Swiss rowers re-enact gruelling journey

A Swiss boating club has re-enacted a public relations triumph from over 400 years ago – transporting a pot of steaming porridge from Zurich to Strasbourg in France.

This content was published on August 30, 2006 - 19:55
Julia Slater,

The Hirsebreifahrt, or millet porridge trip, is celebrated every ten years. It recalls Zurich's attempt in 1576 to cement its alliance with Strasbourg, which doubted that the distant Swiss city could ever bring speedy enough aid.

The city worthies undertook to prove that they could cover the roughly 240km in under 24 hours.

They loaded a pot of porridge onto a boat just after midnight, and the boatmen rowed for all they were worth. They arrived in Strasbourg at 8pm that evening, with the precious cargo still hot enough to burn the lips – or so the chroniclers relate.

At 5.30am last Thursday, residents of Zurich's Limmat quay were woken by the rousing music of the city band; those in the know hurried along for a bowlful of sweet porridge, while men in blue and white doublets made final checks of their longboats.

The razzmatazz added to the excitement, but the trip is carefully planned. Coordinating with numerous authorities along the route, not to mention getting sponsorship, took some three years to arrange, Michael Bloch, head of the organising committee, told swissinfo.

The four rowing boats and their crew come from the city boating club, the Limmat-Club Zurich.

"Steering the boats demands skill and experience," René Schraner of the Limmat Club explained. "You have to be able to look ahead, and sometimes take split-second decisions."

The boatmen of 1576 might recognise the costumes and the flat-bottomed boats, but they would be surprised to discover that what took them just 20 hours to accomplish takes their descendents three days.

Overcoming the obstacles

Today 29 obstacles – weirs and power stations – block the way and slow down the current. The Rhine used to flow four times faster than it does now - no wonder the modern boats sometimes have recourse to an outboard motor.

The ways to get through are varied and ingenious.

Most spectacular in 2006 was the Kappelerhof power station, just downstream from Baden. It is currently a huge building site, blocking the river. The boats – minus crew - had to be picked up one at a time by crane and swung through the air to the other side.

Elsewhere they were hauled past the obstruction by cable. Electricity provides the power, but the crew have to use both muscle and brain to guide the boats as they inch their way up a rail track or rollers and down again to the other side.

Locks are the easy option, but oh, how long it takes for the water level to go down, when time is of the essence.

Cheating? But this is part of the tradition too. The only obstruction in 1576 were the rapids at Laufenburg, some 45 km up river from Basel, which had to be negotiated slowly and by experienced pilots. So as not to waste time, men and porridge swapped vessels, racing round by land to a second boat which stood ready just beyond.

Another concession to modernity: the compulsory life jackets, and waterproofs acquired from the Swiss army. A dry woollen doublet is not a comfortable costume to row in; a wet doublet would be like a sponge. The rain gear came in useful.

Fostering friendship

All along the way the boats are welcomed with food, drink and speeches. The conviviality is one main purpose of the trip.

"Friendships need to be fostered," Zurich Mayor Elmar Ledergerber – resplendent in grey tunic, lace collar and feathered hat – told swissinfo. "It's an honour and a pleasure to take part."

The boats arrived in Strasbourg with Swiss punctuality on Saturday afternoon, to a warm welcome.

As the Zurich city band played, Ledergerber stepped out for a quick whirl with Strasbourg mayor Fabienne Keller. Then the people of Strasbourg queued up for their porridge.

Robert Grossmann, president of the Strasbourg urban community, summed up the mood. "This is a great symbol of a historical friendship that has been maintained right up to the present day," he said.

Key facts

The Hirsebreifahrt commemorates a real event of 1576, when boatmen from Zurich took a pot of hot porridge to Strasbourg to prove how quickly they could cover the distance between them.
It is re-enacted every ten years by the Boatmen's Guild, the Zurich City Shooting Society, the Zurich Society of Archers, the Zurich City Band and the Limmat-Club Zürich.
The boats are built of wood in traditional style and crew and passengers wear historic costume.
Today the trip takes three days because of the power stations and weirs blocking the river.

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