Yesterday evening I had something of an unusual adventure, because I found myself travelling with an oversize cargo truck.
The background is that over the past few weeks my Dad was very busy overseeing the building of a heavy cargo traverse. A traverse is basically a sturdy steelbeam that is placed between one or more cranes and the actual cargo. This one is used to allow two cranes to operate together and lift heavier loads than each could lift alone. Here’s a photo of a similar system by the same manufacturer.
This particular traverse needs to be in the harbour of Bremerhaven in early January, because it is needed aboard a ship to transport components for offshore wind turbines. Alas, the actual assembly was done in Cuxhaven, some 45 kilometers away. So basically the traverse had to be transported from Cuxhaven to Bremerhaven to be on site when the ship comes in.
Normally, this wouldn’t be much of a problem, it’s just 45 kilometers after all. However, this particular cargo traverse has been designed to carry loads of up to 650 tons, which means that it is a very heavy (approx. 60 tons) and very long (approx. 24 meters) piece of equipment. This puts it in the oversize (and overweight) load category, which means that the traverse may only be transported by a special heavy cargo truck with an escort vehicle and police escort. And because oversize load transports tend to impede traffic, they may only be carried out on a weekday by night. A special permit is needed as well.
Since the traverse was finished just before Christmas, is needed in early January and there are two weekends and five public holidays (Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day) inbetween, where oversize load transports are not possible, the window for transporting the traverse was very narrow. Basically, that window was Thursday night.
So my Dad drive to Cuxhaven (which is approx. 130 kilometers away) on Thursday evening to oversee the loading and transport. Alas, there was a problem with the truck, which could not be fixed that night, so the transport had to be postponed to Friday night (with special permission, because Friday night counts as weekends). Because my Dad had slept very little the night before, worked on Friday and then had to go out to Cuxhaven again on Friday evening, he asked me if I could come along and take over some of the driving. And that’s how I ended up on this trip.
We reached Cuxhaven at the appointed time, only to be informed by the truck driver that the police, which did a safety inspection and provided an escort for part of the way, would only arrive one and a half hours late. By now I really needed a bathroom break. Alas, we were stuck in an industrial part of Cuxhaven harbour late in the evening with no toilets in sight.
Since we still had time to kill, we drove deeper into the harbour to the so-called Steubenhöft pier, the old passenger terminal dating from the golden age of the ocean liner. Since there aren’t all that many passenger ships in Cuxhaven anymore (mostly ferries and the occasional cruise liner), the old customs building and the halls that once housed emigrants bound for America and their luggage have long since been converted into a museum. It’s nowhere near as big and impressive as Bremerhaven’s emigration museum (Bremerhaven always got the lion’s share of the emigration business and the emigration museum is really great), but it’s quite neat. And of course people whose ancestors emigrated via Cuxhaven are not all that well served by a museum in Bremerhaven. Here’s the official site of the Cuxhaven emigration museum and here are a few photos.
However, while the museum is usually busy by day, it is completely deserted by night. There’s a restaurant on the second floor of the former customs building, but otherwise the entire area was dark. “There should be a toilet here”, said my Dad. “Probably”, said I, “But the place looks closed.” So I tried a door and found it closed. I tried a second door and – miracle of miracles – that one opened. Lights came on automatically, illuminating some photos of emigrants from the early years of the 20th century. We went up the stairs and found ourselves inside the exhibition, where once again the lights came on automatically. And honestly, you don’t have to be Ben Stiller to find deserted museums by night extremely creepy.
We went up further to the restaurant on the second floor, assuming that if there was an open toilet somewhere in the building, it had to be here. And indeed we found one. Because we still had time to kill and it was really cold outside, we had some coffee and tea in the restaurant, overlooking the mouth of the river Elbe. Or rather, we would have overlooked the river Elbe, if it had been daylight. But since it was night, you could see nothing except for a bit of black water below and some lights in the distance. One ship went past, a dredger keeping the navigation channel of the Elbe estuary free and heading out to deposit the sludge dredged up in the North Sea.
Down Highway 27
After 45 minutes or so we returned to the truck and waited some more. I got out my trusty notebook and wrote a poem as well as a bit of an SF novella I’m working on. I should have taken along my new e-reader – it would have been perfect for this.
The police escort finally arrived at around the appointed time. They checked the transport permit and the safety of the truck (since there had been problems the night before) and then we were off. The police car went first, followed by the oversize load truck, followed by the escort vehicle from the trucking company and finally us, making up the rear. The police car escorted us to highway 27, from where on we were on our own. Since the oversize load is overlong and overweight, but not overwide, it can be transported across the highway without a police escort.
Now highway 27 has to be one of the dullest highways in Germany. It meets highway 7 at the town of Walsrode just North of Hannover. Then it cuts through a whole lot of nothing – so much nothing that there even the exits are more than twenty kilometers apart at points, because there is nothing to exit to – on its way to Bremen. There’s literally nothing on the Walsrode-Bremen lag except for the town of Verden and four amusement parks, all of which I have had the dubious pleasure to visit (they’re popular destinations for school and family trips. It might seem odd to put no less than four amusement parks into a whole lot of nothing, but it actually makes sense, because this whole lot of nothing is situated directly between the cities of Hamburg, Bremen and Hannover with some three million inhabitants altogether (five to six million, if you count the respective metro regions) and also near the Lüneburger Heide, which is a popular tourist destination. Once it reaches Bremen, highway 27 crosses highway 1 and move past Bremen on the North side. This part of highway 27 is the oldest and was still built during the Third Reich, while the Walsrode – Bremen lag was built in the 1950s/1960s and the Bremen – Bremerhaven lag was built sometime in the early 1970s. Once highway 27 has crossed the river Lesum and left Bremen behind, it moves through another whole lot of nothing towards Bremerhaven and then through yet another whole lot of nothing towards Cuxhaven, where it just ends. On the Bremerhaven/Cuxhaven lag, there aren’t even any amusement parks – unless you count the aviation museum at Nordholz (which is pretty neat – they have a lot of Zeppelin memorablia and a Zeppelin simulator) – just lots of fields and wind turbines.
Travelling along highway 27 is dull enough by day, but by night, when the wind turbines have been reduced to blinking red lights, it’s even duller. Outside the Bremen, Bremerhaven and Cuxhaven areas, there’s not a whole lot of traffic either and there’s even less by night. So our little convoy was unlikely to bother anybody.
We drove a couple of hundred meters behind the truck and the escort vehicle, because spending an our behind the steadily flashing lights of the escort vehicle is pretty annoying. Besides, it’s not as if the truck is easy to lose, considering you can see the flashing from miles away.
The Mystery of the Red Van
Soon after we hit the highway in Cuxhaven, a dark red van overtook us only to stick behind the escort vehicle for the entire 45 kilometer trip to Cuxhaven. We found this odd – why didn’t the van overtake the slow moving truck? “Well, he’s probably scared”, I said, “Though I wonder why, considering the highway is empty.” “Perhaps the van belongs to the transport company”, my Dad suggested.
Just outside Bremerhaven, all of us – truck, escort vehicle, red van and us – stopped at a highway rest area to wait for the police escort to take us the rest of the way into Bremerhaven. By now we noticed that the red van’s license plates hailed from a different town than those of the truck and escort vehicles. More interestingly, the drivers of the truck and escort vehicle had no idea who was in the red van – it certainly didn’t belong to them.
Still the red van waited along with all of us until the Bremerhaven police escort arrived. Then it started up and finally did overtake escort vehicle, truck and police car and sped off to places unknown.
Who was in the red van and why the strange behaviour? I have no idea, though my writer’s brain has no problem coughing up theories. Maybe it was a couple of environmental activist pissed off about oversize load transports driving outside the normal transport times who hit upon a oversize load transport and decided to document this transgression by following the transport around. That’s actually the most logical theory, since that’s exactly the sort of thing the more pedantic and annoying of environmentalists would do. Or maybe it was a private detective who had been hired by a jealous wife to keep either the truck driver or the escort vehicle driver under surveillance and make sure that they really were working? Or maybe it was the jealous wife herself, who didn’t buy the “Honey, I have to work” excuse? Or maybe whoever was inside the van was being pursued by someone else and only felt safe near the oversize load convoy? Or maybe it was simply the oversize load equivalent of a trainspotter? Whatever, it’s a mystery.
Through Bremerhaven harbour
Once the Bremerhaven police escort arrived, they checked the transport permit and the truck safety again, which did seem rather redundant by this point. Then we were off again. “We’ll probably leave the highway by the waste incineration plant [which is one of the very few illuminated buildings along this stretch of highway]“, my Dad said. Alas, the police escort had other ideas and so the whole convoy left the highway at the next exit. “That’s strange”, my Dad said, “Cause it means we’ll have to drive through the entire harbour.”
I suspect that the police wanted to keep the transport out of residential areas and so chose the harbour route. However, the harbour route had its own share of problems. First of all, it meant passing through customs (harbours are actually foreign territory from a tax and customs POV), which isn’t any problem at all when you drive a car. However, when you drive a truck with a 24-meter-long traverse, it becomes a problem, because you need a stamped document from the customs officers that this cargo is not about to be exported/imported and that no duties and tariffs are levied. Which took a while.
Once we had passed customs, there was another delay, because the swing bridge in the harbour was open to let four tugboats pass. The police escort also had to chase away some of the cars waiting on the other side, so the truck could pass. Meanwhile, we were collecting a long line of cars behind us, because an oversize load truck may not be overtaken inside the city limits – too dangerous.
We took the scenic route through Bremerhaven harbour, which is a lot busier than Cuxhaven, even by night. We saw a drill ship lying at the pier and a couple of freighters. We drove past lots where the components for the giant offshore windturbines were piled up, waiting to be transported to the wind parks out in the North Sea. And we drove past the coolest part of Bremerhaven’s harbour, the vehicle terminal.
Now Bremerhaven is the main transshipment port for vehicles in Germany and all of Europe. And the vehicle terminal is really something else. Imagine giant lots and giant multi-storey car-parks, full of brand new cars that have either come in from the Far East or the US or brand new German cars (Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche – all the good stuff) waiting to be exported to customers abroad. There’s also more exotic stuff. We passed a whole lot full of sparkling new tractors – New Holland by the looks of them – and another lot full of dredgers. I spotted some combine harvesters, too. Sometimes, you get locomotives and whole trains, but I didn’t see any today. There were a couple of busses as well. Mostly German Setra busses and – to my infinite surprise – three yellow American schoolbusses. I guess they’re being imported as novelty vehicles, since I cannot imagine what anybody would want with them otherwise. Three giant RoRo vehicle transporters were moored at the pier, while brand new cars were zipping into and out of the bellies of the giant vessels and shooting across ramps to their appointed spots in the carparks and lots. Meanwhile, more vehicles were being loaded onto freight trains for transport to their final destination.
Bremerhaven’s vehicle terminal is the ideal place to shoot a big car chase scene with dozens of vehicles and lots of explosions. Have someone like John Woo or Robert Rodriguez shoot it, though action concept would do just as well. Probably better, since few people do better car chases than action concept. Radio Bremen actually did shoot some scenes for the crime series Tatort at the Bremerhaven vehicle terminal a while back, but that one didn’t have a car chase, probably because the usual Tatort audience would probably die of shock, when exposed to a car chase.
The vehicle terminal didn’t pose much of a problem to our oversize load transport. However, the Kaiserschleuse lock (the German names means “Imperial lock”, because it was built in the days of old Kaiser Wilhelm II) did. Because the road across the sluice gate is pretty narrow and has sharp curves at both ends. As a result, our 24-meter-long (plus driver’s cabin) oversize load truck promptly got stuck. The police car blocked off the far end, the escort vehicle and we blocked off our end, much to the annoyance of the many, many impatient drivers behind us, while the driver of the escort vehicle got out to instruct the truck driver. Some of the truck wheels can be remote controlled, which is pretty helpful in situations like this.
It took approx. ten minutes for the truck to cross the sluicegate. On the last 500 meters of our trip, the truck had to pass a spot where the road was narrowed due to construction work and then needed another couple of minutes to manoeuvre onto the yard of the company which bought the traverse. By now, the drivers of the cars and trucks behind us were stewing. At least, the drivers of the cars were stewing – truck drivers tend to be more tolerant, since they know the issue. Then the drivers parked the truck (the unloading of the traverse was done today) and said good night. All in all, the 45 kilometer trip between Cuxhaven and Bremerhaven took one and a half hours.
Afterwards, we drove through the old harbour with its museum ships (including the submarine Wilhelm Bauer and the clipper Seute Deern) and past the Bremerhaven emigration museum, the new climate museum and the Columbus Center Mall, which is my choice for holing up during the zombie apocalypse, cause it’s a massive slab of concrete built to withstand an atom bomb (just keep away from the climate museum and the Mediterraneo mall – too much glass). Besides, zombie don’t like water and the submarine allows for exploratory trips. And the nearby vehicle terminal allows for borrowing all the vehicles you could possibly want.
Crap, now I want to write a zombie apocalypse film set in Bremerhaven, featuring people holed up in the Columbus Center, car chases (with zombies!) at the vehicle terminal and a trip with the Wilhelm Bauer submarine. Radio Bremen, are you listening?
We stopped once more for gas and then drove home. I was home at a quarter to twelve.