Rich in tradition

The history of the W.D.R.

For well over 100 years, Wyker Dampfschiffs-Reederei has been a popular and much-needed link between the North Frisian Islands and the mainland of Schleswig-Holstein. While in the beginning, around 1885, the main focus was on excursions, the operation soon developed into a regular service, which today is used by tourists as well as for supplies.

Find out more about our chequered history:

Transport company and island supplier

In 1998, the Supervisory Board appointed shipping merchant Axel Meynköhn as the new Managing Director of W.D.R.. After decades of almost unchecked growth in tourism on the islands, it was now time to prepare the company for changing conditions. As was the case 130 years ago, tasks in the area of public services on the islands and Halligen are carried out on a purely self-economic basis without any public funding.

The activities of W.D.R. today cover four areas: The Föhr-Amrum Line (FAL), the Hallig Line (HAL), excursion transport in co-operation with partner shipping companies and public transport on Föhr and Amrum. W.D.R. currently operates five of its own car ferries ("Nordfriesland", "Schleswig-Holstein", "Uthlande", the newbuild "Norderaue", which entered service in 2018, and "Hilligenlei"). The "Rungholt" was sold in October 2019). A total of 8 modern vehicles are used for scheduled bus services, three articulated and one solo vehicle operate on Amrum, four further solo and articulated vehicles on Föhr.

In total, Wyker Dampfschiffs-Reederei Föhr-Amrum GmbH employs around 160 people in all areas of operation. The company has just under 315 shareholders, whose interests are represented by the nine-member Supervisory Board. As the former majority shareholder, the town of Wyk auf Föhr has sold a significant part of its stake in recent years, and new shareholders have joined the company as a result.

The town now holds a 31.9% stake in W.D.R. The new shareholders include Norden-Frisia Beteiligungsgesellschaft with a 39.7% stake. Conversely, W.D.R. is a shareholder in AG Reederei Norden-Frisia. There is also a reciprocal shareholding relationship with Neue Pellwormer Dampfschiffahrts-GmbH.

W.D.R. expands its activities

In the years following the Second World War, W.D.R's current business portfolio slowly developed. Initially, excursion transport was added to the liner service, and a few years later the shipping company also expanded on land by taking over the public transport services on Föhr and Amrum. The shipping business of today finally came into being in 1971, when W.D.R. merged with Amrumer Schiffahrts-AG (ASAG). Founded in 1960 by Captain August Jakobs, ASAG continued the Jakobs family's tradition of supplying Hallig islands. The Hallig supply service had begun in 1905 with a boat from Langeneß, later a somewhat larger sailing ship was put into service.

The Jakobs family once again lived up to their pioneering role in 1927, when they put the modern motor vessel "Hilligenlei", which was licensed for 40 people, into service. After the Second World War, the line Bongsiel - Langeneß - Hooge - Amrum was regularly served, and Schlüttsiel later became the new mainland harbour due to the embankment of Bongsiel. In 1968, ASAG put a modern ferry into service, the 212 GRT "Amrum", which could carry 481 passengers and 20 cars. With the takeover of ASAG, the W.D.R. also lost its last competitor in transport to Amrum. The "Amrum" that was taken over continued to operate between Schlüttsiel and Wittdün until 1991, before being replaced by a larger new vessel.

In 1971, the W.D.R. had the fairway off Dagebüll dredged so that a tide-independent timetable could be introduced. Between the early 1970s and the mid-1990s, the W.D.R. put numerous newbuilds into service and thus adapted to the increasing transport figures. The new building programme was completed in 1995 with the current flagship "Nordfriesland", which - like all other new W.D.R. ships since the end of the Second World War - was built at the Husum shipyard. The absolute record year in the company's history was 1992, when W.D.R. transported over 2.25 million passengers and 300,000 cars.

However, this was a temporary boom, which was mainly due to German reunification and a large number of East German holidaymakers.

The first holidaymakers bring their cars with them

Until the 1920s, cars were a marginal phenomenon on Föhr and Amrum, and it was only at this time that the desire to take cars on holiday was increasingly expressed. The W.D.R. reacted early and had the "Nordfriesland" equipped with a foredeck, which initially had space for one car, but after a later conversion could even carry four cars. While elsewhere cars were still hoisted on board with loading beams, the "Nordfriesland" already had a kind of direct driveway: the cars were manoeuvred on board over narrow wooden planks.

At high or low water levels, considerable differences in height had to be overcome, as there were no movable land ramps at the time. In view of this, vehicle owners rarely dared to carry out the loading manoeuvre themselves. In most cases, they handed their precious car over to a crew member and then watched anxiously as their car was brought on or off board. Due to the steep gradient at extreme water levels, an exhaust pipe or other individual part is said to have been lost occasionally, but no car ever fell into the water. Despite this reliability, car transport to Föhr and Amrum remained the exception rather than the rule in the 1930s. In the entire calendar year 1932, for example, only 36 cars were transported.

Passenger numbers, on the other hand, increased significantly. At this time, the W.D.R. was threatened from another side: the National Socialists planned to connect all the islands of North Friesland to the mainland via dams, modelled on the Hindenburg Dam. The direct connection was primarily intended to serve military purposes; the promotion of tourism or an improvement in supplies for the islanders played only a subordinate role in the plans. For the W.D.R., however, the realisation of the dam construction project would have meant the loss of its business basis. The plans were not realised due to the outbreak of the Second World War.

The war also caused considerable setbacks for W.D.R., and tourism to Föhr and Amrum largely came to a standstill in the final years of the war and in the immediate post-war period. W.D.R. ferries were repeatedly the target of air raids; in the most serious attack on 10 July 1944, eleven people died on board the "Kapitäne Christiansen" and 23 others were injured, some of them seriously. After that, the ship only travelled irregularly until the end of the war, mostly at night and without lighting. In the first years after the war, the W.D.R. had great difficulty maintaining its operations. There was a lack of everything except passengers. It was not holidaymakers, of course, but hungry city dwellers who came to the farming islands of Föhr to buy food. However, the currency reform triggered a rapid recovery process, and by the early 1950s the number of holidaymakers on the North Frisian Islands had already increased significantly.

When the British authorities released the previously occupied island of Heligoland in 1952, the W.D.R. set up a seasonal seaside resort service from Dagebüll, Föhr, Amrum and Sylt to the now once again German high seas island. In the core business, the ferry service from Dagebüll to Föhr and Amrum, the transport figures rose continuously. In 1954, a good 2,000 cars were already being transported, a record figure for the time. In November 1952, the long-requested stone pier in Dagebüll was completed, enabling the W.D.R. ships to operate much more reliably. The renewal of the shipping company's fleet began in the 1950s. It was above all the Managing Director of W.D.R., Max-Eckart Wolff, who was appointed in 1946, who correctly recognised the signs of the times and restructured W.D.R. with a view to the future.

Wolff's initiative was particularly responsible for the award of the contract for the first ferry based on the ro/ro principle in the summer of 1961. On 30 June 1962, the W.D.R. was able to put this ship into service as the "Pidder Lyng" between Dagebüll, Wyk and Wittdün. The 41.60 metre long ferry carried 200 passengers and 36 cars. In the following years, further ferries came into service, while older units were gradually phased out. The "Nordfriesland", built in 1927, left the fleet in 1963 after 36 years of service.

The W.D.R - island supply service provider since 1885

Anyone who has ever been to Föhr, Amrum, Hooge or Langeneß knows the importance of ferry transport for a well-organised life on the North Frisian islands and Halligen. Its mission as an island supply company runs like a red thread through the now 125-year history of W.D.R.

The origins of today's ferry services can be traced back to the 17th century. Regular ship connections between the mainland and the islands of Föhr and Amrum have been documented since 1662. From the mid-1830s, these connections experienced a slow upswing as the popularity of the seaside resort of Wyk increased. By the middle of the 19th century, over 1,000 guests a year were already coming to the second oldest seaside resort in Schleswig-Holstein, and the Danish King Christian VII also spent his summer holidays here several times. In 1872, the Wyk Ferry Co-operative opened a service between Wyk and Dagebüll for the first time with its steamship "Föhr Et Dagebüll". Although the comfort on the ships of the 19th century was not yet comparable to the standard of today (livestock transport was an important source of income, sometimes passengers, sheep and cows travelled on the same ship), more and more holidaymakers came to Föhr to relax in the healthy North Sea air. The blossoming spa tourism was a stroke of luck for the once poor island.

In the mid-1880s, some far-sighted citizens of Wyk, led by Captain Steffen-Heinrich Boetius, realised that there was a need for a new, larger and more modern passenger ship due to the increase in tourism. At the beginning of 1885, these interested parties got together to realise their plans - today's W.D.R. was born. On 14 March 1885, 33 citizens, led by Captain Boetius, finally came together in "Redlefsen's Hotel" in Wyk to decide to found the Wyker Rhederei-Gesellschaft. The minutes of the constituent "general meeting" of the new company state, among other things: "33 participants were present, from whom it was decided to purchase a twin-screw steamship as soon as possible at a price of 36,000 marks. For the time being, the ship is to sail to Sylt 2 to 3 times a week to connect with the saloon steamers travelling from Hamburg via Helgoland - Norderney to Wyk. On the other days of the week, the ship is to be used for pleasure trips to Dagebüll, Amrum, etc.". The minutes, which are still kept in the archives of the W.D.R. in Wyk, also document that the 33 citizens present immediately subscribed to a total of 22,500 marks and entrusted Captain Boetius, a Mr Tantau and a machinist Wulff with the order for the new ship. At the beginning of the 1886 summer season, the time had finally come: the new ship went into service under the name "Nordfriesland".

Initially, the ship travelled to Sylt several times a week, as had been decided a year earlier, but in addition to this, it was mainly used for services to the Schleswig-Holstein mainland. The term "pleasure cruise" for the service to Dagebüll indicates that this route was still an excursion at the time and was not comparable to the liner service of today. In fact, many bathers still travelled by steamer from Hamburg, and it was only after the railway connection was completed in 1895 that Dagebüll gradually developed into the most important mainland port for island traffic. The Wyker Rhederei-Gesellschaft was initially in direct competition with two other shipping companies in the traffic between Wyk and Dagebüll. However, thanks not least to its modern ship, it was quickly able to assert itself on the market and take over its most important competitor, Wyker Fährgenossenschaft, just six months after starting operations. When the Föhrer Dampfschiffahrts-Gesellschaft also went into liquidation almost three years later, in 1889, the Wyker Rhederei-Gesellschaft was unrivalled. It changed its name to "Wyker Dampfschiffs-Rhederei-Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung", and it was only many years later that the company was given its current name, Wyker Dampfschiffs-Reederei Föhr-Amrum GmbH. From then on, W.D.R. operated the service to Föhr alone, while it continued to compete with other providers to Amrum until 1971.

The W.D.R. expanded its ferry service to Föhr with great commitment. In July 1895, the narrow-gauge railway between Niebüll and Dagebüll went into operation, significantly improving transport links to the mainland port. This railway, jointly financed by the municipality of Niebüll, the town of Wyk and the province of Schleswig-Holstein, helped to boost spa tourism on Föhr, which continued until the outbreak of the First World War. In 1908, the W.D.R. put its new flagship, the steamer "Föhr-Amrum", into service. This 211 GRT ship could already carry 470 passengers and was considered a large coastal passenger ship by the standards of the time. Wyk in particular benefited from tourism, the headquarters of the W.D.R. grew and was even granted town charter in 1910.
The First World War put an end to the upswing in seaside resort tourism for the time being, and the W.D.R. had to record declining passenger numbers. In 1918, the town of Wyk auf Föhr took over 75% of the company's shares. A few years later, the people of Föhr and Amrum were confronted with a new construction project that did not affect them directly, but made them fear for their competitiveness as a holiday region: construction of the Hindenburg Dam to Sylt began in 1924. Föhr and Amrum reacted quickly and decisively to counter the impending competitive disadvantage of this new causeway connection. As early as the winter of 1925/1926, the small railway from Niebüll to Dagebüll was converted to standard gauge, so that from the 1926 summer season, direct train runs with standard-gauge carriages to Dagebüll were possible. The journey time from Berlin, the capital of the Reich, to the mainland harbour was now only nine hours. At the same time as the re-gauged small railway was put into operation, the W.D.R. commissioned an impressive new building from a Hamburg shipyard. In June 1927, it took delivery of its new flagship, the "Nordfriesland". The 285 GRT, almost 40 metres long and 7.80 metres wide ship could carry 740 passengers. However, the eleven-knot "Nordfriesland" had another highlight in store: She was the first ship of the W.D.R. to carry cars.