By Tim Boykett

The Danube journey was planned for late summer 2011, but with a collection of parallel projects coming together, time escaped us. In early 2012, after the experience on the Murray, our group found their way together. The Subak had been built and tested in the summer of 2011, then dismantled and stored over the winter. Reassembled on the harbour in Linz, we pondered some of our design principles and made some changes to get the Subak in a stable state. Markus Hackl assisted us in getting the vessel ready, and joined us for our departure. He was unable to participate for longer than one day as he was preparing for a training.

We had called for participants and received a lot of echo, but no one was actually able to make the time free.

We departed on 1 April 2012. The wind was perfect; a mid-strength westerly wind. We departed around midday, pushing off into the deserted industrial harbour of Linz. As we sailed off, some lines came loose and the sail billowed out, eager to be on its way. We re-tied the batten lines as we rounded the bluff to the channel entrance of the harbour – then out onto the Danube. The journey had commenced.

With the wind behind us, we could choose between running with the sail further out to port, away from the hulls, or to starboard with the sail lying between the them. The first was more comfortable due to having the sheetlets out of the way, but was possibly unstable as the sail could get caught and tip the entire construction over. With the sail on the starboard side of the vessel, we had ropes in the way but more stability. We alternated to see which worked better.

The day was cold. Each of us was wearing down jackets and a life vest at all times. The river was still cold enough to be life-threatening. If one of us ended up in the water, we had to be quick. Speed was around 8-12 km/h. (On the Danube distances and speeds are measured in kilometres and km/h, not nautical miles and knots.)

As we passed through the first lock, the lock master called something down about our paddles – that they were “not even real” in whatever sense. This foreboded bad things.

After encountering some other sailors on the river, and as the sun grew lower in the sky, we approached the second lock from which we would cross the main stream and then camp overnight in the old arm of the river at Wallsee. We were ready for this, knowing that the river speed would be significant, that we would need to skip across quickly. We reached the mooring and waiting point for small ships and used the telephone to contact the lock master. He asked a few questions, somehow unsure of what was up. Our preparation had involved keeping our weight below 250 kg so that we would not be forced to have an auxiliary motor according to Danube regulations.

He was still not happy, he had obviously been talking to the upstream lock master who had derided our oars. He decided he had to call the Schifffahrtsaufsicht, the officials who control shipping traffic on the Danube. As we waited, the breeze that had pushed us along so well became a nasty biting wind. We chatted with a few people walking past and tried to get them to be interested in an interview, with no luck. Eventually a fellow turns up, dragged from his Sunday afternoon BBQ to deal with a shipping issue.

It turns out that even without the 250 kg limit being exceeded, there is an extra piece of paper that only the Schifffahrtsaufsicht can provide: a form of registration for small vessels on the Danube. This document is a guarantee that all the necessary safety systems are on board – life jackets, anchors, spare paddles, bailing equipment, etcetera. This fellow came to have a look at what was going on and was surprised to see what we had; spare anchors, personal licences and more than he would have needed to give us the paper they supplied. He called the lock master to say that we have “everything but the paper” and that he should let us through to travel onwards to Wallsee to stay overnight. He would check that we got the papers needed the next day.

This was not to be. We were met by the officers of the Schifffahrtsaufsicht with the news that the discussion had gone all the way to Vienna and there was a certain degree of animosity towards our small craft being allowed upon the Danube without an auxiliary motor. We then spent the next three weeks – two of which should have been spent travelling – discussing, planning, organising and then getting two temporary licences. The first was in vain, as we did not get it until after the last possible date for any Danube travel. But the second gave us some paperwork to show in Belgium.

We bitched and moaned about the bureaucracy of it all. People gave us an old motor and supported the project, finding legal and technical ways to make it possible. But the issue remained: the Danube is not only an international commons, a thoroughfare that is nigh upon international waters, but it is also a dangerous place for a small or other vessel. A friend told of his uncle and a friend getting torn under a barge on the Danube as young men, barely surviving the propellors. There are whirlpools, huge boats, rapids and strong currents.

So to ensure the safety of the population, there is a further set of perils assembled around the Danube – red tape as a hurdles course to keep people away who might be more dangerous to themselves and the general population than they think. Perhaps this is the necessary way of the future. The atmosphere is a commons and we are implementing systems to protect it, from bans on burning certain types of rubbish through to carbon trading schemes. The rivers and waterways in general are a commons and need protection, control and governance.