A Golden Age, and leaving for the winter

With the weather so good, we decide to push on to Hoorn before it turns. Our plan now is to leave Ruby Tuesday there for the winter. The marina manager at Volendam advises us to sail in a loop past two yellow sports buoys well out from the coast so that we avoid a large area of sea grass which is growing in the north-west corner of the Markermeer. It is possible to sail through it, but that runs the risk of getting it caught around the keel, and worse, the propeller. At this stage of the voyage, we just don’t want any complications.

The wind is still from the east, so we have a good sail up to Hoorn on an easy beam reach. By this stage, we are used to the shallow depths and think nothing of sailing along at 6-7 knots with just 50 cm under the keel. At least it is nice soft mud if we do go aground. We notice that many of the other sailing boats actually do go much closer to shore where the sea grass is supposed to be, but we tell ourselves that they are probably local and know the water much better. Plus they have much shorter keels than we do, no doubt.

Eventually we reach Hoorn. There is a series of green buoys in a line to guide us in. We join the queue of boats heading back in, feeling like we are in a procession.

Approaching Hoorn.

A traditional fishing boat with a lee-board on the side passes us, heading out. These boats have no keel so that they can cope with the shallow depths of the Markermeer and IJsselmeer. Instead, they use leeboards hinged to the side, which are lifted up and down on the downwind side of the boat to provide some resistance to the water so they are not blown sideways.

Traditional fishing boat with lee-board.

We turn left into Grashaven Hoorn marina, and are given a box berth which is very tight – only a few centimetres on either side, but somehow we manage to squeeze in with the help of one of the neighbours.

Safely tied up for the winter.

“We’ve loved travelling through Holland”, the First Mate says to him once we have sorted ourselves out. “Every city we have seen is so beautiful. You can see that there has been wealth here in the past.”

“Yes, Holland did pretty well for itself during the Dutch Golden Age from 1581-1672”, he says. “After the Eighty Years War with Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium were formed, with the Protestants ending up mainly in the Netherlands, and the Catholics in Belgium. Holland in the 17th and 18th centuries became the wealthiest and most scientifically advanced country in the world, partly because of the Protestant work ethic, and partly due to the level of tolerance that attracted thinkers and scientists from other parts of Europe.

“I guess it was also ideally placed for trade, being halfway between the Baltic and Spain and a conduit for German produce coming down the Rhine?” I say, recalling something that I had read, and trying not to appear totally ignorant of Dutch history.

“Yes, that’s true”, he says. “And cheap energy from the windmills and peat also helped. Hoorn did particularly well, as it was a port for a number of Dutch trading companies, the most famous of which is the Dutch East India Company, or the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie as we say in Dutch, the VOC for short. The town also gave its name to Cape Horn at the bottom of South America. Even though it is not as important now, it is still a picturesque city with lots of beautiful old buildings remaining from that period. You should visit the Westfries museum if you want to know more about the Golden Age and the VOC.”

After a bite to eat, we unpack the bikes and set off to explore the town. Once again, people are remarkably relaxed about the coronavirus – very few are wearing masks, and only limited social distancing seems to be going on. We do our best to stay our distance, but it isn’t easy. At least we are outside, where transmission of the virus is supposed to be lower.

Merchants’ houses, Hoorn.
Roode Steen square, Hoorn.
Enjoying a treat.

We come across a shop displaying the Scottish flag. It turns out to be selling whisky.

A taste of home?

We are intrigued by one of the road signs prohibiting spiders from entering. The text translates as ‘except for local traffic’. We think it’s probably best not to tell Spencer in case he feels discriminated against.

Only local spiders allowed!

We come across the picturesque main harbour near the town centre, where we could have stayed for a short time, but not for the whole winter.

The main harbour in Hoorn.

The Hoofdtoren, or the Main Tower, was originally constructed in 1532 for defence, but in 1614 was converted into the headquarters for the Northern Company, which traded with the Baltic States and Poland for grain and timber which they stockpiled for security against bad harvests and for shipbuilding. Nowadays it is a restaurant overlooking the harbour.

Hoorn harbour, with the Hoofdtoren on the left.

Further on, two guns protect the entrance to the harbour.

Keeping Hoorn safe.

In the evening, we sit in the cockpit on Ruby Tuesday and enjoy a glass of wine as the sun sets in the west.

“Have you noticed that there is lots of birdlife in the marina?”, says the First Mate.

She’s right. We can see coots, ducks, crested grebes, a heron, and crows. They seem to see the marina as some sort of bird sanctuary.

A heron keeps watch.
A crested grebe catches its dinner.

There are also two unusual birds which we haven’t seen before. According to the bird book we have, they are Egyptian geese. We decide to name them Ramses and Nefertari.

Ramses and Nefertari, two Egyptian geese.

The next day we book a slot for the Westfries Museum in Roode Steen square. Only a limited number of people are allowed in an any one time and masks must be worn. The museum is housed in a former council chamber, and is basically a history of the Dutch Golden Age, and the Dutch East Indian Company in particular. I take one of the pamphlets to read.

The Dutch East India Company was established in 1602 by amalgamating a number of existing companies, it tells me. It started off by trading textiles and silk with India and spices with south-east Asian countries. Later, they diversified into shipbuilding and production of spices, coffee, sugar, wine. Their great innovation was in offering bonds and shares to the public to fund their trading ventures – this had been done before, but it had been on the basis of individual expeditions rather than for a whole company doing it. With its own logo and flag, it was the forerunner of the modern multinational company, although even more powerful – it was almost a state in its own right in that it could wage war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties, strike its own coins, and establish colonies.

Hoorn was one of the ports of the Dutch East India Company.

We wander around the museum. Like Teyler’s Museum in Haarlem, the collection of weird and wonderful objects conveys the excitement that people must have felt as exotic artifacts and creatures they would never have seen before were brought back from far-off lands.

Turtle from the South Seas.

“The VOC was governed by the Heeren XVII, or the 17 Lords”, says one of the museum attendants, coming over.

I am looking at a giant painting of a group of self-made worthies sitting around a table, their artificial wigs tumbling to their shoulders and further.

Heads of the six VOC Chambers.

“They were chosen from the six Chamber heads and shareholders of the company”, he continues. “They were responsible for determining general company policy and deciding where the ships should go to trade. This painting is of the six Chamber heads.”

We walk from room to room and between floors admiring the beautiful furniture and rich wall decorations in each. There is certainly a lot of wealth evident.

One of the rooms in the Westfries Museum.

One room is the kitchen where the beer is kept.

Beer kegs.

Afterwards we find a café and order coffees.

“Did you hear the story about the Banda Islands and the nutmeg?”, says the First Mate. “One of the museum attendants was telling it.”

“No”, I say. “I think I was in front of you at that point. Tell me it.”

“Well it seems there was an island in Indonesia where there was nutmeg and mace growing”, she says. “The islanders signed a contract with the British to sell the spices to them, but this upset the Dutch, who had the monopoly of the lucrative trade in these spices.”

Sacks of spices.

“So a chap called Jan Pieterszoon Coen, who was the VOC Governor General in Batavia, attacked the island and first chased off all the British, then set about massacring, drowning, and enslaving the islanders. In the end, the Dutch managed to regain control of the trade, making 600% profit when they brought it back to Holland. It was quite in demand at the time as both a spice and a medicine. There was an artistic display in the museum of ‘nutmeg flowers’ on a sandy beach being swept away into the sea to represent the lives of the islanders who were killed.”

Representation of the dark side of Dutch trade.

“Wow! Not very fair on the islanders, but at least it explains all the nice houses in Hoorn”, I say.

I think back to the painting of the six bewigged Chamber leaders, grown fat on the wealth pillaged from other countries. Different times and different morals, I know, but did any of them have any qualms about the outcomes of their decisions – the cruelty to the islanders, and the loss of culture, languages and lands they caused? The slightly smug looks on their faces suggest that that side of things never crossed their minds; that it was only the vast profits to be made that concerned them. And yet, they weren’t the only ones – most of the other European nations at the time were also at it – pillaging the resources of other countries to build their own fortunes. And is it really any better today – agribusiness, mining, oil and gas companies, all multinational corporations managed by the rich western countries, are still making vast profits abroad, often displacing local people as they do so. With their political clout, they are almost as powerful as the VOC was, and can even sue governments if they try and stop profit-making.

“But that wasn’t the end of the story”, the First Mate continues. “The Dutch and British had been fighting in Europe as well, and when they signed their peace treaty, the island was supposed to have been returned to Britain. But the British said they didn’t really want it, and exchanged it for Manhattan Island in the USA, where they changed the name of the main city from New Amsterdam to New York. And then, to cap it all, they took some nutmeg and mace seeds to their own colonies, and started growing their own spices. The market crashed, and the Dutch never regained control of the spice trade. So the British had the last laugh!”

“They are probably planning to do something similar after Brexit”, I say.

“Anyway, let’s go”, she says, drinking up the last of her coffee. “I’m getting hungry. Let’s get back to the boat and get some dinner.”

We spend the rest of the week preparing Ruby Tuesday for winter. We motor over to the fuel barge and fill the tank up with fuel to minimise condensation that could cause problems if it found its way into the engine. We take down the sails, the cockpit tent and spray hood, and store them. I replace the oil and fuel filters, change the oil and coolant, and drain the water system. The First Mate stores all of the clothes and bed linen in vacuum packs and sucks the air out of them with the vacuum cleaner.

Filling up with fuel.

It is the last day. A taxi is coming in ten minutes to take us and our luggage to the train station. From there, there is a direct train to Schiphol Airport, where we will catch a flight back to the UK. We have each had to fill out a form promising to self-quarantine for 14 days after arriving back. We don’t mind that at all, as we have plenty of catching up to do after being away for nearly three months.

We check everything for the last time.

“Oh, look”, says the First Mate. “I have forgotten to put the mat back. I’ll just take it over to that tree before we go and shake it to get all the dust out. I’ll be careful not to drop it in the water as I get off.”

Moments later there is a splash and a plaintive call.

“Help, help! I’ve dropped the mat into the water”, shouts the First Mate.

Ramses and Nefertari take off in fright. I wonder briefly if they might be heading in the direction of Egypt.

I grab the boathook and try to reach the mat. It starts to go under just like the map did on Oosterscheldte. I manage to hook it from underneath and then try to manoeuvre it out, but it slips and starts to sink again. Luckily it is near the pontoon by this stage, so the First Mate lies down and manages to grab it just before it disappears into the depths.

The First Mate saves the mat from a watery death.

“Phew, that’s lucky”, she says. “I think I was trying so hard not to drop it that it slipped somehow”.

“Quick, we have to go”, I say. “The taxi might be there.”

The taxi is not there. We wait for 15 minutes, but there is still no sign of it. We will miss our train. I ring the company but there is no answer. A woman in a car passes, and leans out of the window.

“Are you in a hurry to get somewhere?”, she asks.

We explain our predicament.

“Jump in”, she says. “I’ll take you there.”

We load our luggage into the boot and climb in. Just as we reach the end of the street, we see the taxi coming, 25 minutes late. We pretend not to notice it. Overhead I see Ramses and Nefertari returning to the peace and quiet we’ve left. See you both next year, I say to myself.

An intruder, authoritarian populism, and sailing again

I am awoken suddenly in the middle of the night, and lie listening, holding my breath. Something is moving outside. My heart begins to beat faster – do we have a burglar? We are tied up right next to the river bank, and it wouldn’t be difficult for someone to creep on board if they were determined enough. The moon is bright, so I peer out of the little side window into the cockpit, but there is nothing. Did I dream it?

I settle back and am just about to drop off, when I hear the sound again –this time it is distinctly the soft pad of footsteps in the main cabin. Someone is definitely there. I get up quietly and grab the trekking pole on top of the cupboard. It has a sharp end that could do someone a bit of damage if need be.

I throw open the cabin door. There is a fierce screech and a scrabbling of feet on the floor, and something furry shoots between my legs and up the companionway stairs. More skithering on the deck as it changes direction and goes under the cockpit tent, and it disappears into the night. Then quiet again.

It’s a black cat. I had seen it loitering around on the road the day before, obviously casing the joint. There is no food lying about, and no damage to the upholstery, so no harm done. I put down the trekking pole and climb back into bed. The First Mate sleeps on, oblivious to the unfolding drama.

Dawn arrives. We have to be at the railway bridge for the lifting at 0935, but before then we have to pass through the CatherijneBrug just up from us, scheduled to open at 0900. There should be enough time, but we decide to slip the lines early and are waiting five minutes beforehand. At 0900, nothing happens. Worried that we might not make it to the railway bridge, I decide to give it ten minutes, and then call the harbourmaster.

“We are just waiting for a barge further down the river to reach you”, she says. “Don’t worry. We’ll make sure you get there in time.”

The feeling that someone else is taking responsibility for us getting through the bridges somehow takes a load of our minds and we relax. Sure enough, we are joined shortly by a large barge and a small motorboat from the south to form a convoy.

We are joined by a barge to make a convoy.

The CatherijneBrug opens at around 0920 are we are on our way. The bridge control people are as good as their word. The road and rail bridges open together just as we get to them, and close after us.

Through the rail and road bridges one after the other.

We pass through the industrial area. One of the warehouses is called the Idea Factory. It looks a bit derelict.

“They must have run out of ideas”, says the First Mate.

Out of ideas?

Before long, we arrive at the Grote Sluis at Spaarndam which separates the salt water of the Noordzeekanaal from the freshwater of the River Spaarne. We enter the lock and are just about to tie up on the starboard side where there is space, when there is a frantic waving from the lock-keeper running down from his control centre.

The Grote Sluis at Spaarndam.

“I think he wants us to go on the other side”, says the First Mate.

There isn’t a lot of space on that side, but somehow we squeeze in with the willing help of some of the sailors already there. Minutes later, the barge arrives and ties up where we were. Only a couple of metres separate us.

The barge takes our place.

We have to pay €3.50 to pass through the lock, so the First Mate runs up and over to the office on the other side while I hold on to the lines as best I can, making sure they can run freely. We don’t particularly fancy a rerun of the Gouda experience!

The lock fills up, the bridge lifts, the gates open, and we are on our way again. Only the A9 motorway bridge and another small one to go now. We arrive just in time for them to open in quick succession, and then we are through. We can relax now. No more bridges or locks until we are on the other side of Amsterdam.

Leaving the Grote Sluis at Spaarndam.

We turn right into the Noordzeekanaal, heading southeast. The wind is also from the southeast, directly on our nose, so we have to motor. It’s cold, so we put on our fleeces. Barges are coming and going in each direction, so we keep as close as we can to the starboard side, following the other yachts in front.

Turning into the Noordzeekanaal.

My mind goes back to our visit to the Teyler Museum yesterday. I have always been fascinated by the Enlightenment, a time when science and reason came to the fore, allowing humankind to escape from superstition, tradition and dogma. Over the winter, I had read Steven Pinker’s book ‘Enlightenment Now’ in which he waxes lyrical on the benefits that have come to humanity from the Enlightenment and the values it promoted of freedom and equality. Using lots of data, he shows that such things as life expectancy, health, wealth, inequality, the environment, peace, the quality of life, and happiness, to name a few, have all improved markedly over the last 200 years or so. All this has come from a huge increase in human understanding of the way the world works, and from using this knowledge to develop technology to improve the human condition. He may have cherry-picked some of the data, and there is still a long way to go before we have solved all problems, but there can be no denying that there has been tremendous progress.

“Oi”, says a voice from down on the floor somewhere. “Mind where you put your big feet. You almost stood on me!”

It is Spencer. For the first time he has ventured out from his canopy frame.

“Sorry”, I say. “I didn’t see you down there. I was just musing on the Enlightenment after our museum visit yesterday.”

Spencer pontificates on the Enlightenment.

“Ah, yes, I read about the Enlightenment”, he says. “A marvellous human achievement. I just wish that spiderdom could also come up with something similar. We are still steeped in superstition and traditionalism. That’s why I needed to escape. But human enlightenment is under threat, you know.”

“What do you mean?”, I ask.

“Well, in the last 10-20 years or so, there has been a shift in people’s thinking against reason and science, back towards the old tribal ways of thinking that I thought humans had outgrown. It’s all about identity with a group, or a country, led by an authoritarian strongman. Many think that Enlightenment values and liberalism have led to a weakening of the moral fibre of the country, and that these need to be reinvigorated. The strongman’s role is to lead his people back to the Golden Age that they think they once had. Everything he says is believed to be true, even though it can often be shown not to be. Loyalty to him is more important than whether he speaks the truth or not. This leads to the undermining of institutions that have taken years to build up to ensure that society functions efficiently and fairly, and to the rise of intolerance as the strongman tries to consolidate his power.”

A huge barge carrying a load of sand overtakes us on the port side. Its gunwales are so low it looks as if even the smallest waves might wash over them.

Overtaken by a sand barge.

“Perhaps society needs strong leaders?”, I say, still amazed at how much Spencer has been picking up from the web.

“Strong leaders, but not strongmen”, he answers. “The sad thing is that humans have been down this road before, and it didn’t end well. Less than a hundred years ago, similar thinking led to the rise of Fascism and Nazism, and a major world war. The fledgling liberal democracies at that time were seen to be weak and ineffectual, and violence and power were glorified instead. It was all to do with some hypothetical mystic link between blood and soil, the people and the land they occupied, and an ‘us-versus-them’ way of thinking. Our ‘blood and soil’ is better than your ‘blood and soil’ – that sort of thing. Chap called Nietzsche, I think it was.”

“But how on earth do you convince sane and rational people to believe that load of cobblers?”, I ask incredulously.

“Strange, isn’t it?”, says Spencer. “But there seems to be something in the human psyche that makes people want to belong to a group, and want that group to be better than the other groups round about. But if it is any consolation, spiders are much the same. We used to have some right old ding-dongs with the spiders from the neighbouring roundabouts in the Scarborough fair.”

Another barge comes head on in the opposite direction, presumably wanting to turn into one of the harbours on our side. It is displaying a ‘blue board’ to indicate its intention, which we know about from the CEVNI course. We pull out into the centre of the canal a bit to let it pass, making sure to avoid barges coming the other way.

A barge showing the blue board passes us on the starboard side.

“But why do you think that it is happening now in human society?”, I ask Spencer. “Things are so much better now than a century ago. People should appreciate the results of the Enlightenment, rather than undermine it.” I reel off some of Pinker’s points.

“There are several reasons, but I think that one of the major ones is the inequality in your society”, he answers. “The very nature of the way that these so-called improvements were produced meant that some people became very rich, and although everyone benefitted to some extent, those ones did much more than the rest. Other people educated themselves and became much more comfortable with the idea of an international society and all that it brings – urbanisation, racial diversity, women’s empowerment, secularism – than others. Many folk felt out of place in this new world, which bred resentment. So when someone comes along and promises a return to the old ways, of course they will vote for him or her, forgetting of course that the world has moved on in many other ways too, and that it is almost impossible to set the clock back.”

“Do you think that this way of thinking is just a blip, or is it a real turning point in history?”, says the First Mate, bringing out cups of tea.

“No sugar in mine, just milk, please”, says Spencer. “Yes, interesting isn’t it? It could go either way. I think it all depends on what happens in the next month or so – the result of the US election. If the present incumbent gets in again, then I think it could be a major turning point, at least for some decades, possibly longer. However, if he is not re-elected, then I think that it might return to some semblance of normality, where people value what they have, and freedom of thought and expression, equality, and concern for the planet become important again. Hopefully the latter, as it will be better for spiders. We will just have to wait and see.”

We break off the conversation as we are beginning to enter Amsterdam proper and need to have our wits about us. Sightseeing boats start to creep up on us and overtake us. Ferries cross in front, seemingly ignoring us. Water taxis buzz hectically from one side to the other – no sooner have we avoided one, there is another coming from the opposite direction that we have to worry about. At one point, a motorway goes underneath the canal.

A water taxi passes us.

Soon we are in the centre of the city with high rise offices all around. We come to the Central Station, which we have been through many times, but this time we are seeing it from the other side.

We pass the Central Station in Amsterdam.

Further on, construction cranes point to the sky. Another high-rise hotel in the making no doubt.

It is a relief to finally reach the Oranjesluizen lock, which marks the end of the city waterway and the beginning of the Markermeer.

Entrance to the Oranjesluizen.

The Markermeer is an artificial lake of sorts. It actually used to be part of a large sea inlet, the Zuiderzee, before the latter was cut off from the sea with the building of a huge dyke in 1932, the Afsluitdijk. This created the IJsselmeer, but this was again cut in half by another dyke, the Houtribdijk, in 1976. The shallow body of freshwater behind this dyke became the Markermeer, with the depth varying from 3-5 m.

For a while, the wind stays dead on our nose, so we continue motoring. Eventually we turn to head northeast. At last we can sail, albeit close-hauled. Out come the sails, and off goes the engine. Tentatively, we allow Ruby Tuesday her head – it has been a few weeks since she last sailed, and she has been chafing at the bit – but we are not yet comfortable about having only a metre of water under the keel. It is also quite choppy due to the strong wind and shallow depth. We follow the string of buoys up to Marken, an ex-island that is now joined to the mainland.

“Why don’t we stay in Volendam for the night?”, says the First Mate. “There looks to be quite a nice marina there. I’ll give them a ring and see if they have space.”

They do, and the depth is enough for our draft of 2 m. We follow the green buoys to the narrow dredged channel leading to the marina entrance. Even though dredged, we have only 30 cm under the keel – it’s not much, but we are getting used to it. The berth they have allocated for us is a box berth, but we are starting to like these now that we understand what to do. Nevertheless, with the wind blowing strongly, we still need to take care getting into it. Luckily there are no other boats on either side of this to bump into. We tie up.

Ruby Tuesday tied up in Volendam marina.

“Look”, says the First Mate. “I have something to show you.”

She jumps off the bow of the boat onto the pontoon and stands there.

“Well, what is it?”, I ask.

“That’s it”, she says. “Getting on and off the bow. Don’t you remember how I struggled with doing that when we were in Vlissingen? Well, I have been practising. Now I can do it easily.”

She climbs back on again.

“See”, she says. “In both directions!”

I’m impressed. I have to say it even looks elegant.

The First Mate perfects her bow climbing technique.

The marina is fairly new and purpose-built, with apartments around its edge to provide accommodation as needs be. There is a shopping centre with a snack-bar, restaurant, supermarket, chandlers and clothes shops. All you might want really. They seem to take mask wearing seriously too – even the statues have them.

Staying safe.

The next day, we wander into the main town about a kilometre away. It is picturesque, and with the good weather it is full of tourists. We grab some sandwiches for lunch and sit in the sun away from the jostling crowds and absorb the atmosphere. In the shop opposite, tourists kitted out in Volendam traditional costumes pose for photographs.

Volendam.

Further on, there is a supermarket where we replenish our food supplies. At least here they have perspex screens.

Topping up our supplies.

That evening the marina manager tells us that the Dutch government is tightening up on coronavirus measures. From now on it will be mandatory for everyone to wear masks in shops.

“It must be getting serious for the Dutch to say that”, says the First Mate. “Perhaps we ought to think about getting home again before there are any more lockdowns.”

Tree trimming, enlightenment and groupthink

The next morning, we decide to head on northwards to Haarlem. We slip the lines from the bollards, and I begin to swing the bow out into the main stream.

“Watch out, watch out!”, shouts the First Mate from the bow.

There is an angry horn blast. A huge barge has sneaked up behind us, and is just about to pass. I had checked a few moments earlier and there was nothing, but in the time taken to free the lines, the bridge to the south had opened and the barge had come through. They move fast, and because the engine is a long way behind at their stern, are almost silent.

Luckily there is just enough room to avoid it. I breathe a sigh of relief. Just as I do, there is a cracking sound overhead and several leafy branches crash on to the deck. The mast has collided with a tree growing out over the river. It’s not shaping up to be a good day.

Trimming the trees on the river bank.

Luckily they are just the small branches at the side of the tree and there appears to be no damage to the mast or anything on it – the VHF still works, as do the windspeed and direction instruments. The barge passes and the captain looks down at us, raising her eyes with a look of exasperation as though to say ‘the men in white coats will be along shortly’. I try to look as though we work for the local council and are trimming the riverside trees for them, but I don’t think she is convinced.

Making a mental note to always look behind us when we are pulling out, we press on.

“I have just been looking at the map”, says the First Mate. “We’re coming up to the Kaag Lakes. They look quite nice, and it says in the guide that you can anchor there. Seeing as it is such a nice day, perhaps we could do that, have a lazy day in the sunshine, stay the night, then go on to Haarlem tomorrow?”

“Good idea”, I say. She’s right; the day is glorious.

We arrive at the Lakes. It’s like Piccadilly Circus there. Every conceivable shape and size of watercraft is out in force. We need to take care that we don’t run any down. I am not sure that I want to anchor in such a busy place.

Boats in Kaag Lakes.

“What about over there?”, says the First Mate, pointing to a little bay. “It looks a bit quieter.”

We head in that direction. Suddenly Ruby Tuesday stops.

“Why have you stopped here?”, says the First Mate.

“I haven’t”, I say. “She’s stopped herself. Or rather, something else stopped her.”

I give her more throttle. Nothing happens. We are grounded in the mud. I put the lever into reverse and give it some power. Slowly we move backwards until we are back in deeper water. I imagine a glooping noise in the mud as the keel extricates itself. ‘Deeper’ water is all relative – we have about 30 cm under the keel. If that was in Scotland, we would be having nervous breakdowns.

We find the main channel again, and the depth rises to 80 cm. A little bit further on, it drops to 20 cm. Then 0 cm. We have obviously lost it again.

“I think we had better give up the idea of anchoring here”, I say, reversing again. “It’s just too shallow. Maybe if you know where the channels are you can get into a little bay, but we just don’t know these waters.”

Somehow we find the exit route from the Lakes and join the Ringvaart, the circular canal built in 1837 to drain the Haarlemmermeer and create polders for agriculture. We see an arrow pointing to Haarlem to confirm that we are on the right track.

Heading in the right direction, at least …

As we travel along the Ringvaart, we continue to be fascinated by life at the waterside.

Enjoying the sun and water.
Green fingers?

We eventually reach the junction with the River Spaarne that takes us through Haarlem. Once again, we must run the gauntlet of a series of lifting and swinging bridges. The good news is that once a convoy forms and we have gone through the first bridge, they know that we are there and try to synchronise the following bridges to minimise the lifting time. The bad news is that it can sometimes take a while for a convoy to form. We later meet one of the bridge-keepers responsible.

Controlling the bridges.

“How do you synchronise the convoys once they are formed?”, we ask, thinking there might be some fancy control centre bristling with video screens.

“Easy. I jump on my bike there, and cycle down to the next bridge”, he tells us. “As bikes and boats travel at more-or-less the same speed, by the time I am there the convoy is too, and I can open that one.”

The simple ways are the best ways.

One of the boats in our convoy is full of young lads, each with a beer can in his hand. They are singing at the top of their voices celebrating something, we know not what. On the deck of their boat is an old sofa tied on with bits of string. A pile of empty cans is on the cabin roof. For some reason, the boat has an alarming list to one side. Their course is erratic, to say the least – sometimes in front of us, sometimes behind, and sometimes alongside. By good luck rather than management, they somehow manage to avoid the other boats on the river, although there are some close encounters. Ah, what it is to be young!

Having fun.
Reaching the city centre.

We reach the city centre and find a spot on the river bank to tie up to. This time there is power, water and showers available, and consequently it isn’t free. The system is that we have to download an app onto the phone, register with the company by typing in our address and contact details, and lo-and-behold we can pay our mooring fees and activate the power sockets. We will then be billed at the end of the month. All very efficient, I suppose, assuming people are honest. We are glad to have power and water again as the batteries in particular are getting low after four days in Leiden.

Ruby Tuesday at her riverside mooring.

We are amused that our front door is between two cars parked on the street.

Our land-based neighbours.

As in Leiden, enormous barges pass by on their way northwards, sometimes in quick succession. As long as they don’t come anywhere near us, we don’t mind them.

Heavy traffic on the river.

We walk into town for lunch and find a café in the shadow of the Grote Kerk. It seems that to be a self-respecting Dutch town or city it is a requirement to have a Grote Kerk. Or even village, for that matter, I think, recalling the one in Veere in Seeland. We decide not to look inside this one as they charge us to enter. It seems God isn’t providing them with enough. But the lunch is great.

The Grote Kerk, Haarlem.

We are fascinated by the bicycles adapted to have a box in front like a wheelbarrow. We see all sorts of things being carried in them, more often than not young children being ferried to and from school by their mums. I wonder if there were many accidents with the box being exposed at the front, but it seems not.

Wheelbarrow bikes.

Not far from us is De Adriaan’s windmill, built by a wealthy businessman in 1779. It was used to make cement, then tobacco, but burnt down in 1932. By then it was such a popular landmark in Haarlem that it was decided to rebuild it. It still works apparently.

De Adriaan’s windmill, Haarlem.

In the evening, we sit in the cockpit and drink wine, watching life go by. It seems to be the done thing for people get out at that time and cruise up and down the river, to see and be seen. Mostly couples, young and old, but also the occasional family or group of lads or girls. Many are private boats, but many are also rented out by the hour. As darkness falls, the port and starboard navigation lights on each come on, and the river becomes a swirling mass of red and green fireflies, streaking this way and that.

Taking to the water of an evening.

The next day, we visit Teyler’s Museum, reputedly the oldest museum in the Netherlands, and an eclectic collection of art and science objects. It was founded in 1788 by Peter Teyler, a wealthy banker and cloth merchant of Scottish descent, himself a combination of devout Christian and aficionado of the Scottish Enlightenment. The museum is an exuberant celebration of the remarkable changes occurring in human thought during the Enlightenment. What an era to be alive in!

It was the time of Darwin and his new theory of evolution, which was causing uproar amongst the religious establishment because of its conflict with the biblical account of creation. The first two rooms are dedicated to collections of fossils, many of which were used in the debates on the origin of life going on at the time.

Ichthyosaurus quadriscissus.

I try to imagine the turmoil that must have been going on in people’s minds, the old certainties of everyone having a purpose in life and a future after death being swept away, to be replaced by a world view in which humans were part of nature whose purpose is to survive and reproduce. Having said that, fossils were considered by some to be the skeletons of creatures drowned in the biblical Flood! With him being a Mennonite, I wonder what Teyler himself would have thought. He seems to have been open to new ideas, but perhaps he tried to synthesise these with the old?

The next few rooms are devoted to scientific instruments, many of which were actually used in the museum to make discoveries. There is a large electrostatic generator, capable of generating 300,000 volts, and all sort of smaller gadgets, microscopes, telescopes, measuring devices, all beautifully crafted with great precision in brass and steel, and used to probe the mysteries of nature.

Beautifully crafted telescope.

In the central room, known as the Oval Room, among other things there are two large dishes, each at different ends of the room, but aligned precisely facing each other.

Sound transmitter.

“They are used to transmit sound over distances”, explains a museum attendant. “If one person stands here and whispers something, another person standing next to the other one over there can hear what they said.”

I speak into one. Sure enough, the First Mate on the other side of the room smiles. I won’t say what I said.

We reach the rooms displaying paintings and drawings from the period – Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Raphael, Goltzius, Schotel – they are all represented, plus many more recent works. There are paintings of landscapes, seascapes, storms, people, houses, all giving a glimpse of life in the Netherlands as it was then.

‘Bringing in the catch’, by Philip Sadee.

“Hey”, says the First Mate, standing in front of a particularly vivid landscape. “Have you noticed that a lot of these paintings have the same title – Olieverf op doek. I wonder what it means? Something to do with ‘landscape’, I guess.”

“That’s funny”, I say. “Here’s a painting of a woman’s head and shoulders with the same title. I was thinking it meant something like ‘Portrait of so-and-so’.”

I look up the translation on Google. It means “Oil on canvas.”

There is a pause.

“Oh”, says the First Mate. “It looks like we need to improve our Dutch.”

That evening, we are invited for a drink to our neighbours, Heinz and Bernadette. He is a retired civil servant whose work was to restructure government departments to make them more fit for purpose, and she is a retired social worker. They are liveaboards and are spending their retirement in their large houseboat and travelling around the waterways of Europe, staying in particular cities they fancy for several weeks and enjoying the cultural delights that each has to offer. The First Mate is particularly pleased to hear that they have been in her hometown of Hamm in Germany, and have seen the famous Maximilian elephant. This month they are in Haarlem.

Appropriately socially distanced on their outside cockpit area, they offer us a triple-brandied beer from Belgium. The alcohol content is around 8%. The conversation inevitably turns to the coronavirus.

“It’s all overblown”, says Heinz. “A perfect example of groupthink based on fear. A lot of people have vested interests in spreading fear. Scientists, for example, get more funding for research, journalists get a good story to write about, broadcasters can make interesting documentaries, politicians get to look good by making decisions.”

“Are you saying it’s all a giant conspiracy?”, I ask.

“No, not a conspiracy as such”, he answers. “At least not one that is controlled centrally. But each person does his or her own little bit of fanning the flames of fear. We all read the newspaper articles on it, we watch the television programmes about it, we talk to our family and friends and neighbours about it. It’s the main topic of conversation everywhere. And that makes people fearful.”

“But you know what?”, he continues. “The actual chances of meeting someone in the street with coronavirus are tiny, particularly as most people with symptoms won’t be out on the streets anyway. We don’t know anyone who has had it. Do you actually know anyone?”

“A few”, says the First Mate. “Although not many. But if you do get it, it’s not a very pleasant thing to have. I’d rather not take the risk.”

“Anyway, that isn’t really the point”, I say. “It spreads exponentially and not linearly, so it can be very low now, but in a few weeks’ time, a large proportion of the population can be affected. You must remember that story about the king who wanted to reward one of his subjects and asked him what he wanted. The subject took a chessboard and said that he wanted the king to put one grain of rice on the first square, two grains on the second square, four grains on the third square, and so on until all the 64 squares were filled. He would then take the amount of rice that had accumulated. The king thought this was rather paltry and that he was getting off lightly, so he agreed. What he didn’t realise was that the total amount of rice involved was more than 700 years of global production. He was only thinking linearly.”

“Well, yes”, says Heinz. “But that didn’t happen in the case of the virus, did it? Most countries showed exponential growth in deaths at first, but then it levelled off, and in most it has now dropped nearly to zero.”

“But that was because of the different measures taken to limit its spread”, I say. “Self-isolation, social distancing, lockdowns, quarantines, masks, washing hands, and the like. Plus the fact that the summer came, and most people were outdoors more. If all that hadn’t happened, it might well have risen exponentially. And it still might, if there is a second wave. We just don’t know.”

“That’s my point”, Heinz says. “I think we are just going to have to live with it. Each winter, it might increase exponentially, but then the summer will come and it will drop off again until the next winter. After all that is what happens with the flus that do the rounds up until now. People die from them every year, but we don’t shut down the global economy to stop that spreading. Why should the coronavirus be treated any differently? We all have to die sometime anyway.”

It sounds to be verging on herd immunity to me. I can’t help thinking that I would like to live a few more years yet.

“I think it is the sheer numbers”, I say. “And its contagiousness. It has spread through the whole world in just a few months. Most traditional flus tend to be fairly local in nature, and don’t spread as fast.”

It’s getting cold, and the beer is finished.

“Well, let’s keep our fingers crossed for a vaccine”, says the First Mate. “Anyway, we need to get going now. We are leaving first thing in the morning. Thanks for a great evening.”

We bid good night and walk back to the boat. An upturned chair floats past. I wonder if the drunken lads’ boat has finally tipped over.

No more use.

A lock mishap, a besieged castle and an alms-house

In the morning, we decide to push on up to Leiden. There is an opening of the railway bridge at Gouda at 1028, but we have the lifting bridge as well as a lock to get through, so we leave our mooring at 0845 to give ourselves plenty of time.

We get through the lifting bridge with no problems, and enter the lock and tie up. A barge behind us goes into the commercial lock. In a few minutes, the water in that lock goes down and we can just see the top of the cabin moving along at ground level. Before long it is on its way.

A barge enters the commercial lock.

“Right”, I tell the First Mate. “It’ll be our turn in a minute or so. They were probably just giving priority to commercial traffic. Get your lines ready.”

Nothing happens. We wait for about ten minutes. Still nothing happens. Another large barge enters the commercial lock, and before long, it too is on its way. I call out to the lockkeeper who happens to be walking along the side of the lock.

“Is everything OK?”, I ask. “We need to get to the railway bridge by 1030.”

“We have a slight problem”, he says. “But we have nearly fixed it.”

A small white repair van arrives. The driver goes over to a electrical junction box and fiddles around inside.

“Just another ten minutes or so”, says the lockkeeper to us.

I look at my watch. The time is 0945, but it will still take a half-an-hour or so to get to the bridge after leaving the lock. It’ll be cutting it fine.

“I’ll go and put on a cup of tea”, says the First Mate, disappearing downstairs.

Minutes later, there is a worried call from the cabin.

“What was that graunching sound?”, she says.

“Nothing. Everything is OK”, I say, not having heard anything on deck.

A few seconds later, everything is not OK. The boat lurches to one side and the ropes tighten against the bollards on the bank.

“Hurry”, I say. “They seem to be letting the water out of the lock. Go and release your line. I thought they said it would be ten minutes.”

I manage to loosen my line from the shore bollard, but the First Mate can’t get hers undone from the cleat. Somehow the weight of the boat has tightened the line around itself and trapped it. I rush over and try and free it, but it is impossible. The boat lurches more to the side, held up by the rope. It’s scary.

“I’ll go and get a knife”, says the First Mate, as I struggle with the line to no avail. ”We’ll have to cut the rope.”

She rushes back into the cabin and rifles through the cutlery drawer. It seems to take an age, but she emerges with the bread knife. I grab it and start sawing at the rope. The deck of the boat is now at an angle of about 45° and we both have to hang on to the guard rails. Suddenly, the rope parts, and Ruby Tuesday falls back into the water with a massive splash. A mini-tsunami engulfs the opposite bank.

“I am sorry”, says the lockkeeper, seeing what had happened from the other side. “Once the procedure has started to release the water, I can’t stop it.”

It would have been nice to have warned us that you were going to let the water out after making us wait for nearly half-an-hour, we think to ourselves. We are both quite shaken at the speed a potential disaster developed, and make a rule that in a lock we won’t relax our vigilance and will always make sure our lines are freely running.

We reach the railway bridge with five minutes to spare. It lifts up exactly on time and we motor through. Things are looking up at last.

We reach the railway bridge just in time.

We continue on our merry way. The First Mate is particularly fascinated by the life being lived at the canal side.

Houses at the side of the river.

In between villages, we pass through farm land, cows and sheep grazing peacefully . We find it intriguing that the fields are actually lower than the canal, so that we are looking down on them.

Sheep grazing in fields.

Sometimes the road runs just alongside the river. It seems strange to be sailing in one direction and cars and trucks to be driving in the other.

Road next to the river.

Suddenly there is a single toot from behind. A huge barge has sneaked up behind us and wants to pass on our starboard. Normally overtaking is on the port side. It’s not clear why, but we decide not to argue. We pull over to the left, making sure that there are no barges coming the other way. Our barge zooms past us on a metre or two away.

A barge passing us on the starboard side.
Not very much space.

We pass lifting bridge after lifting bridge of all shapes and sizes. There seem to be so many of them on this stretch of the route. Some are synchronised and know that we are coming in advance and have the bridge open and ready for us to pass through, others we call on the VHF to let them know that we are waiting and the bridge opens. Some however, seem to operate on their own timetable, and we have to wait.

Lifting bridge between Gouda and Leiden.
Another lifting bridge between Gouda and Leiden.

We eventually reach Leiden. We had originally planned to stay at the Gemeentehaven, the municipality harbour, but we were told that they only have 1.8 m of water which wouldn’t be enough for our 2 m draft. So we are looking for somewhere else to tie up to while in Leiden.

“What about just over there?”, says the First Mate. “There is a sign saying that mooring is permitted for up to three days.”

The First Mate spots a sign saying mooring is permitted on the river bank.

It is just the river bank, but sure enough there is a sign saying that mooring there is permitted. There are two or three boats already there. We edge gently into a space between two of them, and tie up to the small bollards cemented into the canal bank. There is no power or water supply, and we are not exactly in the city centre, but it is close enough to cycle or walk, but the best thing is that it is free. We can manage on our own water supplies and battery power for three or four days, so no problem there.

Ruby Tuesday tied up to the river bank of the Oude Rijn.

We unload the bikes and cycle into the city centre for a coffee and cake. I start to read a brochure on the history of the city so that I am up to speed.

Leiden has had its ups and downs over the years. It started off as a small village where the Old Rhine and New Rhine rivers meet. In 1100, it was subsumed into the County of Holland, and became a city in 1266. The towering Hooglandse Kerk was built in the 15th century. In the 16th century, Leiden sided against Spain in the Eighty Years’ War and withstood a siege by the latter for six months, receiving supplies by cutting the dykes and letting the water in so that ships could sail over the fields to the city. As a reward, William of Orange established a university there, the oldest in the Netherlands. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the city flourished with the establishment of weaving, printing and publishing industries.

The Hooglandse Kerk, Leiden.

Coffees finished, we explore the narrow streets in the old part of town. Through one window we see a group of students in a tutorial with their lecturer. The subject on the screen in front of them is ‘Colonialism in Africa’. In another street, we see little cafes with more students outside drinking coffee, smoking cannabis, and discussing the works of Rembrandt. All very cerebral.

Narrow street in Leiden.

We eventually come to Burcht van Leiden, the castle, perched on a small motte near the city centre. We climb the steps up the side of the mound, go through the gate, and enter. Inside, to the right of the gate, is a small winding staircase to the narrow pathway around the battlements. We wait for a couple to descend before climbing up. They are not wearing masks. There doesn’t seem to be a designated one-way system to follow to maintain social distancing as in many other places we visit, but we see another couple in front of us walking clockwise. We do the same. On the top, the view over the city is magnificent. To the north we spot the massive Marekirk we had cycled past earlier.

Marekirk, Leiden.

We are halfway around the battlements when we notice another maskless couple walking anti-clockwise towards us. We turn around so as to avoid having to pass them. Another couple, also without masks, is a few metres behind us. We are trapped.

I draw my sword. The two soldiers in front advance menacingly, their own swords drawn. Behind me are two more.

“Give yourselves up”, they say. “William will spare you.”

“I think it’s all over”, says Ada, by my side. “I can’t see any way out except surrender to Uncle William. He may be crazy, but I don’t think he will kill us.”

We had been through a lot together since the start of the Civil War, our fortunes waxing and waning with each battle. For the last few months we had taken refuge here in the castle. I look down into the keep. William is standing there, hands on his hips, grinning up at us, victory within his grasp. Soldiers stand guard at the gate. It doesn’t look good this time.

“There’s one way out”, I say determinedly, pulling my visor down tighter. “If I can just manage to reach that tree branch, we can escape, and you can lawfully keep County Holland. Come on!”

Grabbing Ada by the arm, I step onto the parapet and gauge the distance to the branch. The soldiers behind us run towards us. There is a clash of swords as I try and fight them off. They retreat and nurse their wounds. At least they are socially distanced now, I think. They were a bit too close before. And without visors too. I could have caught some nasty plague from them.

“No, no”, says Ada, tugging at my arm. “It’s too far to jump. You’ll kill us.”

Her voice sounds different yet familiar…

Ada de Holland.

“It almost looked there for a minute as if you were going to jump”, says the First Mate, her hand on my arm, and a worried look on her face. “It’s a long way down. It would have hurt.”

I rub my eyes. For a few Walter Mitty moments there I had been back in 1203 when William the Crazy had laid siege to the castle to capture his niece Ada, the then Countess of Holland, so that he could claim the throne instead. I am her last surviving retainer, sworn to protect her to the last. In the event, I fail, and she is captured by William and imprisoned on the isle of Texel in the North Sea. She continues her fight to regain her county, but without success, and William’s descendants become the royal line.

“Look”, says the First Mate. “The other couple have turned around and are going back the way they came. We don’t have to pass them now.”

I put my sword away and relax. There is still a lot of Leiden to enjoy.

Canal in Leiden.

The next day, Anne and Marianne, some old friends and colleagues from a previous job come over for lunch. Anne works for a university and is focusing on developing fossil fuel free glasshouse systems. Glasshouse crops are a major industry in Holland, and consequently also a major emitter of CO2, so reducing dependence on fossil fuels will pay dividends in terms of greenhouse emissions. Marianne is involved in coordinating and managing development projects in a range of countries. We had met them years ago while working in the Philippines on the same project.

“I studied in Leiden”, says Marianne. “It’s nice to be back after all these years.”

We have lunch. It is great to catch up with them after so many years. Their children are similar ages to our son, so we have a lot in common. They still have a few years to go until retirement, but are looking forward to it.

Catching up with Marianne and Anne.

After lunch, we feel the need to stretch our legs, so we walk into town. On the way, they tell us about the Leiden alms-houses. Although these exist in many cities, Leiden is noted for them, partly because there are so many of them (around 35), partly because they were privately funded, and partly because many have been beautifully restored. Almost all were founded between 1400 and 1800, which encompassed the Dutch Golden Age. Basically, they were funded by wealthy individuals who established charitable foundations to manage them, with the purpose of providing accommodation for elderly people with few resources of their own.

They take us to St Anna’s Alms-house, apparently the oldest in Leiden, having been founded in 1492 by a brewer.

Entrance to St Anna’s Alms-house, Leiden.

“They were philanthropic in nature”, says Anne. “But often the motive behind them was to ensure a place in heaven by doing good works. Perhaps the brewer felt guilty that he had grown rich by ruining so many families through drink!”

We push open the door and peer inside. We see a small courtyard with a garden surrounded by windowed apartments. It is quiet and peaceful, a respite from the busy street outside. At the far end is a little chapel, apparently with the original stained glass, apart from one window which was destroyed in 1807 when a munitions barge in the nearby canal exploded.

Courtyard in St Anna’s Alms-house.

“At first the occupants were often poorer members of the benefactor’s family, or his employees, but later they became more available to anyone”, says Marianne. “However, they usually had to fulfil strict conditions, such as being of a particular religion, and sometimes had to sign away their meagre assets. And there were strict rules of behaviour once they were there. But in return, they received free housing, food and clothing for as long as they lived.”

“Old age was classified as being between 50 and 60 years old in those days”, says Anne. “Just thought you might be interested to know.”

“Maybe you should apply”, the First Mate says to me.

“I am in the Decrepit classification these days”, I say. “Well past the Old Age one. They wouldn’t have me.”

Noah’s Ark, cheese and liveaboards

“By the way, says the First Mate. “Do you know that it is pronounced Houda, not Gouda? You have to make it sound really guttural. A bit like you are clearing your throat.”

We practise saying Houda. Saliva flies everywhere. It is just as well we are on the boat.

“I think we had better wear our masks”, I say. “Otherwise they will think it’s raining.”

We are on our way to Gouda, cheese city. We had squeezed our way out of Maartensgat marina in the morning, turned right, and headed north along the Ould Maas river for a bit before it joins the Noord river. It is a beautiful sunny morning. Only the wake from a speeding water-bus disturbs the peace.

A water-bus passes us at speed.

“What do you think that thing is up ahead?”, says the First Mate, as we approach the outskirts of Rotterdam. I rub my eyes in disbelief and pinch myself to make sure that I haven’t dozed off. It’s a Noah’s Ark! Isn’t that supposed to be on some mountain top in Turkey somewhere?

Johan’s Ark near Rotterdam.

It’s real. Well, not real-real, but not a figment of our imaginations at least. It even has a giraffe peering over the bow, looking as perplexed as I am. A quick Google tells me that it is the handiwork of one Johan Huibers, a wealthy Dutch building contractor and a devout creationist. Having €4 million kicking around, he decided to capitalise on his love of boats and the Dutch fear of floods and build a full-size replica of Noah’s Ark and use it to spread Christianity to the godless. It is 134 m long and 13 m high, apparently the same dimensions as the mythical one.

It takes all sorts, I guess, and one can do what one likes with one’s own money, but I can’t help thinking that there might be better uses that €4m could be put to. The Noah’s Ark story isn’t even true – there is no historical evidence to show that it even existed, despite several attempts to find some.

“It may not be true”, says Spencer, emerging from the canopy. “But it has been a powerful human narrative since the dawn of civilisation. Apart from the Noah’s Ark story, several other Middle Eastern cultures have had similar stories, all probably dating from the Sumerians. It was likely to have been based on some local flooding events, as many of those cultures were built on flood plains and rivers where flooding would have been a regular occurrence.”

Spencer expounding on flood myths.

Ever since he linked his own web up to the World Wide Web, Spencer has been a bit of a knowall, and a slight pain to be honest, but he is right. I remember seeing a TV programme on the Black Sea deluge – a hypothesis that water had catastrophically broken through the Bosporus due to sea level rise from melting glaciers around 8400 years ago and had started flowing from the Mediterranean into the Black Sea. Such a huge deluge would have destroyed Neolithic human settlements and provided the basis for the flood myths. An intriguing and highly controversial hypothesis, but one of many.

“But why do you think that it became associated with punishment and rebirth of a new order?”, I ask.

“People probably weren’t happy with the status quo, and somehow it became part of the stories told around the fires that they are living in the last times and that floods were sent by the gods to punish them for being evil and wicked”, says Spencer. “Even nowadays, people feel that they have been evil in pillaging the earth’s resources, and that it will catch up with them in the end. But don’t worry. There is usually a hero in these flood myths who saves a select few by building a boat, surviving the flood, and then starting to rebuild civilisation anew.”

“In fact, dare I say, your own voyage is a microcosm of that – there are just the two of you on this boat, supposedly safe from all the pestilence raging around you, doing your bit to reduce carbon emissions by using wind-power, and preserving biodiversity by taking creatures such as myself on board. You are just a modern-day Noah, whether you like it or not.”

Hmmm. I hadn’t thought of it like that before. Well, not exactly, anyway. It certainly does feel that we are in the last days, what with climate change, pollution, deforestation, biodiversity loss, overpopulation, hunger, disease and poor leadership. Perhaps we are using this voyage as a kind of escape from all those problems? A way of surviving? But Ruby Tuesday the centre of rebirth for a new order? A nice thought, but unlikely.

We pass Johan’s Ark, and I notice that the planks of wood at the waterline are rotten and broken. The giraffe looks down at us morosely, as if she realises that she is just a figment of someone’s bizarre imagination. There is a message in there somewhere, but I don’t have time to think about it just at the moment, as we are approaching the junction to decide whether to continue on the Noord river into central Rotterdam or take a right onto the smaller Hollandse IJssel heading for Gouda. None of us has any real desire to go into the centre of Rotterdam, so we opt for the latter.

Leaving the Noord river and entering the Hollandse IJssel.

The way narrows, and the sprawling Rotterdam conurbation slowly gives way to picturesque little villages and agricultural land, with the occasional windmill.

Windmill on the Hollandse IJssel.

“Ooooh, look, that’s cool”, says the First Mate, pointing to a house with a small motorboat hanging from a hoist like a lifeboat on a ship. “I wonder if they use them as runabouts to go to the shops instead of using the car?”

A boat for every household (almost).

She has a point. At one stage, almost every house we pass seems to have a boat hanging from its davits at the end of the garden.

“Perhaps they keep it for the Great Flood”, I say, recalling our earlier encounter. “Fear of flooding is etched into the Dutch psyche, you know. It’s a bit like having your own ark.”

“Ha, ha”, she says.

We near the outskirts of Gouda. The First Mate has phoned ahead and arranged for us to stay at a small landing pontoon to the south of the city, about 15 minutes’ walk from the city centre. But to get there, we need to pass under a lifting bridge. Often such bridges are unmanned, and are connected by video camera to some central control centre somewhere who are supposed to see if anyone is waiting to pass through. We loiter around for 15 minutes trying not to drift into the river bank, but it is difficult as the wind is quite strong. The bridge refuses to open. From the bow, the First Mate spots that there is a small notice attached to one of the posts in front of the bridge. We motor gingerly towards it, to find that it has a phone number to ring to get the bridge to open. Back in deeper water, I ring the number and say that we are waiting. Within five minutes we are through. My phone tells me that the number is a Den Haag one – can it be that everything is controlled from there?

Working out how to get a lifting bridge to lift …

A kilometre further on, we find the pontoon. Unfortunately it is full, and the only option we have is to raft up alongside one of the other boats. Four people are on one of them enjoying glasses of wine in the sunshine.

“Do you mind if we raft up to you?”, we ask.

Not everyone likes being rafted up to, as you then have other people tramping across your boat to get to shore, even if the etiquette is to go around the bow to respect the privacy of the cockpit. Especially when you are trying to enjoy a glass of wine.

“Of course we don’t mind”, they answer. “That’s what you have to do here. We were rafted up ourselves yesterday and only shifted to this place this morning. The ones in front, there, are leaving at 0700 in the morning – you can probably move to their spot after they go. Power is over there, and the harbour master will be along at 0800 sharp in the morning to collect the fees.”

They seem like perfect neighbours. We tie up to their boat, which turns out to be another Jeanneau Sun Odyssey, like ours. We immediately feel a kind of a bond.

Once secure, we amble into town for a coffee and cake and to explore. I am conscious that these streets are probably much the same as when Erasmus the philosopher lived in Gouda in his youth. We find Le Grand Café in the town square, and sit and sip our coffees while admiring the Stadhuis with its red and white window shutters. It reminds me of the one in Middelburg. It turns out that we are sitting where the weekly cheese market takes place in the summer. This year it has been closed due to the coronavirus.

The Stadhuis in Gouda.

Most Dutch towns are nothing if not for their canals. Gouda is no exception.

Slightly overgrown canal in Gouda.

A mural captures the terrors of a storm at sea.

Storm at sea: mural in Gouda.

A small street leading off the main square seems to be getting rid of out-of-date Gouda cheeses by stringing them on wires across the street.

Shopping street in Gouda.

“Mmmm, they look tasty”, I say.

“I think they are plastic”, says the First Mate. “Don’t eat them.”

Where would I be without her?

We come across a Gouda cheese shop. Two other people are there – the limit is four at any one time. It has every sort of variation on a theme you could imagine – normal Gouda cheese, farmers’ Gouda cheese, black Gouda cheese, pink Gouda cheese, walnut Gouda cheese, cumin Gouda cheese, pesto Gouda cheese, you name it, there’s a good chance it is there.

Gouda cheese shop.

We learn later that Gouda cheese is not a specific product of Gouda the town – it has no protected geographic status under the EU as it is a process rather than a product, and can be made anywhere. Gouda itself was and is more a place where cheeses come from all over Holland to be sold there. It is boerenkaas, or ‘farmer’s cheese’, that has the protected status. We buy some of that.

In the morning, the boat in front of us has gone, and we move Ruby Tuesday into the gap by rigging some lines and pulling her over. At least we now have our own piece of pontoon rather than clambering over someone else’s boat.

Our mooring place in Gouda.

Our neighbours come out for a chat. Their names are Marco and Anna, and they are full-time liveaboards with no other home. They used to live in Gouda and still have many friends here – the other couple that were with them when we arrived were two of them. But they sold their house and now just move around from place to place and work from the boat. They love the freedom of their lifestyle.

I wonder if it is something that we could ever do. Both of us like spending summers on Ruby Tuesday, but over the winter is a different matter. In our minds at least.

“We also have a small campervan that we use to travel long distances in a hurry and go on holidays with”, Anna tells us. “In fact, last year we took it across to Morocco and spent several months exploring the country in it. It was fantastic. We love the nomadic lifestyle. This year we were going to drive down to Belgium for a family get together – I have siblings who live there. But unfortunately we had to cancel it because of the strict coronavirus regulations there – we would have had to self-isolate for two weeks before seeing my family. Here in the Netherlands, we are much laxer than they are there. So we have spent the summer on the boat. Where are you from?”

Their ears prick up when they hear that I am from New Zealand.

“We have relatives in Auckland”, Marco says. “We went out last year to see them, then hired a campervan and travelled around the country in that. We loved the South Island – so rugged and mountainous compared to Holland.”

“The country was named after the place in Holland we have just come through”, I say. “Zeeland. The first European to discover New Zealand was a Dutchman called Abel Tasman. And in the 1950s a lot of Dutch people emigrated there. So there has always been a strong connection between the two countries.”

“And what a Prime Minister they have”, Anna continues, referring to Jacinda Ardern. “She is so young, but she has done a fantastic job with the Christchurch shooting, and now with the coronavirus crisis. She is a natural leader, and just seems to know how to make the right decisions. If the world had more leaders like that it would be a better place.”

“Certainly better than two leaders I could name”, says the First Mate with a snort.

I rack my brains to work out which ones she means.

Two tight fits

“Volkeraksluizen lock, this is yacht Ruby Tuesday”, I say, realising as soon as I say it that I am actually saying the word ‘lock’ twice. Sluis is Dutch for lock. “We have an air draft of 18 m and are intending to head eastwards towards Dordrecht. Can you advise which lock we should take?”

We are approaching the Volkeraksluizen, a system of locks separating the Volkerak from Hollands Diep, a river connected to the Rhine and Maas rivers. The Volkeraksluizen are the largest locks in the world in terms of tonnage of shipping that use them, and actually consist of four locks, three for commercial ships, the fourth for yachts (or ‘sport boats’, as the Dutch call them). We are a bit nervous in taking a mere sailing boat through such a busy place.

Approaching the Volkeraksluitzen.

Ruby Tuesday, this is Volkeraksluizen. You can go in the sports boat lock. It has a height of ssszzzzcccrrrrzzzzt”, comes back the answer. Static obliterates the last part of the sentence. I ask him to repeat it, but again I can’t understand him. Perhaps it is my hearing. I am left hoping that he heard me correctly and that there will be enough space for our 18 m. I had hoped we would go through the commercial lock as the clearance is unlimited.

“Don’t worry”, says the First Mate. “I am sure he heard you properly.”

But I am still worried. Normally it’s the other way round – the First Mate is the worrier, and I think things will always work out for the best. Except this time. The route guidebook says that boats higher than 18 m should go in the commercial lock. I know that we are just on 18 m, but what happens if the water level is just a few centimetres higher today than yesterday? Or if my measurements the other day were slightly out?

We enter the sports boat channel and wait in the queue for the lock to open. The bridge over the top of the lock looks awfully close to the top of the mast from where I am standing. At the risk of irritating him I decide to call the lockmaster again. Better to be safe than sorry.

Ruby Tuesday. You will be alright. The height of the lock is 18.1 m today”, comes back the laconic answer. “Make sure you go underneath the bridge first.” Do I detect an element of ennui?

Well, I suppose that 10 cm clearance is better than -10 cm. In any case, there is not much we can do now, as the lock has opened and we are moving in with other boats piling in behind us.

I look up and wait for the VHF aerial to catch on the bridge and whip back or break, but miraculously it doesn’t. We motor under the bridge and loop the lines over the small bollards at the side of the lock. That 10 cm is just enough. At least we know for sure now that our air draft is less than 18.1 m!

We make it underneath the bridge and into the lock …

The water in the lock rises 50 cm. It’s just as well we went under the bridge first, or we would have been stuck on the other side. As we wait, water flows into the lock sideways somehow and pushes Ruby Tuesday away from the wall. We have to hold onto the ropes for all we are worth to stop bumping into the next boat. Apparently it is part of a clever mechanism to make sure the brackish water of the Volkerak doesn’t mix with the fresh water of Hollands Diep.

“See, I told you that you didn’t need to worry”, says the First Mate. As we pass the lock control room, the lockmaster bends over the rail and looks down. I imagine that he is wanting to see for himself the yachtie who had to ask him three times about the height of his lock. I wave to him anyway. He doesn’t wave back.

… and out the other side.

We turn to the right into Hollands Diep. The wind is now directly behind us and quite strong, so we fly the genoa only and make a good pace.

Sailing along Hollands Diep.

Off to our starboard side is Willemstad, another picturesque Dutch town, but we decide to forgo its pleasures and press on towards Dordrecht. After an hour and a half, we take a left into another river, the Dordtsche Kil, heading northwards up to Dordrecht. The wind is now from the port beam and still very strong – great for sailing normally, but as we have to stay close to the starboard bank, we decide to motor. It wouldn’t look good being blown onto a lee shore!

Further on, we turn right onto the Oude Maas river and eventually reach the railway bridge in Dordrecht. There are a queue of boats waiting to get through which we join. In 20 minutes, the bridge lifts, two large container ships go through first, then it is a mad rush as the plethora of small boats that have gathered jostle for position. The bridge only opens for six minutes exactly before the next train is due. Missing it means waiting for another two hours for the next opening.

The dash for Dordrecht Spoorhefbrug in the six-minute window before it closes again.

Just after the railway bridge we see a small sign on the right pointing the way down a narrow channel to Maartensgat marina where we plan to stay. We almost miss it. We turn down it, only to find another sign almost immediately to the left pointing to an even narrower entrance to the marina. There is about a metre on either side of Ruby Tuesday as we slide through. Inside we tie up to a small pontoon that appears to be empty.

The entrance to Maartensgat marina in Dordrecht.

“We can stay here for a bit”, I say. “I am sure we will be told to move, but let’s wait until we are.”

At that moment an enormous motor cruiser appears in the entrance. How it managed to squeeze through is beyond me. Our escape is cut off. We then see a man with a beard cycling along the road alongside the marina. He comes down to the pontoon. It turns out that he is the marina manager.

“I have got you allocated for over there”, he says to us, pointing to a small gap towards the other end of the marina. “I want you to turn around just in front of that and reverse in. You can tie yourself to the neighbouring boats and get on and off via your stern. I have this place allocated to that motor cruiser there.”

The place for turning is only slightly larger than Ruby Tuesday. We motor slowly down, my mind whirling to work out a plan for the turn. With a combination of bow-thruster and reverse lock on the rudder we manage to start her rotating on her axis.

“There’s about a metre free here”, calls the First Mate from the bow. There is about a metre free at the stern as well. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot anxious faces looking from surrounding boats, boat hooks at the ready like knights just about to enter a jousting tournament. Somehow we make it. Ruby Tuesday is facing back where she came from. We reverse into the designated space, where eager hands from our neighbours reach out to fend us off and guide us in. I start breathing again.

We manage to get Ruby Tuesday reversed into the narrow space.

Maartensgat marina is right in the centre of town with the Grote Kerk church towering above it. Apparently the church has 67 bells, with the largest weighing nearly 10 tonnes. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your point of view, these bells ring out every quarter of an hour. Great in small doses, but difficult to have a conversation sitting in the cockpit of a boat just below. Once an hour would have been enough.

The Grote Kerk, Dordrecht.

“Look at the flag on top of the church”, says the First Mate. “It looks just like the no entry sign on the canals.”

She is right. We both know from the CEVNI course that a flag or sign with red-white-red horizontal stripes means no entry.

“Perhaps the riff-raff are not allowed to enter such a magnificent church”, I say.

After lunch, we explore the city. Dordrecht is actually an island surrounded by no less than five rivers, the Oude Maas, the Dordtsche Kil, Hollands Diep, the Beneden Merwede and the Nieuwe Merwede. Like Amsterdam, there are a network of small canals throughout the city that small boats with next to no height can move along. Houses come right down to the waterline. I wonder how they manage to keep their cellars from flooding, if they have any.

Canal in Dordrecht.

One of the houses has a mural painting of some of the city dignitaries.

Mural of city dignitaries. Look for it!

“Look, here’s a nice bakery”, says the First Mate, never one to knowingly pass a bread shop without seeing what it has to offer. “Let’s have a soup and a roll there. I’m a bit peckish.”

We sit by the window to keep our distance from other customers. The owner comes over and asks us where we are from.

“Wow, that’s impressive”, he says when we tell him. “To sail all the way from Scotland and find yourself in my bakery. I’m honoured. Here, let me take your photo from outside looking in.”

Enjoying our soup and roll.

The next morning we give Ronald a hand to leave. Ronald is one of our neighbours who we have exchanged pleasantries with from time to time. The talk turns to covid-19 while we wait for the marina manager to arrive to help him out of the tight space.

“I just don’t believe that it is that serious”, he says. “The reaction is just over the top. We haven’t got it, and no-one we know has it. We are all just being manipulated by ‘them’.”

“Who are ‘they’?”, I ask, doing my best Louis Theroux impression.

“Anyone who is not ‘us’”, he answers. “’We are the common man, and we are being fooled. By the government, the rich, the powerful, the elite, big pharma. The world is just falling to pieces. That’s why we bought the boat. To escape. To be our own bosses and live our lives as we want to.”

There’s a lot to unpick there.

“But why would ‘they’ want to do that?”, I ask. ”How would anyone except for a very few benefit from a pandemic?”

“I read somewhere that the wealth of the richest billionaires in America has increased by nearly 30% as a result of the virus”, says Ronald. “Look at the guy who owns Amazon – his fortune has increased by $70 billion just since March. An increase of $70 bn! Can you imagine that?”

I have to agree that it is rather obscene when lots of people have died or have lost their jobs or businesses. But I can’t see that the pandemic was engineered by the rich and powerful, or even governments, for that matter. The UK government, for example, seems to have been particularly inept in responding to it, let alone engineering it. But perhaps I am being naïve.

“And where would you escape to?”, I ask. “Most places in the world seem to have covid-19 now.”

“Sweden”, he says without hesitation. “We are going to sail there next year.”

“But they have one of the worst infection rates in Europe”, I say. “They were far too lax with their rules early on, and then numbers got away on them. Now they are paying the price.”

“Yes, but it’s all about freedom, isn’t it?”, he says. “The government there just set guidelines, not rules or laws. Then they left it up to the individual to decide whether or not to follow them or not. Not like the nanny state that we have here in Holland or in other European countries.”

I am just about to point out that the Netherlands is also pretty lax in comparison to some European countries like Belgium, and that numbers of cases are starting to rise again anyway, when the marina manager arrives to give a hand in getting Ronald’s boat out.

“I enjoyed that conversation”, says Ronald. “Next time we meet, we must continue it.”

With them sailing south and us north, and with covid-19 on the loose, I wonder if we ever will.

In the afternoon, Beate and Harry visit us. They are friends from Germany, old flatmates of the First Mate. Harry is an IT consultant and Beate a graphics designer. They are into dragon boat racing and have been in Amsterdam for a weekend of racing with other enthusiasts, and are just on their way home. They have been following our progress on MarineTraffic so know exactly where to find us. So much so, they park on the road next to the marina, looking down on Ruby Tuesday.

They come down and we have refreshments in the cockpit, socially distanced and with a nice breeze blowing through between us.

Catching up with Harry and Beate.

“Ding, dong, ding, ding, dong”, say the 67 church bells above us. “Dong, ding, ding, dong.”

“Wow, that’s quite a welcome”, says Harry. “Did you lay it on?”

“Ding, dong, ding, ding, dong”. Luckily the bells drown out my answer.

It’s nice to catch up with all their news. They have just bought their own sailing boat which they keep in Workum, on the eastern side of the IJsselmeer, so we have lots to talk about. They are spending time doing it up, but have already done some sailing in it. We arrange to meet up at some point once we reach the IJsselmeer ourselves.

We lose a map but find a haven

We set off from Veere at 1000. Already there are quite a few boats out, and we join the stream. There isn’t much wind, but we unfurl the sails and move along at a sedate pace. We feel a bit like we are on a carousel as all the boats are going similar speeds and following the same course.

On the Veersemeer sailing ‘carousel’.

There is a good system of red and green buoys to follow – these are similar to the IALA system used at sea with red to the port side and green to the starboard side, but it all depends on whether you are going ‘upstream’ or ‘downstream’ – ‘upstream’ is the same, ‘downstream’ it is the other way around with red on the starboard and green on the port. To add to the confusion, in a lake it is not always clear which is ‘downstream’ or ‘upstream’. Luckily it is usually fairly clear from the map and from common sense where the actual channel is, so we find that the best way is to work out whether we are to follow green or red buoys for a stretch of water and stick to that. The problem even with that is that one colour can switch to the other, particularly at junctions, but this is usually marked by a buoy painted both red and green. Confused? So are we. I am glad I did that CEVNI course!

‘Downstream’ marker buoy on Veersemeer.

The wind picks up from the west, and the course changes to the south-east, so we have a good sail on a broad reach down to the Zandkreeksluis. This is the lock at the eastern end of the Veersemeer, and part of the Delta project, a giant construction project of locks and dykes to protect the Zeeland and South Holland landscapes from the sea, partly a response to the great North Sea flood of 1953. The dykes act as protection against storm water surges for several of the giant river estuaries from the sea and convert them into large brackish inland lakes. The Veersemeer and the Oosteschelde, where we are, are two of these.

In the Zandkreeksluis at the eastern end of Veersemeer.

We emerge from the Zandkreeksluis into the Oosterschelde. We need to head north to avoid a shallow patch directly in front of us, and with the wind still strong we speed along on a comfortable beam reach.

There is a sudden gust and the Zeeland Waterways map blows over the side before we can grab it. Catastrophe! It has all the buoy information on it that we need to find our route. We do a quick about-turn with the sails flapping uselessly as we turn in the wind. The First Mate keeps an eye on the map which is floating on the surface. Amazingly we are able to pull in close to it upwind – those man overboard exercises we did were all worth it, and we are blown down to it. The First Mate reaches over with the boathook and pushes it further underwater.

“Why did you do that?”, I ask. “I thought we were trying to retrieve it.”

“I know”, she says. “That’s what I was trying to do, but the boat was heaving too much and I just couldn’t get the boathook underneath it. I’m sorry.”

Too far away now to reach it or have another go, we watch the map sink lower and lower in the water until it disappears.

“Ah well”, I say. “These things happen. It doesn’t matter too much. We only needed it until we get to Willemstad, which is not very far now. Then we can use the maps in the official Staande Mastroute book. We just need to follow the buoys until then. It shouldn’t be too difficult.”

We regain our original route following the green buoys, and head around the top of the shallows. The wind is now on our starboard beam, and we whizz along at 8 knots. It is exhilarating. We are sailing again. Another boat is just in front of us doing a similar speed and we try to catch them up. Green buoy after green buoy flash past us. Ruby Tuesday feels like a racehorse just been given her head, and surges forward. The adrenalin rises. Little by little we start to overtake them. We start to draw level, when the other boat turns into the wind and slows down.

“Ha, they knew we would overtake them and have bottled”, I think to myself as we pass them.

A little bit further on, we slow and take stock. Something doesn’t seem quite right. The coastline should be bending around to the east and becoming narrower now, but it isn’t – it is going southeast and is still quite wide. There is some kind of marina in front of us, but there shouldn’t be. But how can that be – we have followed all the green buoys, so how can we have gone wrong? We stop and look at the chart plotter. It is difficult to make much sense of it with all the AIS routes superimposed on the map. It takes a few more minutes before it dawns on us that we are somehow in the wrong arm of the Oosterschelde and have about five miles to get back on our route. We had followed the wrong set of green buoys!

“Never mind”, says the First Mate. “At least we had a good sail.”

Our little ‘detour’.

An hour and a half later, we are back where we were earlier in the afternoon. We continue on the right route this time, and eventually reach the Krammersluizen, another giant lock. I call the lockmaster on the VHF and tell him we have an air-draft of 18 m. We are told to go into the big lock for commercial boats rather than the smaller lock for sports boats. We end up behind a large freighter called Aloo.

In the Krammersluizen with Aloo.

“Perhaps they are carrying a cargo of potatoes from India”, I say to the First Mate.She doesn’t hear me because of the noise of the engines. It wasn’t much of a joke anyway.

“So where are we going to stay tonight?”, asks the First Mate, once we are through.

“I suppose we could stay in Colijnsplaat”, I answer. “That should be just round the corner here.”

Through the Krammersluizen. Where now?

We motor round the corner. There is no sign of anything.

“I think Colijnsplaat was just after the Zandkreeksluis”, says the First Mate. “This lock was the Krammersluizen.”

She is right. Colijnsplaat is miles behind us. Without the lost map, we are completely disoriented. It is starting to get dark. We will just have to find somewhere nearby. Luckily we have a pamphlet of local marinas that had just been relegated to the wastepaper pile that morning. The First Mate tries ringing a few of the closest. The first one says that he is too shallow for our draft. The second one says that he has a couple of available berths and that we should be able to get in with a 2 m draft.

We set a course for it. As we approach, we can’t see an entrance. All we can see is an expanse of woodland. The First Mate spots some buoys to follow. Slightly nervous after our experience in following green buoys earlier in the day, we nevertheless decide to give it a go. The depth drops to 0.5 m under the keel. The buoys lead to a small gap in the woodland that is fringed with reeds. We edge our way in slowly. The channel narrows and the depth goes down to 0.4, 0.3, 0.2 metres. Two ducks quack angrily and flap off in front of us. Still no sign of any marina. We are just about to reverse out, when the depth starts increasing again. 0.2, 0.4, 0.6 metres. We breathe a sigh of relief. The channel widens slightly and turns to port.

There’s a marina in here somewhere …

“I can see it”, the First Mate calls out suddenly from the bow. “It’s just to our left.”

A small harbour appears from behind the trees and reeds. Most of the boats in it are motor boats, but a couple are sail boats. We motor in slowly and find the first available berth. It’s a tight turn, but we somehow manage it without hitting any other boats or the quay. We have 0.2 m of water under the keel. Not a lot, but enough.

Just as we tie up, a man appears with a welcoming smile. He is the marina manager, and the one that we talked to earlier.

“What a beautiful place you have here”, says the First Mate while I adjust the lines. “It’s so peaceful.”

“Yes, it is nice”, he says proudly. “You can go for walks through the nature reserve over there. And just up there is a very good restaurant you can eat at. You can come up in the morning to sort out the paperwork.”

A crested grebe welcomes us.

It rains in the night. I am woken up by the noise of the raindrops hitting the coach-roof. I lie awake listening to it before I drift off again. In the morning, the rain has stopped and the sun comes out. Everything is fresh and green.

While the First Mate sleeps on, I have breakfast in the cockpit and soak up the atmosphere. Two grebes drift by, their beaks buried in their side feathers as they groom themselves. Swans sail elegantly along, their long necks darting from time to time into the water to pick up an insect that has fallen in. Over in the reeds growing at the side of the inlet ducks feed noisily, quacking quietly to show their satisfaction. A group of coots swim towards me quizzically as if expecting some of my breakfast. It is a scene of idyllic bliss, a small piece of nature in the midst of man’s activities, but also a place to escape from them temporarily. And we probably wouldn’t have found it if we hadn’t lost the map. Every cloud has a silver lining. Well, sometimes.

A swan swims by.

“This is a beautiful place”, says Spencer from the canopy frame. “It’s a pity that you humans don’t make more places like this. Why do you have to destroy everything and build your own things on it?”

Spencer airs his views on human activities.

“It’s a good point”, I respond. “The problem is that people like money to buy things, and to get money, they have to produce things that other humans want, and to produce those things, they have to clear land or extract minerals from the earth, and to clear land or extract minerals, they need to destroy these sorts of places.”

“But you change things so much”, counters Spencer. “Look at that huge estuary that we passed earlier in the day. That used to be the sea, with the tides rising and falling every day, currents sweeping in and out to keep it clean, and providing a home to lots and lots of different plants and animals for hundreds or thousands of years. Then you lot come along and decide that nature has not done a very good job here, and that you can do better. And what do you do? You build huge barriers to keep the sea water out, so that there are no tides, few currents and all those plants and animals have gone, to replaced by a different set. Who gave you the right to decide the fate of all those creatures?”

The Delta Works (from Heredotus under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).

I am a bit taken aback by this monologue, not least because I hadn’t realised that Spencer was so knowledgeable about Dutch history, but also because I had just accepted the received wisdom that Dutch water engineering was a ‘modern wonder of the world’.

“And like you say”, he continues, “I’ll bet money was at the bottom of it all. When they decided to do it, I’ll bet the factored in all the human costs and benefits, but didn’t pay much attention to the costs and benefits to nature.”

I do a quick Google to check. Sure enough, it seems that human lives saved from the flooding were valued at €22 million each, which was added to the cost of flood damage to agriculture, towns, infrastructure and all the other things that humans value. On that basis, the costs of construction were more than paid for by the flood damage that was saved.

“Exactly”, snorts Spencer. “And what value did they place on the life of a shrimp living in the estuary before it was blocked off? Nowhere near €22 million, I’ll bet. But why not? Their life is just as important as a human one.”

“Well, yes, I see your point” I say defensively. “But I am sure they carried out environmental assessments before they started so they would have known something about how the ecology would change. And besides, there has always been change in nature. The earth itself is constantly transforming and habitats come and go. It’s always happened and always will. All humans are doing is speeding up the process a bit.“

“Ah yes”, he says. “But you humans are so puny compared to the Earth’s processes. What you don’t realise is that if you set yourself up against Earth and make an enemy of her, she will always win in the end. All your wonderful dykes and locks and canals are now under threat from climate change, which you yourselves have caused, and now hundreds of billions more Euros need to be spent on them just to cope with the sea-level rise. You have to work with nature and not against her. Anyway, I have to go now and do some engineering of my own – I see the corner of my web over there has come adrift. Toodle pip!”

I finish my muesli and do the washing up from the night before. There’s more to that spider from Scarborough than I thought.

The Staande Mastroute and a cycle ride

“Oh no”, says the First Mate. “I don’t want to clamber over the anchor to get off the boat! I’ll break my leg. What am I going to do?”

We have just arrived at the marina in Vlissingen in Holland, and have been allocated a ‘box’ berth, which consists of the boat’s bow facing the pontoon with two poles at the back to tie the stern lines to. To get onto the pontoon you have to climb over the anchor.

We talk to our neighbours, who by a lucky chance are heading off in a couple of hours for a week or so, and say that we can use their berth while they are away. It has the pontoon running alongside the boat, which is what we are used to. The First Mate thanks them profusely. It will certainly make life easier. We are getting a bit old for anchor-abatics.

Vlissingen is a harbour city on the vast mouth of the Scheldt River in the south of Holland, and used to be the home port of the Dutch East India Company. Even though it has had its ups and downs over time, it is still a major harbour and shipbuilding site today. Crossing from one side to the other of the Schelde in a sailing boat as we had done in our passage up from Oostende is not an exercise to be taken lightly, with strong currents, frequent ferries and large ships all to be taken into account.

Sea front at Vlissingen, with a large ship passing close by.

Apparently its name is derived from the Dutch word vles for bottle, as an itinerant saint arrived at the city one day and gave the contents of a bottle he was carrying to some of the starving inhabitants. Miraculously, the contents never ran out, so as one does in such circumstances, he named the city Vles. The -ingen bit got added later. Whether that is true or not is debatable, but in any case much later the English couldn’t get their tongues around Vlissingen and called it Flushing. Even now it has both names, often with the Flushing in brackets after Vlissingen.

Sea front at Vlissingen (Flushing).

We walk into town to explore. Immediately we are surprised at the lack of covid masks compared to Belgium. Whereas in Oostende everyone was wearing masks, on the streets and in the shops, here no-one is. We do have ours with us, and do wear them, but we feel distinctly odd.

No masks in Vlissingen!

There is a market in town that day, and the First Mate buys some fruit to keep our vitamin C levels up.

Market day in Vlissingen.

We walk down to the harbour and watch the pilot boats coming and going to guide the big ships up the Westerschelde.

Pilot boat harbour in Vlissingen.

We are planning to do the Staande Mastroute, a route through the Dutch Canals where it is possible to keep the mast up the whole way by using lifting and swinging bridges. Although there are a lot of canals in Holland, most have fixed bridges en route making it impossible for yachts to travel through unless they take their masts down, and even then many bridges are too low. The Staande Mastroute starts in Vlissingen where we are at the moment, and wends its way through Zeeland, Dordrecht, Gouda, and into the IJsselmeer, the large body of shallow water north of Amsterdam, and from there up to Delfzijl in the very far north.

We spend the morning in the local chandlers buying the necessary paraphernalia.

“Look at this”, says the First Mate, holding up a horn you blow through. “I read somewhere that you need a horn at some of the bridges to let the person in charge know you are waiting, and also to communicate with some of the barges who use horn blasts to signal their intentions.”

It’s only seven euros, but I wonder to myself if we will really use it.

We end up buying the ANWB Staande Mastroute official guide book, with lots of detailed maps, but unfortunately all in Dutch, and a couple of other maps for bits of the route that are inexplicably not covered by the official guide. And of course, the horn. Back at the boat we test the horn. Three ducks peacefully feeding near the boat fly off in fright, flapping their wings wildly.

Essentials for navigating the Dutch canals.

It is also a legal requirement to have a copy of the ANWB Water Almanac Vol 1, again all in Dutch, but it is permissible to have a digital version of this, so we search the internet for it and download the latest copy. Sorted!

The next day, I spend the whole day swotting up on my CEVNI test for the waterways of Europe. CEVNI (Code Européen des Voies de Navigation Intérieure) is a bit like a driving license for waterways, and is a legal requirement in some countries such as France, although, as luck would have it, not the Netherlands. It comes as an endorsement on the International Certificate of Competence (ICC) which I obtained when we started sailing. There is a book you have to swot up on and then sit an on-line multiple-choice test – not hugely demanding, and you do get two tries at it even, but there is a lot to remember all the same. I had been meaning to do the test before we started, but with one thing and another, just hadn’t got around to it. But now we are just about to start the real thing, I decide it is advisable to do it.

By mid-afternoon, I have read the book through and memorised what all the signs, the horn signals, buoy colours, and the lights meant, as well as all the other miniscule details, so I decide to give the real test a go. Lo-and-behold, I pass with flying colours, with 15/15 and 15/15 for the two parts to it. I am now qualified to take on the waterways of Europe! At the very least, I can hoot back the right response when a barge hoots a warning to us that he wants to overtake us on the starboard side. (Normally overtaking is on the port side.)

We leave Vlissingen the next morning along the Walcheren Canal. The bridge lifts at 1012 and we are on our way.

The start of the Staande Mastroute, Walcheren Canal, Vlissingen.

The next city, Middelburg, is not far and we arrive just after 1200. We tie up in the marina in the centre of town, and go and find a place to have lunch. Middelburg is the capital of Zeeland province, and is very picturesque. There is a feeling of wealth built up over centuries through commerce and trading. It also used to be a centre of science and technology, with the microscope and telescope having been invented here by the resident lens-makers.

Ruby Tuesday ensconced in Middelburg marina behind the lifting bridge.

We walk into the town centre and have lunch. Even though much of it was destroyed in WW2, it has been rebuilt as closely as possible to what it was like previously. The town hall, with its red and white window shutters is particularly striking.

Town Hall, Middelburg, Zeeland.

Even the cormorants in the moats around the city have their own houses.

Cormorant drying himself outside his house.

“I know”, says the First Mate over breakfast the next day. “Why don’t we go for a cycle ride today? It’s all so flat, and we could cycle out to Domburg here on the coast, and come back this way.” She jabs a finger at the map spread out in front of us.

We unload the folding bikes and assemble them on the quayside. It is the first time we have had them out this trip, and the tyres are flat. I pump them up.

We set off. Before long we are lost.

“We were following route 36”, says the First Mate. “But it seems to have disappeared. I can’t see it anywhere.”

Luckily we come across a map board nearby showing cycle routes in Zeeland. It takes us a few minutes to work out that the numbers refer to waypoints and not routes. Number 36 refers to a junction on the route and not the route itself. We find a pen and paper and write down all the waypoints we need to pass through to get to Domburg.

Waypoints, not routes.

We set off again. We pass through lots of rural land, with healthy-looking crops growing, contented cows grazing, quaint little villages, the odd windmill in the distance. All lower than sea-level with the sea held back by dykes. Quintessential Holland.

Healthy looking crops.
Cows grazing contentedly.

Eventually we reach Domburg on the coast. A huge dyke separates us from the sea. The town is full of German tourists. We sit down at a café and are addressed by the waiter in German.

Zwei cafés, bitte”, says the First Mate. “Ein Stück Erdbeer-Sahne-Kuchen mit zwei Gabeln bitte.

“Did you ever have that story of the boy who saved Holland by putting his finger in the dyke to stop a leak?”, I ask, while we wait. “It was a story we had when we were growing up.”

“No, I don’t think we had that one”, says the First Mate. “Tell me it.”

“Well, once upon a time there was a young boy called Hans”, I start, trying to remember how the story went. “One day he was walking along the road at the base of the dyke with his little brother, when he saw some water seeping through the soil. Worried that the small leak might get larger and larger, he stuck his finger in the small hole to block the flow, and told his little brother to go and get help.”

The coffees and strawberry cream cake arrive.

“The little brother set off while Hans stayed there with his finger in the hole”, I continue between mouthfuls. “Night-time came, and still there was no sign of help arriving. Hans started getting cold, but he stayed there as he knew if he didn’t his country would flood. He stayed there the whole night, and was just about to fall asleep through cold and exhaustion, he saw lights and heard voices in the distance. It was his father and some other men, coming with picks and shovels. They soon patched up the dyke and Hans and his brother became national heroes for saving their country and people from drowning.”

The dyke near Domburg.

“That’s a nice story”, says the First Mate, wiping a cake crumb from her lips. “It really captures the Dutch spirit. It must be nice to be a hero of your country.”

Later I read that the story was written by an American author who had never been to Holland until years after she had written it. I feel a little bit let down.

“Come on”, says the First Mate. “Have you finished your coffee? I don’t really like it here much. It’s too touristy. Let’s get going.”

We get back on our bikes and cycle along the top of the dyke. On the other side is a long sandy beach. Some people are swimming in the sea, but it looks cold and uninviting so we decide to give it a miss.

Beach at Domburg.

Further along we come to Westkapelle with its rather impressive looking lighthouse. There is a tank commemorating the liberation of Zeeland in WW2.

Tank celebrating liberation of Zeeland in WW2, Westkapelle.

We take the inland route back to Middelburg, and arrive just as it is getting dark. It’s been a long day.

The next day we decide to push on in Ruby Tuesday along the Walcheren Canal. We eventually reach Veere on the edge of the Veerse Meer, and tie up at another box berth, but luckily this one also has a pontoon alongside. The First Mate breathes a sigh of relief. The church bells ring as if to welcome us. It might be just my imagination, but the tune seems to have a part of Whiter Shade of Pale in it.

Musical clock tower, Veere, Zeeland.

Veere is another lovely little Dutch village with a picturesque harbour, but catering almost entirely for tourists. There is not even a shop for provisioning close by. Apparently in the Middle Ages, the village was a major port for importing wool from Scotland in an early version of the EU. The local nobleman even married the daughter of James I.

The harbour in Veere.

We find a place to sit, and order a Radler, the First Mate’s current favourite, and a Weizen beer for me. The waitress is a bit curt. Perhaps she has had enough of foreign tourists for the day. But it doesn’t stop me from enjoying the yeasty flavour of the cloudy Weizen beer made from wheat. We don’t leave a tip this time.

In the afternoon, we decide to measure the height of the mast so that we don’t get caught out going under lifting bridges and through locks. When we bought Ruby Tuesday, we were told that the height was 20 m, but we didn’t know if this was a precise measurement or an educated guess. Better to be safe than sorry.

We tie a spare halyard to the end of the topping lift at the end of the boom and pull it to the top of the mast just before it goes into the sheave. We then mark it where it meets the surface of the water. The halyard is obviously not quite vertical because of the width of the hull, so we measure the horizontal distance from the base of the mast to where we measured the waterline. Then by measuring the halyard to the waterline mark and using a bit of Pythagoras, we work out that the mast is exactly 17 m high. Mr Rose, my old maths teacher at high school, would be proud. There are still the navigation lights and the VHF aerial on top of this, so we allow another 1 m which makes it 18 m. So a bit less than the 20 m that we had been told, but at least we know now what the minimum height of clearance is that we need through bridges and the like.

Measuring the mast height.

Just as we finish, the church bells ring out their tune.

And so it was that later/As the miller told his tale/That her face, at first just ghostly/Turned a whiter shade of pale”, I sing disharmoniously in accompaniment.

“Is that song hard to sing?”, says the First Mate. “It’s certainly hard to listen to.”

I’ll need to have a word with that girl one of these days.

An evacuation and clever seagulls

“Ack-ack-ack-ack”, stutters the light anti-aircraft gun mounted on the front of Ruby Tuesday. The First Mate aims it at a Stuka dive bomber that is plummeting towards us, its engine whining in a high pitched scream. Ack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack. Tracer streams skyward towards the plane, hitting its fuselage. The First Mate was always a good shot. There is a puff of black smoke and flames begin to stream from the aircraft as it begins to spiral earthwards.

The Withdrawal from Dunkirk, June 1940. | Wikicommons/ Charles Ernest Cundall.

Debris flies into the air as a bomb hits one of the small boats off our port bow. The boat and everyone in it are completely obliterated. A Messerschmitt fighter flies in close over the water, strafing the soldiers and boats in the water as it comes. I wrench Ruby Tuesday’s wheel over and turn to port to narrow our profile, and watch in morbid fascination as lines of bullets strike the water on each side of us. Another bomb hits the water just where we were seconds before. That could have been us. I ram the throttle forwards and head parallel to the beach. Plumes of thick acrid black smoke rise into the air from the shipyards and oil tanks behind the beach as the bombers strike again and again. To the north of the harbour breakwater lies the wreck of a sunken troop ship that has succumbed to enemy bombs, its name Cote d’Azur just visible on her bow poking out of the water. Hundreds of soldiers are in the water, swimming for their lives. Many others cling to the makeshift piers formed by army trucks parked end-to-end out from the beach. If someone had asked me to describe hell, this would be it.

Amidships, Spencer throws over a net into the water to help the struggling soldiers climb up Ruby Tuesday’s slippery sides. They cling on desperately, their strength gone from weeks of fighting in France and the privation they have endured. Spencer reaches out with two of his arms and hauls them aboard. There is gratefulness in their eyes as they join the dozen or so others huddling in the cabin downstairs. At least they are still alive.

“Vessel Ruby Tuesday, you are drifting too much into the centre of the fairway”, a voice on the VHF radio says.

For a moment, I feel a brief feeling of anger that our position on the fairway is more important than our efforts to save the lives of the drowning soldiers in the water. It takes me a few seconds to realise that it is not 1940, that I am not the skipper of one of the small boats involved in the Operation Dynamo evacuation of British soldiers fighting in France in WW2, and that in reality we are just approaching the entrance to Dunkerque harbour.

Entering Dunkerque harbour.

“Dunkerque Port, this is Ruby Tuesday”, I say. “Apologies, we will turn more to starboard. Can we also request permission to enter the harbour and proceed to Mercator marina?”

Ruby Tuesday, you have permission. Follow the eastern breakwater up to the canal. The marina is then just on your left.”

The First Mate is on the bow, preparing the fenders and lines. I am just about to tell her to put the light anti-aircraft gun away too, but catch myself in time.

We tie up at the marina and have a cup of tea. The evacuation was thirsty work.

As we peruse the guidebooks, we discover that the Operation Dynamo museum is in one of the bunkers used by the Allied Command just 10 minutes’ walk from the marina, so after a quick tidy up we visit it. Inside, we put on our masks and follow the one way system marked by arrows and rope barriers around the exhibits. Unfortunately the marked route doesn’t follow the order of the description panels, so we have to perform mental gymnastics to understand the story in sequence.

Visting the Operation Dynamo museum in Dunkerque.

It’s a fascinating tale none-the-less, and well worth a visit. The German army had surrounded the British Expeditionary Force and the Belgian and French Armies, and pushed them to the coast with their lightning fast panzers. Churchill realised that the only option was evacuation of the troops and ordered warships and troopships to the beaches of Dunkerque to rescue them. Unfortunately the water was too shallow for the big boats to get close in, so hundreds of small craft, including yachts, were roped in to help. All in all around 300,000 soldiers were rescued and brought back to Britain.

Wreckage of war.

As we walk around the collection of the detritus of war that the Allied armies had left behind on the beaches – old trucks, bits of aircraft, machine guns, destroyed field guns, even the odd personal effect – I found it interesting to learn of the French side of the story, which doesn’t figure much in the British accounts. Apparently, the original plan was to evacuate the British forces only, and leave the French soldiers to their fate. But with only a day or two to spare, Churchill suddenly realised the political implications of this, and wanting to keep the French on side against the Nazis, decided to also help in evacuating French forces to Britain.

Arms left behind on Dunkerque beaches.

Later, in the evening, we walk up from the marina to the beginning of Malo-les-Bains beach, and watch the sun going down in the west. In the calmness and beauty of the reds and golds, it is difficult to imagine the bloodshed and carnage that had taken place here eighty years before. For most of those years, Europe has made a huge effort to come together as a cooperative community of nations so that such horror would never happen again, and has achieved much by working together. Now there are powerful forces at work to try and destroy that unity. What will the next eighty years bring? Peace, albeit of a different nature, or more conflict?

Sunset over Dunkerque harbour.

Strong winds are forecast for the next day, so we decide to stay another day in Dunkerque to let them die down. The First Mate decides to take the free bus from the marina into town and do some shopping. I decide to stay on the boat to catch up on my reading.

The book I am reading at the moment is From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, by Daniel Dennett. In it he outlines how human minds and consciousness can evolve through a purely material process, no supernatural beings required. Natural selection constantly improves organisms by allowing the fitter, better adapted individuals to survive and reproduce more, while the less fit ones are selected against and eventually disappear. By accumulating a series of good adaptations, organisms, or even parts of organisms, become good at what they do even though they need have no understanding of it, something Dennett calls ‘competence without comprehension’. Comprehension and consciousness only emerged with the first humans, particularly when they started using words to describe things – objects, ideas, food, danger. Words are ‘memes’, the cultural equivalent to genes – they stick in memories if they are useful for survival, but if they are not used or are not useful for survival, they tend to disappear. Words make use of the existing physical machinery of the brain, but that doesn’t mean that the physical machinery is conscious, or understands what it is doing, or is self-aware. Indeed, it is not. It is only when words work together with the machinery as a whole that consciousness is produced. But the idea that there is someone in ‘charge’ of consciousness, i.e. a ‘you’ or ‘me’, is just an illusion.

It is not the first book on consciousness that Dennett has written – I read his Consciousness Explained some years ago when it first came out. He is always a good read, but I am not sure so far if Bacteria & Bach progress things further than Consciousness Explained. It seems a bit homocentric, for example, to say that consciousness only started with humans and speech – panpsychism apart, other organisms may well have degrees of consciousness. However, I am only halfway through the book so far, so will I give him the benefit of the doubt until I finish.

I put the book down, make myself a cup of tea, and watch the seagulls hunkering down on the pontoon, all facing the same way into the wind as it howls over them. One of them suddenly wrestles a mussel free from the pontoon piles, flies a couple of metres into the air and drops it onto the pontoon. Again and again it does it until it eventually breaks and the bird is able to pick out the flesh inside.

I muse on whether seagulls actually understand what they are doing. Do they have thoughts like us, and are they able to reason? Has that seagull worked out that if it drops a mussel from a height, it will break and the it will be able to have lunch? Would it know that if it dropped it on mud, it probably wouldn’t break, if on concrete it probably will? Or has it learned the technique through random trial and error or by copying other seagulls? Or is it just blind instinct, no thought involved at all?

Seagulls hunkering down against the wind. Intelligent perhaps, but do they have minds?

And do they have a Theory of Mind whereby they are capable of recognising that other creatures have their own mind different from their own? Humans obviously do, and a few other animals may do, including ravens from the bird kingdom. I recall reading an article claiming that the best way to deal with aggressive seagulls is to stare intently at them, keeping eye contact all the time. This makes them uncomfortable and they are less likely to steal food. The writer suggested that this may be evidence of Theory of Mind in seagulls, as they are able to imagine that humans may disapprove and react if they take their food. I am not so sure. Isn’t it just learned behaviour? I need to think about that one more.

“Can you come and give me a hand with the bags?”, I hear a voice say. It is the First Mate arriving back from her shopping expedition with lots of nice goodies.

The wind in the afternoon drops slightly, but is still gusty. We decide to continue our voyage up to Oostende. The wind is from the southwest, on our starboard quarter, so we whizz along at 6-7 knots with just the big genoa out.

Making good progress with the genoa only.

We arrive at Oostende harbour and call the lock on VHF 14 to ask if we can pass through to the Mercator marina, so named after an old three-masted sailing ship permanently living in the harbour. We had phoned the marina from Dunkerque in the morning to ask if they had space for us. They had said they did.

Ruby Tuesday, yes we are expecting you”, a friendly male voice answers. “We have followed you on the AIS since Dunkerque. Welcome to Oostende. Just go straight into the lock and put your lines around the vertical ropes.”

The marina managers in this part of the world certainly seem to have cornered the market in friendliness.

The traffic stops, the two bridges lift, we pass through the lock and find ourselves in the Mercator marina two minutes’ walk from the centre of town. We love these little harbours that have been the centre of fishing and other maritime activity for the towns in the past, and now provide a quiet place for yachts – our ‘home-from-home’ a stone’s throw from the modern town centre at a reasonable price. It certainly beats staying in a hotel.

Passing through the lock to the Mercator marina.

We are immediately struck by everyone wearing masks. In France, it had only been mandatory in public places where there are lots of people, such as town squares and shopping areas. Here in Belgium, it is everywhere. It seems that one can be fined for not wearing one, and we notice that in the really busy shopping areas that there is a Coronavirus Team in bright yellow dayglo vests stopping the odd person not wearing a mask and turning them away if they don’t have a mask to hand, or warning transgressors to stay in the correct one-way pedestrian walkways. Given that Belgium had one of the highest rates of infection within Europe earlier in the year, they certainly seem to be taking it seriously now.

Everyone wearing a mask on the main shopping street.

Later, we go and pay the nice marina manager for our berth. We ask about covid-19 in Belgium.

“Yes, we had quite high rates of infection early on, but people are a bit more careful now than they were then”, he says. “I had it myself, in fact.”

We involuntarily take a step backwards and tighten our masks. Luckily there is already a perspex screen between us.

“Don’t worry”, he says. “I am completely recovered now, and have had a test to confirm it. I can even show you the certificate if you want. But I have to say, having the virus was one of the worst experiences I have had. I felt absolutely terrible for more than a week. I wouldn’t wish it, how do you say in English, on my worst enemy.”

The thought crosses my mind that he might still be an asymptomatic carrier, so I use a double squirt of hand gel after I have signed the form with his pen and push the door open with my elbow on the way out.

On the way back, we notice that the marina is located on Vindictive Avenue. What a weird name for a street, I think. Is everyone here out for gratuitous revenge or what? I take an even wider berth around the pedestrians coming in the opposite direction. It turns out that, during WW1 a British warship, HMS Vindictive, was sunk in Oostende harbour entrance to prevent German submarines from escaping into the North Sea to attack Allied shipping. The Oostendians were so impressed they named a street after the ship, and also placed its salvaged bows as a monument on one of the breakwaters near the harbour entrance. So there you go. Nothing vindictive about that. Unless you are a U-Boat commander, I suppose.

Nasty Avenue?

We are stuck in Oostende for two days waiting for 50 knot winds to die down. We kill time by reading, writing, shopping and visiting the Mercator sailing ship.

Spoilt for choice.
The Mercator three-masted sailing ship.

On the third day, the forecast is for light winds from the south, so we decide to continue our journey north to Holland. We lock out of the marina the night before and stay the night on the waiting pontoon so that we can leave early in the morning at 0600 to catch the north-flowing tidal current.

Two crossings

The air hangs heavy and leaden. The fog has thickened, so we can only see for less than a mile. All around us is a white nothingness – if it wasn’t for the compass and instruments, we would be completely disoriented, not knowing which way is which. The breeze that we had woken up to has dropped to the slightest puff of less than a knot, and the sails flap uselessly. For a minute, the fog thins and the sun tries to shine through, making us feel hot and muggy, but disappears again. In terms of self-isolating, we have found the ideal place – we could be the only ones left in the world.

And yet we are not alone. We have been visited by a swarm of small flies – luckily they don’t seem to of the biting kind – and two colourful moths. There is no sign of Spenser, though. I wonder if the flies and moths have flown out here of their own accord, or whether they have been blown off course by the wind. Not that there has been much wind in the last few days anyway. And what do they do when they are tired – they can hardly just stop and have a rest on the water. Or can they?

We are sailing across the Thames estuary, trying to navigate the myriads of channels and sandbanks. We are fortunate in that we have done this before, two years ago, on the first day of our voyage around the UK, so we are able to follow our previous track on the chart-plotter. We feel much more confident now than we did then – just two inexperienced would-be sailors who were wondering if they had bitten off more than they could chew in sailing a fairly large unknown boat back to Scotland.

Leaving Shotley two years ago.

The giant turbines of the London Array windfarm loom out of the fog, their blades almost stationary in the still conditions. Only the stems and the lower blades are visible, the upper ones disappearing into the mist. We turn left into Fisherman’s Gat, following the red and green buoys so that we don’t end up on the sandbanks.

Turbines operating at half power?

The sky clears to our north, and the sun peaks through. It is not for long though, and the cloud and fog drop again, this time with some rain. Visibility is down to about a mile, and we have to rely on the AIS and radar to see if any other boats are around. The surface of the sea is almost smooth, and I watch the raindrops hitting it, making small circles before they are swallowed up by the larger wavelets. A few minutes later, there is a flash of lightening somewhere to our stern followed by claps of thunder. I start to hope that they won’t come any closer and be attracted to our mast.

Raindrops on a calm sea.

“I wonder what roast human tastes like?”, I ask the First Mate.

“Stop that!”, she answers.

The alarm on the AIS sounds – it is warning us of an imminent collision. I check the plotter and see that it is a cargo ship travelling at 12 knots out from the London direction somewhere. It is still about four miles away from us, but is closing fast. I peer through the fog, but the visibility is too poor and there is no chance of seeing it. The thought of several thousands of tonnes of steel ploughing into us at 12 knots doesn’t really appeal. Eventually it adjusts its course imperceptibly and passes astern of us. I still see no signs of it even though it passes less than a mile away. Ships in the night and all that. Thank goodness for modern electronics.

We reach Dover marina in the evening. It is much the same as we remember it from two years ago, except there is a one way system to the toilets, and the office staff are protected with plastic screens. All Covid-driven, of course. We put our masks on and go and pay.

Approaching Dover.

We spend the evening planning the Channel crossing. It isn’t as simple as it sounds, at least in a sail boat, as there are several factors to take into account. First is the wind, but as it is predicted to come from the south on our beam, it should be in our favour. Second are the currents – twice a day these swing back and forwards as a huge mass of water is funnelled through the 22 miles or so of the English Channel, with speeds being reached of up to 3-4 knots. Getting the times wrong means battling against this current and ending up on the French side much more southwards or northwards from Calais than desired.

Struggling with the passage planning late at night.

Third is the Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) for the large ships that has to be crossed at right angles to minimise the time spent in it. The key point here is that we need to be headed at right angles even though the current will inevitably be carrying us diagonally. Amazingly, the TSS authorities monitor the heading of each boat (transmitted by the AIS) and allow for the deflection of the current and radio any offending boats that are not heading straight across.

After trying several scenarios, we settle on leaving Dover at 1030, just before the current switches. This gives us a south-flowing current for an hour to take us south from Dover a little bit, by which time we should be at the boundary of the TSS. Then the current should switch to flow northwards, taking us in a gentle curve across the channel to arrive about an hour south of Calais, when we will still have the tide and wind behind us to carry us in.

In the morning, we decide to refuel so that we have a full tank when we arrive in Europe. While the tank is filling, we see a RIB towing a small inflatable dinghy. In addition to the crew, some rather bedraggled people are huddling for warmth in the RIB.

“They are illegal immigrants that have been picked up by Border Control”, the fuel man tells us. “There are some every day. In some ways, I have to say that I admire them for trying to get across the Channel. You wouldn’t get me doing it trying to dodge those big ships in a tiny rubber inflatable, what with all the currents and everything. You’d never be seen, and those big ships are doing around 20 knots and take five miles to stop anyway.”

It makes us think about the sort of conditions in their own countries make the people risk their own lives to brave that treacherous stretch of water to reach a country in all likelihood they have never been to before.

We set off at 1030 on the dot and head south(ish) as planned. After about an hour we reach the edge of the TSS and set Ruby Tuesday to head 137°T. That should keep the TSS authorities happy at least. Almost on cue, we hear another boat being admonished for heading at the wrong angle, so it does happen.

In total contrast to yesterday, it is a beautiful sunny day, and the sea state is slight, so the conditions are good and we can see what is going on. We wouldn’t be so keen to be doing it in fog or with a gale raging. We recall talking to some neighbours in Dover marina two years ago who did actually cross the Channel in their small 18-footer in the fog with no radar or AIS, so it can be done, I suppose. Mind you, they did say that they were scared witless the whole way over.

Every so often, we hear a routine message broadcast on the VHF by Border Security urging all ships to keep a keen eye out for any small craft trying to cross the Channel towards England and to let them know as soon as possible. We do cast our peepers around from time to time, but we see nothing.

Then a live message.

“This is an All Ships broadcast to any southwest-going ships in the vicinity of Varne Bank”, it says. “There has been a reported sighting of a small rubber inflatable with multiple persons on board. If anyone can confirm this please contact Border Control immediately.”

The Varne is a long shallow sandbank of about six miles in length and starting about two miles south of us. We scan the sea with the binoculars, but see nothing. If there is anything, we are probably too far away.

“Border Control, this is ship Eastern Princess”, a voice says suddenly in a thick Eastern European accent. “Ve are near Farne Bank. ‘as there been an haccident?”

Eastern Princess, we repeat: ‘There has been a reported sighting of a small rubber inflatable with multiple persons on board. If you see any activity of this nature please contact Border Control immediately.”

“If ve have hunderstood you correctly”, continues the East European accent, “you don’t vant us to do hanything except report to you if ve see an inflatable vith people in eet, not to do hanything. Can you confirm?”

Eastern Princess, we repeat: ‘There has been a reported sighting of a small rubber inflatable with multiple persons on board. If you see any activity of this nature please contact Border Control immediately.”

Border Control clearly aren’t going to commit themselves any further, and Eastern Princess goes quiet.

By this stage we have reached the midpoint of the TSS that divides the ships going southwest from those going northeast, like the central reservation on a motorway except that nothing is visible other than on chart-plotter screens. For some reason, there are more ships in this lane than the one we have just crossed, and the software on the AIS that calculates potential collisions goes berserk. With some justification, as we can spot four ships one after the other approaching from the southwest, all doing about 20-25 knots. Not only that, they are staggered, so that as soon as we miss one, there is another one to deal with. And they are coming from our starboard side, so it is our responsibility to avoid them, rather than the other way around. Normally, I always have the impression that there is a lot of space at sea, but when you see these behemoths approaching at speed, hardly able to turn or to stop, one after the other, it does raise the adrenalin level.

Running the gauntlet: we are the small black triangle lower centre; the ships are the open triangles with their projected courses shown by dashed lines. Help!

“I feel like one of those magician’s assistants that climbs into a box and the magician puts swords through it from both sides”, says the First Mate. “Don’t you remember that episode of Midsomer Murders where the swords were actually real?”

She has a point, if you will excuse the pun. And yes, I am afraid we do watch Midsomer Murders.

The first ship passes about 200 m to our stern. I try and gauge whether the next one will collide with us and conclude that it will, so we ease the sails and slow down. It passes about 200 m in front of us. Right call. The third one also looks like it will hit us, so we tighten the sails again and pick up speed. We watch the ship getting closer and closer, until we eventually start to see its starboard side more than its port side, and know that it will pass behind us. Minutes later, it does. I can almost see the whites of the captain’s eyes.

Two ships we have just missed.

We look for the fourth ship of the pack, and see that it has altered course to further west in the lane, so it is no longer a danger to us. Whether it has done this to avoid us or not we don’t know.

“That was great”, says Spencer from the canopy frame. “I haven’t had so much fun since a horde of wasps blundered into my web. I have to say, I thought we were a goner on that third one.”

“Still here?”, I say incredulously. “Well, I am glad you enjoyed it. And where were you yesterday with all those flies?” Somehow it is reassuring to see that familiar ugly face again.

“I was here”, he says. “Up the mast. I wanted to get a better view, but all that mist and fog stopped all that.”

I almost feel sorry for him.

We are approaching Calais, and see traffic lights at the entrance with two green lights over a white light. That means that we can proceed into the harbour only after we obtain permission.

Approaching the entrance to Calais harbour.

We call the Port Control, explain that we are heading for the marina, are given permission to enter and are directed to the visitor mooring buoys on the right of the entrance. To enter the marina, there is a swing bridge that opens two hours each side of high water, and the next opening is 2215. We have to wait seven hours!

“Well, the planning was late at night when you were fast asleep”, I tell the First Mate.

Tied up to the waiting buoy for the marina bridge to open.

We call the marina to let them know that we are waiting, and are answered by a cheerful female voice with an alluring French accent. My heart melts and I fall in love with it immediately. There is something about the French accent that always makes me go weak at the knees. The voice tells us that the procedure is that about 10-15 minutes before the scheduled opening time, waiting boats have to show some kind of indication that they want to go through, and we will be seen and someone will open the bridge.

“Are you feeling alright?”, says the First Mate, looking at me closely. “You’re looking a bit vacant.”

I take this as a compliment that I don’t look that way normally, but I can never be sure with the First Mate.

“Yes, fine, thanks. Just hungry”, I say. “I was dreaming of those cottage pie left-overs in the fridge.”

She looks at me disbelievingly.

We spend the time relaxing, reading and eating dinner. At around 1900, it gets dark.

The sun goes down over Calais.

It wasn’t clear what sort of indication we should make, so at 2200, I turn on the navigation and deck lights to make it look like we mean business. 2215 arrives, and nothing happens. We decide to wait 10 minutes. Still nothing. I call the marina, partly to hear that voice again, but it has gone home with its owner hours ago. We are just contemplating spending the night on the mooring buoy, when I wonder if a call to Port Control might be worthwhile.

Ruby Tuesday to Calais Port Control”, I say. “We are waiting to go through the bridge to the marina, but it hasn’t opened.”

Ruby Tuesday”, comes back the answer. “The bridge opened at 2215. The next opening is at 2315.”

“But it didn’t open at 2215”, I say plaintively. “We were here waiting all the time.”

“Oh.” There is a pause. “Excusez-moi. Un moment. I will see if I can get the bridge to open.”

At 2230, the bridge opens. We motor through and tie up to the visitors’ berth on the right. It’s been a long day, and we flop straight to bed. I dream of sorting out the paperwork with that voice in the morning.

Our actual track across the Thames Estuary and the English Channel.