A True Sailor Looks Back

A true Sailor

Interview with the famous constructor of Runa boats, architect Gerhard Rønne.

Seamanship has great value that I think as many people as possible should sail

Architect Gerhard Rønne’s Runa boats have a certain ring to them amongst cruiser sailors. These boats were built by the architect with the express purpose of sea passage in mind. Every voyage was meticulously prepared. Gratitude is owed to Rønne for always having honoured seamanship, foreign harbours and by the manner in which he did this, generating respect for old Denmark’s flag.

When one tells of his voyages, every genuine sailor listens attentively and with envy to the joy that emanates from his accounts, these brilliantly interesting experiences, whether they be from the North Sea, Skagerak, the Baltic, Bottenhavet or from the Finnish Archipelago.

We find the architect in his peaceful home, where everything bears witness to chosen taste, right from the antique furniture to the maritime images from great grandfather’s days.

-       Has sail sport has been your overriding interest?
-          Yes, I’ve always had a certain love for the sea, and even as a boy I had my first boat, a small kragjolle. My great grandfather was a captain. He sailed in the West Indies, so perhaps it’s from him that I got the drop of salt water in the blood that gives an eternal longing for the sea. In my youth, I sailed a lot of races, from 1896 as a member of Copenhagen Amateur Sailing Club and then the following year, the Royal Danish Yacht Club. But Cruiser Sailing was my real pastime.

When the Runa boats were created

-       When did you begin to construct the Runa boats?
-       That was a lot later. In 1910 when the civil engineer Degn and I wanted to build two sister ships, Ran II and Runa, we decided to draw them in collaboration, and so I began constructing cruisers as an amateur, although only boats that I myself had made.
-       Does one compose a construction, or does one borrow a construction already in existence?
-       I haven’t had any specific model, but my boats are more or less drawn around the same principles as the English cruisers. I wanted a definite long voyage vessel that would manage out there, even in hard conditions. I never had the time for voyages out on the open oceans, as holidays were limited to two, three or a couple of times, four weeks. Over the years I’ve crossed over nearly all of the waters one can from Copenhagen.
-       How big were the Runa boats?
-       4 to 6 tonnes. The largest of them, Runa VI, I had for 17 years; she was like the other seaworthy, solidly built Cutters with generous freeboard, moderately full across the beam with a long keel and the mast standing at 1/3 of the waterline, so that she sits easily in irons in heavy conditions. The cockpit was self bailing, which probably isn’t modern anymore, but from my experience, having had waves come headlong over the deck during my youth, I consider it necessary for a sea going boat to have either a self bailing or closed cockpit. The roof was comparatively small, in order that there be space for a small dinghy on the deck, and the rig was particularly sturdily dimensioned.
-       Why are the boats called Runa?
-       That was a name I found! It means ‘rune’, a bit mystical: I thought it sounded good. Runa is an old Nordic name.

In Irons with Runa

-       How does one put a Runa into irons?
-       With a small jib or a storm jib heaved well to, and the main, or in heavy winds, storm sail not too tightly sheeted in the leach, my boats sit comfortably in irons. Even in a gale and high seas one could take leave of the helm. On a long, tiring voyage, it means a lot to be able to take a break, make something to eat etc.
Despite the North Sea having thrown some serious squalls, my boats have always coped well. Having ploughed through our own waters, the Swedish, and the Norwegian Skagerak coast, I made my first crossing over the North Sea in 1910 in the 4 1/2 ton Runa. Later, I sailed numerous cruises over the North Sea from Dover to the Northern border near Sognfjorden[1], as well as quite a bit of the canal. I’ve also crossed the Baltic, the gulf of Riga, the Finnish gulf, and Bottenhavet up to Haparanda.
The passages in the North Sea were by and large made before my boats were motorized. In the later years Baltic voyages, during long periods of summer calm, I’ve often benefited from the use of a 5hp motor.
-       How many boats have you built?
-       Eight!

The Charm of Seafaring

-       Would you mind telling us something about seafaring?
-       In 1907 we were in the 6 sejllængder [2], as it was then called, Ran from southern Norway heading diagonally across Skagerak towards the Swedish Archipelagos, when it blew up a south westerly gale! I realised that we’d be wise not to approach the coast in an onshore gale, as in these conditions there would be a nasty breakwater, so I changed the course for the bay of Oslo. At that point we were at the edge of the south westerly current,which was why the water was becoming so short and deep in the troughs, so we got moving! We changed over to a small storm sail and 30 nautical miles from Ferder we took two waves aboard.
-       How does one react?
-       Well, Christ knows, it’s such a long time ago, but we weren’t happy. We were very busy because although Ran had a small closed cockpit, it was a matter of getting bailed out fast. Had we a larger open cockpit, I think we’d have gone down.
Although I’ve taken water in my Runa boats, I haven’t exactly had it over my head. The North Sea can be especially … bitter! Actually serious technical problems at sea have never crossed my mind, as the rig was small, solid and designed with North Sea sailing in mind.
-       Has sailing given you that courage that so often lies dormant, unprovoked?
-       Yes. I really can’t imagine my life without sailing. Since I reached 70, due to my health, I’ve had to give up the sea, but my summer cruises have given me so much happiness that I couldn’t find the words to explain my feelings. I owe sailing so much; the sport, the various impressions, open water cruises, the North Sea, Skagerak, the Finnish gulf and all of the Nordic nights of fascinating, wonderful light, it must be experienced! Seamanship is so valuable that I think as many people as possible should sail.

The Precious Impressions of Beauty

-       Are you a Romantic?
-       I’m not a romantic but I love nature, the sea and to live out in the wild. Precisely that feeling of beauty is, I’d say, highly important in yachting. Just to lie a night at anchor in Bottenhavet in idyllic surroundings, I wouldn’t be alone in saying, ‘enjoy it, no, experience it! It’s more than recompense for all the toil and hardship.’
-       So if you’re not a romantic, at least you wear his little blue flower in your buttonhole!
-       Maybe… despite the North Sea and the canal with their changing currents and restless, foggy, stormy weather having given me the odd tough turn, they have also given me plenty of hours sailing and sporting experiences. Even Norway’s harsh coast or between Sørlandet’s[3] and Bohuslen’s[4] beautiful archipelagos has given me unforgettable sporting experiences and impressions. Sweden’s East coast and Finland’s reaching stretch of archipelagos have something of a more gentle nature; these waters with their many tree covered coasts and idyllic anchorages are so enticing that many a time I’ve been tempted back. If you’ve sailed up through the Bottenhav’s lonely archipelagos, if you’ve felt the beautiful sensuality of the the moving symphony of colour at night and the clouds flying by the moon, then you’ll thankfully always have these waters in your memory.

Islands are one thing; the sea is something else

Sailing the archipelagos is something in its own right. First and foremost for the nature, but be aware, think fast, act fast; mistakes are not to be made here! One year we were up in the finnish islands and it blew up a storm with a nasty fog. Due to the Aalands islands’ geographical situation, they often have stormy, foggy weather. Just as we were looking for our anchorage, the fog came upon us. We had luckily just taken the bearing of an opening between two cliffs, because a moment later and it was so thick it was impossible to orientate oneself. Anyway, the anchor fell as designed, although had the fog fallen ten minutes before, we’d have been obliged to keep moving on between the islands, a serious situation. Time to time it takes a little luck just at the critical moment.
Another time we found ourselves in a thunderstorm in the Swedish islands south of Vestervik and we had to drop the sails and run with it. The islands lay about us in every direction and it rained. It was very uncomfortable. We were just about to enter a channel but noticed fortunately a reef before us… in distress we scraped through, crossing from shoreline to shoreline. The islands are one thing; the sea is something else.
-       What do you think of sailing today?
-       Since my youth, sailing has advanced with huge strides. A greater number of people participate today, but it seems as though some of the festivity has been lost. For example, it was an impressive spectacle to watch, at the Kieler races the great Schooners of various nationalities fighting it out over the cup. All that’s changed, I guess due to democracy. Back then there were rich people. Perhaps cars have influenced that aspect of sailing; on the other hand, there are many more skilled sailors with smaller boats. And today we sail about spending holidays with the whole family. This is absolutely an important step forward.

translation by G H Gilbert

[1] Norway’s longest and deepest fjord, the Sognefjord, lies in the heart of the Norwegian fjord country called Fjord Norway and extends more than 200 km inland to the national parks of Jotunheimen and Jostedalsbreen.
[2] http://www.thistedmuseum.dk/historisk%20%C3%A5rbog/%C3%85rgang%202003/2003_Sejr_Niels_Juel.pdf
[3] Southern Norway (Norwegian: Sørlandet) (lit. "southern land") is the name of the geographical region (landsdel) of the Skagerrak coast of southern Norway consisting of the two counties of Vest-Agder and Aust-Agder.
[4] Bohuslän is one of the 25 traditional non-administrative provinces of Sweden (landskap in Swedish), situated on the west coast of the country. It borders Dalsland and Västergötland as well as the Skagerrak arm of the North Sea and Østfold in Norway.


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