Helgoland – a Red Rock in a Windy Place

Helgoland – a Red Rock in a Windy Place

It was the weather gods of the North Sea that this time conveniently chose the next destination for us. And we obeyed: this late September Saturday seemed like the perfect day to sail to Helgoland instead of beating further southwest. For most sailors popping out of the Kiel canal the island of Helgoland is a natural stop along the way, being a tax free zone with cheap diesel and alcohol. We still had plenty of diesel and were not particularly thirsty either, so we had not planned to stop.

I had briefly visited Helgoland before, on another sailing journey long ago, but had hardly any recollection of the island beyond the colourful rows of houses and the tax free shops. This time the weather gods gave us several days to get a real feel for the place, and we had a blast!

The island of Helgoland has a varied and unusual history. It once belonged to Denmark, but the British invaded it and made it their colony in the early 19th century. It became a fashionable place for sea bathing among the upper class. At the end of the century, however, the British traded Helgoland for Zanzibar, which was ruled by Germany at the time.

Then darker times followed, just like they did in the rest of the world. During the First World War civilian population was evacuated and the island fortified. The first naval battle of the war was fought in Helgoland waters. After the war, people were allowed to return, but when the next war broke out they had to leave again. During WW II Helgoland was used as a base for German submarines, coastal artillery and the air force.

After the war was over, the British Navy used the uninhabited island as a practice target. One of the biggest non-nuclear detonations was carried out here in 1947, when the navy planted a total of 6700 tons of explosives in the island’s tunnels and fortifications. Luckily the “Big Bang” wasn’t enough to destroy this magnificent red rock in the middle of the North Sea, but it did create a new “Mittelland” between the low “Unterland” and high “Oberland”. No buildings survive from the old times, but since the 1950’s the town and harbours have been built anew.

Click the thumbnails to see bigger pictures.

Today it’s a very distinctive holiday paradise. Despite the lack of historical layers that make many places interesting, the scale and atmosphere of the little town is very cosy and pleasant. Little shops are full of the most exotic cognacs, whiskeys, liquors and cigars, and even this late in the autumn the cafes, restaurants and indeed, the beaches are still bustling with people.

The wind started to blow quite briskly the very next day after our arrival. It veered to the north and became a near gale. It was wonderful to watch the white capped waves marching in from the open sea towards the northern shore, where the famous lonely stack of rock called “Lange Anna” stands beaten by the elements.

Great bird colonies, particularly a large number of gannets, live out here on the cliffs and ledges. It was fantastic to watch the gannets flying in the strong winds – gliding effortlessly, and making fast plunges into the sea. I watched one gannet in particular for a long time, flying very close to me, paying no attention to me standing only a few feet away. Or perhaps he wanted to give me a private flying show! I also observed a flock of seagulls playing in the waves, taking off on their wings just before a breaking wave. Such skill!

Finally the heavy winds subsided and it was a good time to continue our trip. At least that’s how it felt then – the North Sea obviously reserves the right to say the last word! On the 4th of October we headed out from the shelter of the Helgoland harbour, and turned our bow southwest. Except that we couldn’t really do that, as the wind was blowing from the southwest! The waves came from southwest, and our newest acquaintance, the current, seemed to continually flow from the southwest too! It would be a long day, and an even longer night… But more about that next time!

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