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A sunny-ish dawn on a brown river in the centre of Hamburg. Once the launch pad for the Beatles and other denizens of rock and roll, the scene is more sombre, in a 'morning after the night before' sense. Early to board at number 3 quay at Landungsbrücke for the fast cat up the Elbe and then out into the normally grey Nord See, there are few other passengers on one of Europe's greatest unsung rivers. Off to visit Germany's only deep sea rocky island, the mysterious Helgoland.

BBC World Service listeners may be familiar with Helgoland as 'German Bight' - as the shipping forecaster might intone "Fisher, Dogger, German Bight; southwesterly, increasing force five".

In an autumn turning leafscape the northern bank of the Elbe is mottled with smart houses and wooded green-russet bluffs. In the wan sunlight it has a surreal quality in contrast to the unnatural succession of giant floating dock, enormous container port, huge Airbus factory, Dow chemical works and sundry steaming or gleaming riverside industrial plants on the opposite bank. The river is a busy place with push tugs and butties, workers' ferries, fire and police boats, dredgers, vintage sailing boats with otter boards, chemical tankers, an incongruous paddle-steamer, a boat to transport plane parts and view-blocking container vessels. We toot politely but firmly to pass and slow for sailing boats. There are other harbour-master curbs on speed to be obeyed, however, when it lets rip this cat squeals and easily tops 35 knots. You sense the skipper wants to go faster but we slow for the entrance to the Nord-Ostsee Kanal (formerly Kiel Canal) and odd nuclear kraftwerk power stations sat on the bank-side like sturdy concrete toadstools.

After Cuxhaven land, and scattered low sand bars, give way to sea, deep-ish sea, bouncy sea. A seascape filled with ships coming, going or just stored at anchor in the relatively un-administered waters waiting for something; maybe entrance to one of Hamburg's dry docks, the kanal, or transfer to another fleet. However, it seems a relatively short hop, skip and a wavy bump or two before new land ahoys into view surrounded by horizon-hogging wind farms in a corncockle blue embrace and warming sunshine. It looks and feels magical but first impressions from afar belittle its fairy tale history as an historical and sometimes bloody punctuation mark in a bitterly cold-steel cordite sea and bitter warmongering imperial relations.

Wilkommen auf Helgoland/Heligoland. Naturally Frisian, once Danish, once British, thence German (spicily exchanged for Zanzibar) then British again and finally German but flying its own flag of green (for the land), red (for the cliffs) and white (for the sands) and operating its own customs taxes. The Halunder Jet boat bumps into berth and expectations of wonders (or cheap fags for some) rise.

There is more to come.

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