Seafarers pay tribute to the first spy novel
By Kate Connolly in Kappeln
Daily Telegraph (UK)
Filed: 23/08/2003)

 

A pilgrimage of British sailors gathered on Germany's Baltic coast yesterday to retrace the steps of The Riddle of the Sands, the first modern spy novel, a century after it was published.

The anniversary of Erskine Childers's seafaring classic, a prediction of the First World War and described by aficionados as a sacred text of British yachting, is being marked with rallies and readings along its windswept German route.

Childers's classic tale of Edwardian espionage, published in 1903, tells the story of two amateur British sailors-cum-spies who uncover a Prussian naval plot to invade the English coast.

The novel's protagonists, Davies and Carruthers, sailed Germany's wild shoreline from the East Friesian Islands to the Kiel Canal, tackling the region's notoriously difficult shifting sandbanks, shallow waters and fogbound seas in an engineless wooden boat.

"It contains a lot of jolly good practical information about currents, taking soundings and breaching water sheds in an area which can make for some very tricky cruising," says Christine Holroyd, who sailed her 28-footer from Scotland to Kappeln to join a centenary rally.

"We love to follow the book's route - it sends a shiver down your spine as the place hasn't changed that much in 100 years," says Miss Holroyd, the vice-president of the Cruising Association.

The Riddle, based on Childers's own sea journeys around the German coast, the log books of which are kept in the National Maritime Museum, still thrills today's sea lovers with its painstaking descriptions of the nautical challenge. With a dramatic backdrop of slate grey seas and skies, it covers such seemingly prosaic items as rigging screws, oilskins and prismatic compasses.

Childers theorised that Germany, which had made little secret of the fact that it wished to build up its naval powers, was capable of amassing its naval forces behind the Friesian Islands and invading Britain via Lincolnshire. He wrote the novel partly to alert the Admiralty to the threat.

As First Lord of the Admiralty from 1911, Winston Churchill made The Riddle required reading for his staff because it highlighted his own fears that Germany's thirst for power was of huge danger to Britain.

Donald Green, a retired engineering lecturer from Cambridge, also moored in Kappeln, said the romanticism and the drama of the book, which he has read 10 times, were what made it so enduring. "There's no other seafaring book that sailors 'live' in the same way as The Riddle," he said. "Even certain phrases are common parlance for yachtsmen, such as 'Mustn't let a good wind go to waste'. It's generally accepted that all sailors have read The Riddle."

Increasing numbers of British sailors are relocating their boats on Germany's Baltic Coast. "It's cheap, offers brilliant sailing and is full of romantic history - this is where Anglo Saxons originated," says Janet Safarovic of the Baltic Section of the Cruising Association. She estimates that 300 British yachts are now moored there with the number growing.

Childers himself was a complex human riddle, both a fanatic of the British Empire and an Irish Republican. When his seafaring days ceased, he became a spokesman and gun-runner for the IRA before being shot by an Irish Free State firing squad in 1922.