Bill Longyard has made some unusual trips with his Puffin, like his adventure on the mud flats at the mouth of the Thames River that is included in this collection of Puffin stories. Here is another:
Hamlet’s Ghost Beckons
In the summer of 2009 I set out to do something I had wanted to do for twenty years- paddle from Helsingborg, Sweden to Helsingør, Denmark across the Öresund, a stretch of water only two miles wide at this neck between the two countries, but at times made wickedly turbulent by opposing tides, water currents, and sub-Arctic winds.
Throw on top of all of that an endless stream of huge cargo ships, barges, and passenger ferries trying to squeeze through this Baltic choke point at the same time, and it is more like a Scandinavian version of the L.A. Freeway at rush hour – during an earthquake.
So what made me want to paddle this short, but highly fraught, span of cold water? On the water’s edge on the Helsingør side stands the very imposing edifice of Kronborg Castle -better to known to English speakers as Elsinore Castle – so misnamed by Shakespeare in his greatest play, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Yes, this is where the Bard set his play about a troubled man who had couldn’t quite make up his mind as to whether or not he should be, or not be, stay, or go.
So similarly, on a late June night, I found myself in a Helsingbor hotel room with my Pakboat Puffin unrolled on the floor in front of me, debating in my head, and my heart, whether I should the next morning stay, or go. For a complex mixture of reasons, I had been becoming more and more spooked by the prospect of my intended short paddle across the Öresund. It was dangerous, that I knew from having scouted the sound when I arrived in town an hour before just as the sun was going down. Lots of shipping even at night. Rain storms were threatening, and the water looked dark and treacherous. Perhaps my increasingly black mood was influenced by being near the harbor front in a strange town after dark, and after a long day’s traveling in a foreign land? There’s something depressing about real working harbors at night. They are certainly not like happy, brightly lit, mai tai clinking yachting marinas with Jimmy Buffet songs jingling away into the wee hours.
I also had a very substantive reason for being nervous about trying to jack a ten foot fabric kayak across a dangerous shipping channel that connects the Baltic to the North Sea. A couple of days before I was in Oslo, Norway paddling around the Oslo Fjord, getting my inner Viking on, when I realized, about four miles out past where Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki, and Nansen’s Fram repose in honored museum retirement, that my Puffin had sprung an air leak. What’s the opposite of skoal?
The Puffin relies on its two air sponsons for structural rigidity, and as the port bag slowly deflated I found it harder and harder to paddle. There are quite a few small islands scattered around the fjord, some even inhabited, and I knew that I could make one of these if I really got into trouble, but I wanted to get back to Olso as I had a train reservation later that afternoon. Should I risk a difficult pull back to the harbor? Would the Puffin fold up and sink without the one sponson? The other bag was also losing its firmness, though not so quickly. My inner Viking told me to stop wingeing , play the man, and paddle on And so I did.
Two and a half hours of hard slog later I landed back on the Oslo Opera house roof, my launching point… don’t ask… search Google Images and you’ll see why, and by good luck and a lot of determination I made my train which took me to Stockholm.
During the long ride to the Swedish capital I pondered how I could effect an emergency repair on the port sponson. No punctures were visible, and so I assumed the leak was due to microscopic gaps between the fabric threads which had come open due to age (seven years), being thrown about roughly by innumerable airport baggage handlers, and… worst of all… always being packed wet and never in its life properly cared for after use by yours truly. So now it was having its revenge.
How could I ever hope to traverse the dangerous Öresund in a crank boat whose main safety feature, its sponsons, leaked? I had an idea. In Stockholm I bought two cans of the Swedish equivalent of 3M fabric waterproofing spray. Once I got to Helsingor I would spray the sprung sponsons thus resealing them.
That was the plan… but it went gang algey that night in my gloomy harbor front hotel room when I realized that that a ten foot sponson won’t, in any meaningful way, fit into a six foot shower stall / spray booth. Nor did newspapers taped all around the stall, and walls, change the fact that a ten foot sponson can’t fit in an eight foot tall bathroom.
What to do? What to do? Hamlet’s dilemma.
I spent a fitful night trying to sleep, trying to formulate a plan, trying to make excuses as to why it would be okay to make the attempt in a faulty craft while at the same time trying to convince myself that I would maintain my self-reputation of a man of good judgment and common sense. I was a Polonius of wisdom, while at the same time a Fortinbras of determined action.
No, I was really Hamlet, confused, conflicted, and frightened. I had pushed the kayaking envelope before in my paddling career, but there was something about this voyage that just frightened me. It was more than nerves, it was fright, genuine fear. I tossed and turned on my pillow like the Dane at the height of his existential deliberation.
Sometime, much later that night, with the wind rattling down the Öresund just outside my window, I saw in my mind’s eye my father. I hadn’t seen him since his death nine years earlier. “Billy,” he called, “Billy!” Like Hamlet on the parapet of Elsinore, I strained to hear my father’s voice. He was saying something about my intended trip. Was he saying I should go, or not go? Was he telling me to exercise supreme caution, or warning me not to miss an opportunity due to unwarranted angst. “What should I do, dad?” I called back, glad to have his sage advice again after all these years. “Stay, or go, dad? Stay or go?”
But he was gone. Like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, in the play, he disappeared as quickly as he had come into the fog of my unconscious slumber. I woke up with a start, sweating.
I decided to go. It was five in the morning. I quickly packed my gear, checked out of the hotel and hustled down to the waterfront. I inflated the sponsons extra tight, got in the boat, and shoved off. The sun was rising quickly, a firm, but not strong wind, had kicked up some chop less than two feet tall, and already by 6am the rush hour traffic was making wake in every direction across the blue water. As soon as I cleared the harbor mole I was engaged in the battle, but saw two miles ahead the castle, Kronborg! The ramparts where the ghost of old Hamlet walked. “No surrender!” I cried to myself as I pumped away stroke by stroke across the broiled water.
Sure enough, after a mere thirty-five minutes, and having avoided a dozen large ships and ferries, my little Puffin, just beginning to sag from loss of air, scrunched down onto the shingle at the base of Kronborg’s walls. I had made it! My body heaved with emotion, not from the physical strain of hard paddling, but spent from the mental strain of the last few days of not knowing what I should do.
There is a kayaking club a few hundred meters west of Kronborg, and a short time after landing I found a club member who, after I told her what I had done that morning, told me that crossing the Öresund in a kayak is forbidden, unless you are part of a club flotilla and the group is accompanied by a motor boat. Oh well, “To thine own self be true.”
Copyright 2010, William H. Longyard