Oskar Speck: the kayaker history forgot
In 1932 a young German kayaker set off from Hamburg on what evolved into a seven-year, 30,000-mile paddle to Australia. It remains the longest-ever kayak voyage. Sadly, WWII all but erased his accomplishments from the record books. Lawrence Schaffler traces his journey.
In 1932 Oskar Speck was a 25-year-old electrical contractor trying to make things work in a country in turmoil. Saddled with a crippling war debt aggravated by the global depression, Germany was in a dark space. When his factory was forced to close, the frustrated Speck embarked on a bold plan.
He’d heard there were opportunities in Cyprus’ copper mines. Without any prospect of getting there with conventional transport, he resolved to kayak to Cyprus – through Central/ Eastern Europe and into the Mediterranean. Evidently he was unconcerned by a few awkward details, including the fact that he was penniless, and that long-distance kayaking was a risky proposition for someone who couldn’t swim.
His vessel Sunnschien (sunshine) – was a 5.5m collapsible two-man kayak manufactured by German company Pionier Faltboot (folding boat). It was modelled on those used by the Inuit, and Speck modified it for a single paddler, creating more storage for equipment, clothing and supplies. In May 1932 he launched Sunnschien into the Danube and set off equipped with a camera, a pistol, sailing charts and a prismatic compass.
Inevitably, there were hiccups. Finding the tranquil Danube too boring, he switched to the Vardar River at the Bulgaria-Yugoslavia border, and badly damaged the kayak attempting to negotiate its rapids. With no money to buy food, let alone fix the kayak, he was forced to scrounge and scavenge. But remarkably, he made it to Cyprus.
When he reached the Mediterranean, he equipped Sunnschien with splash guards and a 4m2 sail. It doubled his paddling speed to around six knots, and it made island-hopping down the coast to Turkey and Cyprus a lot easier, even though the ever-present fear of capsizing at sea – and his inability to swim – hovered menacingly in the back of his mind.
Speck’s plans changed radically in Cyprus. By then he’d realised that long-distance kayaking was far more fun than toiling in a mine, and decided to continue to Syria, paddle down the Euphrates River and aim for India. In a 1956 interview with the now-defunct Australian Post newspaper, he declared: “I wanted much more to make a kayak voyage that would go down in history.”
His epic odyssey was also gathering international attention, and he supplemented his threadbare supplies by giving talks at his various stopovers. Fortunately for him, the manufacturer of his Pionier kayak also realised the voyage was an excellent PR opportunity, and sponsored Speck with four new kayaks over the trip.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the voyage is that he kept going – despite a list of calamities that would have felled a lesser man. Waiting for the first of his replacement kayaks in the Persian Gulf, he contracted malaria – and it would re-occur and affect his health throughout the trip.
Local tribesman took pot shots at him, and when his kayak was stolen he had to bribe the police to get it back. He was almost beheaded by locals in Papua New Guinea – instead they beat him to within an inch of his life, rupturing his eardrum in the process. Kayaking across long stretches of open sea also presented daunting challenges – to get to the next landfall he would often paddle for 48 hours without sleep, sometimes fighting monstrous waves and monsoons.
On the positive side, though, was his growing international reputation. As his journey progressed, so the demand for interviews from newspapers and magazines increased. He continued to give talks at various stopovers – and his empty kitty began to look a little healthier.
But international fame – against the backdrop of the unease in Europe and the growing threat posed by Hitler – also presented a problem for an adventurous German. He was arrested as a Nazi spy in India, and though released two days later, was dogged by ‘spy allegations’ for the rest of the voyage. The conspiracy theorists believed his kayak trip was a clever Nazi ruse, and that it gave him the perfect cover for developing detailed maps and diagrams of strategic bases in the East.
It didn’t help that he began flying a swastika pennant on the kayak’s bow, and another on its sail. These decorative additions were provided by the Third Reich – along with much-needed funds. It’s hard to know where Speck’s political affiliations lay (or, indeed, if he even had any) and what views he might have held about Hitler and his Nazis, but the record suggests he was indifferent (see below).
During 1936 Speck paddled across the Bay of Bengal, Malacca Strait and the Dutch East Indies. While in Singapore, he collected another kayak and, over the next three years, paddled on to Indonesia and eventually to Australia’s Thursday Island in the Torres Strait. There – in September 1939, just as Europe was erupting – he was promptly arrested as an enemy alien and interned.
He spent the rest of the war in camps before being freed in January 1946, eight months after the Nazis surrendered, aged 38. Despite everything, he decided he rather liked Australia and became an opal miner. He eventually became an Australian citizen and built a home north of Sydney, overlooking the Tasman Sea.
He never saw his mother or father again and returned to Germany only once, in 1970. He remained unmarried and childless and died in 1995, aged 88 – his remarkable feat destined to remain an obscure footnote in the history of voyaging.
SPECK AND THE NAZIS
Corresponding with Speck’s progress to Australia was the rise of Hitler and Nazism in his home country. The further he paddled the greater the suspicion about his political sympathies and the ‘true’ motive for his voyage. particularly after reaching Dutch Batavia (in modern-day Indonesia) when he began to fly a swastika pennant on the kayak’s bow and on its sail.
He had been jailed briefly as a spy in India, and was arrested when he arrived in Australia in September 1939, spending the rest of the war in an internment camp.
But the record doesn’t support the spy theory, nor his supposed Nazi sympathies. Consider that he left Germany in 1932, well before Hitler became a festering blot on the European landscape.
Through letters from friends and family he would have become increasingly aware of the escalating war effort in his native country. And it seems he was chastised by all of them, accusing him of shirking his moral duty – gallivanting across the world while everyone else was committed to the cause. Where was his backbone and pride? Hardly a committed Nazi.
Ironically, his first exposure to Nazism occurred only after he’d become an international celebrity. The Third Reich hierarchy saw Speck as an opportunity to promote the purity and physical prowess of the Aryan model. A demi-god who could overcome everything nature threw at him, and more.
Having crossed the Java Sea from Singapore, he arrived in the Dutch colonial city of Batavia (now Jakarta) where among the well-wishers was the German consul general, a Dr Vallette. Speck was paid good money for speeches at the German Club and received help from the German Aid.
He was also introduced to a Herr Trautmann, the Ortsgruppenleiter, or district group leader, of the Nazi Party. At one of the lectures he presented Speck with a Nazi pennant to fly from his kayak. Later, in a note to Speck, Trautmann wrote: “Remain what you are: an agent of the New Germany with all its ideals, tough will and keen Viking spirit. With German Greeting and Heil Hitler!”
Speck was no doubt grateful for the cash replenishment, but there is little evidence to suggest he was an agent or endorsed Nazism. Still, when he arrived at Australia’s Thursday Island with the swastika flying from his bow, three Aussie cops were waiting for him.
According to the Australian Post, they strode forward, shook his hand and said: “Well done, feller! You’ve made it — Germany to Australia in that. But now we’ve got a piece of bad news for you. You are an enemy alien. We are going to intern you.”