They may not walk on water, but in Hamburg, people cannot live without it. We go down to the waterfront for a visit.
A deacon? Sea dog would be nearer the mark. Fiete Sturm sports a bushy beard and a blue-and-white-striped fisherman’s smock. A mighty windjammer plows the waves across his powerful right forearm. Sturm even likes to light up the occasional pipe – and on top of it all, his name translates as “storm.”
Sturm is head of the Seaman’s Mission down by the Elbe River, not far from the fish market. Container ships glide past the windows of the red-brick building, which offers seamen a home away from home for a few nights. “Life at sea is cold and the pace is fast,” says Sturm. “The men have very few breaks these days and crews are much smaller than they used to be.” A ship’s machinist could spend months at a stretch alone with his diesel engines. “That eats away at your soul.”
Africa, India, the Philippines: The seamen come from distant lands. At the mission, there’s pollock, curry sausage, sometimes even bami goreng or chop suey on the menu – meals that almost taste of home. And if the men want it, there’s also solace and practical assistance to be had. “I listen when the men want to talk and help them fill out forms,” says Sturm. “Some have asked to take flowers from our garden as a memento, a little heart-warming touch to brighten up their cabin.”
Sturm, 37, has never been to sea. A qualified educator, he worked for ten years in youth welfare in his native Bielefeld before moving to Hamburg and becoming a deacon. “Wind, ships, landing stages – there’s none of that where I come from,” he says. “But here, you’re surrounded by water, and I love that.”
Fiete Sturm ist nie zur See gefahren. Der gelernte Erzieher, gebürtiger Bielefelder, arbeitete zehn Jahre in der Jugendhilfe, dann kam er nach Hamburg und wurde Diakon. „Die Brise, die Schiffe, die Landungsbrücken – wo ich herkomme, gibt es das nicht“, sagt der 37-Jährige. „Aber hier schwappt dir überall das Wasser um die Nase, und das liebe ich.“
Cargo ships, tall ships, oceangoing liners – Hamburg excels as a great maritime spectacle. Maritime symbolism is omnipresent – as in the name of the city’s famous red-light strip, the Reeperbahn, where heavy rope (reep) was produced for sailing ships on a 300-meter-long ropewalk (bahn); the “Frisian minks” (rubber rain jackets) that keep out Hamburg’s infamous Schietwetter (awful weather), and the Finkenwerder Kutterscholle, a local plaice specialty piled high with diced bacon and North Sea shrimp. When the Queen Mary 2 sails majestically into the harbor, you can hear her horn resounding 18 kilometers away in Hamburg’s Eimsbüttel and Winterhude districts.
Of the city’s roughly 2500 bridges, many span the Elbe and Alster Rivers and their branches. Water covers more than eight percent of the city and the harbor alone takes up 71 square kilometers. Around 8000 oceangoing vessels sail up the Elbe each year. The job of mooring is also one you won’t find in many cities, but here in the harbor, mooring teams work day and night, securing freighters and cruise liners with ropes as thick as an arm in over 280 berths. Last year, the cranes in Germany’s largest seaport hauled 135 million tons of cargo onto the dockside. If you walked every quay wall in the city, you would cover 43 kilometers. But do such figures really matter?
The people of Hamburg have water in their blood. After all, it frequently comes from above and occasionally, during a storm tide, even from below. If the fish market looks in for another flooding, you just park your car somewhere else – all par for the course. You cannot miss the turning tides, even in the middle of the old town, as the view from the restaurants on Nikolaifleet alternates between glittering water and gleaming mud every six hours. Some people across the river in Wilhelmsburg actually live on the water in houseboats. Just slightly to the south, in Harburg’s inland harbor, musician Olli Schulz and YouTuber Fynn Kliemann, known for his DIY videos, are converting the quayside home of the late country singer Gunter Gabriel into a studio for creatives that’s due to open this year.
No one has ever counted them, but there must be hundreds of thousands of people involved in water-related work in Hamburg. There are the port professionals, of course, the ships’ outfitters, the dockworkers, the pilots, the captains, the ship insurers, the shipowners and the customs officials who search cargo ships for smuggled goods. And there’s a marina – where else will you find that in Germany? – across from the new Elbphilharmonie concert hall. Whenever a sailboat comes up the Elbe, harbor master and shipwright by trade Rainer Timm is there on the jetty, waiting to assign it a berth. For the skippers of recreational craft, it’s just a short walk into the city, to the opera house and the musical theaters – or they can simply stay put, “Sit on their yacht and soak up the downtown atmosphere – I can’t imagine a better way to experience it,” says Timm.
For those with no boat of their own, public ferries operate a “bus service” across the river, from the landing stages to the museum harbor in Oevelgönne, for instance. From there, it’s just a short stroll to the popular Strandperle, a beach bar surrounded by sand that was not carted in from elsewhere. The waters of the mighty Elbe nibble greenish-brown at the shore’s edge without deterring less squeamish bathers. A little further on, crowds of locals and tourists file past the stamp-sized front gardens of old pilot houses with crocheted drapes in the windows. In Finkenwerder, over on the Elbe’s southern shore, lifeguard Michael Wendebaum oversees one of the best open-air swimming pools in town, right on the river as well. Swimming in the pool or sunbathing beside it, you have a fine view of the container giants tall as houses sliding by the fence. Every container arriving in Hamburg passes Wendebaum on its way in. “If I were a ship spotter, I’d be reaching for my camera every ten minutes.”
2 Swimming Pool Finkenwerder
3 Buoy Depot
4 Beach club
5 Seaman’s Mission
9 Alster Lake
Maritime occupations abound, some of them largely unknown even in Hamburg. What are “Stackmeisters,” for example? Well, at their buoy depot, also located in Finkenwerder, they maintain the huge buoys that are used to mark the Elbe fairways. On land, the green, red, yellow and black buoys look far bigger than in the water. They weigh up to seven tons and are six meters tall. The technicians from the depot regularly go out onto the river to check the buoys’ batteries, solar panels and lamps. “We only take them out of the water when we expect a frost,” says Sven Meyer, head of the unit. His workplace smells of tar and diesel oil, the city’s own special scent.
A few kilometers downriver, the scent changes to kerosene because aircraft are also built right by the water in Hamburg. Freshly painted passenger planes stand on the runways at the Airbus facility, while freighters marked “Airbus on board” moor. Many components are delivered by container ship.
As much as they love saltwater, the people of Hamburg appreciate freshwater, too – in the shape of the Alster Lake, which was created in the Middle Ages by damming the river. They sit on its banks, enjoy a beer and gaze into the blue, watery heart of the city, which has practically everything on it that can float: pedal boats, yawls, canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddlers and scullers. Lotta-Laura Schmidt, 14, talented and ambitious, is on the Hansa rowing team. She won the 2018 Women’s Lightweight Single Sculls title, basically the German championship for children, and has her sights set on the Olympics. “I train five times a week, always after school,” she says. “On the water, I can switch off and concentrate on getting the flow of movements just right.” Already she’s flitting across the Outer Alster, behind her on the right, the green banks and white villas of Harvestehude, to her left the Atlantic Hotel. Then it’s under the Kennedy and Lombard Bridges and into the Inner Alster, toward the Jungfernstieg shopping strip, leaving hundreds of joggers slaloming past strollers on the 7.4-kilometer route around the lake.
Even after dark, the Elbe river is still buzzing – the harbor never sleeps. The MS Hedi, a party steamer that picks up and deposits guests at the landing stages hourly, rocks on the river between ocean giants. Passing wharves, towers of stacked containers and scrapyards, the crowd on board grooves to an eccentric soundtrack of techno, neo-swing, hip-hop and Hans Albers. Dancefloor and mirror balls on the gurgling Elbe; high spirits and rhythmic beats between tugs and freighters. The party ends at midnight, when everyone has to abandon ship.
A few hours later, the bars in St. Pauli and near the fish market begin pulling the first beers of the day. Next door, in the Seaman’s Mission, Fiete Sturm pulls his cap down to face the southwesterly wind. On the opposite shore, sparks are flying on Dock 11 at Blohm + Voss, where a cargo ship is being overhauled. Launches battle their way across choppy waves as a cruise liner sails by unperturbed. Any moment now, its horn will awaken the city.
Good spots to drop anchor?
Sample the best fish rolls in town at Meeres-Kost on the Elbe River.
Stay at the Louis C. Jacob and watch the ships glide by.
Visit Michelin-starred chef Kirill Kinfelt’s new harbor haunt.
Relax 90 meters up at the Empire Riverside’s Skyline Bar 20up.