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Thursday, July 18, 2019
Spijook Museum

Tourists visiting Germany’s North Sea coast will be amazed to come across a submarine with cyrillic inscriptions in the yacht basin quay of the handsome little town of Varel.

The Shutka 2 has a most unusual history. She was obtained from the Soviet navy in exchange of three bottles of vodka when the booze ran out during a drinking spree with a delegation from Varel. The new owners transferred the craft, purported to be nuclear, to Germany and pulled it ashore there to serve as a tourist attraction. Most visitors are not aware that the sub was formerly a top secret vessel enabling the Reds to undertake absolutely silent missions. No longer a secret nowadays, the propulsion system lies readily exposed to be examined by the public. It’s a hamster wheel, no longer functional alas, because the crew jumped ship, finding life better in Varel than in the Soviet Union.

Some distance up the quay, a decommissioned helicopter meets the eye. It once fulfilled a local taxi service until its operators opted for a shortcut via the newly-built tunnel under the Weser River, to save fuel. The service was discontinued, after the rotor blades were ripped off, and the dead chopper deposited at Varel harbour to delight passers-by.

Both large-scale exhibits are part of what is probably the world’s funniest sea museum. The name is actually a misnomer, because the “Spijöök” rather resembles a kijkdoos of the neighbouring Netherlands, meaning a glory hole of piled-up rubble interspersed with amusing pieces of interest. The Spijöök is not devoid of antiquated elements though, and they mostly deal with the sea and the men sailing on it.

The name of the place is the one of a Frisian sea spirit. The word “joke” will easily be detected in it, and that is what the whole establishment stands for, with guffaws of laughter guaranteed. Initiators were a group of young men from a village near Varel. On an expedition to southern France some years ago, the adventurers discovered a petrified hogfish. Delighted with their find, they began to plan greater deeds. But first, to commemorate the occasion, they re-enacted the famous Iwo Jima scene and then started amassing exhibits until they could open the doors of their unique glory hole.

At the entrance a Ruski porg (person of restricted growth) with a red-starred naval cap guards the portal. But before the maritime splendours of the museum unfold, visitors must first read some details about the history of tea, so beloved on the Frisian coasts: “Gone are the times when the Frisians still grew their tea on plantations of their own. The ravages of the common tea beetle and the high expenses made an outsourcing of their tea supplies imperative. The once abundant underground rock sugar deposits are meanwhile depleted, too. In earlier times, the valuable commodity had to be mined by children because the sugar seams were too low for grown-up pitmen…”

Inside, another submarine. The patented one-man model was built specifically for exploration of the coastal mudflats, of which there are plenty off Varel. It submerges at high tide and can be retrieved on skids when the flats fall dry. “Simple and inexpensive,” delights inventor Gerald Chmielewski, co-founder, curator and primary practical joker of the museum. Less delightful, at least for those who were involved, is the heavy chastity belt which jealous wives attached to their seafaring spouses before long voyages and which often led to premature deaths by drowning when the wrought-iron gear pulled down the hapless seamen, even those capable of swimming, in incidents of shipwreck. Most unfairly, because the mariners were not such a bad bunch at all. What did they do during dull anchor watches? They assembled puzzles of hardtack, the museum informs its visitors, and displays such games too. The flying fish from the North Sea, on the other hand, aren’t there any more, Chmielewski regrets, because someone left the cage door open.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - December 2018 Issue
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