Endangered Species: German Traditional Ships

“Not happy” is very likely the current state of many owners of traditional ships in Germany.  About a third of all traditional ships have stopped operating in the last couple of years. The overall situation could indeed be a lot better. What happened? And what is the way forward?

Ernestine (as seen on traditionsschiffe.info)
Ernestine (as seen on traditionsschiffe.info)

Getting the operating license for a traditional ship had been difficult before. And owners as well skippers struggled more and more since 2001. An increasingly demanding checklist needed to be adhered to to get the desired license. Also, a confirmation that the ship in question was indeed a “traditional ship” needed to be obtained. And that has proven to carry lots of potential for disagreement and misunderstanding between all parties involved.

Conflicting demands

Strange and conflicting demands, from my perspective. On one hand, there is a need to update any kind of ship to certain security standards. This is more than ok and also supported by the owners. On the other hand, the requirement that a traditional ship runs just the same as back in the old days. The latter includes for example the constraint to not rebuild an ex-motor vessel to a traditionally looking sailing vessel. Its function has to be the same as with the original build. This all seems a bit far-fetched to me.

Will soon all German traditional ships stop operating?

A rough estimate is that 10% of all traditional ships in Germany stop operating each year. Approximately 100 are left. And as numbers decrease, you can imagine that frustration goes the opposite way.

Santa Barbara Anna (as seen on traditionsschiffe.info)
Santa Barbara Anna (as seen on traditionsschiffe.info)

Improvement is on the way, supposedly. Even further and tighter controls on security and other upgrades won’t be put into action after all (as of today). Still, the already existing requirements are tough to meet. Especially all those voluntary crews out there working in their spare time on maintaining their ships will have a hard time. Quite a few open topics still need to be talked about, and this should happen ideally this year. If no progress is made this year, then it is election time again. Traditional ships are not really high up on the agenda of any election campaign, so this whole topic could go on for years. Including the annual 10% decrease in fleet numbers.

Traditional ships in book “Feuer am Wind”

In 2014, some owners of still existing traditional ships got together. They delivered interesting, fascinating content for a book dedicated to their cause. It is called “Feuer am Wind” (“fire while reaching”, my very rough translation for it), and now its second edition is about to be published. You can order it directly from their website. Also on that site you can see lots of those ships, including description and pictures.

The quote the book refers to is very likely from Thomas More / Thomas Morus. Also here, the translation between English and German is possibly not really ideal. It is, however, the basis for the title of the book and does for those traditional ships certainly make more than sense:

“Tradition is not to preserve the ashes but to pass on the flame.”

Traditional ships under German flag. Will this story continue? Hopefully.

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