Incredible Journey [50]

Part 1 of Oskar Speck’s Epic Journey From Germany to Australia

By Oskar Speck (As told to Duncan Thompson)
Reprinted With Kind Permission of Australasian Post Magazine

You might think that it has taken the Melbourne Olympic Games to introduce the kayak to Australia.

You would be (understandably) wrong. Mr Oskar Spec, citizen of Hamburg, Germany, introduced the kayak to us in 1939. He paddled it here — alone!

For seven years he paddled it, from Ulm on the Danube, to Australia, skirting the wrath of great seas and oceans, slipping from island to island, in a craft never designed for the sea.

That you did not hear of his arrival was either his fault nor yours.

For Speck chose a wrong period in world history for his amazing voyage — 30,000 miles in a frail frame-and-canvas canoe. For the kayak, the longest way round hugging the coastlines of the world is the only way home.

Germany was at peace (and in poverty) when Speck left Ulm in 1932.

Seven years later, in September 1939, he coaxed his kayak through the surf and on to the beach at Saibai, an island 60 or 70 miles north from Thursday Island. Officially, Saibai is Australia proper. At his bow, often smothered in the flying surf, fluttered the tiny Swastika which he had brought from Germany with him.

Three Australian police were waiting for him to berth his kayak. If this was the German invasion, these cops could handle it. “Well done, feller!” they said, shaking his hand warmly. “You’ve made it — Germany to Australia in that. But now we’ve got a piece of bad news for you. You are an enemy alien. We are going to intern you.”

They did just that.

Speck went behind barbed wire at Tatura, Victoria. Security seized his Leica and films — he has got most of his films back since. Censorship clamped down on the story of his voyage.

So that is why you have never heard of Oskar Speck.

In this issue, POST has the distinction of commencing the story of the man’s seven-year saga.

Here it Begins…

Originally, it wasn’t my intention to write the story of my voyage. I only wanted to tell Australians about Faltboots (folding boats), which are the modern version of the ancient Eskimo kayak. But would Australians recognise my authority to speak about it?

In Germany, I was a recognised kayakist before 1932. As my voyage progressed and reports of it went home from Cyprus, from Greece, from India, I became acknowledged as the most experienced sea-going kayak expert in the world.

My old paddle was a trophy to the winner of the Marathon Canoe Race, Carl Toovey, who rowed 100 miles on the Hawkesbury River, NSW, in 18 hours, 32 minutes.

Sailing men in Australia know me — I have been elected an honorary member of the NSW Canoe Club, and the kayak in which I arrived here has been presented to a member of the River Canoe Club.

But the mass of Australians did not know me at all — except, perhaps, as a name appearing from time to time in local newspapers which briefly recorded the progress of the earlier parts of my voyage.

Only a fuller account of the voyage will introduce me. I hope that it will convince you that I am a skilled kayakist — if I weren’t, there were many perilous occasions on the voyage when I should have perished. But I am lucky, also.

Only with luck was I allowed to survive to acquire the skill which brought me through hostile seas in the later parts of the voyage.

The original, primitively shaped kayak was used by the Eskimos for many centuries. More modern, streamlined kayaks, made of solid timber, have featured in the sport and recreation of Europe for many years. But these were no use to city dwellers. They could not cart a great boat home with them and park it in their town flats. And in Europe to hire a small boatshed or even to store a boat is too expensive for the ordinary man.

What was needed was a oat that would not only be safe for shooting rapids, and light for porterage, but which would collapse into a small bundle, easily carried by train or bus to the scene of the weekend’s sport.

The inventor of the faltboot kayak fulfilled all these requirements. It consists of a framework of very light, pliable timber stays, over which the fabric of laminated rubber and canvas fits like a skin.

So ingenious is its design that, once put together, it becomes as rigid as its all-timber prototype. Taken apart and packed, it can be stored in any odd corner in house or flat. There are single and two-seaters, weighing 40 and 65 pounds, respectively.

Continental railways cut freights for faltboots, to bring this recreation within the means of the masses. During summer, faltboots in the tens of thousands swarm over the rivers and lakes of Europe.

Dimensions? My double-seater kayak (I took the second seat out) weighed 65 pounds, was 18 feet long with a 33 inch beam and a freeboard of 9 3/4 inches. It carried a load of 650 pounds. With a good wind and a quiet sea it can do up to 6 1/2 knots. Loaded, and propelled by a lone paddler, it can do three knots.

Currents, of course, affect these speeds. Its sail measures 16 square feet, but a strong wind makes sailing risky. The rudder is worked by the feet, wire lines linking rudder to the foot control.

For my voyage I carried a spare paddle, a prismatic compass, sea charts, and ‘coastal pilots’ which show every landmark, every depth, every tiny inlet and cliff. I had two large waterproof brass containers for my films, cameras, and clothing. Fresh water went into small tanks shaped to the sides of the kayak — they held five gallons.

Fresh water, did I say? In many tropical places on my route the ‘fresh’ water was lurid green. So I also carried young coconuts, dependable for a germ-free drink; and condensed milk.

I have given the specifications of the faltboot. But my kayak proved to have qualities which even the maker never claimed for it. It won me friendships right across the world.

It was a first-class ticket to everywhere. A little restricted while one was actually travelling, more than a little perilous, but it brought me privileges which your passenger in an ocean liner’s de luxe suite can never know.

I will always remember meeting the Governor of British Baluchistan, Sir Norman Carter. A shooting party had bee arranged for him by the two local maharajahs, and a magnificent camp, complete even to triumphal gateways, had been erected near the beach.

It was just chance that I had landed on that beach a little earlier.

Sir Norman and his aides came walking down towards the beach. There to greet him, with colourful retinues and in all their regal splendor, were the Maharajahs of Kalat and of Las Bella. In turn, their names were announced to the Governor. He half-turned to his right, and bowed stiffly to the Maharajah of Kalat; then to the left, bowing just as stiffly to His Highness the Maharajah of Las Bella.

Then he saw me, dressed in informal shirt and pants taken from my watertight tank. Sir Norman hurried forward and shook my hand warmly. “Let me congratulate you, Mr Speck,” he said. “A splendid performance.”

He insisted on taking me to his marquee, and with his own hands served me with a drink which he listened to my story. Two jealous maharajahs waited outside for the shoot to begin.

Such welcomes are not guaranteed by the Pionier Faltboot Company, makers of my kayak, but they could be depended upon none the less. But let me get started on my journey…

In Hamburg I had been an electrical contractor, employing 21 hands. Then came the depression.

In 1932 my factory had no work, and I had to liquidate.

There seemed no hope for me in Germany. But I heard there might be work that I could do in the copper mines in Cyprus. I did not dream of going on the Australia then.

I had a little money – enough to equip my boat.

So, one morning I took my folded kayak and the supplies to Ulm by train. There, beside the Danube, I put the ash frame together, and pulled the rubber-and-canvas skin over it.

I loaded up, and, without any fuss or farewell from anyone, I set off to paddle down the river in the direction of the Mediterranean Sea.

By All Sane Standards, I Was Mad.

Faltboots are not built for the sea. If you must compare them with a land vehicle, there are most nearly related to the bicycle. On a bicycle you must keep pedalling and steering or you fall over. In a faltboot you may sail while the weather is kind, but you must be constantly active, constantly steering to bring the boat’s bow to the right position to meet every single wave.

Take just one wave wrong and your boat will spin sideways, you will turn over and be swamped. Your first capsize on the open ocean will be your last.

When the wind becomes strong you must take in your tiny sail and paddle. Sometimes I have had to paddle for 16 hours on end without a moment’s cessation.

Life becomes a dreary, endless monotony of paddling, arms and shoulders aching, and your whole body longing inexpressibly for one thing — sleep.

But you must not even doze for one moment. You must be constantly using the rudder, meeting each wave just right.

In larger boats, sailors pray when they get into difficulties. In bad weather in a kayak one also prays, but with both hands cramped around the paddle, both feet tense on the rudder bar. There are no long prayers, either — just one cry for survival, and how often this is repeated only God knows.

Praying for survival and working up an emotional fury against the elements — that is how one fights a storm. I had luck with the weather in the first part of my voyage, and only that luck enabled me to live to gain the skill and experience that brought me through the rest of it.

On my voyage I had 10 capsizes, but they always happened riding in through the surf, never at sea.

The kayakist learns that he has little to fear from oncoming waves taken at a right angle. But following waves must never come under the boat at a right angle. If one does, the tiny rudder will lift clear out of the water, control of the boat is lost, and it swings sideways and turns over. It is curtains.

Continue with part 2