Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Cuxhaven and the North Sea

We were nearing Cuxhaven, a signal flag was hoisted and a boat neared the ship to take off the Captain’s relatives… The boat vanished quickly, as did the flat coastline and eventually also the lighthouses of Wangeroog and Neuwerk, and we were on the open sea…

The pilot left us at 2 o’clock… around evening the wind became stronger and the ship started to roll. I remained lying on the deck, partly to preserve me from seasickness and partly because I did not feel tired. We saw the beacon of Helgoland. I finally went to bed, but could not get any rest. I was not then used to this hard, uncomfortable bunk, on which later I often slept better than I have ever slept on a spring mattress.

Ernst Middendorf’s Long Letter Home, Allgemeine Auswanderungszeitung (AAZ), Nos. 72 and 73, 14 and 17 September 1855 (translation Jenny Paterson)

At the end of September 2002 we twenty first century Holfords sailed into Cuxhaven on the Anastasis, the Mercy Ship that was our family’s home for two years from 2001 to 2003. We had come from The Gambia, via Tenerife, the Channel Islands and Bristol. A few weeks after we arrived in Cuxhaven we departed for Amsterdam before returning to Tenerife from where we sailed back to West Africa for our second outreach with Mercy Ships.

The Anastasis in Cuxhaven

The Anastasis in Cuxhaven

I had not started to research my family history back then and must admit that I I knew nothing about Cuxhaven when we arrived, though we soon discovered the picturesque little town which is home to the German merchant navy’s health service. I had the unlikely privilege of joining a rescue exercise one evening with the German maritime rescue service, learning the basics of helicopter to ship transfers. Unexpectedly in the middle of this drill there was a real emergency call from a ship somewhere out in the North Sea; an injured sailor needed assessment and possible evacuation. I joined this mission, being winched first up into our helicopter and later, after a short flight, down onto the deck of the ship where a quick assessment of the “patient” revealed a fractured femur. Thankfully the sea was very still that night. We applied an inflatable splint, injected some morphine, strapped him into a stretcher and were winched up again into the waiting chopper. After 15 minutes in the air we landed back in Cuxhaven where our patient was transferred quickly to hospital.

It did not occur to me that moonlit night that I was flying over the same sea that 150 years previously first the Fischer family and later Johann Holtorf, my grandfather’s grandfather, had sailed in square rigged sailing ships on their respective voyages to Australia. The Caesar, according to Dr Middendorf’s description, did not stop after it left Cuxhaven until it arrived in Tenerife. But it covered much the same route south across the Bay of Biscay and out into the Atlantic that we covered in the Anastasis on our sail to Tenerife.

I was the ship’s doctor on the Anastasis, so it has been interesting for me to read Dr Middendorf’s description of the sail south from Cuxhaven to Tenerife, and onward to Cape Town and Australia. He was a young doctor at the time, 22 or 23 years old, having only recently graduated from his medical studies at the Julia Maximiliana University in Würzburg, Bavaria. He would have been unable to imagine the kind of medical facilities that would be available a century and a half later for doctors dealing with sickness and injury at sea. He had very little at all in his dispensary and what he had was to prove of little use in the medical catastrophe that was to overtake the ship under his care. But more of that in a later blog.

Moored in Santa Cruz, Tenerife, beside a square rigger.

Moored in Santa Cruz, Tenerife, beside a square rigger.

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