|'Enterprise' Classic Yacht|
tHE cRUISING lIFE
The Waddensee is a magical place of shallow tidal waters where land and sky are indistinguishable on a misty morning.
It is vast, stretching from the middle of the Netherlands to the north of Denmark; yet few know of it and less have seen it , in spite of it being a World Heritage site. This is because it is so difficult to access, and in the wrong conditions can be dangerous.
We decided to see something of this special place this year; although our boat is not suited to travel the shallow, drying channels that interlace its sandbanks because we cannot sit on the bottom without tipping over (we did that once a few years ago and it is not an experience to be repeated). Now we have done it we can say that it was marvellous to see this world of basking seals on sandbanks watching us sail by; families of birds of every type rearing their young, each in their chosen environment; oysters thick on anywhere they can find to attach themselves; and every pool teeming with aquatic life. However, the navigational challenge in a boat like ours was extreme.
The west coast of Europe from Belgium to the north tip of Denmark is really a collection of sandy deltas formed by the great rivers of the Rhine, Scheldt, Maas, Ems, Jade, Weser and Elbe but after 1,500 years of building dykes, pumping and drainage the edge of the coast has ‘solidified’. Never-the-less, outside that edge, it is still as it always was; a water world of shifting sandbanks.
This world is protected from the worst of North Sea storms by a string of 15 islands upon which the storms can expend their energy. The shelving outer coast builds up waves like a surfing beach and which continually cuts channels & fills them up like a cosmic bulldozer fuelled by the moon as it pushes and pulls twice a day. All that water behind the islands has to run in and out through the narrow gaps between the islands so not only are the currents strong but the channels are changing. This world outside of the islands can be calm and benign on a still summer’s day but change in an hour or so to a very inhospitable place.
So we set out, by necessity to take the outer route to these islands with exotic names , like Terschelling, Schiermonnikoug, Langeoog, Spiekeroog and Wangerooge; then pass between some of them where there were suitable channels to see that inner Waddensee. The overall route can be seen in the Google Earth file; Haarlem to Aarhus 2015.kmz
The first leg was to leave Den Helder on the Dutch mainland and pass out between Norderhoek and Texel, sailing past Vlieland before going back inside between it and Terschelling. These opening between the islands (called ‘Gats’) have long sinuous channels starting way off shore but are generally well marked with buoys. With the latest charts, cooperative weather (i.e. not strong Westerlies), and arriving at the right time at the right place they do not present a problem. Since we had a beautiful summer’s day, a flat sea and were due to arrive on time, we did not anticipate a problem.
As we were approaching our rendezvous with the Gat, the sky darkened, the wind rose and the waves built; a sudden summer thunderstorm arrived at the worst possible moment. We had no choice but to tough it out and navigate the 12 km. of channel with waves crashing on sandbanks on either side of us, the rain coming down like a fire hose. We made it to the harbour at the back of the island and rafted up to the first boat that we came to. Out came the crew who said, “We have been watching you come in on the AIS, it was quite exciting!” Well, that was not quite how we felt but an hour later the sun was shining as if nothing had happened.
To our surprise, since we had not seen any other ships in the Gat, the harbour was full. The reason quickly became evident for the island is a beautiful resort with endless sandy beaches, a picturesque village and bicycle trails.
So Dutch people in the know, load up their ‘bottom friendly’ boats with a whole menagerie of children, dogs and other pets, and navigate the inner channels. After a night sitting high and dry on a sandbank, the next tide takes them to one of the inner harbours where they sit for a week or so. Each island has a different character, some being thinly inhabited and not developed for visitors while 3 or 4 have been made very family friendly.
In earlier times people eked out a living with subsistence farming, fishing and beach combing. Beach combing was quite a lucrative business in those times for there were many shipwrecks on these outer coasts. On some islands refuges were built for the few sailors that made it to shore so that they would not die of exposure before being found. Vlieland has a statue to commemorate beach combing.
To get agricultural products to market there were large, Frisian sailing barges designed to ply the Waddensee. They were of very shallow draft and used big external paddles that could be lowered to serve as a keel when water depth permitted, and when it did not they sat on the bottom.
In the slack season the skippers indulged in races; a tradition carried on today with the few remaining barges. The unique thing about these races is the terms of qualification. A skipper can only enter if his family made its living in the trade in the previous century and he has done so in the past 30 years; quite an exclusive club. Luckily for us, the barges were assembling for this year’s races and there were 6 or 7 in the harbour that night.
Further along our route at Lauwersoog, there is a very long approach channel of some 22kms because we had to go right into the mainland as the harbour behind Schiermonnikoog is far too shallow for us (pleasure craft are not allowed to use the ferry dock). However, it proved to be a delightful journey observed by so many basking seals.
There is a shrimping fleet based there, that fishes the outside banks, as the inner sea is protected as a National Park. These shrimp boats returning to port with their nets hung up were a special sight.
With more or less difficulty we made our way along the Dutch islands and then along the German ones, all with their particular attributes and challenges. At Norderney we chose the SW approach channel shown on our 2015 charts but could not pick up the buoys; it was only when we faced an horizon of unbroken crashing waves did we realize that the channel no longer existed and the markers had been removed. A quick u-turn avoided disaster. It is those experiences that really add spice to cruising!
The last one, Wangerooge, was the sting in the tail, for there is a very shallow approach and harbour. There appeared to be enough water for us by an hour either side of low water and that was critical because we needed to get away as soon as possible after low tide to catch the current up the Elbe at the other end of the next day’s journey. However, after arriving and checking in with the harbour master we learned that that would be impossible. Due to the configuration of the sandbanks in the approach channel there was a dangerous ‘bar’ formed until 2 hours before high tide. A ‘bar’ is a situation where although there is theoretically enough water, waves form across the shallow area from the incoming tide so that in the troughs there is not enough water. The effect is to pick up a boat and smash it on the bottom with each wave and no boat can stand that for long. As the water gets deeper with the incoming tide the effect disappears. In this case it meant that we had to fight a very strong current from the incoming tide to position ourselves to get out. We then knew why most sailors avoid Wangerooge! So we were stuck with leaving 3 hours late and gunning the engine for the next 7 hours to reach Cuxhaven in the Elbe estuary before the falling tide made the current impossible to combat. We made it by the skin of our teeth, sometimes the Gods are with us, but we will not be visiting Wangerooge again.
The Elbe, Jade and Weser estuaries combine at their western ends to form part of the Waddensee with its typical sandbanks and shifting channels but have busy commercial traffic lanes passing through and up the rivers to cities such as Hamburg, some 100 km inland. Our destination was Cuxhaven, a city on that ‘solidified’ edge, protected by large sea dykes. Although an industrial port, it has exploited its location on the edge of the Waddensee to create a popular holiday resort where excursions onto the dunes in horse drawn carts are popular. You know immediately when you are in Germany because every beach has the characteristic wicker beach chairs that can be rented for the day and are very cosy.
This was where we left the Waddensee to head for the Kiel Canal and the end of our Waddensee adventure. For all the challenges we are glad that we experienced such a special place.
For other Cruising blogs see the Archive links in the sidebar at the top of this page.
Other blogs of interest are The Retirement Dream and How to Live Your Dream
David Phillips and his wife June have sailed the European and UK coasts for 30 years, the last 14 in Enterprise. It has been a continual exploration , inspiration and growth of experience. They would not have missed a minute.
It is a symbiotic relationship, you look after her and she looks after you and takes you into a fascinating world that is otherwise inaccessible. Ill health finally forced them to sell her.
On 2 September 2017 she was sold. They hope that she will bring the same life changing experiences to the new owners as she brought to them.