The World’s Largest Sailing Event – Kiel Week
By Kathleen Aoki & Erik Bigalk
For one hundred and thirty years, German sailing capital Kiel has been calling in sailors from all corners of the globe to its annual festival of sails, Kieler Woche, or Kiel Week. Held in mid-June, it’s the world’s largest sailing event and northern Europe’s largest summer festival, attracting a staggering three million visitors to the picturesque city of Kiel every year.
Boasting over 5,000 yachtsmen and 2,500 boats from 22 countries, Kiel Week, which originally began in 1882 as a ship race with just twenty competitors, has since evolved into a colossal nine-day festival featuring live entertainment across fifteen stages, hundreds of international market stalls and vendors, Europe’s largest children’s festival (the Spiel Linie), an awe-inspiring display of tall ships, and of course – regattas. And lots of them, with 124 races across ten Olympic and fourteen international classes.
Growing up on the outskirts of the north German city Kiel, I literally wore a life jacket as soon as I could walk. Both my parents were passionate sailors and instilled in me a love of sailing from a young age, although I recall spending a fair amount of time hanging over the lee side of our 7.5 meter yacht, rather than actually pulling on the ropes.
Despite my bittersweet early years of sailing, I took to the sport and loved getting out in my Optimist, a shoebox-shaped single sail dinghy (which happens to be a respected, albeit the smallest, competitive class). Every year found me on the bay during Kiel Week, bopping around on the water and entertaining dreams of one day sailing in the regattas.
It had been a decade since my last visit to Kiel Week, having moved down-under in my early twenties, where the sub-tropical weather is so unlike the chilly German summers of my youth. This year’s Kiel Week was special to me, not only because I had an invitation to sail aboard one of the majestic tall ships and revisit the Spiel Linie, but to reconnect with my father, whom I had not seen in many years.
Three long plane rides from Australia to Germany and several time zones later, we were finally face-to-face for the first time in over ten years. Clearly, the years had taken their toll on him and although his passion for sailing was as strong as ever, his health had not seen him set sail in many years, despite a sea-worthy eleven-meter yacht waiting in her berth. Nevertheless, we were reunited, rejoicing in the good old times and those missed. Although my dad could not join me this year, I was excited to once again take part in the festivities of the Kiel Week taking place across the city – on the water, and on both sides of the large bay.
After finding a lucky parking spot near the Holstenbummel, I felt anticipation as I walked through the sea of visitors, enjoying the sights and sounds of the many market stalls where people indulge in traditional German food, beer, and wine, as well as offerings from twenty-seven different countries (including an Australian stand with barbequed lamb chops and chilled Fosters beer). Food and eating is naturally a big part of the Kiel Week celebration, and I was instantly transported to my childhood by the rich aroma of freshly candied almonds and bratwurst sizzling on the grill.
Briefly stopping for a cold stein, I watched as rescue helicopters roared overhead in an agile display of flying skill, as stately tall ships sailed in the distance, making me feel as if I had momentarily walked onto a movie set. Nearby, folk music filled the air as a jolly lederhosen-wearing singer proclaimed his fondness for a busty dirndl-wearing sheila named Heidi – very German, to say the least.
Overall, the 130th Kiel Week featured 300 concerts on fifteen stages, where popular bands, singers and techno beats drew crowds in by the thousands. This year’s festival featured performances by Bob Geldorf, Kim Wilde, popular Scottish musician Midge Ure and Germany’s biggest techno-band Scooter, among others – adding to the more than 2 000 program events across Kiel Week. Also popular with the crowds every year is the air show including the spectacular Balloon Sail featuring hot air balloons that magically glow over Kiel in the night sky.
The colourful Spiel Linie, part of Kiel Week for nearly forty years running, is Europe’s largest open-air children’s festival. Sprawling across fourteen rolling grassy acres, it’s the playful paradise for over 440 000 children and their parents exploring their creative freedom with the many workshops and hands-on projects. Kids of all ages can enjoy mud pie making, wood working (complete with real hammer and nails), face painting, sculpting and more – all to a backdrop of music and theatre. Walking through the grassy slopes among the laughter of children, dodging a few as they rolled down the hillside, I felt a wave of nostalgia having spent many a summer here as a child.
As for the sailing action, I headed to the heart of Kiel Week – Schilksee – the massive marina built for the 1974 Olympic Games which hosted the regattas along with competitors from 22 countries. It was here that I caught up with Australian sailors Tim Hannah and Angus Galloway. Both only nineteen years old,theycompeted in the 470er Olympic class and finished in twelfth place from a field of 44. Competing in the Laser class was Aussie Ryan Palk from Noosa finishing fourth, followed by countryman Jake Lilley (twelfth) and Mitchell Kennedy (twentieth).
Ashley Stoddart, the only female competitor to make the long journey from down-under, competed in the Women’s Laser Radial class, scoring the overall sixth place from a field of 42 (five places better than last year) across the eight regattas she entered.
“The event was just as good as it was last year, and we had some mixed conditions, but mainly strong winds. The atmosphere was good on and off the water and I had a great experience overall,” said the Australian Sailing Squad member from Brisbane, Queensland.
Stoddart said her second medal race was the highlight of her attendance at the Kiel Week – worth putting up with the freezing cold winds typical of Kiel’s early summer. Seeing the young competitor’s rosy cheeks and trembling hands as she climbed out of her nut-shell dinghy, I remembered one of the reasons why I had migrated down-under.
Impressive was the display of high-tech offshore yachts and the brand new Sydney-built TP52 ALL4ONE that went head-to-head with a dozen top sailing machines against the brisk winds and Baltic swell, all vying for the Kiel-Cup, the German Offshore Championship. With five regattas and five straight first places, the three-time Olympic champion and twice America’s Cup winner, ALL4ONE skipper Jochen Schümann, sailed the McConaghy-built super yacht to win the Kiel Cup title in its first year. The Aussie-born ocean yacht also won the mixed class Kaiser Pokal to make it a record six straight wins. Other than the super-yacht herself, there was no Australian presence at the offshore regatta starting line this year – perhaps the climate is to blame for that.
Then the moment came in which I was to fulfil my childhood dream of sailing aboard a tall ship as I boarded the Alexander von Humboldt II, the flagship for this year’s Wind Jammer Parade.
The 65-meter big vessel boasts 1360 square meters of sails (24 in all), and is 37meters in mast height with enough cabins to accommodate the 25-strong crew and up to 54guests. Standing on the deck of this great vessel, I felt dizzy watching the energetic volunteer crew clambering up the tall masts like monkeys and edging out along massive cross beams flying the Alex II’s iconic green sails.
The cold wind felt good against my cheeks as we pushed our way over the busy bay. Powerfully and gracefully we sailed past the shoreline where droves of people meandered through the colourful stalls, then past the war memorial tower at Laboe toward open water. Waving at the onlookers, I felt transported to another time and place, as our majestic vessel carried us away.
Not surprisingly, one of the major highlights of Kiel Week is the Tall Ships Parade (aka Wind Jammer Parade) with more than 100 traditional tall ships floating out of the Kiel Bay alongside hundreds of yachts and motor boats. The Tall Ships Parade marks the last day of the festivities and is later followed by a massive firework spectacle at 11 p.m. to mark the close of Kiel Week. Fired from pontoons and the quays at the Howaldtswerke, the fireworks are visible across the entire bay of Kiel.
Having thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Kiel this year, I promised my dad to return next year and to bring some Australian sun with the hopes that we could set sail together again to rejoice in the love of sailing that we once shared.