Sabotaging Deutschland

The Frankfurter Rudergesellschaft Germania was founded in 1869, making it one of the oldest rowing clubs in Germany. With about 600 members, it is also one of the largest and most successful.

6 March 2019

By Michael Hall

Michael Hall was born in Cape Town in 1942. He was educated at schools in Swaziland, South Africa, Kenya and Canterbury and at Cambridge University. Hall entered the British Foreign Office in 1973 and later the Diplomatic Service in 1984. He served in Rhodesia, the Netherlands, Germany and the UK Delegation to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. When Hall was British Consul in Frankfurt from 1991 to 1996, he wrote a collection of 50 stories and vignettes under the title Dear Deutschland. Here HTBS is happy to publish one of Hall’s stories, “Sabotaging Deutschland”.

Invariably when one arrives in a new post, one is approached by the local cricket club, which always has a name like the Rangoon Ramblers or the Strasbourg Strollers, and asked if one wants to join. I once made the mistake of saying that I was a rowing man and that I planned to join the local rowing club. This brush off was not very well received by the British secretary of the Dornbusch Grasshoppers.

Not long after I had joined the rowing club, whose name was the Frankfurter Rudergesellschaft Germania, I presented myself for rowing and was allocated to a crew which was going to use an old clinker-built VIII called the Deutschland. As I took my oar down to the landing stage, I noticed that it too carried the name Deutschland. I was assigned the number 2 seat, we launched Deutschland and, after adjusting our stretchers, we set off towards Griesheim which lay six kilometres downstream. I was the only non-German on board.

Not all the boats belonging to Germania are museum pieces. Some are new, plastic, and are in a famous shade of yellow. Picture:

We had not been rowing for more than ten minutes when suddenly there was a sharp cracking sound. As I had driven off the stretcher at the beginning of the stroke, I had broken the oar or, looking at it another way, the oar had snapped while I had been using it. The rest of the crew had to stop rowing.

In an effort to make light of what I had done, I said in German. “Now here you see the strength of an Englishman! He can break an oar in two!” I was in fact acutely embarrassed. This was the rowing equivalent of breaking a piece of your host’s china at a dinner party. Not only had I broken an oar but the only foreigner on board, I had broken an oar labelled Deutschland, and worse still, I had brought the entire Deutschland to a halt. And what would the Foreign Office say? They might say that, in the first place, as a British Consul, I should not have been sitting in a boat with the name of a foreign country.

My piece of bravado drew ripostes from the rest of the crew. Number 3 said it had nothing to do with my strength; all the oars were old and mine had just been the first to give way. Number 5 said the oars had almost certainly been made in England. Number 6 said they would carry on to Griesheim; I could swim back to the boathouse. Number 4 muttered something about “Britische Sabotage”.

Satisfied that they had saturated me with their return fire, the rest of the crew turned Deutschland round and slowly rowed her back to the boathouse with me sitting somewhat humiliated as a passenger and holding the fractured oar.

One of the most distinguished members of Frankfurter Rudergesellschaft Germania was Achilles Wild, Sculling Champion of Germany, 1882 and 1884 – 1888. His splendid portrait still hangs in the club. Perhaps he too rowed in the “Deutschland”? Picture:

Back at the boathouse I picked out a replacement oar which, thankfully, had no name like Berlin or Siegfried written on it, and we were able to Deutschland down to Griesheim and back without mishap, and apparently, without any recrimination. I assumed all had been forgiven. 

However, when the following Saturday I reported for rowing, I found myself allocated to a boat called Bonzo which was even older and heavier than Deutschland and with an extraordinary assortment of fellow oarsmen. Perhaps this was all pure chance but, as I helped to lug Bonzo the twelve kilometres to Griesheim and back, I could not dispel the thought that Bonzo was the sort of joke boat in which you might put sundry beginners, weight watchers and foreign saboteurs.

Now none of this would have happened if I had signed up with the Dornbusch Grasshoppers.

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