Finding home at sea

Michael Freude had spent nearly two decades at sea. As a sailor, he found himself a home on a vessel and in the world. After he returned to his hometown Hamburg, he was seeking a way to preserve the sailor’s culture.

By Annabell Brockhues       

Michael Freude was only five years old when he felt certain that he would spend his life at sea. He and his family had just moved to Hamburg Eppendorf in the early 1960ies. In their new flat, he met an old seaman – an archetype according to Michael’s memory: he was wearing a Brixton Fiddler Cap, known as Elbsegler, his arms beefy like Popeye’s, tattoos from head to toes. This seaman would tell Michael stories about the Klabautermann, ship’s good kobold, until one night Michael saw this very Klabautermann sitting at the end of his bed, “He smiled at me. He didn’t say anything, he just smiled. That felt like an invitation.”

Later, when he was getting older and things weren’t that good with his parents, he was even more certain about following the Klabautermann’s invitation, leaving Hamburg and Germany behind. Canada, Alaska – no matter where to, only a long way off. At the age of 15, in 1972, Michael started an apprenticeship as a sailor although his parents wantend him to become a cook. But Michael exchanged his hometown for the big, wide world. It would take nearly two decades until he would come back to Hamburg for good.

Standing on the Altonaer Balkon in Hamburg, Michael explains what the harbour means to him.

His first route on a vessel led him to Indonesia. This voyage took nearly 14 months – the Suez Canal was not open yet, they had to circumnavigate the African continent. For Michael, Indonesia was like a dream, “South Seas, you know. Schnapps and cigarettes were cheap, the girls pretty.”

During his apprenticeship, he had to moor the ship in the harbour, check up the loading dishes, take shifts in the lookout. “On a vessel, you have to work round-the-clock. Working overtime was just normal – and that is how we made our money.” What might sound like hard work, was fun, according to Michael, “You have always been on deck, in the sun. You could look into the distance. You know, the sea is not the same all over the world, the sky is not the same. I couldn’t get enough. I might be romantic. But if you have ever been at sea, you know what I am talking about.”

Back then, more than 50 people were in his crew, including the trainees. All of them shared a longing for adventure and wanted to discover the world. But they were also united by wanting to leave home – to find a new one at sea. “Once you have occupied your bunk on the vessel, that was your home. I never really thought about it.” If the crew was good, one could even find friends, Michael said – but only for a short term. Because after every route, a sailor could change the shipping company he was working for and therefore go someplace else with different crews. Therefore, the seamen didn’t talk much or too detailed about their lives and problems. But they spent their free time together. Reading, listening to music, but mostly drinking and partying. Those who didn’t like that much company had to close the door of their cabin or search for some peace on deck.

On the shipping routes, they could not always land on real harbours. Many times, they just dropped anchor instead and little boats transferred them to the beach, where they met local people under palm trees. For the locals, the sailors were neither tourists nor part of the community, “As sailors, we always had a special status.” Sometimes, Michael would take some days off to discover the different places which hadn’t been touched by tourists yet.

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After nearly two decades Michael was incapable of working as a sailor because of his back. He returned to Hamburg, also due to family reasons. “I got stuck here, but I came to terms with it. Now, when I see news about the places I have been to, they don’t attract me anymore. I have it in good memory.”

After his return, Michael started to work in different rather occasional jobs. Carpenter, electrician, painter, tiler – he did everything. “It seems easy for me due to my experience as a sailor. Because, on a vessel, you have to do everything with little material, you have to improvise all the time.” With this spirit, Michael started to design and build shop fitting for different stores. Today, after having been self-employed for a while, he manages a workshop and is doing mostly restauration and renovation.

However, at his apartment, he set up a little workspace which he uses for his handicraft work: Together with his friend Larissa Fischer, a Russian-native graphic designer, he works on different comics, plastering and figurines. All this creative work is an expression of a sailor’s culture and experiences. One of these figurines is Pauli, designed after Michael’s very own idea of a Klabautermann.

In his workspace, Michael incorporates the sailor’s culture into handicraft work.

His handicraft work is more or less the only substantial memory of Michael’s past. Souvenirs were dead weight, as every sailor had only one duffel bag for all his belongings. At some point, Michael bought a camera in Dubai. He filmed a lot during their tours – for example Vietnamese boat people. But no one was interested in his footage after he returned to Hamburg, so Michael dumped most of it.

Even though Michael came to terms with his return to land, there are several places on his bucket list: Australia, New Zealand, the Antarctic. But for now, he will focus on Europe. Last year, he and a friend bought an old sailing-ship. Once it is in good shape again, they will set to sail again.

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