The Journey 1987

Sailing against the Cold War. 
The memorable journey of 1987

In the summer of 19

Reid und die Botschäftler  der DDR und Bundes Republik

Reid und die Botschäftler der DDR und Bundes Republik

87 around twenty traditional Dutch sailing ships participated in the 750 years jubilee festivities of Berlin. The city suffered as the symbol of the Cold War those days. East-Berlin functioned as capital of the communist state the DDR. West-Berlin on the other hand, was a lonely island isolated, walled and without any future perspective. In 1987 no one believed that the Berlin Wall would fall any time soon.

With the Dutch ships joining the jubilee festivities in Berlin, two worlds came together that did not seem to fit together at all. The journey had been facilitated at the highest possible political level. Never before had recreational ships been allowed to pass through the DDR, let alone foreign ships. The journey proved to be a memorable expedition with nervous expectations, plenty miscommunications, grave disappointments and extremely conflicting situations for all parties involved. By sailing into a divided Germany the Cold War remorselessly presented itself to the skippers. In the end the adventure proved successful when the ships were welcomed by thousands of Berliners. Still, the journey was long not forgotten and West-Berlin politicians years later still vividly remembered ‘those stubborn Dutch skippers’ who changed course to East-Berlin when they had to make choice.

The West-Berlin perspective: Those Stubborn Dutch

The jubilee-festivities showed all scars from a violent 20th century. Berlin, the former capital of the German Empire, had been disintegrated in the Cold War and since 1961 also isolated by a physical wall around it. The wall had been built to stop DDR citizens from fleeing to the west. The two cities questioned each other’s legitimacy in every possible way. Therefore, it came as no surprise that the jubilee was celebrated separately in East and West. There were two parties, with two mayors, two historical stories to tell and with their own books and exhibitions. Many international guests visited East and West respectively. Ronald Reagon came to west and Michail Gorbatsjov to the East.

Besides the competition between East and West, the city’s Jubilee festivities also had a difficult history. The 700 year jubilee celebrations had been organized by the Nazi’s in 1937. The fierce military parades were still in the memory of the public in 1987. Although East did organize a military parade ten times longer than the Nazi’s in 1937, West-Berlin was affraid of the comparison with the nazi celebrations. In their view, a parade would be too authoritarian and could make a wrong impression to the Western allies. 

So instead of organizing a parade on land, West-Berlin thought of something new; a parade on water. In this case there would be no need for marching uniforms, and on top of that the Western allies could make a contribution by sending over their own national traditional ships. It was a unique opportunity for West-Berlin to show it’s openness to the world. Ships from England, the United States, Italy and the Netherlands were invited to celebrate the city’s birthday together in a so called ‘Wasserkorso’.

On the other side of the wall, the DDR authorities soon picked up on the same idea. Their own jubilee had to be more beautiful, bigger and better than in the West. They organised their own water parade called the ‘Wasserfest’, which was strategically planned in the same weekend as West’s ‘Wasserfest’. West trusted in its own capacity and international allure that it’s party would outdo the Eastern version. Therewith, the jubilee was about to witness two water parades, organised at the same time, and strictly separated from each other at a stone’s throw apart.

Dutch perspective: Sailing as a symbol of Peace

In 1985 West-berlin contacted the Reid Stichting -a foundation for traditional barges- at Sail Amsterdam. The foundation gathered 22 traditional ships that would sail for Berlin in the summer of 1987. The central figure on the Dutch side was Reid de Jong; a visionary, architect, artist, and nestor and grounder of holland biggest watersport events. Reid had the right connection in the Netherlands and abroad to take up on this adventure. He personally met with Honecker for the occasion, was a mediagenic figure, abhorred political treacheries, but silently adored the DDR as well. Adjacently he was the official contact person for the West-Berlin senate. With a grand charisma he presented the journey as a ‘sail for peace’ through the divided Germany. The question arose; what could these Dutch skippers possibly do for peace and the demolition of the Berlin Wall?

On paper, the journey of the Dutch skippers proved quite spectacular for several reasons. Apart from sailing 800 kilometers with overaged barges over the Rhine, the Mittellandkanal and the Elbe, the skippers had to pass many political barriers as well. To get to Berlin the fleet had cross the inner German border ‘die Innerdeutsche Grenze’ and sail 200 kilometers through the DDR to finally get to West-Berlin, effectively passing through the wall. It was for the very first time since the founding of the DDR that ships, other than cargo ships were allowed to make this passage. Diplomacy in the months before had delivered some great work persuading the DDR-authorities to grant this unique permission. To put things into perspective: the organisation of the Tour de France did not get this permission to pass through the DDR. For the city’s jubilee festivities the French did organize the prologue in West-Berlin, but had to fly the entire cycling circus to West-Germany the next day. The Dutch skippers on the contrary did get this permission, but it remains unclear for what favor in return. In july that year the ambassadors of both East- and West-germany waved the fleet goodbye in Amsterdam. In front of the camera’s Reid de Jong embraced both and declared ‘I will sail to Berlin with these two gentleman’.  They embarked for what turned out to be a very long two week journey  .

The journey with over a 150 people started with much difficulty from the beginning. The border police of West-Germany, which seemed uninformed about the fleet’s passage, held the fleet for almost a day at the Dutch-German border. All ships were searched with drugs dogs and the ships usually had to wait long times at bridges and docks. After passing the inner German border the atmosphere proved more relaxed, despite the intimidating infrastructure of barbed wire and guns around the waterways. Clearly, the East-german civil servants were informed better than their western counterparts. Underway it slowly became clear that it would be practically impossible for the ships to attend both water parades. As East-Berlin had moved it’s water parade to the saturday, the same day as the ‘Wasserkorso’ in West, a new problem arose for the skippers. Now they had a decision to make; which party to go to? Even though the ships were officially invited by West-Berlin, which also paid their diesel costs, the skippers had always wanted to attend both parties. Officially there were no official connections with East-Berlin, but why were they allowed to sail through the DDR just like that? The discussion became more intense, but no decision was made just yet.

The water parades turned out to be on the same day and so the fleet had to come to a decision. Berlin was getting closer by the day by now. It would be against their neutral-pacifistic stand to be only present at one of the cities’ water parades. Against their will the Dutch skippers were rudely confronted with the dilemmas of the big conflict: ‘do we go to west or east? or both? and in which order?’. Whilst Reid de Jong was frantically negotiating with the authorities of East-Berlin, the fellow skippers revolted for faulty communication and many misunderstandings. Before the gates of Berlin the built up tension reached a boiling point. During a heated gathering in Potsdam the fleet decided to split up. However, not all crewmembers agreed and the majority intuitively headed to East-Berlin.

Climax of panic and party

Days before the arrival of the fleet the organisation of the ‘Wasserkorso’ in west had been prepping the people in the media about the spectacular arrival of traditional Dutch ships from the passage through the DDR. At the Wannsee and at the Glienicker Brücke – the famous spy-exchange bridge- the organisation had built a floating stage to welcome the ships and to organize a press conference.  The Dutch had been underway for two long weeks. But when they finally got to Berlin and in sight of the organisation of the Wasserkorso, something remarkable happened.

At the point where the ships should have gone left into West-Berlin, a part of the fleet parted and changed course to the right, direction East-Berlin. The West-Berlin officials were flabbergasted to see these ships sail in ‘the wrong direction’. For a short moment there these shared waters in front of the city became the scenery of lots of shouting through megaphones ‘Is this a kidnapping?’’ and panicky negotiations on VHF. The next few hours turned into pure hectic. Skippers moored again for yet another meeting amongst themselves, the fleet leaders quickly went to the town hall ‘das Rote Rathaus’ in East-Berlin racing through Checkpoint Charlie without any constraint. The authorities of West-Berlin in the meantime sent a telegram to the skippers that lured them to West-Berlin with false pretenses. When the fleet leaders returned, most ships had left to West-Berlin. Shouting and cursing, they now had to find back their own ships that had been taken by an emotional and confused crew.

As such the built up tension reached a sudden and decisive climax at the day of arrival. In the end the vast majority of the fleet stayed in West for the Wasserkorso. Only two of the traditional barges made it to East-Berlin for the ‘Wasserfest’. “Sail for Peace failed’, the newspapers headed the next day in the Netherlands. In West-Berlin the media circulate the news that the DDR had tried to bribe and kidnap the Dutch ships. They were especially suspicious about Reid, who had been seen racing in a small car right through Checkpoint Charlie. The DDR media merely reported on the beauty of the Dutch ships that had made it to the jubilee festivities in Berlin, the capital of the DDR. In the days after the water parades the ships still made their passage through the wall and got a warm welcome.

The climax of events had been too much for organiser Reid. During the parade in East-Berlin he had positioned himself high up in the mast with a bottle of gin and fell down. He did not sail back with the fleet to the Netherlands. In an tv-interview he declares the east-west-conflict for solved. “There will be peace and in a few years Berlin will be the new capital of Europe’, he said prophetically when they left Amsterdam few weeks before. Not bad, two years before the fall of the wall.

Krijn Thijs, Germany Institute of Amsterdam (University of Amsterdam)