BY Erik Bigalk on 28 Jun 2024

The sailing world gathers in Germany’s ‘Sailing City’ for the 143rd Kiel Week, the world’s largest sailing event

Kiel, capital of Germany’s most northern state Schleswig-Holstein, has always been the Sailing City of Germany and has attracted sailors from around the world, be it for pure leisure, competitive sailing or in commercial pursuit.

In 1882, on the back of German Kaiser Wilhelm II buying the unsuccessful British challenger of the America’s Cup, a 109-foot Watson-designed and Henderson-built cutter, three northern sailing clubs decided to host a regatta. Taking off from Düsternbrook, the race would not only test the skill and spirit of the sailors and the unpredictable swell and conditions of Kiel Bay and the Baltic Sea that meets it, but proved to stand the test of time.

The sailing world gathers in Germany’s ‘Sailing City’ for the 143rd Kiel Week, the world’s largest sailing event

In its inaugural installment, only 20 yachts took to the local seas, including one from Denmark. The regatta was so well received that it took place again the following year, continuing annually ever since. The number of competitors had grown to 100 yachts by the year 1892. Over the years, the event grew in popularity, attracting more international interest, with participation reaching thousands of ships by the event’s 25th anniversary.

Paused only during World War I, and again during WWII, it has otherwise run for 143 years this year. Christened Kiel Week in 1894 by the Kieler Zeitung newspaper, it has become an installation across not only the main sailing regattas but has morphed into a weeklong celebration with ever-growing water sports, classes and non-sailing elements spreading – on and off the water – right across the northern state’s capital city.

The sailing world gathers in Germany’s ‘Sailing City’ for the 143rd Kiel Week, the world’s largest sailing event

In the year 1936, Germany played host to the Summer Olympics and again in 1972, which further cemented Kiel as the Sailing City, making Kiel Week an important event for all Olympic competition classes. The year 1972 also brought the first old-timer tall ship Windjammer Parade (below) to Kiel Week with over 100 of the world’s oldest still seafaring tall ships and yesteryear vessels in attendance. They’re led by Kiel-based Gorch Fock II, a three masted barque with a sparred length of 269-ft and 18,870-sqft of sail area. She is one of five sister ships spread around the globe that are used as training vessels for navy cadets. She was a focal point of the iconic parade of historic sailing ships across Kiel’s Fjord.

Fast forward to today, when the Olympic Centre at Schilksee on the far north-western side of the 17 kilometre-long Kiel Bay now attracts around 5,000 sailors and over 2,000 vessels from the world over for the week-long regatta. Competitions in windsurfing, kiteboarding, and canoeing and more make Kiel Week the world’s largest sailing event. This year’s event had entries from 52 nations, among these 36 entries from Australia, 13 from Hong Kong, five from New Zealand, four from Thailand, two each from South Korea, Malaysia and China as well as one each from India, Singapore and Samoa. With hopes held high for the Asia-Pacific contenders, this year’s event was yet again a sailing spectacle not to be missed.

The sailing world gathers in Germany’s ‘Sailing City’ for the 143rd Kiel Week, the world’s largest sailing event

My parents injected a love of sailing into my life early, when they placed a jib line in my hand before I could barely walk. That saw me spend almost every long weekend and school holiday on the Kieler Foerde, Baltic Sea and sailing Danish waters, despite my growing love for soccer, which sadly, conflicted at times. I sailed Opti, the shoebox-like dinghy from an early age. I even sailed it solo across the busy Foerde, which is filled with any number of the 120,000 yachts moored in Kiel Bay.

After the 7.6-meter sailing yacht Andros, which my dad had hand-built the shell and hull of at a wharf in Hamburg and then fitted out himself, was gradually getting too small for us, we stepped it up to an 11-meter beauty called Marotte. A type Konsul, a rather seaworthy vessel, it was always being rifled and prepared for that long haul sailing journey that, due to my father’s declining health, sadly never took place.

The sailing world gathers in Germany’s ‘Sailing City’ for the 143rd Kiel Week, the world’s largest sailing event

Kiel Week has become a multi-cultural festival that envelopes the whole city and its wider outskirts in celebrations both on and off the water. From kayak polo, speedboats, dragon boat races, and rescue helicopter displays to workshops of all kinds, markets, music concerts and of course Fisch Broetchen and a never-ending supply of beer – it is in Germany after all. As always, there is a strong contingent of international navy vessels, plus of course the array of tall ships from around the globe.

It is said that during Kiel Week, anything, even a bathtub with a broomstick and a bedsheet, can be found drifting across the bay. I, for one, literally spent the whole week every summer, deep-diving into the diverse going-ons of this celebration of sailing and boating life, ever since I can remember.

The sailing world gathers in Germany’s ‘Sailing City’ for the 143rd Kiel Week, the world’s largest sailing event

It is actually where I fell in love with tall ships. I have been aboard many historic vessels the likes of the Mire, Gorch Fock II, Alexander von Humboldt II, and White Swan, to name a few, feeling I had just walked off the movie set of The Bounty, Master and Commander or Moby Dick. So much so that I handcrafted a model of the Gorch Fock at age 12 year, which to this day is moored atop a cupboard in my father’s house.

For the leisure sailing enthusiast, there is ample on offer, everything from ocean yachts to model displays. Most of the regattas are held at Schilksee; it’s the place to witness elite sailors from all around the world competing in classes such as 420, 470, 29er, 49er, 49er FX, Contender, Europe, Flying Dutchman, the ILCA’s, Iqfoil, J/24, J/70, Musto Skiff, Nacra 17, Nordic Folkboat, OK, and Waszp (and many more) as the Kiel Week regattas make part of World Cup ranking and Olympic qualification.

The sailing world gathers in Germany’s ‘Sailing City’ for the 143rd Kiel Week, the world’s largest sailing event

North Germany has also made a name for its custom build luxury private yachts that keep attracting orders from multi-millionaires from as far away as the UAE, the US and Asia, and many make an appearance during the regattas.

In short, Kiel Week is not just about sailing, regattas and the boating culture, but a landmark event that caters to everyone. However, it remains an awesome celebration of the coastal lifestyle, and of boating generally and everyone who makes the journey here for this special week quickly understands why Kiel Week is the largest sailing event in the world.

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