North Sea Voyage – Ramsgate to the Kiel Canal

Nicholas Hill

The boat went back into the water on a Monday, and then I had a rig check and engine service. Wednesday evening I went down to Gosport for the last time, together with Godfrey, who was going to accompany me on the trip to Ramsgate.

We did well with the weather window: Thursday and Friday were quite mild, with light winds. Saturday saw strong northerlies, and Sunday - well, Sunday saw the biggest snowfall of the winter in the South!

We cast off at 06:30. We were heading east, and had to make the Looe Channel off Selsey Bill before HW at 10:00. We just managed it, although when we got there, the tide was already against us. The wind was really too light to sail - we could have put the cruising chute up, but even with that, we wouldn't have made the ground. The tide turned in our favour at 17:00 and swept us round Beachy Head. We made the 19:00 lock at Sovereign Harbour in Eastbourne.

Sovereign Harbour might be a good pitstop, but is fairly soulless. It is Port Solent writ large. Good ablutions, and a good Indian restaurant. After that ... not much. And we weren't impressed by the locals.

So, out through the lock again at 07:30 in the morning. Almost no wind. This time we had the tide with us, and kept it after Dungeness, where the tide directions reverse. Very handy.

In Rye Bay we were intercepted by the Lydd Range boat, and steered a little further off to clear the guns [we had heard them earlier]. Past Dungeness, it began to get murky, and I checked the AIS. Boat dead ahead, approaching at 13.4 knots, CPA 0.2NM in 11 minutes time! We scanned the murk, and picked him up about 2 miles away. The great advantage of AIS is that you have prior warning, and you know where to look. In those conditions, we'd have seen him in good time, but it was nice not to be taken unawares.

Dover was the next 'challenge', and again, using the AIS, I had a good idea of what was coming and going. Vis was now poor - sometimes less than two miles. We had some fraught moments as ferry after ferry came in, but we eventually got past.

Past South Foreland, we had another alarm - the AIS told us that the Pride of Canterbury was there, hardly moving, and when we saw him, we weren't sure quite what he was doing. Not very much, as it turned out, but it was an anxious few minutes as we went past.

We were still motoring. At the outset, I thought I'd got bags of fuel, but now the gauge was nudging empty. Worse still, we lost the tide. Would we make it? The wind had come up, but was dead astern, and we were on the point of sailing by the lee. The sail wasn't helping as much as we wanted it to. The final stretch to Ramsgate was slow and tedious. We had gone up the Gull Channel, and looking at the chart, would have done better to go through the inshore channel.

Still, we were in and tied up by about 18:30. And then a stiff drink!

We left the boat in Ramsgate, and I'm going down in a week's time. This time, I hope, North Sea and Germany!

north sea

Ramsgate to Nordeney in 60 hours.

I had left the boat in Ramsgate for 10 days [at a cost of £195!], and returned to find a visiting boat moored the other side of me. The gap between us was less than a foot, and his fenders had popped up, leaving his toerail free to graunch the side of Prospero. The VHF aerial which I had fitted for the AIS was also broken and lying over at an angle of ninety degrees. Enquiries didn't get very far: the marina office refused to say anything to begin with [Data Protection Act!], then eventually gave me a mobile number. I rang it, and told him of the trouble. He immediately started on about how slack my lines had been, and that any problem was down to me. Not what the Marina's photographs show, I lied. He went silent then hung up.

My crew, Rob, was running the London Marathon on the Sunday, and took the train down the next day. We went over to the fuel pontoon and took on a lot of diesel [my last chance for cheap fuel!]. Then it was out of the harbour into the North Sea.

The forecast had been for strongish northerly winds, but we motored out into an almost flat calm - well, not flat ... there was the ubiquitous swell rolling in from the north. We were also fighting a strong tide, so progress was slow. The AIS was proving its worth, however - we could see ships up to 25 or 30 miles away, and given that we were close to the Dover Straits, there were a lot of them!

We were still motoring as the sun set, although a little wind had come up to help us. It wasn't until probably around midnight that I could reel out the jib and turn the engine off. Rob was down below at the time, and the wind slowly rose as the night went on. It also became extremely lumpy. I was below trying to doze when it became clear we needed to reef, and doing this in the dark was not fun.

My plan was to run parallel to the main shipping lane that came out of the Channel towards the northwest corner of the Netherlands. We were perhaps five miles off: far enough to be well clear, but close enough to see the lights of the oncoming traffic. The only lane we had to cross was the Deep Water route, which was very quiet. On the AIS I could see the mass of traffic turning off for Europort. Certainly, the AIS proved its worth on this trip. As well as the traffic in the lanes, there were all sorts of ships 'doing their own thing', and the AIS could tell us straightaway whether they would be a problem or not.

After daybreak, the wind eased a little, and we went down to one reef. The wind was just west of north, and since our course was almost exactly northeast, we could sail a little free of the wind. I've taken the single line reefing off the second reef [which meant Rob struggling at the mast to tie the clew down], but the line still doesn't pull the sail back tight enough, and the problem lies with the aluminium strips used for the lazyjacks. It's something I'll need to ponder.

North Sea route

This shows our route across the North Sea, with a quick diversion into Den Helder. I aimed to be about five miles north of the main shipping lane, which worked very nicely.

With the rising of the sun, it was now quite pleasant, and we were moving fast. We carried along our course until near the Dutch coast. Here the lanes move apart as they go round an oil installation, and we crossed here, in relatively light traffic. The course alteration meant that we now had the wind on our beam. There were still a lot of oil or gas well heads, but with plenty of room to keep well clear. We came onto the Dutch coast a few miles from Den Helder, but now had to fight a strong ebb tide all the way in, which slowed us considerably. As we came into the harbour, I saw a Dutch 'Kustwaatch' [I hope I've got that right] boat coming in at the same time. We went round into the small marina which is run for the Dutch Navy, and had fun mooring. Our first berth was too far from the electricity point, and we had to try again. The mooring was odd to English eyes: a half length pontoon, with a post to which you attach a stern line. Much fun and games.

We were both exhausted. On the chart, the distance was 160 miles [probably a little more], which we'd done in about 32 hours. That was an average of 5 knots over the ground, and given we'd been fighting quite a tide at the beginning and the end, we had probably averaged 6 knots through the water. Not bad.

So, there I was standing in the cockpit nursing a stiff gin, when I saw a car draw up on the quayside. Three men in black climb out, and I get that feeling. They were heading our way. Dutch Customs. They'd been on the Kustwaatch launch we'd seen earlier - and they'd seen us.

They were quite polite, and reasonably friendly, but they wanted to see our paperwork, and ask us questions. Quite a few questions. I don't think we were obvious drug smugglers, though [I hope not!], but they were with us for some time. And then bed. Given that easterly winds were forecast for later in the week, it was to be the North Frisian coast in the morning.

Den Helder to Nordeney

Partly as a result of having crashed out so early [by my standards], I was up early [by my standards!] the next morning, and the hour's time difference came to my advantage: the office was just being opened when I arrived there. I paid, Rob woke, and we cast off. Rob's acquaintance with the Netherlands was confined to a few feet of pontoon!

We took the ebb tide out, and the course to the top of this part of the coast was almost due north, as was the wind. We motorsailed for a while, as we had a long way to go. The wind, as it had been the day before, seemed to vary from a low F3 to a mid F4, but there was always enough to sail quite fast when the wind was free. Up at the corner, we decided to sail it anyway, put in a tack, then cleared the top.

In some ways, it was very uneventful. The sun shone, taking some of the edge off the chill, the breeze meant we could sail sail at 6+ knots. The autohelm coped without complaining, as it had done across the North Sea. Prospero is well balanced, and only once did we have to fiddle with the sails to keep the autohelm happy. It was a question now of ticking off the islands as they went past.

The main question when the sun went down, was where to stop. Borkum was straightforward enough, but we'd have been going in about midnight. Cuxhaven would have been feasible, but we'd have been negotiating the Elbe with too little sleep. Norderney seemed to be the answer. Unfortunately, we were going too fast! Heaving to whilst I cooked a beef stew took up some of the time, but then we had to bear away a little to aim for the island, which meant the boat speed went up to about 7 knots. How often is it that you complain you're going too fast??

There are two channels into Norderney: the Schluster from the west, and the Dovetief. I'd used both before. I had good paper charts, but the charts on the laptop were far too large a scale for this. We found the fairway bouy for the Schluster quite easily, and trickled up to it slowly. The sky was becoming lighter, but not light enough to pick out unlit bouys. At the fairway, we had to find the bouy marking the other end of the channel. Fl G (2+1) 15s. We saw a buoy doing just that. The trouble was that it was in the wrong place. Had they moved the channel? If so, it had been a big move. We sat there and debated, then, by chance, I caught sight of something. Yes! Right place, right characteristics. Not as bright as the other one. Later, I realised that they were both marking points where the channel divides [red band round the middle of the green buoy], but to my mind, it was a highly dangerous combination.

The buoys sorted, we could estimate the course from the chart. There were three unlit red buoys about 500m apart. The sails were down, and I motored fairly gently forwards. The first red popped up less than 50 yards off the bow. Although it was getting lighter, we only saw it when it was about 100 yards away. The second popped up in the same way. 'Ah,' I said to Rob, 'George steers a good course!' 'George' is my occasional nickname for the autohelm [obsolete RAF slang for an automatic pilot], and Rob had been slightly irritated in Den Helder about my insistence on using it right up the the marina entrance. 'Beep!' as I press the +10 degrees button; 'beep, beep!', another 20 degrees, and so on. It's a habit derived from single handing, when I want to give all my attention to my surroundings, and not worry about the tiller. And George probably steers a better course than I do.

But, ah ... hubris! By now, I had become over confident. We ploughed on until suddenly the swells became steeper, almost breaking. The shallow alarm beeped. We were in trouble. 'Reverse,' said Rob, as we bumped. Advice I should have thought of earlier. We bumped again. I could hear the sound of breaking waves around us. We backed out into slightly deeper water, my heart in my mouth.


These are the channels into and out of Nordeney – we were coming from the west through the Schluster. I've marked the two buoys which have the same light characteristic with a small green circle. If we had headed to the inner buoy, we would have been in trouble. The point where we drifted out of the channel is between buoys S4 and S6 – I have highlighted the shallow area.

I looked in front of us, and saw the buoy had drifted from its transit with the street lights. I had taken my eye off the ball - or the buoy. I motored so as to bring it back, and we rounded it with a great sense of relief. We never did see the third red.

Why had we drifted off? There wasn't much wind, and we'd gone from the fairway to the first two reds faultlessly. My guess was tide: if it was flooding, it might well have been at right angle to our course. As any mathematician will tell you, if you're doing 3.4knots through the water, and have a tidal set of 2 knots at right angles, you will be set down by 30 degrees! The track on the GPS would have told me that - if I'd been looking. Even so, with a distance of less than 500m to cover, we couldn't have been more than 100m or so from the red buoy. Later, when I told the harbourmaster about this, he said, 'The Schluchter is not good this year.'

So, lesson learned? Don't try a channel like this in the dark. We could have hove to for half an hour. Wtach your transits. Watch your GPS track. And most important - don't get overconfident. You're not safe until you're round the buoy.

From there on, we trickled in very slowly - probably over cautiously, but apart from anything else, I wanted it to be lighter. We found the harbour very easily, found the sailing club [almost empty at this time of year], found one very long pontoon [a Dutch boat was on the other side], and tied up, tired and relieved.

Nordeney sailing club

The sailing club at Norderney. This is a panoramic composite from several shots. The original is 6000 pixels wide, so I thought I'd better shrink it.

robOn the left is Rob, my long suffering crew, looking very relieved to have arrived. Not only did he put up with me, he was an excellent seaman, and better still, an excellent crew, who would spend his time going round and tidying up after me! Rob is also a magazine star, with a feature in the latest Yachting Monthly. He has just bought a 41 foot Grand Soleil, Canasta, with the aim of sailing away into the sunset - but with a difference. Influenced by the author Luke Reinhart [The Dice Man], the choice of destination is going to be up to his followers. Where To Next?

PS - Cause for complaint?

I left the boat in Nordeney for a little while, and returned to England. I had been hoping to sell my property, and move house, but sadly the transaction fell victim to the great crash of 2008. I returned by flying out to Bremen then taking the train to Norddeich. From Norddeich there is a ferry to Nordeney. This is the sight which met us as the ferry came out of the harbour.

Norddeich channel

The Germans mark their channels extremely conscientiously, but I think that this time the gentleman concerned might have some cause for complaint.

He was doing exactly what the buoys were telling him. If you look, you can see a green starboard hand marker about a hundred metres ahead of him.

Norddeich channel

Here's another view. The sandbar is smack in the middle of the buoyed channel! I was told that this was one of the lowest low tides for quite some time, but even so. When I took this picture, the tide was already coming in, and I think it would have been another couple of hours before it would have been safe to navigate the channel.

I hope he duly complained to the powers that be!