Experiencing Copenhagen on a century-old boat
“Pull!” someone yelled. Sidsel grabbed the thick, heavy rope with two hands and pulled, leaning back with all of her body weight. I grasped the other end, and as soon as there was extra rope, I quickly picked up the slack, keeping it taut against the wooden fulcrum. After a few minutes of this, we were both panting. Two other people on the opposite side of the boat were doing the same thing. Slowly, much slower than I would have expected, the sail started to rise.
“Funny how no one mentioned anything to me about heavy lifting.” I laughed. “Yeah, me either,” grinned Sidsel, “This is hard!”
We were on board the Skibladner II, a gorgeous, wooden 18-meter sailboat originally build in Odensee in 1897, and now owned and maintained by the sailing club FDF Københavns Søkreds. My friend Rasmus is a member of the club, and he’d invited me and a few others to join in one of their Tuesday night sails.
It turned out to be a lovely sunny evening — not something to be taken for granted even during the summer in Denmark. Having learned this the hard way, I’d brought along a rain jacket, a warm hoodie, a leather coat, rain boots, gloves, and a hat. But at least for now, the sun was warm, the breeze calm. My friends and I kept turning to each other with huge grins on our faces. “Isn’t this weather amazing?” we marveled. “We’re so lucky.”
I’d accepted the invitation expecting to sit back and enjoy a nice, relaxing trip around the Copenhagen harbor — perfect after a busy day at work. In my typical American fashion, I was running late, so I raced over from work on my bike, hoping my friends had brought some extra food I could scrounge dinner from (they had, because I tend to hang out with people who place a high value on eating). After arriving just-barely-on-time, I joined the 16 other people on the boat. Most were guests; a few were members of the sailing club. We had some quick intros and gathered around for the safety demonstration, which was given in English for the benefit of the two people (including me) who don’t understand Danish. In case you’re wondering, yes, I do feel like a jerk in situations like this, which is part of the reason I’m taking Danish classes… but more on that another time.
The man who gave the safety demo, however, didn’t seem phased by giving it in English. He pointed out the life jackets and how to hold them in case we needed to abandon ship, how to put on a harness, and how to use the safety clips if any of us were going to climb out on the mast in front. I hoped this was optional. He then split us up into teams to “help” sail the boat, under the leadership of Rasmus, Torben, and Rasmus (Danish names are not known for their variety). To my great relief, I was assigned to Team Two, responsible for the middle of the boat, not Team One, which was in charge of the front of the boat and scary-mast-climbing.
Sidsel and I were in Torben’s group, along with a Danish girl who had sailed many times before on the ship, and Ali, a guy from the U.S. who had been living in Denmark for 25 years. Torben was a typically mild, slightly reserved Danish man. He told me he’d been part of the sailing club for years but it was his first time out this summer.
My first task was raising the sail with Sidsel. “When you’re pulling the rope,” Torben instructed me, “Keep your pinkie finger down, toward the boat. That way if you lose a finger, you’ll still be able to hold a beer with the other three.” I assumed he was joking but tried to keep my pinkie down just in case.
After a few minutes of pulling ropes (and being helped out at the end by a much stronger crewman), we coiled the end and wrapped it up neatly out of the way. Torben told us to relax and enjoy the trip for a while until he gave us our next task. We took the opportunity to snap photos of the Copenhagen waterfront as we glided by the Royal Danish Theatre, the Opera House, and the queen’s yacht on our way out to the open water. We passed around sandwiches and salad, then had another flurry of activitiy when we needed to move a sail from one side to the other in order to catch the wind.
This was the rythym of the entire trip: stretches of rest and looking out on the water, then a quick rush of instructions (mostly in Danish) and some confused running around and pulling ropes. I personally focused on staying out of the sailing club members’ way (partly successful) and avoiding getting socked in the head by a heavy wooden mast (100% successful!). We guests pitched in where we could, including pumping water out of the bottom of the boat.
During one stretch of calm, my American friend Katie and I talked with Ali about his experiences here. He’d moved here with his wife, who’s Danish, and told me that things were really hard for a long time. “It took me 11 years before I called Denmark home,” he said. A musician from L.A., he found it difficult to adjust to the relatively reserved Danes. He teaches music at an international school and had been invited to the sailing trip by a guy he worked with. “Before tonight, I thought he hated my guts,” he confided in me. “Typical Dane.” It wasn’t that the guy was rude or unkind; it was just that they’d never spoken, despite working at the school together for several years.
When we were out far enough, our captain cut the engine. A blissful silence followed, broken only by waves lapping against the boat and a few seagull cries. Katie and I sat in a comfortable silence, gazing out at the water. We breathed in deep. Yep, this was what I’d been hoping for — a break from real life; a little calm; a way to get a bit closer to the ocean that surrounds our everyday activity here in Copenhagen.
At some point the sailing crew brought out steaming mugs of coffee and tea and passed around cookies. Then the captain turned the boat around and we headed back to the harbor. There were a few more bits of activity, which included lowering and folding the gigantic, heavy sail, which we did against a backdrop of a shockingly vibrant magenta sunset.
Finally, we sailed back into the canals. My last task, along with a few others, was to hold one of the giant teardrop-shaped rubber balls with a rope attached to one end—technically it’s a fender, but the crew called it a “strawberry” due to its shape and red color. We stood near around the edges of the boat, ready to drop our fenders and protect the wooden hull if we came too close to the side of the canal. This would be particularly useful at the end, as backing an 18.5-meter boat into a parking spot is no easy task. I was extremely nervous that I would somehow muck up and be responsible for a giant scratch on the wood of a 118-year-old boat. Torben sensed this and kindly told me not to worry; he’d warn me if anything came close.
Again, we glided past the queen’s yacht, Copenhagen apartments, the shining opera, Nyhavn. Now that it was evening, the lights were on, giving the city its characteristic Copenhagen glow. There’s something about seeing the lights on inside of the sturdy brick buildings with their steep rooftops that is unique to this city. As I stood, looking out on the canal and clutching my fender, I couldn’t help but get a bit teary-eyed. This is where I live. I thought. I’m so lucky.