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Meyer Werft Shipyard (Papenburg, Germany)

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Meyer Werft Shipyard, one of the most modern in the world, in Papenburg, Germany.

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      22.09.2011 19:11
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      one of the biggest and most modern shipyards of the world

      The small town of Papenburg with ~35.000 inhabitants lies on the river Ems, the westernmost of the four navigable rivers in Germany flowing into the North Sea. From there it's about 50 km to the coast and about 15 km to the border with the Netherlands. It's pretty and well-kept, the main canal has flower beds on the grassy banks, several white bridges span the water. Papenburg has a distinctly Dutch touch. But this is not the reason why 300.000 tourists go there every year, it's the MEYER WERFT (Werft = wharf, shipyard) they want to visit.

      The region was once very poor, farmers couldn't get much out of the moor. In the olden days horses used to wear shoes, flat boards tied to their hooves, so that they wouldn't sink into the wet soil. But there was also peat which brought a bit more money. Ditches were made to drain the land, canals were dug to transport the peat to town (from there human excrements were brought back as manure for the fields). For the transport barges were needed, that meant that shipyards were built; in the middle of the 19th century Papenburg was home to twenty shipyards. Only the MEYER WERFT (on the English homepage they always use the German term) has survived, not only survived, however, but it has developed into one of the leading shipyards of the world. It was founded in 1795 and is now owned by the sixth generation of the Meyer family, one son of the present boss is preparing himself to take over the firm when his father retires. You may not have heard of the MEYER WERFT but may have come into contact with its products.

      The Tourist Information office of Papenburg is located in a picturesque brig lying at anchor in the main canal in front of the church. There one has to fetch the pre-booked ticket half an hour before the tour begins, at a bus stop nearby a tour guide and a bus wait to take the visitors to the MEYER WERFT, the ride takes about 5 minutes.

      In the information centre the visitors walk up a flight of stairs or take a lift to a small cinema where they're shown a 10-minute film about the MEYER WERFT in general, its history, its ships and the way the ships are designed. We learn that more than 2.500 people are employed, the average age is 38 years, and that the workload will keep the company busy well into the year 2015. The construction process is fully digitised, assembly processes can be tested in 3D simulations, construction drawings are hardly found any more, everything is cutting-edge.

      Then the guide takes the tourists to a gallery with models of the types of ships the MEYER WERFT builds, or in one case, built. Older readers will remember the film African Queen with Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. The Kaiser's gunboat on Lake Tanganyika, the characters they play sink so courageously, was modelled after the one the MEYER WERFT built in Papenburg in 1913. It steamed to East Africa, was dismantled there, taken through the jungle to Lake Tanganyika and put together again. It has recently been in the news because it's still running as a ferry on Africa's longest lake but is badly in need of repair. The MEYER WERFT will see to it. From the BBC news, "...the costs might well be higher than actually building a new ship. But would a new ship be quite the same as an ancient steamer, dented and bulging with history?"

      But this is a historical aside, what the MEYER WERFT earns its money with nowadays are container ships, gas tankers which transport gases in liquid form, Ro-Ro (roll on - roll off) ships which serve as passenger and car ferries, mainly in Indonesia (up to now the MEYER WERFT has delivered 24 ferries to this country), livestock carriers. I won the first prize when the guide made us guess how many sheep the largest livestock carrier in the world can take when I suggested 10.000. I was the nearest to the actual number of 125.000 (one hundred and twenty-five thousand)! I saw a photo of the sheep trotting on board, a spectacular sight. I wonder how long it takes until they all find their cabin. I scored again when she asked where from and where to they went, but this time I was spot on: from Australia and New Zealand to Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. The death rate on the ships from the MEYER WERFT is very low, the automatic fodder and drinking water supply system, the dung removal system and the ventilation system are all state-of-the-art.

      Fascinating as all these ships are, they aren't the crowd pullers, the luxurious cruise ships are. In 1983 the Homeric was the first cruise ship, 31 have been built altogether by now. Cruises used to be a favourite way of spending time and money for rich, old people, now young and not only well-off ones are attracted as well, what with the offer of sports facilities, fun events and the more casual style on board. You would have to pay me to make me go on a cruise, but my preferences are not the topic here, it's a fact that cruises are booming and so is the building of cruise ships.

      The MEYER WERFT has two huge, 500m long, covered building docks, the visitors can look into one of them from a glass-covered gallery. When I was there, a cruise ship was nearly finished, another one was already in the making beside it. When the ship has left the dock, it will be the No 1 and another will be begun beside it and so on. The MEYER WERFT doesn't build the complete ship, many sub-contractors work with them. In the gallery are models of cruise ships the MEYER WERFT has already built, the guide explains all their peculiarities. A mock cabin with a balcony is shown as well, cabins are made by an outside firm, complete with carpets on the floor and furniture fixed to floor and walls and then shoved into the sides of the ship.

      It's all overwhelmingly big and impressive, but unfortunately I couldn't see the greatest attraction the MEYER WERFT has to offer, namely a launching. It's always a gigantic event, a real folk festival. About 100.000 spectators come, many from the Netherlands, the caravans park on the bank several rows deep. The Ems is a small river, by closing the barrier the river is dammed, the ships can only be conveyed when there is enough water. Sometimes this is only possible at night which doesn't mean that there are fewer spectators. The ships are pulled backwards because in this way they can be manoeuvred more easily. The staff stand on board in pretty uniforms, loud music is playing. Our guide told us that the last launching was so moving that she cried 'snot and water' as the Germans say, her husband was surprised and suspected she might have had an affair with the captain.

      The whole north-west region of Germany is called East Frisia by people who don't live there. Technically speaking, the region to which Papenburg belongs is called Emsland and only the region further north is called Friesland. There seems to be some rivalry between the two regions, the guide told us that the birds living on the banks of the river are tougher in Emsland, ecologists from Friesland have enforced that there is no loud music coming from the ship when it reaches the border to Friesland in order not to frighten the birds.

      Tours can be booked in German, Dutch and English. Should you ever be in the vicinity of Papenburg, maybe on your way to destinations further south on the European mainland, make a detour to the MEYER WERFT, I can highly recommend it.

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