I Am not a Sissy

It is winter. I am still in Germany. I have been here for almost two weeks and in less than two days I am going to fly back home to my boat Seefalke. She is in tropical Cuba now waiting for me.

It is cold. Sabine just passed, a furious winter storm, but luckily it brought less damage than expected. I am waiting in line out on the apron of Frankfurt International Airport to board my flight to Prague to continue my speed dating run in the Czech Republic. The wind bites me in the face, I am shivering.

Is 4ºC Cold?

When the pilot makes his announcement I learn that the outside temperature is 4°C. 4°C, that is almost 40°F, I do the math in my head. That is not cold, really. At least not for mid February in Germany. Not for a latitude of 50° N that, on the American side, approximately corresponds to the one of Vancouver. Would the Canadians in British Columbia consider 4°C cold? I doubt it. 

Then I remember times when I would not consider 4°C cold, either. I remember winter 2005/2006. I was on my way driving from Dresden, Germany to Krasnoe, a tiny village in Tver Region in Northwest Russia, visiting my sister-in-law together with my son Tom. I remember how it was cold already when I left Germany, below freezing.

I took the ferry across the Baltic Sea from Rostock to Hanko in Finland, a twenty hour passage. I remember how we got stuck in ice on the approach to Hanko, an icebreaker had to clear the way to the harbor. I remember how I thought I freeze to death when I stood in line on the Finnish-Russian border. (You have to get out of the car and visit several kiosks to complete the extensive immigration formalities.) I remember it was -22°C (-8°F) when I finally got back in the car, cleared to enter the world’s biggest country, not quite known for its welcoming climate. At 61°N it was the time of the arctic dusk. Or dawn, if you prefer to consider the glass half-full.

Personal Cold Record

When I passed the very familiar to me Saint Petersburg, the northernmost +1,000,000 city of the world, where once upon a time I was student of the Technical University, the car outside thermometer showed -29°C(-20°F). And as we headed deeper into the white endlessness it dropped with every kilometer. It finally hit bottom when we crossed the state line from Pskov Region to Tver Region at -43°C(-45°F). -43°C! My personal cold record!! 

russian road in winter
Road in Pskov Region, Russia

Then I remember how all of a sudden I realized I hadn’t seen a car in hours. No cell signal, either. What if the car broke down? What if the motor died? Not too unlikely thinking about my aged Ford Focus and the poor state of Russian country roads. It would mean the end. As simple as that. The only good news would be, it would go fast. I got an idea of how fast exactly when my son Tom, three years old at the time, had to pee. 

So I did a careful planning of this operation, had everything ready to reduce the time out in this hostile environment to an absolute minimum. Eventually I stopped the car with the motor running of course, opened the driver’s door, ran around the trunk and pulled Tom’s door open, grabbed him quickly and put him on the ground beneath the car and quickly opened his skiing-overall. He did what he had to do, but a few drops made it on his pants. I returned to the car, grabbed some tissues to fix it but at the time, it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds, it was frozen to his pants. I could simply flip it off with my finger. This is how cold -43°C are.

After three days of travel we spent two weeks in my sister-in-law’s old wooden Russian farm house with outside toilets, sleeping on mattresses on top of the fireplace, crushing the ice in the bucket in the kitchen to make tea in the mornings. In these two weeks it never got warmer than -28°C (-18°F), and that only in the roasting afternoon sun. We spent a big share of the time outside playing in the snow or ice skating on the nearby river.

snow in russia
Walking on the River Kholokolnya in Krasnoe, Tver Region, Russia

And now I am complaining (to myself only of course) about ridiculous 4°C? How soft did I get? I am shivering of embarrassment, I guess, it could be the cold that makes me shiver, though. I am not quite sure.

Ok, I know all this stuff about chill factor and the impact of humidity. But still…

Our beautiful planet, despite being the only one in quite some astronomical distance to provide life-friendly conditions, is still a pretty hostile place. In fact there is only a very narrow belt in the tropics that allows human life without technical assistance. The rest is either too cold or too hot.

The Difference between Hot and Hot

Talking about too hot… A few months ago, when I sailed the equatorial waters of Brazil, French Guyana and Suriname, there was a time I had forgotten what exactly “cold” was. And how “freezing” felt.

I remember one evening in Domburg, Suriname when I discussed with my good friends Steffi and Rolf, a German sailing couple whom I first met in French Guyana, about the permanent heat and the effects it had on our lives. The afternoons were the most brutal time of the day. Broiling in your own body juices it was almost impossible to do boat work or focus on anything. But it was too hot to sleep, too. Skin funguses and mosquitoes were the only living organisms flourishing in this climate, it seemed.

jungle village in suriname
Village Johan en Margaretha, Suriname

My young friend Ithiel from a creole jungle village, who had never left Suriname and dreamt of traveling the world, was only afraid of two things: racism and cold. He kept asking me how we could live with four different seasons, how we would know how to dress and if snow was dangerous. He had never seen anything below 23°C (73°F) in his life. But he also hadn’t seen anything hotter than 40°C (104°F).

jungle river suriname
My Daughter Ronja Exploring the Jungle, Suriname

In my life, though, I have experienced much higher temperatures than in Guyana or Suriname. In the Saudi Arabian desert for example. Many years ago I worked for the German-Saudi Liaison Office for Economic Affairs in Riyadh. I remember one weekend a colleague and I made a trip to Rubh Al-Khali, the “empty quarter”, one of the driest and hottest places in the world. The temperature gauge in our Toyota Landcruiser showed impressive 53°C (126°F). Almost 100 degrees (180 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than back then in Russia. And the same here: a simple car breakdown would have been a lethal event. But I still live to tell the story, neither Ford nor Toyota are so bad after all.

The difference to the heat experience in the equatorial jungle is that in Saudi Arabia I hardly was exposed to the crazy 53°C. You got out of the climatized car to take a few photos and got back in. It’s like opening the oven to check on the cake. You get some hot air in your face, think to yourself, “pheeww hot,” and quickly close the hatch again. Of course I was bragging about my heroism. But if I am being honest I went from a climatized home into a climatized office driving a climatized car. I ate in a climatized restaurant and shopped in a climatized supermarket. 53°C was for others, Pakistani road workers for example, but not for us spoiled Europeans, considering themselves superior for no logical reason.

Desert, Saudi Arabia

In contrast in Suriname the heat exposure was permanent and omnipresent. The day temperatures were around 38°C (100°F) every day, no exceptions, no A/C nowhere, Restaurants are all outside. There was absolutely no way to escape it. If we had a really cold night, temperatures got down to a minimum of 27°C (81°F), which was hardly enough to cool down the boat from the heat of the day. The humidity of 80-100% added to the experience and so did the river water with its +30°C (86°F).

Sage Advice from the Military

It is amazing how adaptive the human body is. It adapts much faster than the human mind. So much faster! This is what they told us back in the day when I was in the German navy: “Freezing or sweating starts in your mind.” I didn’t believe it at the time but it is true. “Think of some place warm, a tropical beach for example!,” was the suggestion of our officers, what I thought was pure military sarcasm. But all in all they were right.

Back then, they had their own reason for telling us because they made us have the roll-call in the snow in summer uniforms because the winter uniforms were delayed. So instead of our winter uniforms we received a lengthy speech about our tough grandfathers in Stalingrad and how embarrassed they were seeing us shivering in ridiculous -2°C (28°F).

This stung so much worse than the freezing cold wind. And as we tensed our chin muscles to make our grandfathers proud, we completely forgot about the irony that it wasn’t our doubtlessly tough grandfathers in their light summer shirts who won the battle of Stalingrad 54 years ago, but the Soviets in their warm winter uniforms.

USS Stark
American Frigate USS Stark, North Sea (1997)

And while we were enviously peering to the American frigate USS Stark, docked just behind us, where our allied fellow sailors, bundled up in arctic coats, disappeared inside the heated helicopter hangar for their roll-call, we could not stop laughing about our First Officer’s stupid joke:

“Now look at them sissies,” his harsh voice sounded over the stern artillery deck of our proud destroyer FGS Rommel, “they may have the mightiest military of the world, but destroy their A/C and you’ll win the war!”

FGS Rommel in Hamburg
German Destroyer FGS Rommel on Iced Elbe River in Hamburg, Germany (1997)

And despite the freezing temperatures and the wind stinging our faces, it already got a little warmer. He was a good officer.

Yes, it is true, freezing or sweating starts in our minds and hearts. And no, under no circumstances I want to become soft but I must admit, I look forward to the life-friendly climate of the Caribbean. 

As the plane lands in Prague, raising snow flakes, I take a decision: next year I will sail to Greenland. And if it is just to proof to myself:

I am not a sissy.

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