Chance encounter puts American on German ship


April 16, 1993|By Karen Zeiler | Karen Zeiler,Contributing Writer

When Jade Vogel visited the three-masted topsail schooner Thor Heyerdahl last Thursday in Charleston, S.C., she didn't think she'd be in Baltimore today.

During the visit, Ms. Vogel told a crew member of her interest in sailing and her membership in the American Sail Training Association. The crew member told the captain, who suggested that Ms. Vogel sail with the ship north to Baltimore.

Ms. Vogel called her husband -- who was out of town on business but who also loves sailing -- got his agreement, packed a bag, found someone to take care of her cats and was off.

"It was very spontaneous," said the 23-year-old College of Charleston student, describing how she got to join the crew of the Thor Heyerdahl, the German training ship now docked at the Inner Harbor.

Ms. Vogel, with permission from the American Sail Training Association, is the ship's first "exchange" trainee. Capt. Detlef Soitzek, plans to arrange for participation by other Americans in the future.

Until Ms. Vogel joined the crew, only members of the Thor Heyerdahl Sailing Club, based in Kiel, Germany, were eligible for Captain Soitzek's sail training program.

The ship sailed from its home port of Kiel six months ago and has visited the Grenadines, Venezuela, Jamaica, Guam, the Cayman Islands, Mexico and the Bahamas. In the United States, it has called at Miami, Charleston, Baltimore and other ports. The ship starts its trans-Atlantic voyage home tomorrow, and Ms. Vogel goes home to Charleston.

Funded by a nonprofit organization, the sail training program for people 15 to 25 is a personal project of Captain Soitzek, who was inspired by an expedition he took in 1977 with Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, for whom the ship is named.

On that 1977 voyage, a crew of 11 from nine different countries sailed across the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean in a reed boat to demonstrate that the Sumerians, the earliest known settlers of what is now Iraq, might have navigated those waters and made '' contact with other ancient civilizations.

Captain Soitzek found the means to bring that experience to others when he bought an old cargo ship, the Minnow, for 5,700 German marks -- about $3,550 -- in 1979 at an auction in Hamburg.

With a group of volunteers, he rebuilt the Minnow. The only original part of the Minnow remaining is the hull, which was built in 1930. In 1983, the Thor Heyerdahl sailed on its first voyage.

Captain Soitzek's training program aims to build discipline and endurance in the crewmembers as they confront natural challenges and to get the crew to work as a team and accept responsibility under the most trying circumstances.

After about a week of training at sea, crew members are assigned to watch groups that include one staff member and are sent out to an island in a dinghy on a two-day expedition that tests their sailing knowledge and survival skills. The schooner returns for them on the second day.

Among the staff of the Thor Heyerdahl are trained navigators like Dirk Stenmanns, who rerigged the ship and has been with the program since its inception. A native of Dusseldorf, Germany, he is pursuing a medical degree and often acts as the ship's doctor. He holds a captain's license, as does Klaus Schmitz, who, when not at sea, is a fireboat captain on the Rhine.

Crew member Wilma Heitbrink said trainees are not taught so much as assisted. The minute they come aboard, they are active members of the crew. And the work is hard.

Just ask Ms. Vogel. Her first night was spent battling a fierce rainstorm off the East Coast. She also had to deal with the language barrier. With only two years of high school German, she could not keep up with Captain Soitzek's orders.

Aboard ship, there are daily chores -- navigating, repairing the masts, painting, kitchen duty.

"It is a lot of work, but the people make it fun. There's a lot of joking around, but you're serious when you have to be," said Ms. Vogel.

When the captain pushes the crew too hard, Ms. Heitbrink steps in. She also acts as an intermediary when disagreements arise and as a counselor for those trying to adjust to life on a ship.

"It's like a family with all the problems a family has," she said. She sees Captain Soitzek as the father, but when he can't act in that role, "I have to be the mother."

A teacher of mathematics and German at a primary school in Kiel, Ms. Heitbrink said she was changed by her sailing experience. She describes it as "a way of life people can take ashore." It teaches them responsibility for others and for themselves, and it makes them confront their fears, she said.

If Ms. Vogel had any fears, she apparently confronted them and won. After only a week at sea, she is ready for more. "If I didn't have exams in two weeks, I'd cross the Atlantic with them," Ms. Vogel said. "When they come back, I'll be ready," she said of the schooner's expected return next year.

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