IF YOU’RE NOT ACQUAINTED with him already, allow me to introduce Negley Farson. He was an early 20th century American author, adventurer, war correspondent and (more relevant to this column) a sailor. In the 1920s, he and his English wife, Eve, sailed a 26-foot wooden centerboard yawl called Flame from England, through the canals, rivers, and lakes of Europe, over the Alps and right down to the Black Sea. It was an extraordinary voyage that took them eight months.
He describes it briefly in his famous autobiography, The Way of a Transgressor, although he did in fact devote a whole book to this boating trip. It’s called Sailing Across Europe. Both books are still in print, together with many others, including a classic on fishing, which he loved dearly.
Flame was probably the first boat of its kind to go through what was then the only freshwater link across Europe connecting the North and Black Seas. It climbed over the beautiful Frankischer Jura mountains in a series of steps — 101 locks in 107 miles.
“So shallow and so overgrown with weeds was it, that we could not use our motor,” Farson reported, “and I hauled Flame, with a rope around my waist, over the Frankischer Jura range! As soon as breakfast was over, I would go out on the towpath and turn myself into a horse. Flame was 2 1/2 tons deadweight, and it took me three weeks to pull her over the mountains for 107 miles.”
They were now over the backbone of Europe, beginning the long descent to the Black Sea, but they missed disaster by inches at Ratisbon, where they shot beneath a bridge built in the year 1300. “Once out in that swift current of the Danube pouring out from its gorge above Kelheim, we were helpless. The steeples and roofs of Ratisbon simply raced at us as Flame hurled her weight at the one navigable arch of the bridge. We had taken our masts out to get under this arch.
“Not until the last minute did I see that the peasants at Kelheim had directed us to steer through the wrong arch. It was choked with rocks so that a white froth of rapids was sluicing through it. I had to swing Flame sharply to the right and try to hit a small open hole of arch by the town wall.
“We just made it, grazing it as we shot through. All I saw of it was a row of open mouths from the Ratisboners wondering what on earth was this little craft doing up above the bridge, some yells as we shot perilously at the bridge — and then the sun was shining on the back of my head again. The bridge was being snatched away into the distance behind us, Ratisboners wildly waving us a goodbye salute.”
On their way to the Black Sea, Farson and his wife experienced many more hair-raising adventures (some even life-threatening) in countries recently destabilized by the Great War, and their journey makes wonderfully exciting reading. Great stuff for these cold winter nights.
Traveling is not just seeing the new; it is also leaving behind. Not just opening doors; also closing them behind you, never to return. But the place you have left forever is always there for you to see whenever you shut your eyes. And the cities you see most clearly at night are the cities you have left and will never see again.
— Jan Myrdal, The Silk Road
“Do you prefer American girls, Canadian girls, Mexican girls, French girls, or German girls?”
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