monument took shape. It was a clever move, just as it was to persuade the manager of the local employment exchange to deliver the best recruits for the job. It also helped to get Rigmor registered as an important industrial landmark with the regional government, which made her eligible for more public funding.

It was 1999 by now, things picked up steam, and on Oct. 27, 2002 — nearly 10 years to the day after returning to her place of birth — Rigmor was put back into service, resembling the revenue cutter she once was down to the smallest detail but also enhanced by a small galley forward, a head aft and a 63-hp auxiliary diesel.

Out on the Elbe, Rigmor is getting ready to turn for home as the ebb starts to build, throwing up a steep chop as it encounters the resistance of the still-freshening westerlies. The cutter gamely pushes into the brown, brackish waves, her bow wake hissing and bubbling along the hull. “It’s very exciting,” says Andreas Pätzmann, a guest from Hamburg, who sits on the high side of the coach roof.

He had booked this trip for himself and his friend Rainer Rathje, a small-boat sailor who knows these waters as a ferry passenger. “To me Rigmor feels like a giant dinghy,” Rathje says with a big smile.

Rigmor’s freeboard is rather low and does not offer much protection against the spray that whips across the deck when she shoulders aside the whitecaps. Skipper Bruhn watches for a few minutes before he reaches for the ignition key to start the iron genny and directs the crew to douse the canvas. “It has to be fun for everyone,” he says as he pushes down the giant wooden tiller to point Rigmor back toward Glückstadt, where her story started more than 160 years ago.

June 2015 issue