It’s built of solid oak, up to ten metres or 98 feet long, and weighs between eight and ten tons – the Heligoland Börteboot or boarding boat. Thanks to their substantial weight, these are sea-worthy boats. No other vessel, it’s said, makes Heligoland’s fisher folk feel quite as safe as this one. These boats have centuries of tradition behind them. In the old days, four men would have sat at the oars – or the boat would have travelled under sail. These days, they’re are equipped with engines and still provide an important service during disembarkation – in other words, they ferry passengers to the island from the tourist steamers lying at anchor. There’s enough room on a Börteboot for up to 50 passengers.
The Eta Elisabeth, built in 1890, is the oldest surviving boat of this type. A special feature of this design is the low hull, which gives the boat just over a metre or three feet of draught. So it can easily navigate the hazardous rock-strewn seas surrounding the island.
Anyone unfamiliar with the shallows around Heligoland is in deep trouble – as witness more than 700 shipwrecks recorded off the island. The islanders benefited from their knowledge about the navigability of the North Sea: they used to offer their piloting services to passing ships.
As recently as the 15th century, that was a way for any experienced seaman to make a living on Heligoland. Around two hundred years went by before pilotage became organised and an association was set up. After passing his exams, each pilot was given a special pilot’s token, and there were fair rules:
If there was a ship cruising off Heligoland, the tokens of all available pilots were collected, and then one token was drawn, sight unseen. That decided who was allowed to pilot the next ship. A proportion of the fees went to the widows of pilots lost at sea.
All depictions: © Nordseemuseum Museum Helgoland