A trip through the Dutch Canals

Nicholas Hill

Coming back from the Baltic to England means crossing the North Sea. Single handed, this meant coast hopping. That was no problem, except the section from Borkum to Den Helder - a distance of nearly 100 miles. This is a long hop single handed, probably about twenty hours or so - which meant either (1) leaving in the dark, (2) arriving in the dark, or (3) going overnight. Neither (1) or (2) were really safe in these waters - particularly when you haven't been there before - and I didn't fancy an overnighter. (Ironically we had perfect sailing conditions a year later when I was coming the other way with Rob - we did den Helder to Nordeney, which is further, overnight in about 22 hours.) The passage was also complicated by the fact you're heading straight into the prevailing winds, and there are no easy harbours of refuge.

Well, there are harbours, but they're all in the inside, so to speak, and to get to them you have to go between the islands. The channels between them are deep, but they all have a bar where the channels exit into the North Sea. These bars are not only shallow, but if there's any sort of onshore wind blowing, they become extremely dangerous - particularly on the ebb tide, when the wind and tide are opposite to each other. The pilot book talks about these passages with a metaphorical sucking of teeth. They are probably no problem if you have local knowledge, but not a good idea if you're looking for a refuge in a hurry.

There was an alternative - to go through the Dutch canals. In addition, thought I, it would be a good opportunity to see what they're like, and an interesting experience. So I left Borkum with the intention of going into the canals at Lauersoog.

Borkum harbour

There are two harbours in Borkum - the yacht harbour is very shallow and apparently rather tatty. This is the main harbour, which was once a naval base - hence the rather large pontoons!

Borkum harbour

It looks as though it should be well sheltered, but in strong southwesterlies a fairly hefty swell rolls into the harbour, making the pontoons distinctly uncomfortable

It was a slightly misty morning, but the visibility was good enough to navigate out of the Ems estuary. I was rather more worried about the channel by the island of Schiermonnikog, which is narrow and winding, but fortunately the murk lifted. There were quite a few boats taking the last of the ebb out, and more of us waiting to take the flood in.

It was a few miles to Lauersoog itself - I tied up and went for a wander, but wasn't impressed. Move on, I thought. For some reason, the lock didn't open for an hour or so, and, together with other boats, I had to hang about outside, drifting with the wind, then motoring back. Slightly to my surprise, I didn't have much of a problem with the lock, even though the wind was blowing me in, and I was soon in the Lauersmeer (meer = lake, and you'll find it used in Northern England - Windermere). But it was getting a little late by now, and I made for the marina at Ostmannhorn.

The wind had got up quite a bit, and I knew I'd have to pick my mooring carefully. All the quayside was used up, but there were one or two boxes empty ... no, I thought. I decided instead to raft up against a large Bavaria - and knew I was storing up trouble for myself. The wind was blowing me on quite hard, and getting off again wouldn't be easy - unless the wind dropped or shifted. Well, that was something for the morning.

And the morning duly came - the wind was blowing harder if anything, pinning me to the boat inside ... who wanted to go. He did suggest casting off with me still attached(!), but I thought a better option might be for me to spring off (see pretty graphic). Rope from my bow to his midships and back to the bow. Plenty of fenders on the bow. I motor ahead, rope holds me back, stern swings out. At the critical moment, go hard reverse. Line goes slack, he takes it off his cleat and throws it onto my boat.

He was dubious. What if the line fouls my prop? he asked. I told him I was using a line that could float (originally intended for a man overboard line. These have to float!) He shrugged. Well, it worked - although his wife was obviously concerned about my bow roller catching on their boat as I backed away. I followed him down the Lauersmeer towards the lock a few miles away. The shallow depth alarm was beeping all the way - it was set to 1.8m, and I usually ground at 1.6m. It was often showing 1.5m! I suspect I was ploughing through the mud from time to time.

The wind was dead astern, and funnelling down the canal. By the time we got to the lock, it was a good Force 6. The lock opened. I didn't like this - going in single handed with this wind behind me ... would I be able to stop? I chickened out.

One of the factors that led me to this was some staging on the bank belonging to the Yachthaven Lunegat. I could tie up there and wait a day or so for the wind to drop - which I did.

Lunegat Yachthaven

Lunegat Yachthaven: crane and marina manager's house.

So, come Sunday morning, nice bright day, little wind, cast off and head over to the staging by the lock, waiting for lock to open. Lights come on by the lock, start engine, cast off, engage reverse, and ... nothing. Try everything: forward, neutral, reverse - still nothing, except a funny sound when engine was in gear. The lock has opened and closed by this time, and I ended up drifting into the reeds. I hailed a passing Bavaria, who towed me the two hundred yards back to the Yachthaven.

So ... talk to Rob, the marina manager. He towed me round into the marina proper and called an engineer. First option was the cable from the control lever to the gear box - the only option that didn't involve taking the boat out of the water. No luck. Rob arranged a hoist out (just him and me - unlike Strahlwerfft in Germany, where there was eight of them and me. They've since gone bust.). Propeller so loose you can waggle it with your hand. So, new propeller needed (the splines had worn away on the old one, and getting compensation from the UK agents through whom I bought the boat was ... interesting). This took another few days, and one of the problems with the yachthaven was that it was in the middle of nowhere. A kind Dutch family gave me a lift to the nearby town of Kollum so I could get some provisions. There was a bus to Dokkum - a charming small town a little further down the canals.

After about a week, the new prop was fitted. To pay the engineer, he drove me to Kollum, where I fed card after card into the cash machines to get the money. And then I was able to move on.

I left early on a Sunday morning to catch first opening of the lock. This proved to be another embarrassment. I got into the lock, grabbed a rope on the side, and threaded lines through rings. There was still space in front - should I move forward? I looked behind. The lock had plenty of empty spaces, and was closing - no point, thought I. Until, as the lock was filling, the voice of the lock keeper came over the loudspeaker: 'English boat - you have left a space in front of you. I do not understand such behaviour.'

Dokkum Lock

Since he was tucked away in his control room, there was nothing I could say in return. There was no point in moving now. I acted as if I hadn't heard. All the other people in the lock politely looked the other way. I left as the lock open feeling the day hadn't started well.

It was then a few miles to Dokkum, where there are various bridges to pass through. I was caught out again. I had heard of the custom of collecting payment by dangling a clog on the end of a piece of string. What I had missed when approaching the town was the sign stating the payment. I got to the bridge, boats hard on my heels, and as the clog went down, reached into my pockets. Empty. 'No money,' I shouted up to the man with the clog. 'Not good,' he shouted back.

The next bridge was five hundred metres or so further down. Things were tricky. The canal was fairly crowded with boats, and in particular, a very large steel barge treading on my heels. There was a bit of a breeze blowing by now. I had to keep the boat moving to keep steerage way - too slow, and the keel can stall, which means the boat slides sideways all too easily. Too fast, and I would be pinned up against the next bridge. Prospero does not go backwards very predictable until she is moving at a knot or two.

Whilst I'm juggling all these factors, a man comes down the towpath on a bike. 'You owe one Euro fifty!'. Okay then - leave the helm, dash below, scrabble on the chart table for comes, dash back up. How to give the money to the bloke? Ideally, I should have put some fenders out before approaching the bank, but that would have delayed matters even further. Instead, I edge in, pass over the money (leaving the helm again), and ... the wind blows the bow in. I hit the metal paling - not hard, but hard enough, I knew, to have scratched the gel coat.

You can meet some quite big fellows in the canals.

Travelling in convoy

Finally we got clear of Dokkum, and the next point about the canals became clear: you effectively travel in convoy. Partly, of course, is that you are limited in your speed anyway, but if a boat gets ahead, it then has to wait by the next bridge until everyone else has caught it up. I tended to hang back - although you can contact the bridge by VHF, the main set is below, and I have been told hand held VHFs are not approved of in the Netherlands.

Eventually I got to Leeurwarden, and whether I liked it or not, that was where I was staying - the bridges were closing for the day. I spotted a portion of the bank that was clear, and headed for it. As I was a couple of feet away, the boat slowed down and stopped. I looked at the depth sounder - still plenty of water ... then I started moving backwards! The top of the mast had caught in overhanging branches, which had bent forward to stop me, and now were pushing me back as I straightened out. Oh, well, find somewhere else.

Leeuwarden

Moorings at Leeuwarden

Leeuwarden

The streets of Leeuwarden

I spent a few days in Leeurwarden, which is an historic town, if slightly shabby, and built round the canal system. Then it was time to move on, and left with the early morning convoy through the bridges on the way out of town (to cries of 'Faster!' from the boat behind, as I navigated the narrow gap of one of the bridges). The canal system ends at Harlingen, with a final lock out to the North Sea. I got through this one without too much trouble, and when people saw I was singlehanded, they helped to hold me in place whilst I tied up.

It shows how flat this part of the Netherlands is: the land from the Lauersmeer to the North Sea - perhaps 60 or 70 miles - is all the same height ... about 3 or 4 metres above sea level!

I had thought of stopping in Harlingen, but the access to the yacht harbour looked awkward, and there was plenty of time left in the day. I was now out in the Waddensee, surrounded by hordes of boats who had all come through the locks at the same time. There was a little wind - I pulled out of the main stream of boats to hoist the sail, then motored along near the end of the convoy. I hadn't detailed charts for this part of the world, but the electronic charts I had indicated the deep water channels. And if in doubt, follow the others ... well, providing it looked as though they drew more water than I did!

The channel took us past the Ijsselmeer, and another cascade of yachts came out of the big lock there. Whereas before I had been motoring into the wind, the channel now turned to the west, and I could now sail closehauled towards the exit to the North Sea.

The wind wasn't that strong - never more than about F3 - and these were conditions that suited Prospero. There were a lot of yachts of all shapes and sizes just emerging from the Ijsselmeer, and going the same way as me. I'd hold my own private race.

Now Prospero is only 30 foot, and there were some big boats behind me. True, many were heavy cruising boats, but not all of them, and Prospero is not a racing yacht. I was singlehanded, so the autohelm was doing the steering, but in these conditions the boat is so well balanced that it had little to do, leaving me free to trim the sails. And I held them all off - which was rather pleasing.

Eventually the wind died, and I motored the last few miles into den Helder for the night, and from there into the North Sea - but that's another story.

So - what did I think of the experience? First and foremost: don't do it singlehanded! Several reasons: locks; putting money into dangling clogs while motoring at high speed through narrow gaps and trying to steer the boat at the same time; not being able to leave the helm for hours at a time as the canal meanders round the countryside. The stress reduced the enjoyment factor considerably. In addition, don't expect to make a great distance in one day: the bridges are a great time waster. On the other hand, if you've time to explore, and are happy to amble along, then you'll enjoy it.

All photographs copyright CNH/COH. Please ask if you wish to use them and please acknowledge the source.