For the past 200 years Börtebootes and their pilots have been transporting passengers from oceangoing ferries to the shores of Heligoland, a remote German outcropping in the North Sea.
Now these unique craft, which are being considered for UNESCO Cultural Heritage recognition, are dumping their diesel engines for all-electric Torqeedo Deep Blues with BMWi3 battery packs.
The börtebootes are as unique as Heligoland itself, which consists of two tiny islands about 50 km from any mainland that have variously been claimed by Denmark, England and Germany. The last transition took place in 1890 when Queen Victoria swapped control over the island to Germany in exchange for the ‘rights’ to Zanzibar. The name börteboot comes from the days of Danish control (1714-1807) when pilot licenses were handed out through a draw called a börte – Frisian for ‘braid’.
Each vessel is hand crafted, made of 10 metres of solid oak and weighs 8 tons. They are currently powered by 120-180 hp diesel engines that are so loud you have to scream on board to be heard, according to Germany’s Float website. One of the incongruities of the situation is that while these fossil fuel engines bring the tourists to land, there are no cars on Heligoland itself (population 1,127).
Under the British the islands had become a popular seaside spa and resort for the European upper classes, and the ferries transporting people there came to be known as ‘bathing boats’. Because of the formation of the islands, the large vessels couldn’t come close to the shore, so the börtebootes come out to transport the passengers, 50 at a time, and take them back out to the bathing boats after their visit. Here’s a fast motion video that shows how it works today.
The North Sea can get quite rough, even in the protected areas the boats operate in. Long time pilot and fifth-generation boat builder Rainer Hatecke told WELT News the passengers are sometimes unnecessarily concerned. “I laugh when they say holidaymakers are afraid of getting seasick. You can see the waves and can adjust to the movement. And you are in the fresh air!”
The Torqeedo electrics with their high torque are well suited to blasting through some of the higher waves, and because the boats are making short journeys, they can charge up on shore as required.
The fleet of boats has been reduced in the past few decades, largely because smaller boats than the huge ferries can now bring visitors to Heligoland, and they are allowed to use the docks and jetty. Another issue is new safety regulations dictating that open boats are not allowed to carry passengers at sea. Grandfathering applies for the current boats.
There are only 11 böorteboats still operating, and Herr Hatecke is leading the charge to have the Heligoland docks recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. He founded the “Association for the Preservation of Heligoland Börteboote eV” (VzEHB) and in December of 2018 its efforts were successful in having the boats awarded “Intangible Cultural Heritage” status by the German branch of the UN organization.
“This is new territory for us” said Rainer Hatecke, speaking about the electrification. “We have been able to build, restore and install powerboats for a long time. But we want to make sure we have everything figured out with these new motors.”
The first boat he is working on is being tested at his shipyard and will be officially presented to Heligoland’s Mayor Jörg Singer after the refurbished boat makes an appearance at the Bremerhaven Seestadt Festival May 23-26
Here is a link to a great video shot in the Hatecke shop as he works on his Borteboot.
Photos and videos in this article are from the VzEHB website