When the owners of wooden boats meet a certain affinity makes them kindred. Such was the occasion when, in northwest Sicily, we slid into the marina at Castellamarre Del Golfo alongside a bluff gaff ketch named Leev Linda (Lovely Linda in colloquial German).
Everything about Leev Linda’s undoubtedly handsome form: her beamy hull, jaunty sheer, high bulwarks and acres of varnish work, all smacked of a workboat background. And in this I was right. But not in the way I had anticipated.
“She was built about 70 years ago,” her owner Willi told me. “During the war.”
“As a fishing boat?” I prompted confidently.
Willi shook his head. “She was a very special form of boat called a meinenkuh. In English this would translate as 'mine cow'.”
The feeling that something really had been lost in translation was overwhelming. Sensing my bafflement, Willi came to my rescue and the details of Leev Linda’s origins unfolded to my growing incredulity. It seems that the magnetic mines laid by the Royal Navy were proving something of a nuisance to their German counterparts, who, unsurprisingly, were doing their utmost to reduce the threat, Various ways of sweeping paths through the minefields had been tried. One method used elderly, unfit for purpose merchant ships, the bows of which had been strengthened and filled with buoyant substances in an attempt to keep them afloat should they be holed. These ships were then steamed through known clusters of mines, accepting that they would be damaged in the ensuing explosions. How difficult it was to find crews to man these sacrificial tubs can only be imagined but I don’t suppose there were queues of applicants stretching around the block.
Another brainwave involved the massively constructed meinenkuhs. Some 13m long and nearly 4m wide, they were double-planked in oak to a total thickness of about 60mm. They were engineless and had no ferrous materials in their construction, copper being used for any fastenings. In short they were entirely non-magnetic – that is, I hasten to add, except for the immensely powerful electro-magnets fitted below. These were powered by generators carried on the tugs that pulled them, delivered to the meinenkuhs via conductive cables running through the towlines.
Thanks to their immense strength, a few meinenkuhs survived the blasts they triggered, but, inevitably, the majority were destroyed. Anyway, mine defence technology moved on, gaining in sophistication, developing defences against those who would confound their sinister purposes. The meinenkuhs were soon deemed ineffective and put out to grass.
After the war Leev Linda was crudely converted into a motor shrimper before falling into the hands of Willi and Anne Zimmerman who have owned her ever since. It was they who saw the potential in what was little more than a floating hulk; who took on the daunting task of converting her into what she is now. A steel keel was added, increasing her draught to 1.7m. The rig was designed and built. The superstructure took shape along traditional lines and, of course, there was much else besides. As always if you own a timber vessel, the work goes on.
So, there you have it – a boat built for war, now serving a very peaceful purpose. Swords into plowshares, I guess you can say.