Sailing the South Seas in search of riches, a jolly German raider’s journey is a fascinating backdrop, writes Roderick Eime
‘‘ A GIGANTIC, violent hand seemed to grasp the ship and flung us crashing on to the reef. The shattering impact of the ship smashed the coral and huge chunks flew about like shrapnel from an exploding shell. The deck was almost perpendicular and swirling eddies of water and coral bombarded us. I clung like the devil to an iron bar and finally the wave subsided, leaving us high and dry. Thankfully, we were uninjured but our ship was a total wreck.’’
So, in this brief dramatic event, the voyage of the German commerce raider Seeadler came to an abrupt end, leaving the German crew and American ‘‘ passengers’’ marooned on the uninhabited tropical island of Mopelia, about 250km due west of Bora Bora.
In 1917, Count Felix von Luckner commanded the windjammer in search of Allied shipping to capture and sink. Perhaps the last of the true privateers under sail, von Luckner was no bloodthirsty demon of the seas. Having served as a lowly rank under disguise in his teens, he understood the plight of common sailors and took great pains to avoid sending them to the bottom with their ships.
Instead, he gathered large numbers of prisoners aboard his own ship, treating them as his crew and releasing them to safety when possible. It is said under his command the Seeadler captured 14 ships without casualty before the ship came to grief.
Now, 95 years later, I amalso a captive of the Germans, albeit a willing one, sailing those same South Seas in search of scenic and cultural riches to explore and consume.
Believe me, it is no hardship to be confined aboard the superb MS Hanseatic, the world’s only 5-star expedition ship (according to the Berlitz Cruise Guide 2012) as it plies the warm Pacific waters , island-hopping from Papeete in Tahiti to Lautoka in Fiji.
In a further stretch of the coincidental, our path westward also traces roughly that of von Luckner’s when he set out to seek rescue for his men in a longboat voyage not unlike those historic adventures of Bligh and Shackleton. Just as the Count had gathered men from all corners of the globe aboard Seeadler, our own master, Captain Thilo Natke, similarly carried a contingent representing at least 13 nations among his 272 passengers and crew.
While the ship’s official language is German, many itineraries are sold as bilingual and so announcements, some lectures and documentation are also available in English.
Our Expedition Sudsee (South Seas) is not one of cunning, stealth and subterfuge like von Luckner’s, but we are nevertheless avoiding the beaten path. The 123m Hanseatic visits quiet ports and atolls, many too small to attract cruise ships of larger proportions.
There is the lesser-known neighbour of Bora Bora, Huahine, and the tropical delights of the Cook Islands at Rarotonga and Aitutaki, both uncomfortable chapters for von Luckner but highlights for us. After a day of touring, shopping and frolic at each location, we sail off with a salute of champagne flutes to a stirring rendition of the ship’s song, a kind of cross between a rousing Oktoberfest singalong and patriotic anthem in the old German style.
The stereotypical image of Germans as a somewhat stiff and frosty people with an inflexible adherence to procedure might be dated but it’s true that Hanseatic – indeed Hapag-Lloyd ships in general – has a more formal atmosphere than other less prestigious ships of the world’s adventure fleet.
Dining in the single-sitting Marco Polo Restaurant, for example, is a masterful event with precise, almost choreographed service of the superbly presented courses by impeccably uniformed staff.
Delicate breast of quail, lobster in shell, ostrich fillet and pink, barely grilled slices of venison are not out of place on the nightly menu. A cosmopolitan wine list is reasonably priced, although charging for table water seems a bit out of place.
A second, reservation-only restaurant, Bistro Lemaire, serves an evening meal of rotating specialties designed to reflect the destinations visited and uses locally supplied produce, such as massive parrot fish from the lagoon at Palmerston Atoll or tender suckling pig.
While ashore on Mopelia, von Luckner’s castaways had dined in similarly regal fashion. The Count recalls: ‘‘ At night the mess was fit for the table of the royal palace – turtle soup with turtle eggs, broiled lobster, omelets of gulls’ eggs, roast pork and, for dessert, fresh cocoanut (sic).’’
Instead of hastily constructed bungalows and hammocks, our comfortable cabins are on four of the ship’s six decks. They come in eight categories and while all are outside, none has a private balcony. Two cabins are equipped for the disabled, while the eight cabins and four suites on the top deck enjoy personal butler service. All cabins have email and a flatscreen entertainment system with movies, documentaries and cruise information.
Shore excursions are conducted with a combination of tie-ups at the few wharves and tendering by either Zodiac or enclosed lifeboats.
Just like the noble German of last century, both our voyages conclude in Fiji. Count Felix was forced into an uncharacteristic surrender by authorities off the east coast of Viti Levu on tiny Wakaya, but we depart in a frenzy of handshaking and cheek pecking. Many new friends are made and repeat cruisers are born.
Before we all head off on new journeys, there’s time to raise a glass to Graf Felix von Luckner in the delightfully anachronistic Ovalau Club in Fiji’s old colonial capital of Levuka. On the wall over the bar hangs his Kaiser-era German naval ensign, and a cheery caricature of a smiling, pipe-smoking officer in a naval cap surveys the patrons.
The gentleman raider’s stories, along with many others, are still told here by those old enough to remember their grandfathers’ tales of the jolly, barrel-chested German who charmed and beguiled his way across the Pacific in a time of terrible war. The writer was a guest of HapagLloyd Cruises.