Germany, Summer 2015

I didn't get to do any large trips this summer.
(But then, after being in the Amazon region last December, staying in an ice hotel in Quebec in January, going dog sledding in Finland in February, going to Iguaçu in April and then going canyoning in Portugal in May, there has been a lot of travel in the months before.)

So this summarizes a couple of things I did this summer and is a bit more like a blog entry than the usual travel reports.

Templin, Western Town

For example, I went to a 'western town' close to Berlin for a friend's birthday.

Of course, there was a birthday party and also the usual stunt shows.

Western Town stunt show

But there was also the chance of dressing up like a cowboy. Which, in my case, turned out to be not that different from my usual look (except for the bandana and the lack of colour).

Dressing up like a cowboy

And, of course, there was also the chance of embarrassing yourself by falling off a mechanical bull quickly. Which I did.

Riding the mechanical bull
Video, MP4, 30 seconds, 6.7 MB

Cabin Pressure Convention

I also went to a fan convention in Berlin.

The convention was for the radio show "Cabin Pressure" (which I like a lot) and it was organized by fans, so it was a bit different from commercially organized conventions, such as most 'Star Trek' and similar conventions.

A bit sillier and a bit more fun. (Although a lot of the fun bits reference things that happened in the series, so they make no sense at all to anyone [and that's probably still 'most people'] not familiar with the show. So while making small satchels for lemons, building horrible sheep, singing about yellow cars and writing down books that sound more interesting with the last letter missing - all makes sense in context, but it's a bit hard to explain short of the patronizing "listen to the radio show and come back when you're done".)

The convention guest was John Finnemore, who did write the whole show and also played one of the four main characters.

He did a Q&A session, but also conducted a 'pub quiz' (unfortunately without the pub) about 'Cabin Pressure' with some very hard questions.

John Finnemore John Finnemore

The week before the convention there was someone on 'Mastermind' with 'Cabin Pressure' as the specialist subject and I could have answered all the question asked there without preparation. On the quiz during the convention, I knew the answers to about 10% of the questions, while everyone else seemed to know at least 75%. There were some serious fans at the convention...

There was also a photo opportunity where everyone could have their photo taken with John Finnemore. The photos were then printed during the next hour of various activities and were then ready for the autograph session.

So here's me and John Finnemore.

John Finnemore and me

So the summer was fun, but also had lots of opportunities to look like a fool (dressing up as a cowboy, falling from bulls, doing fan-things for a (fairly) obscure radio show - at least I didn't dress up as a lemon [yes, people did...]).

In September, however, I managed to do something (slightly) more dignified.

Amphibic car, Cologne

Claudia and Roberto (my sister and her husband) have recently moved to the Cologne area and are living in an apartment overlooking the Rhine. And at some point earlier this summer, they did see a car going down the river.

It turned out that this was an Amphicar and that the owner of the car does 'river tours' with it.

As I had considered to visit my sister and her husband anyway, the idea was to combine a trip to Cologne with a drive on the Rhine.

And I'll get back to that in the next paragraph, but while I was in the area, we also spent an afternoon in Wachtendonk, where there's a self-drive ferry across a small stream. As there's no better place to put it, I'll place the picture of that ferry here. (The 'wheel' is not for steering (obviously), but for turning a geared mechanism to move the ferry along the wire.) From a practical point of view, it would have been easier to just make the ferry twice as long, turn it 90 degrees and have a construction more commonly known as a 'bridge' - but where's the fun in that?

Self drive river ferry

Back to the Amphicar.

One thing I need to get out of the way first: Ignore the outboard motor!

Ignore the outboard motor!

It has nothing to do with the way the car is normally used and it is not the way it is propelled in water.

Usually Amphicars do not have an outboard motor, but as the car is more than 50 years old and it is often driven in the Rhine, which is a river with a lot of commercial traffic, a problem with the motor in the car, while being on the river, could cause serious trouble, so the outboard motor is just a security precaution.

In most cases, Amphicar enthusiasts drive in lakes. And if there's a motor failure, the car can just be paddled to the shore (or be pulled by other boats), so they don't need (or have) the outboard motor. But if you are on the Rhine, being pushed by the current, having limited places where you can leave the river and a large river barge coming your way, having a backup solution is a good idea.

Amphicar side view Amphicar front view Amphicar front view

The Amphicar is pretty much an early 60's car - designed at a time where (at least some) people could afford to buy a car just for fun and some specialist manufacturers started to build niche cars - like the Mini Moke, the Beach Buggy or the Lotus Seven.

The Amphicar was built by a company that mostly did busses and trams. And at some point they decided that it might be a good idea to expand their portfolio and built an amphibious car, the "Amphicar".

Amphicar logo Amphicar font Amphicar manufacturer plaque

Ultimately that wasn't successful. While switching from land to water in an Amphicar is slightly more elegant than doing it in a hovercraft, there isn't any real need for a vehicle that is able to do so.

All in all there were fewer than 4000 cars built and there was never another real attempt to fill that niche.

But, as it started out as a 'fun car' for leisure times and most of the Amphicars built weren't used for 'real work', a lot of them are probably still in working order (at least those that aren't on the bottom of some lake somewhere).

In any case, this specific model clearly was in a good state, so Marco, the owner drove us to Sürth, south of Cologne.

The basic idea was to use a ramp (which is also used by boaters and jet ski enthusiasts to get their crafts into the water) to drive into the Rhine. That turned out to be trickier than anticipated. As ramps only get built on dry ground, they usually wait until the river is at a fairly low level and then build the ramp as far as possible.

But the water level was unusually low when we were there, so the end of the ramp was on dry ground and there was a bit of a 'step' at the end of the ramp. Not a problem for getting a boat trailer into the water, but inconvenient for a car, which might hit the edge with its 'underbelly' when driving into the river.

So when we got into the water, we drove over the pebbles at the side of the ramp.

But first, a bit of a photo opportunity and a chance to look at the car from all sides.

Amphicar side view Amphicar front view Looking at the propeller View from the ground

Turning the car into a boat does not take much effort. The gear (for the wheels) is put in neutral, lever for engaging the propellers is pulled and the doors are locked tight with an extra door lock. (Part of the reason for the second lock is to reduce the risk of someone opening the door by accident, as this would be a bad idea, although water pressure would make this a difficult task anyway. Mostly the lock closes the doors a bit tighter than just closing them to make sure that the water tight door seal works properly.)

While disengaging the wheels, engaging the propellers and closing the doors are the important things to do before entering the water, there is one convenience feature - the body board.

Body board on Amphicar

As the car does not have a keel, is fairly wide and has a large, low lying weight (the motor), it sits in the water more like a raft than like a boat. So standing in the car or sitting on the backrest of the seat is not going to capsize it. And since it's nicer to have a better view (and a bit of legroom) the body board is put on the back of the car to allow for comfortable seating without damaging anything. It also makes sitting on the storage room for the fold-out roof less awkward.

After everyone was seated again and the doors were properly closed, it was time to get into the water.

Driving a car into the Rhine Driving a car into the Rhine
Video, 6 MB, 12 secondsVideo, 13 MB, 31 seconds

Once in the water, it was smooth cruising.

The car isn't fast in the water - in water, as on land, it's more like a leisure craft than a particularly fast vehicle, but it is powerful enough to go upstream in the Rhine when needed.

It's hard to tell how fast we were actually going - I got a GPS trail of the trip, but as the Rhine is flowing at different speeds, depending on how far you are from the middle, it's difficult to tell what part of the 'ground speed' is due to the river and how much the car contributes. But it seems that the car was doing roughly 6-7 km/h on its own. (Highest speed in water is about 12 km/h.)

Here are some pictures from driving/boating on the Rhine.

Amphicar on Rhine Amphicar on Rhine Amphicar on Rhine Amphicar on Rhine
Amphicar on Rhine Amphicar on Rhine Amphicar on Rhine Amphicar on Rhine

After a while I was about allowed to drive the car on the Rhine.

Legally, that's a bit of an oddity.

I don't have a boating license and the rules for the Rhine state that you need a licence for operating any motorized boat with more the 5 hp.

And that rule is based on motor power only (and not on performance or speed). So while speed and maneuverability of the Amphicar is pretty much on par with the 5 hp boats available for people without a boating license, it is driven by a 38 hp engine, so driving the car in water does require a boating license.

Oddly enough, if we had used the outboarder motor instead of the car motor, I could have driven the car, as that outboarder delivers less than 5 hp.

But the oddity that allowed me to take the steering wheel is the fact that it's just the 'captain' of the craft who needs the boating license. As long as he 'oversees operations', he can elect a 'helmsman' to do the actual steering. And the helmsman does not need to have any license...

So, completely legal, albeit in a roundabout way, here's me driving the Amphicar on the Rhine.

Me driving the Amphicar Me driving the Amphicar Me driving the Amphicar Me driving the Amphicar

And also a short video of me doing that.

Me driving the Amphicar
Video, MP4, 44 seconds, 19 MB

The car is surprisingly easy to handle - while swimming, it essentially handles like a small tourist rental boat.

While you control speed normally with the accelerator pedal, there's also a little lever on the dashboard to lock the current setting, so you don't need to keep a foot on the pedal.

And steering worked a lot better than expected.

The car doesn't have any rudders and the propellers aren't adjustable, so the car steers in water like on land - by turning the front wheels.

As the car is heavy, lies deep in the water, has the overall shape of a brick and only the wheels (which are not streamlined) in front for steering (as opposed to about any other watercraft, which have the steering at the back, except, probably, jet skis), I assumed the cat would only respond to steering sluggishly and only be able to do wide turns.

But I tried a 360° turn and drove roughly a ten meter circle (though more like an oval due to the current). That's not good enough for doing tight turns, but a lot smaller than I had assumed.

While Amphicars have two propellers, they are driven by the same gear, so they run at the same speed and are irrelevant for maneuvering. But there are some modified Amphicars that allow the propellers to be clutched in separately, so that only one is running or one is running and the other one is running in reverse, allowing more maneuverability.

I drove the car down the Rhine for about 20 minutes, but to get back on terra firma, Marco (the owner) took the steering wheel again.

The actual transition to solid ground is usually not the problem, but the last meters before that can be. There are sometimes large rocks close to the shore (or, almost as likely, submerged bicycles or shopping trolleys) and it is generally not good to run into them. So it's best to float gently to the shore until the wheels touch the ground and not apply too much power.

Getting back to the river bank

And that's better left to someone who knows what he's doing.

Driving a car out of the Rhine Driving a car out of the Rhine
Video, 15 MB, 31 secondsVideo, 13 MB, 30 seconds

We got out of the water without a problem and drove on the 'beach' of a camping site, which provided easy access to proper roads.

And the chance for some 'we made it!' pictures.

Here's the whole trip on the Rhine as a short time-lapse video:

Time-lapse video of Amphicar trip
Video, MP4, 84 seconds, 34 MB

Then it was time to drive back to the garage using normal roads.

And no, there's no real reason why the pink building has a zebra on the balcony, except that it's an art gallery and doesn't need a reason.

Zebra on balcony Driving down an alley

Something that's a bit unusual when getting back to land is that you need to warm up your brakes a bit, so you'll need to accelerate and brake a bit at the same time.

When you're in the water, the brakes get wet. And if you don't 'dry them out', the brakes might not work when you need them.

Going with a car down a river is a fun thing to do and we were lucky with the weather. I had booked the trip about a month in advance and in mid-September the weather is not too predictable.

And while the day before the trip was mostly ok, there had been a sudden heavy downpour in the afternoon, which wouldn't have been fun while being on the river. And on the next day my plane was delayed due to a thunderstorm over the Cologne area.

So we were glad that we got a warm, dry afternoon with blue skies and almost no wind.

As a result, the effect was a bunch of happy passengers (even though we're all a bit squinting due to the sunlight)!

Happy customers

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