A Seaworthy Museum In Gøteborg

The sound of the Maritiman museum in Gøteborg is half the experience.  Steel whines against steel, engines hum, wharfs creak, footsteps ring out in the gloom.  Everything is a little unsteady.  This is a floating mess of ladders and pipes, where the sound and the movement of the waves provides atmosphere.  After an hour or two, you feel like a sailor.  The museum has a way of completely enveloping the visitor - the fluorescent gleam on worn metal, the smoothness of ladder rungs, the smell of new paint and old mildew.
Crawling through the green belly of the submarine Nordkaparen, past hundreds of dials and knobs, is like maneuvering through a hard-shelled dreamscape.
The seventeen boats that make up Maritiman - thirteen floating, four resting on the wharf - are so closely moored that the various decks and smokestacks create a jumbled whole.  Gøteborg is close at hand; on deck, the city sounds of traffic and people are as clear as the noise of the water.  Seagulls wheel, bicyclists whizz by on the waterfront, the ticket office sells ice cream cones to chilly pedestrians.  It feels much like any normal, familiar urban dockside.
The museum boats are anything but normal, though.  Guns prickle atop the destroyer HMS Småland, fire hoses wreath the Flodsprutan II, primitive radar antennae juts up from the minelayer Kalmarsund.  There's a harbor crane, two cute little tugs, a few lifeboats, a massive cargo ship and a rare, 19th century Monitor named the Sölve. There's even a floating lighthouse, the No. 29 Fladen (the red tower can be seen in the left of the picture).  The No. 29 was, rather pitiably, replaced by an "anchored buoy" in 1969.
The exterior decks are fun and interesting - the maze of connective ramps and stairways is engaging by itself - but the museum is most thrilling down below.  This is where the reverberations - who knows from what vibration? - take over, and the way becomes confusing.  How far does the hallway go?  Is this a dead end?  Where did that staircase come from?  Have I passed this before?
Levels and directions are pointless after a while.  Partly, the strangeness is because of the movement of the ship and the swaying of the lights.  Partly, it's because of the low ceilings, the perpetual crouch, the tight spaces.  It's rare, aboard the warships, to be able to stand up straight and get a good look around.  But the disorientation is partly willful - I didn't care about getting lost.
The Småland was, according to an information plaque, the first destroyer in the world to be outfitted with sea-based missiles.  The plaque also mentions such diverse armaments as torpedos, 12cm cannons, anti aircraft guns, anti submarine rocket launchers, depth charges, 58 mines, chaff-launchers and flare rockets.
Yes, up in the fresh air, the ship is impressively armed.  But that aspect of it hardly resonates below. It was difficult to recognize what anything was - even a kitchen looked warped, too small and foreign.  I could hear a few other visitors, somewhere in the corridors around me, but I didn't see anyone until I found myself back in sunlight.
Hugging the side of the Småland, looking like a prowling shark, the submarine Nordkaparen is one of Maritiman's jewels.  Built in 1961 as a state of the art coastal-defense weapon, the ship was used for about twenty years, before being decommissioned and docked.  The tarp over the front and the plentiful rust don't inspire a lot of confidence in the Nordkaparen's seaworthiness, but it seemed safe enough in the harbor.
After clambering down a long ladder, one can imagine immediately that they are deep under the surface.  Sounds are transmitted with watery vagueness.  There are no windows.  Wires and tubes criss-cross around you.  It's as much Jules Verne as Tom Clancy.
It's difficult to believe that twenty seven men lived aboard the Nordkaparen.  There doesn't seem to be room for three people in the tight confines.  There are valves and gauges on every surface - all vividly low-tech. It's not what one imagines a submarine to be like, it's much scarier.  Imagine maneuvering this blind cylinder in the black deep, without the aid of computers or modern controls, with no visibility, feeling the way with radar.
Torpedos shouldn't feel surprising in this realm, but somehow they caught me off guard.  There were several of them, bright orange, protruding from their barrels.  Most of the bunks were arrayed around the weapons, presumably because that's where there was some space.
What really brings the museum to life are the textures and sounds.  Everything is right there to be touched, bumped against or snagged on.  Many decks are reached by cramped ladder, and so the interiors become full of handholds and things to lean into.  Deep down, in the engine room of the Småland, pipes and ducts twist through the space like treeroots in a cave.  The ships groan and clang against eachother.  Walking through, getting lost, one passes empty kitchens and bunk rooms and chambers full of dials. For the claustrophobic, the tight spaces and hard edges might be frightening.  For the inflexible, some of the submarine ports might be hard to navigate - even relatively limber folks have to essentially crawl through the holes.  After some time alone in these depths, the boats take on a surreal spookiness.  These ships aren't exactly meant for humans, they're just big machines - it's like spending time inside an engine.
A brighter, more lighthearted feeling permeates other boats - like the plucky Flodsprutan II, which has lived in Gøteborg harbor since 1931.  The little fire boat patrolled the waterfront until the '70's, and is still in working order.  Rows of gleaming nozzles and coiled hoses are hung against the walls, the kitchen looks recently used (seen above - the dishes are part of the display).  Nearby, two more modern navy boats - a minelayer and a patrol craft - are sleek and fast and comfortable.  The cheerful red of the lighthouse boat, No. 29 Fladen, hides a bright interior full of blue china and genteel uniforms.
Gøteborg hasn't opened itself up to the water.  The port is more functional than fancy.  Buildings along the seafront aren't as pretty as those further in, and the city isn't defined by the view from a ferry.  So, at the end of a visit to Maritiman, standing at the very top of the Minelayer Kalmarsund, with cranes and cruise ships in the distance, one can feel that they are docked in any port in any city.  That's part of the charm. Spending a few hours at the museum, you can really pretend that your life is at sea - or, at least, it excites the imagination enough to make all the strangeness feel natural.
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