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  • Writer's pictureSarah Gibbs Underhill


Updated: Apr 3

Hitchhiking Through Europe with a Half Ton Lifeboat

Introduction (from a letter home):

When I last scribbled you that card, we had found ourselves quite unexpectedly in France. Last week I accosted a sturdy steel Dutch fishing boat which had stopped for a brief rest at the Gibraltar Marina on its way to Sete. When the crew, a bunch of would-be red coral divers, said we and our sixteen foot lifeboat could go along with them, we had about twenty minutes to make the decision as to whether to jump onto this vessel or stay on "The Rock." So actually it was an easy decision to make.

October 16, 1982

Sitting on the east bank of the Rhone with one wet foot. Gray skies, no traffic; muddy brown water racing south. We are going north. “La Manzanita” is tied up to a tree, and we are in the process of settling in to a little hunting cabin for the night, on this tiny island just above Arles. Last night it rained, but not until we were safely tucked into the tent with a big meal in our bellies: stewed vegetables and boudin. This morning we rowed valiantly if with a bad grace against the current of the Petit Rhone, stopping often, once to glean grapes out of a field. Then a yacht/barge came by, the only northbound vessel we’ve seen on the Petit Rhone, and we boldly accosted them and threw them a tow line. They were English, bound for Avignon for the night. So for an hour or two we sat back and watched the river go by. Then we met up with Le Grand Rhone. Plenty of current, the river is high. Our hosts decided to turn back to Arles rather than buck the current, so we were cast off and rowed furiously for shore. Two commercial barges have gone by since, north bound, and we are contemplating ways of hooking up with them. This is a big, fast river.

Oct. 20.

We are drifting and “sailing” south on the Rhone today, towards Port St. Louis and Fos. We spent two nights in the hunting cabin, very glad for its protection as it rained and rained. Spent one day sitting in Manza in our foul weather gear waiting for a barge or any traffic to go by so we could dart out and ask for a tow as we were swept by them by the current. The river was high; no northbound traffic of any kind. That night we built a fire in the stove inside the cabin, fried pancakes and ham, and were gratefully cozy and dry.

Yesterday we were out of food, and the river was higher than ever, so we drifted downstream to Arles. A huge light push barge was just passing us as we were about to tie up to the quay, so we rowed like lunatics out to the middle of the river and offered them a tow line, which was ignored. We returned to the quay, where a couple of yachts including the small barge that had towed us, were tied up. Had coffee on the barge, the “Berendina” and even drove up to Tarascon to see the lock there and the state of the river, which was/is more or less in spate. We came back to Arles, went shopping , walked up and down the river timidly examining the array of commercial barges there. When we got back to Manza and were stowing food, we saw a slender wooden boat rowing downstream towards the quay.

It rafted up to us and we got to talking. It is a Norwegian rowing and sailing traditional fishing boat, just Manza’s size, beautiful. On board, one Norwegian and one Norwegian/Californian. They have come in it from Norway this summer and are meeting a container ship in Fos near Marseille in one week’s time. It will take them and their boat to Goteborg. When we heard this, we pricked up our ears. We’re tagging along with them to see what we can see.

Oct. 22

Sitting in a café in Port St. Louis. Outside is a howling blustery Llevant east wind, which ousted us from our tents rather early this morning. Yesterday we had a brief drift down the tail end of the Rhone; one small lock; and then an afternoon’s worth of tacking down a trafficky short canal to the Gulf de Fos. This included almost being run down by a square, boxlike tugboat, and having our stern plunked into a cement embankment by another boat’s wake. Camped on the sand salt flats. This whole bay is crawling with commercial traffic; when the weather improves we will begin campaigning to hitch a ride with them. It’s not too cold here. Café full of French people; tea; a newspaper.

Hoping that the Norwegian freighter might give "Manzanita" a lift to Scandinavia as well. The long arm of coincidence proceeds to perform its wonders by pushing the "Kvalen" and Geir and Petter in our direction. They are good company. Petter is darkly tanned, and speaks excellent French as well as Norwegian and English. Geir is blue eyed with white blond hair flying in the wind, a classic Viking whose father is a skipper for a big shipping company. The two of them built their boat together.

Oct. 23

It is raining like crazy. Yesterday we succeeded in taking showers and buying food. Drank wine on a motor boat with some people from British Columbia who had just come down the canals. We then cooked dinner in a rather hilarious state, and slept in a little concrete winch house at the sailing club, wind and waterproof, for which we were grateful.

This morning dawned gray and it has been raining fairy steadily. Northerly mistral wind predicted to arrive tomorrow. The "Kvalen", the Norwegian Oselvar boat, is hauled out and its gear stowed in the winch house. We have not yet had the heart to go approach the container ships. The winch house is rather gloomy, and fuel for the Norwegian’s stove is low so we two have skulked off to the only nearby café to drink chocolate by the radiator. Winter is not far off. "L’Hiver c’est peu loin".

Oct. 29. Linden, Germany.

On the afternoon of the 23rd we were rescued from living in the swamped winch house by the Norwegian and a French guy named Bernard who keeps his boat at the little marina there. He and his wife, kid and friends were around the club on Sunday- it was a howling Mistral still- and fed us a delicious lunch and let us all sleep in their clubhouse, with electricity, running water, and a dry floor.

Next day David and I actually ventured to row against the mistral over to the container port. We spoke for awhile with the cook on a small German container ship. He was from Ghana and Louisiana and lonely. Talked about women. We got no offers for a lift for Manza. One French ship was going to Turkey; one Danish one to the “Far East.” The German ship was on a bus run from Italy to Fos. The cook fed us tea and cake and gave us each a pair of dry socks.

Next day Petter and Geir, our room-mates, were busy painting Bernard’s boat. We did some work on Manza and found she had a mouse living on board. We talked about eradicating it but didn’t. That afternoon, the mistral having died down to a shadow of its former self, me and the two ‘wegians sailed over to Fos-sur-Mer and back, a very nice reach both ways. That night the squareheads went out on the town, succeeding in having a roadside brawl with some Arabs and waking us up with their arrival in the wee hours.

Next morning we were all up early and breaking camp, ready to head to the container port to woo the “Toyama”, a 279 meter Squarehead ship which was expected to arrive there at 6:00 am. Manza was first on the scene. We rowed over hurriedly so the racing Oselvar wouldn’t beat us to it and tied up to a huge fender on the quay at the “Toyama’’’s stern. She was a big orange behemoth covered in red lead paint. Soon our compadres showed up, under sail and with flags flying. They rafted up to us and went to present themselves to the ship. Petter came back and told us that the Styrman’s immediate verdict on taking Manza was “no possibility”. Our hopes were dashed; David wanted to leave immediately and head back for the Rhone. I was in tears; we decided to tack around for awhile and watch them hoist the boat on board, which they shortly did. It was a long way up! So we sailed sorrowfully back and forth, raging at the mouse and envisioning rowing through an ice storm against the mistral and current in the Rhone. Finally, seeing that I was not to be comforted on this disappointment, David says, “Well, why don’t you try asking the captain yourself”, so I toddle off climbing the looong steep gangway and blundering around until I find the Crew’s Mess, where the oriental staff seat me and invite me to eat. Geir and Petter come in ( this is after waving goodbye 50 or 60 times, etc.) and I’m sitting there tucking into ham salad. Then commenced an afternoon of slinking around the “Toyama”, talking to the bosun, helping stow the stuff from “Kvalen”, knocking timorously on the captain’s door several times, taking a shower in one of the cabins ( the living quarters of the ship resemble a Holiday Inn very closely); kibbutzing on Manza with the gang -all four of us having taken refuge there from the humming impersonality of the big ship- where the mouse has been gnawing on Petter’s sweater while he was wearing it; approaching the growling unapproachable Styrman [First Mate]. The captain sleeps until 3:30. Finally Geir and I track him down; meet him, in fact, as he’s coming up the gangplank. Final hope. Geir explains the sitchyation. First reaction: “No, there’s no room.” But there IS room for the boat; turns out it’s people there is no room for. Propose that they take the boat only. A few moments consultation with the mate, then a “Yes. We’ll take your boat to Sweden.”

Set off at full gallop to inform Petter and David; within minutes a sling is rigged and David rows her around to the ship’ s side. She was lifted up, mouse and all, nearly ripping the stern davit hook out in the process, but, safe and sound, still filthy and full of a tangle of lines and clutter of possessions, not to mention a gnawing rodent, but covered up and lashed up on deck. We eat salmon in the mess, give the captain an inventory and our respectful thanks. P & G lend us their backpacks and we hastily prepare to set off hitchhiking towards Goteburg, leaving the ship about half an hour before it’s due to pull out.

French dock workers pick us up immediately and put us out on the highway; a ride from a duty free liquor agent and a Vietnamese doctor get us away from mosquito territory and we set up the tent and sleep soundly.

Next day we try hitching a French highway with dismal results. A policeman tells us to not be there; finally as a traffic jam slows the cars some guy gives us a ride to near an airport. We end up taking a bus to Marseille and a train from there to Strassbourg. Got in at midnight and headed off across the tracks and freight yard to set up camp over the fence on some military property. Slept well. Up in the morning to climb over the entrance gate in order to leave, to the amazement of occupants. Eat pastries, drink coffee, manage to catch a bus over the border to Germany. Gray day.

Here our hitching luck was better. We got rides with a Turkish truck driver, a student, a baker who fed us pepper bread. We are just north of Frankfurt. Just ate a delicious schnitzel mit something and are going to set up the tent somewhere near by. We have to be in Goteburg by next Thursday noon. Moon getting full.

Nov. 1st. Arhus, Denmark.

Still on the road, at the moment sitting in a train station getting geared up for another day of hitchhiking. Weather still gray and misty. Our luck continues to be quite good. We spent one night in the home of a German family, receiving a long ride – from Karlsruhe to the Danish border- over two days from a teacher who picked us up on the Autobahn in his Mercedes-Benz. Yesterday our best ride was with a Danish woman just back from a wild fling in Cornwall, who brought us here; we may actually visit her tonight or tomorrow to bum a shower. So far our timing remains relaxed. We hope to be taking a three hour ferry from Frederikshavn straight to Goteburg. Frederickshavn is less than 100 miles away and it’s only Monday. We slept last night in the tent in someone’s abandoned backyard. Urban survival. David is off changing a few more pounds for kroner and we’ll try to wander out of the city and onto the high road again.

Nov. 4 (?) Skandiahamnen, Goteborg.

We are sitting in the port worker’s cafeteria, killing a few hours before the “Big T” is due to arrive. We have just spent two days resting, bathing, listening to music and eating fish, in the home of Benedikte, the woman who picked us up on the road on Sunday. She lives in Hirtshals, a fishing town on the north west coast. We hitchhiked from Arhus to Frederikshavn and took a train to her town. She, her brother , her 1 ½ year old nephew, and her two kids, were our hosts and we reveled in all the home comforts. She and I also went out drinking one night and talked and talked about our lives. New friends.

Last night we took the ferry from Fredrikshavn, arrived in Goteborg about 10:00 pm exhausted, and with as usual almost none of the local currency. We were close to despair and would have gone to a hotel, or slept in the ferry terminal. But in the end David found a spot on the roof of a building. We climbed up some scaffolding to get up there and actually set up the tent on the roof. So we managed to get a good night’s sleep and stay warm. Up this morning to take a tram and two buses to the container port, we wandered around, found where the “Toyama" will dock, and considered bumming some coffee from a Russian ship. Two minutes later the Swedish customs pulled up in their car and questioned us, among other things asking if we had had any contact with “that Russian ship over there.”

Nov. 11. Bergen, Norway.

The story so far: After trudging around the container port, relaxing in the cafeteria to the bemusement of employees, etc., we mosied down to the pier where some oil barrels marked “Toyama” were sitting. At noon exactly, the huge orange hulk appeared, escorted by tugs. They pirhoetted ponderously around the channel for awhile and then came to rest. In quick succession we spoke to Petter, came on board, ate lunch, and then frantically unlashed Manza as the bosun and crane driver waited impatiently. Manza was launched with no mishaps and she and “Kvalen” tied up along the huge cement quay. Petter and Geir were in good shape and full of schemes to get Kvalen and possibly Manze on another, smaller freighter bound for Bergen, this again all arranged through Geir’s family. Petter was catching a ride in some cars headed for Bergen so he soon left. The three of us hung around in the boats, getting chilled and waiting for the freighter “Rogaland”, which was late. It showed up around 6:00 pm ( it’s pitch dark around here by 4:00) and put one bowline on but didn’t even shut the engines down: in a hurry. Geir had been rowing around in Kvalen and was on board almost instantly. I went to cast Manza off, just in case, and David handled “Rogaland”’s bowline and spoke to the skipper. He came running back to me, saying, “We’re on!” and in fact we soon were, including almost getting sucked into the freighter’s propwash. We both rode in the boat as it was hoisted up, a hair raising few seconds as we both stared at the stern davit hook which was unsupported. We didn’t even stay to lash or cover the boats but clambered down a ladder clutching our hitchhiking gear and were out in the cold parking lot again. The two little boats, perched on the big one, disappeared into the night.

Not for long; we ate dinner on the “Big T” and then sat in a garage where all the truckers who come to pick up containers had to check in. There were three Norwegian trucks expected, bound through to Oslo, and Geir hoped we could ride with them. They duly arrived and agreed to take us, one in each truck. My truck, loaded down with 21 tons of Spanish kitty litter (“Sond for Kats pissen”, as the driver explained) was driven by a huge, rather rowdy Norwegain who spoke little English. We all stopped to rendezvous at a truck stop along the way. The truckers seemed bored out of their minds with this run which they made several times each week, if not every day. They all kept talking to each other on the radio. By this time it’s the middle of the night, and very cold. We saw big foxes by the side of the road, a narrow two lane road through woods and field. I could barely keep awske and in the end didn’t. We reach our destination: a parking lot full of trucks on the outskirts of Oslo. Ice in the puddles, thick frost on everything, 3:00 am. The trucker has had enough of my company and wants to sleep, so I take my sleeping bag and explore the surrounds for a likely tent site, wondering why David and Geir don’t show up. I walk round and round to keep warm. Finally climb into a big wagon-style trailer and am just about to spread my sleeping bag out on the frosty boards when a truck pulls up. I duck down and hide warily, gradually peeking over the side and see that it’s Geir and a trucker, examining a shack nearby which I had completely overlooked in my exploration. I pop out of the wagon like a jack-in-the-box, much to the astonishment of Geir and the trucker, whom I don’t recognize. We go into the shack, which has plywood bunks and cubbyholes. I immediately get into my sleeping bag. Geir and companion scrounge for cardboard for mattresses and start a pungent fire in an old paint can. Presently David arrives, asking “Have you seen Sarah?” and gradually I come to understand what has happened: of the three trucks, two were too heavy. The third, mine, first in the convoy, relays to the others whether or not there is a weight check at the Swedish/Norwegian border. That night, there was, so Geir and David’s truckers refused to go any further that night, leaving the two at the boarder, hitchhiking at 2:00 am. Eventually they got rides and completed the night’s odyssey.

Next morning, after perhaps three hours of sleep in the shack, we are up and stumbling bleary eyed into the trucker’s cafeteria. Frigid subzero (C) morning. We solicit rides from truckers for awhile, to no avail. End up lugging our gear to the nearest subway station, wandering around downtown, finding the train station, and taking a short train just to get out of town. Geir leaves us in Drummen, opting to hitchhike the coastal route to Stavanger while we head directly over the mountains. We take a train to the burg of Hokksund, exhausted and spiritless. Start to hitchhike. No luck. An elderly man stops, offers a short ride. We refuse. A few minutes later he returns and takes us to a Christian health resort founded by his son, where we are given a clean room and fed. Sleep all afternoon, eat vegetarian dinner, sleep all night. In the morning we plan to go bourgeois and take the train, but find we have missed the cheap one and can’t afford it. On the thumb again on a cold and frosty morning. An Englishman takes us to Notodden, where we drink coffee and then stand for hours holding a sign that says “Odda” with the US flag under it, a suggestion of the old Englishman. We are advised by a passerby that Odda is “too far”; we should put the name of a closer town. Finally a guy comes up to us asking, “Are you the Amerikanskers trying to get to Odda?” We are, and he takes us to Bo, where we will be able to catch a bus the next day. He takes us to his lovely warm wooden home where live his beautiful pregnant wife and the wife’s Mary-esque eight year old girl. Their neighbors are running a small farm with horses doing the plowing. There are ducks, geese, chickens, cow and calf, sheep, cats, dogs, a wood fire, fresh milk, pregnant women. We sleep that night on the mattress from their bed and Liv, the wife, has a bad dream about the end of the world in a nuclear attack brought on by Pres. Reagan.

Next day: the bus. All day through beautiful icy mountains, past black icy lakes. Another bus to a ferry. Dark already, bus tickets expensive, tired. On the ferry David finds unsuspecting people going to Bergen who give us a ride and find us the street. Petter is there; it is his grandmother’s and great aunt’s house; they welcome us and feed us. Bergen: a town that David’s great-grandfather abandoned some 80 years ago. It rains here almost constantly. Next day we go to a maritime museum, Geir arrives from his parent’s home, with a favorable report on his hitch hiking. The old ladies feed us a big lunch on fancy china. They are old and frail, and amazingly tolerant of us sleeping on the floor, etc. We go out for a beer on the town. Monday night in Bergen is less than riproaring. Early to bed as the boats are due the next morning.

Next day up and out into the rain. “Rogaland” appears at 9:00 and the boats are offloaded promptly, in the pouring rain. We tie them up in an obscure corner of the port and go home for creamy fish chowder and to town for food, charts, etc. P & G are anxious to leave and start the 32 mile final slog home to Strandvik, although there are only two hours of daylight remaining and the weather terrible, blowing a storm from the southeast. They give us directions to a boat club near Bergen and disappear into the mists.

We do errands, and by this time it’s dark. We sail out of Bergen harbor in a state of increasing sogginess, and vaguely fetch up on a rocky point. David goes in to a lighted house on the shore to ask directions, and before you know it the large seafaring family who lives there is bending over backwards to help us: driving around in search of the sail club, feeding and drying us. We sing together while they play the guitar. Six kids; Dad’s chief engineer on a research vessel in the Indian Ocean. We sleep dry and warm. They all leave for work in the morning and we loll about until one. Outside is the shits: rain squalls, south wind, fog, choppy seas. Finally we venture out to bail the boat and row the one mile to the sail club. It’s a difficult mile, but we find the place, where by this time people have been warned that we are heading their way.

Here we sit. They ( Trevor- a large redbearded Scotsman- Georg and Cari) only use the place in the evenings. It’s a large complex of warehouses with a heated shop area, an unheated shop area full of small boats, large masts, a long clothesline now full of our clothes, and a pleasant well insulated little kitchen room where we may eat and sleep “until the wind changes”? This may mean weeks. So David is patching up Manza’s stern while I sort through our sodden possessions.

Nov. 16

Still in the Sandviken Batlaget, as this place is called. Yesterday “Manzanita” was lifted out of the water with a forklift and winched up to the 2nd floor. She is in a dry, enclosed, if somewhat public place. It is snowing outside, a beautiful sight. Our things are sorted and mostly dry. We used a fish net two days in a row and caught many crabs and fish and feasted on them for a few days. Soon I must hitchhike to Copenhagen in the ice and snow, to travel to the US to see my family . David can live on a boat here, or try his luck down in Strandvik. I have less than no money, and no prospects of getting any. But Manza has a roof over her head and was suitably admired by the people who helped us lift her up.

Dec. 1

Full moon. We are still in Sandviken, this suburb of Bergen. Bergen is the city from which David's Swedish great grandfather embarked for America as a fourteen year old. It's a very rainy city on the eastern shore of the Atlantic. We are living on board a cozy wooden yacht, “Svanen”. David has been working for Herr Hammer, godfather of the two Naust complex (Naust means Boathouse) which houses among other things: Manza, the boatbuilders, an artists’ colony, a rehearsal hall for rock’n roll bands, a machine shop, a Yamaha shop, a vinyl repair shop, miscellaneous storage, and a hotel for boarding people’s pet cats. Hammer feeds the cats codfish which he boils and chops up for them.

Days are short here. It rains a lot. I chop firewood, bring food and water to the boat. Nights are long, conducive to long dreams. Wakes rock our home and we no longer feel the motion. I am cooped up down in this boat, staring up through the skylight to the pale sky where I know the moon lurks behind the clouds.

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