Small steps, narrow alleys and pointed gables shape this Swabian university town. By Wibke Carter • Photographs Courtesy Wibke Carter
The students of Tübingen are a special breed. They organize themselves in fraternities, are highly competitive and have an iron stomach. Once a year, on Corpus Christi in June, around sixty teams of eight people each participate in the annual historic Stocherkahn race. A Kahn is a slender wooden boat which can be up to 40 ft long. The punter or “Stocherer” in German stands on the stern of the boat with an almost 23 ft long stick with which he pushes the vessel along. Punts of this kind have been used for hundreds of years in Tübingen for fishing or as ferries on the Neckar River, however, the race, originally with seven teams, only started in 1956.
The upriver and downriver course, lined with thousands of spectators, gets challenging when the boats must navigate a figure-8, through “the eye of the needle”—and every trick in the book is allowed. “You can sink other boats, throw competitors into the water and there is always complete chaos,” laughed punter Martin Eberle while he pushed me gently along the Neckar on a sunny late summer day. After the climatic “eye” moment, the boats then head to the finish line where the winning team is awarded a keg of beer or eleven gallons of wine and the losers have to drink 16 ounces of cod liver oil each to “strengthen” them for next year’s race. So how did Martin fare, I wanted to know? “I never won—I just can’t afford to pay for the prize,” grinned the chemistry student and part-time punter.