A navy patrol boat, the Middle Way, and we get lost

I stare abstractedly at the bubbles streaming in our wake, marking momentarily our passage before disappearing. For a while longer a path of smoother water remains, before merging once again with the rest. Like our own existence, in a way. I think of the thousands of other seafarers that have travelled the same way before us. How many Stone Age people thought the same as they paddled these routes in their hollowed-out tree-trunks, how many Vikings in their long-ships, how many medieval traders in their skutes, how many modern day sailors like ourselves? Each must have left similar trails, each has now gone.

Fleeting trails.

The mists of time swirl. My mind takes me back to when the Baltic Sea is starting to form. A large depression in the rock of the ancient continent of Baltica starts to fill with sediment from erosion of the surrounding land. Much later, a river, the Eridanos, flows through the basin, deepening it and carrying much of the sediment out to the North Sea. Millions of years later, the ancient continent of Laurentia collides with Baltica and compresses the Baltic Sea into the elongated shape it is today. In the last two million years or so, glaciers cover the depression, leaving behind a vast freshwater lake called Ancylus when they eventually begin to melt. Eventually the North Sea breaks through the shallow Danish Straits where we are now and the Baltic Sea becomes the brackish water body that it is today. The islands of the Danish archipelago and the surrounding shallow straits are all that remains now of the barrier that once separated the lake from the sea.

“You look as if you are daydreaming again”, says the First Mate. “Look, why don’t you go and make us a cup of tea? That’ll wake you up.”

We are on our way from Bogense to Middlefart. The wind is gusting from the north-west, and we are sailing close-hauled. The First Mate is helming to get some practice handling sudden gusts. I dutifully do as I am told, and bring out two steaming mugs.

“You know”, she says. “I could get used to this.”

“Used to what?”, I ask. “Helming, or me doing as I am told?”

She doesn’t hear me.

We are approaching Middelfart. In the distance, we see the New Lillebælt Bridge spanning the narrow Snævringen channel between Jutland and Fyn. From this distance, the cars and trucks crossing it look like tiny Matchbox toys. We need to go underneath it.

The New Lillebælt Bridge, Middelfart.

“I have been thinking”, says the First Mate. “You can’t write Middelfart in the blog. It’s too rude. The automated censors will pick it up and delete it. Can’t you think of some other name?”

“Yes, you are quite right”, I say. “I think I will call it Bottomfart. That sounds much better.”

“Well, at least the blog will have something for everyone”, says the First Mate. “Even six-year-olds. Look there’s a navy ship following us. They’ll keep you in line.”

Sure enough, there is a patrol vessel not far behind us. The AIS shows that it is doing eight knots, so it will soon catch us.

Followed by a navy patrol vessel.

“They probably think we are smugglers”, I say to the First Mate. “I hope you hid those bottles of whisky.”

“They are more likely to think you are an illegal immigrant from the UK now that it’s a third country”, says the First Mate.

“Whatever”, I say. “Let’s see if we can outrun them.”

I push the throttle forward. Our speed increases from 6 knots to 6.2 knots.

“Well, that didn’t make a lot of difference”, says the First Mate. “We’d better hope they run out of fuel or something.”

The patrol vessel continues to gain on us. As we pass under the New Lillebælt Bridge, it slows and loops around and heads back in the direction it came from. Either they have decided that we are not carrying anything worth making a fuss about, or we weren’t the target in the first place. Probably both.

We follow the Snævringen channel around to the right and then to the left. Two porpoises surface close by, as though to welcome us. In the distance we spy the forest of masts of Middelfart Marina and head for there. Before long, we are tied up on the end of one of the finger pontoons.

“Let’s get the bikes off and go for a ride into town”, says the First Mate. ”I read that it is about a kilometre or so. We can have a look around and then have a coffee.”

Apparently the name of Middelfart derives from the Old Danish for ‘Middle Way’. It was originally used for the Snævringen channel between Jutland and Fyn that we had just come through, but later was applied to the town that grew up around it. In the Middle Ages, the town had specialised in catching harbour porpoises.

“The guidebook says that only selected families were allowed to hunt the porpoises, a privilege given to them by the king”, says the First Mate. “They used to line their boats up across the narrowest part of the channel and beat the water with their oars to frighten the poor things into the shallow areas where they were killed. Their blubber was used to extract oil for lamps. When electricity came along, there was no need for much oil any more, and hunting for porpoises stopped. Now it is illegal.”

“Perhaps that was what the patrol vessel was doing”, I say. “Making sure that foreign boats don’t do anything to the porpoises. As if we would.”

We sit and have an ice cream opposite the church.

St Nicholas’ Church, Middelfart.

“The Danish certainly have managed to preserve a lot of their medieval buildings”, says the First Mate. “Look, there’s one over there that was built in 1584. I might have a look around for some more interesting doors.”

Holm’s restaurant, dating from 1584.
Medieval house in Middelfart.
Door in Middelfart.

We end up at the small harbour on the north side of the town. Several traditional boats are tied up there.

Middelfart harbour.

The next day it is bright and sunny.

“I take your point about our tyre marks from Kolby Kås”, I say at breakfast. “They just don’t seem have started a trend. I think I am going to clean them off this morning.”

I fetch the hose from the pontoon and start scrubbing. It’s tough work but eventually the black marks are gone.

“Here, let me get a photo of you”, says the First Mate. “It’s not often I see you working so hard. I need a record for posterity.”

The shutter clicks.

“Oh no”, she says, looking at the small screen. “It’s made you look like the Mannikin Pis statue we saw in Bogense. We can’t put that in the blog.”

“Well, at least the six-year-olds will find it funny”, I say.

Cleaning the tyre marks off Ruby Tuesday. Yes, really!

We decide to have lunch at the small restaurant near the marina office.

“I was talking to one of the people along the pontoon this morning”, says the First Mate. “Apparently there is a very nice path from here out around the promontory and back into Middelfart. Why don’t we go for a cycle along it after lunch? I have a map, so we won’t get lost.”

“That sounds like a good idea”, I say. “It’s a nice sunny day for it.”

After lunch, we set off. The path leads along the shoreline, past a small yacht harbour, then into some woodland. There are beautiful views out over Fænø Sund towards Lænkevig, and we sit for a short time on a bench taking it in.

Looking out over Fænø Sund towards Lænkevig.

“That looks like a nice place over on the other side”, I say. Perhaps we can anchor over there tonight. It’ll be nice and peaceful and we will also save on marina fees.”

“That’s a good idea”, says the First Mate. “Let’s do that.”

We push on. The track becomes narrower and rougher.

“Are you sure this is a cycleway?”, I ask.

“I am sure it will get better just up around this corner”, says the First Mate.

We reach the corner. The track gives way to a small sandy beach. Two woman are there, enjoying the sun. They look surprised to see bikes on the beach. I smile at them, pretending that we are beach inspectors come to check the quality of the sand. I scuff the sand with my foot. They don’t look convinced.

Checking the sand quality.

“Over there”, says the First Mate, pointing. “I can see the track leading up the hill at the other end.”

It does. But it isn’t a cycle track any more. Even calling it a walking track is being generous. We lug the bikes to the top of the bluff overlooking the beach. Another path leads in the general direction we want to go. The gnarled tree roots criss-crossing it make it unrideable, on our small bikes at least.

The path gets rougher and rougher.

After ten minutes, we reach a huge gully blocking the way. The path leads down then up again on the other side.

“Let’s have a look at that map”, I say.

We are on a brown line snaking its way around the promontory. The key says that it is a walking track with a classification of three ‘boots’. Another key explains that three ‘boots’ mean that it is a strenuous hiking route and strong footwear is advised.

“I don’t think that this is a cycle route”, I say. “Did the chap you talked to really say it was? He must be into mountain biking.”

“No, he just said it was a nice route”, says the First Mate. “I just assumed that we could cycle along it.”

I stop myself from gnashing my teeth. I am not sure if our travel insurance covers self-inflicted dental damage, especially in Denmark.

We backtrack along the bluff and come across a camping site. At least there is a road leading out of it. We follow that and come to a small café.

“Let’s stop here and have something to drink”, says the First Mate. “I am getting tired and thirsty.”

Just as we are locking our bikes, the local Hell’s Angels chapter arrives.

“I’ll find us a table outside”, I say, remembering my encounter with Nebraska Man in the laundry on Terschelling. “You go and order. I’ll have a cup of tea. Earl Grey, please.”

“How did you get on with the bikers?”, I ask the First Mate when she returns. “Did they push in in front of you or beat anyone up?”

“Not at all”, she says. “They were very courteous. One even picked up my money for me when I dropped it.”

Courteous bikers.

In the evening, we sail across to the other side of Fænø Sund to Lænkevig and drop anchor. A few other boats are already there, but there’s enough space. We sit in the cockpit drinking wine and watching the sun go down behind the trees. There is an ethereal quality to the light.

Anchored in Lænkevig in Fænø Sund.

I pick up the book I am reading at the moment, Life after Growth, by Tim Morgan. In it, he talks about the era of growth that we have become accustomed to being over. It’s all due to the availability of energy – there is no shortage of energy as such, but what is important is the amount of energy that is extracted per unit of energy expended, or Energy Return on Energy Input, EROEI for short. At the beginning of the Age of Oil, the average EROEI was around 100:1, meaning that each unit of energy input would yield 100 units of energy output, so that there were 99 units of net energy available. Since then the EROEI has declined drastically, so that now the global average value is around 15:1. North Sea oil is even as low as 5:1. Obviously, when the EROEI gets to 1:1 the energy extracted is the same as the energy input, so there is no net gain. Apparently when the average EROEI gets to between 8:1 and 4:1, economies cease to be viable, as so much energy needs to be expended obtaining energy that there is not enough surplus energy for all the other things in the economy. Agriculture, for example, needs a lot of energy and natural gas to produce fertilisers and pesticides. Without those, we can’t grow crops, and won’t be able to feed the global population.

What to do? Renewable sources of energy will help but may not be enough. Wind-farms have EROEIs around 17:1 and solar panels between 7:1 and 9:1. Biofuels are around 2:1, and also need more land than world’s current cropland. Nuclear power may be an option, but the problems are public opposition and scaling up – 15 times the current number of stations would be needed. In the short term, we need to become much less wasteful of energy – more use of public transport, living closer together to improve energy efficiency, less consumption. But in the long run, we will need to develop a new economic model not based on growth. It will be a profoundly different era to what we are used to.

“What’s the book about?”, asks the First Mate, topping up the wine glasses.

I tell her.

“Can’t you find something more cheerful to read?”, she says. “Especially in such a beautiful place as this?”

“It is what it is”, I say. “Maybe we should just stay on the boat and live the simple life.”

Fellow mariners, a picturesque trade town, and a reflection

The forecast in the morning is for light winds from the north-east. We leave Kerteminde at 1000, needing to motor out of the fjord directly into the wind. Once we reach Alervet point, however, we turn northwest and catch the wind on our beam. We have arranged to meet Axel and Claudia at either Korshavn, a tiny harbour at the very north-east tip of Fyn island, or else Kolby Kås on the western side of Samsø island, further north. We’ll decide en route which to choose, depending on how things go. Starting from Korsor on the other side of the Store Bælt, I estimate they are probably around a couple of hours behind us.

Leaving Kerteminde.

We have about an hour of light wind and make reasonable progress past the island of Romsø on our starboard. Then the wind dies to almost nothing, and we sit with the sails flapping.

“We are not going very fast”, says the First Mate.

“No, we aren’t”, I say. “It would be nice to have a bit more wind than this. But there’s not a lot we can do about it.”

We brew the kettle and have a cup of tea drifting along in the current. On the AIS, we see that Axel and Claudia are still making seven knots. They still seem to have some wind, while we languish in the doldrums. They’ll be catching up with us soon.

Suddenly, the wind picks up.

“Ah, that’s better”, I say. “Someone must have heard me.”

“It’s a bit too strong now”, says the First Mate. “Couldn’t you have asked for something in between?”

Within the space of ten minutes or so, the windspeed has gone from around four knots to 16 knots. We are heeling significantly, so I take the sails in a reef. It helps, but we are still at quite an angle. We get a text from Claudia.

“Has the wind also stopped where you are?”, she asks. “There’s nothing here.”

“We were like that”, we text back. “But now it has picked up again.”

We whizz along at a good speed. Before long, there is another text from Claudia.

“We have it too now”, it says. “Shall we meet at Kolby Kås on Samsø? We have heard that it is not easy to anchor at Korshavn because of all the seagrass there.”

“See you at Kolby Kås”, we text back.

We are now entering the Samsø Bælt, the stretch of water between Fyn and Samsø islands. It becomes quite choppy, and the windspeed slowly increases even further. Before long it is around 22 knots. I take in another reef. We are still sailing at around eight knots. Ruby Tuesday alternately plunges through the troughs and rears her head again for the next wave like a thoroughbred. From time to time, particularly big waves wash over the foredeck and back down again on the leeward side. Exhilarating!

Sailing between Kerteminde and Samsø island.

We continue on like this for a couple of hours. Eventually we reach the lee of Samsø island and the wind eases off and the sea becomes quieter.

“Phew”, says the First Mate. “That was a bit rough. I hope we don’t get too many of those. Particularly as winds that strong weren’t predicted.”

We enter the tiny harbour of Kolby Kås and tie up against the pier. Some old tyres cushion us.

“Are you sure it’s a good idea to tie up against tyres?”, says the First Mate. “I know they will act like fenders, but they might make black marks on our hull.”

I jump ashore and peer down at the side of our hull. A perfect imprint of one of the tyres is near the bow. There’s another midships, not quite so perfect. And another near the stern, a smudgy mess.

“We can pretend that it’s the latest in abstract art for sailing boats”, I say. “It might start a trend.”

Moored up against the tyres.

Axel and Claudia arrive later in the afternoon in their boat Astarte.

“Why did you moor up against those tyres?”, Axel calls out. “I think we will go over here.”

“See”, says the First Mate. “It’s not much of a trend so far.”

“Give it time”, I say.

We invite Axel and Claudia over for coffee.

“I have to say it was a bit of a surprise to hear from you”, I say. “We thought you were still over in Griefenwald.”

“Well, we were”, says Claudia. “But we have to be back at the end of the month for a family birthday, so we need to get Astarte down to Rendsburg and all tucked away for the winter before then. We have to go back into the Kiel Canal to get there, and have quite a lot of work to do on her to prepare her.”

Axel & Claudia join us for coffee.

“We’ve had a frustrating summer”, says Axel. “We had a serious problem with Astarte just as we were leaving Gustow. We started taking on water, and couldn’t work out where it was coming from. We managed to limp in to Griefswald with the bilge pump working overtime, and got her lifted out by one of the yards there. It turned out that it was coming in through the stern tube.”

“A sailor’s worst nightmare”, I say. “You were lucky you were so close to land.”

“Then trying to get it fixed was a real hassle too”, says Claudia. “The company that said they would be able to do it, then changed their mind and said they couldn’t. But at least they felt guilty about it and said that we could use their yard and one of their staff if we were going to fix it ourselves.”

“Getting the old shaft out was also a problem”, says Axel. “It was jammed, so we had to heat it to loosen it and had to be ready with buckets of water inside in case it caught fire. We also had to cut the skeg off to get it out. And it also took a while to source a new one. At first the company sent us the wrong one.”

“It all sounds horrible”, says the First Mate.

“Yes, it was”, says Claudia. “But in the end we managed to find the right shaft, and thanks to everyone working night and day, we manged to get it fitted. Finally we got her back in the water.”

“Well, I hope that you have trouble-free sailing from now on”, I say.

In the evening, we all go for a walk along a farm track, following the coast of the island and watch the sunset. We walk back along the track in the darkness. It is surreal.

Sunset from Samsø island.

Back in the harbour, a few more boats have arrived. None have tied up against the tyres. Some trends are slow to start.

We both leave at 1000 the next morning heading for Bogense on the north coast of Fyn island. The wind is from the southeast and the sea is calmer than the day before, giving us a comfortable beam reach. Axel and Claudia’s boat is a half a knot or so faster than ours, as being a ketch it has more sail area, and they pull slowly away. When we arrive in Bogense, they are already tied up.

Ruby Tuesday leaving Kolby Kås .

“You got here just in time”, they say. “There are only a couple of berths left. Look, here’s one here.”

It’s a tight turn, and there is a fresh cross-wind blowing. We make a bit of a hash of it getting in, narrowly missing the boat on our right and coming to rest against the boat on our left. Luckily there are plenty of fenders on both boats. Sensing disaster, people appear from the blue to help with the bow-lines. I fling the stern ropes over the poles. Amazingly they go over first time. That doesn’t happen often. We pull them tight and we are secure.

Tied up nicely in Bogense marina.

In the evening, we have drinks on Astarte. The conversation turns to Brexit.

“It’s sad that the UK didn’t want to stay in the EU”, says Axel. “We really can’t understand the logic behind it. What benefits has it brought?”

“We are probably not the right people to talk to”, I say. “We don’t really see any benefits either. The one example most often given is the speed with which Britain could roll out the vaccine last year compared to the delay due to all the red tape in the EU.”

“It’s true that the UK had a head start”, says Claudia. “But most EU countries have caught up now, and many even have greater vaccination rates than the UK. So you can’t really say that is a benefit.”

“And what about the Northern Ireland Protocol?”, says Axel. “What sort of person makes an international agreement, telling everyone that it is ‘oven-ready’ and the best deal ever, and then a few months later wants to unilaterally break it because it isn’t suitable?”

We stare at the floor and shuffle our feet. There’s not a lot we can say.

“And now there’s talk of empty shelves and Christmas being cancelled because of a shortage of lorry drivers with all the East Europeans going back to their countries”, says Claudia.

“I think the Brexiteers were just lucky that COVID came along when it did”, says the First Mate. “They are able to blame all the Brexit problems on the pandemic and lockdowns. There may have been some effect, but there is no doubt in my mind that the real reason is Brexit and all the disruption it has caused to supply chains.”

“It’s amazing that a modern country would do that to itself”, says Axel. “Especially Britain, who we in Germany always saw as being so sensible and pragmatic. You were always very influential in Europe, but now you have lost all that.”

“The interesting thing will be what role we find for ourselves now that we have left the EU”, I say. “All this talk of ‘Global Britain’ by the government, but no one really knows what it means. The debacle in Afghanistan last month is hardly a good omen. The USA hardly even consulted on the troop withdrawal there. My worry is that we will become a ‘vassal state’ of America, hanging on to their coat-tails.”

“Yes, and all that sending of an aircraft carrier to the Pacific Ocean a few months ago to frighten the Chinese”, says Claudia. “Surely they are not serious abut trying to influence anything there?”

“Who knows?”, I say. “The present people in charge are capable of anything, no matter how crazy it seems. The world is becoming a dangerous place.”

Axel and Claudia leave the next morning. It’s been good to see them, but they have to get home now.


We decide to walk into Bogense to explore. The town began its existence as a trading post in the 12th century and eventually became a market town, but was destroyed by fire in the 16th century. It was rebuilt, but never really recovered. These days it is still involved in trade, but tourism is becoming more important, especially from sailing. The marina is supposed to be the largest on the island of Fyn.

Medieval houses, Bogense.

“Let’s start at the church”, says the First Mate. “It’s pretty much in the centre. It’s called the Sankt Nikolaj Kirke.The guidebook says that it was built in the 15th century on the remains of an earlier 12th century church. The baptismal font is from the 13th century, the altar was built in the 16th century, and the pulpit from the 17th century. Its spire is even used as a navigational landmark for boats.”

Sankt Nikolaj Kirke, Bogense.

“It has certainly had some history”, I say.

Not far from the church is the Town Hall, an impressive building in white.

Bogense Radhus.

“The old houses are all so cute”, says the First Mate. “But there are only so many pictures you can take of them. I think I am going to specialise in doors. There are so many different types.”

Door in Bogense.
No. 19, Bogense.

“Come and have a look at this statue”, I say. “It’s a bit rude, but with your strong constitution you should be able to cope.”

I am standing in front of a statue of a small boy having a pee.

The Manneken Pis, Bogense.

“Ah yes”, she says. “The guidebook says that it is called the Manneken Pis. Apparently it is modelled after a similar statue in Brussels. The story behind this one is that back in the 1800s sometime, they found a baby boy on one of the ferries coming to the town. No-one claimed him, so the city butcher and his wife adopted him. The baby eventually grew up to become a consul in the Foreign Office, responsible for passports and visas and the like. To show his appreciation to his adopted city, he commissioned this statue.”

“He must have had a sense of humour, at least”, I say. “I am not sure that I would like to be remembered for peeing in the main street of a town.”

“Speaking of which, I wouldn’t mind a coffee”, says the First Mate. “But have you noticed that many of the places seem to be closed?”

“I read somewhere that many smaller shops are only open for the summer tourists”, I say. “As soon as they disappear at the end of August, the shops close until the next summer. It happens in Britain too, but I am surprised how early it happens here, particularly when the weather is nice like today, and the older set without children are now on holiday. Like us.”

“This place looks like it should be open”, says the First Mate, sitting down outside a restaurant.

Any service today?

I peer through the window. A man is tidying up behind the counter at the back of the shop.

“There’s someone in here at least”, I say. “Perhaps he’ll give us a cup of coffee and a cake.”

I wave to him to come over. He waves back. We wait a few minutes, but he doesn’t come.

“Pretty poor service”, I say. “It’s not as though they are busy or anything.”

I peer through the windows again and mouth the word ‘coffee’. The man says something, but I can’t understand it. I scratch my head in puzzlement. The man scratches his head too. I stick out my left arm. The man sticks out his right arm.

It slowly dawns on me that he is me. There’s a mirror behind the counter.

“Is he coming?”, says the First Mate.

“No”, I say. “He said that they have just closed for the day. We’ll just have to make our own coffee on the boat.”

Running aground, meeting friends, and a Viking ship burial

We leave Svendborg at 1000h in the morning. It is sunny, but there is a strong north-east wind of 18 knots blowing. Unfortunately, this also happens to be the direction that we need to follow along the Siø Sund towards Skælskør, where we are heading to meet our friends, Hans and Gisela. Once we are out of the protection of the Svendborg Sund and Thurø Island, we face the full force of the wind on the nose. Nothing for it but a long series of tacks to get where we want to go.

It is slow going, but at least we make progress. At each cycle of the tack, we gain about three miles from where we were before. At one hour and twenty minutes per tack that works out at just over two knots Velocity Made Good.

Tacking up Siø Sund towards Lundeborg.

Eventually we reach Lundeborg, and decide to stay there the night. It is a small harbour with a circular marina and some alongside berths on a curving pier. We take the latter. We are helped with our lines by three cheery lads from Germany who are sailing around the Danish Archipelago in their small boat. How they fit into it is a puzzle to us.

Lundeborg harbour.

The next day, the winds are of similar strength and direction and we continue tacking up Siø Sund. Eventually, we are past the end of the sandbanks at the end of it, and far enough north to turn directly east to have a pleasant close reach all the way to the entrance to Skælskør fjord.

Our track from Svendborg to Skælskør.

The fjord is extremely shallow, only 30 cm deep in places, but there is narrow dredged channel marked by green and red buoys all the way to the town harbour. We line ourselves up with the two triangular markers at the entrance and motor in gingerly, following the buoys.

Trying to keep within the buoyed channel.

Shortly after the entrance we come to a sudden stop.

“I think you have grounded us”, says the First Mate. “You must have missed the channel somehow.”

It is one of life’s mysteries why, whenever there is a mistake, it is ‘me’ who made it, but whenever something is achieved, it is ‘us’ that did it.

I reverse the propeller and give it some throttle. We don’t move. Forward again, and more throttle. We remain stationary. We are well and truly stuck in the mud. What to do?

“There is a fisherman in a boat over there”, calls the First Mate from the bow. “Maybe he can pull us off.”

I peer through the binoculars at him. He has oars and no engine. His arm muscles don’t look anything special either.

I decide to give it another go. Lots of throttle in reverse, and I try to angle the rudder back into the direction of the channel. A widening cloud of muddy water streams from under the stern, churned up by the propeller. At first there is no movement, then slowly we start to move. Suddenly we lurch free, and Ruby Tuesday accelerates into the middle of the channel.

Stirring up the mud to free ourselves.

“We’ve done it, we’ve done it”, shouts the First Mate from the bow. “We are back in deeper water.”

See what I mean?

My immediate concern now though is not to embed ourselves in the mud on the opposite side of the channel. I cut the throttle, swing the wheel around, and manage to straighten her up. We motor forward. As we pass the fisherman, I give him a wave. He doesn’t wave back. “Another clueless idiot muddying my water”, his look seems to say.

We arrive in Skælskør harbour.

We tie up at the visitors’ berth in the town harbour. In the evening, Hans and Gisela come to the boat. They have been in Hamburg and have driven that afternoon back to their home in Skælskør. They are from Germany but live in Denmark, and are old friends from the days when we worked in the Philippines. Their boys are similar ages to our son. Gisela is a keen sailor; Hans is more into motorbikes and archery. It’s been a while since we have seen them, and there’s a lot to catch up on.

We tell them about our mini-adventure at the entrance to the fjord.

“Yes, a lot of people get stuck there”, says Gisela. “It’s really difficult to stay in line between the buoys, particularly if there is a cross wind blowing. Luckily it is only mud, so there shouldn’t be any harm done.”

We arrange to meet the next evening at their place for coffee and cake. They live about ten minutes cycle ride from the harbour. As they have to work during the day, we amuse ourselves by exploring Skælskør.

Old steam mill in Skælskør.
Swimming pier at Skælskør.

“We’ve been trying to work out why things are so expensive in Denmark”, I say when we see them. “They are in the EU single market, so why don’t things even out to the same prices as in other EU countries? ”

“They have their own currency, the krone“, says Gisela, cutting the cake. “There was a referendum in 2000 and they decided to opt out of the Euro. So, even though the krone is linked to the Euro, they have some control over their currency.”

“Taxes are also very high here to help pay for social care”, says Hans. “When we brought our car here from Germany, we had to pay three times its value in import duty. Also, anything with labour input into it is very expensive because of the taxes. Eating out for example. If you do all your own cooking, it’s not too bad. Speaking of which, it’s time to get the barbecue started.”

He stacks up the barbecue with charcoal briquettes and lights it. Soon the aroma of cooking meat fills the air. The next door’s dog starts yapping.

“That dog yaps all the time”, he says. “One day I am going to use it for archery practice.”

“Barbecued dog can also be quite nice”, I say. “Especially with chilli sauce.”

The next day we all have dinner at the Skælskør Sailing Club, where we finally meet Freddie. I had emailed the sailing club about a month earlier to ask them if it might be possible to tie up at their marina.

“Of course you can”, the return email from Freddie had said. “You are most welcome to come and stay at our little marina. Especially towards the end of the season, as it won’t be so busy then. We’ll look forward to seeing you and welcoming you to our beautiful town of Skælskør.”

Thinking he was the Club Secretary and encouraged by his effusive response, I had asked him a few technical details, including whether we would have any problems with our draught entering the fjord up to Skælskør.

“I am sorry, I am not able to answer that”, he had said. “I have to confess that I am just the cook at the sailing club, and I know absolutely nothing about sailing at all. But I know that quite big sailing boats do come in, so I am sure that you will be all right.”

Freddie was just as I imagined him. Cheery, large smile, slightly rotund, and looking completely at home behind the serving hatch in the sailing club, surrounded by photos of boats of all descriptions. Who would have believed that by his own admission he knew nothing about the things?

“Come and have a look at our boat”, says Gisela. “It’s just over here. Her name is Mille.”

The First Mate tries to clamber on for a closer look. Mille rocks alarmingly from side to side.

“Help me!”, shouts the First Mate. “I’m not used to this. It’s a bit too unstable for me.”

“At the moment, the centreboard is up while she is in the harbour”, explains Gisela. “When it is down when we are sailing, that steadies her a bit. But she is very light and responsive. That makes her more rolly than a big boat like Ruby Tuesday. We just use her for sailing in the fjord and a little bit along the coast. We have a lot of fun with her.”


Freddie’s dinner is a buffet.

“You have to try some of this flæskesteg and brunkartofler”, says Gisela. “Roast pork and caramelised potatoes. It’s the traditional Xmas dinner in Denmark. We had some very strange looks once when we said that we wouldn’t be having pork for Xmas. It took us a while to live it down.”

Dinner at the Skælskør Sailing Club.

We leave Skælskør in the morning. Hans and Gisela come down to the small pier near the mouth of the fjord to wave us goodbye. I take special care to stay in the middle of the channel this time to avoid any groundings. Once can be passed off as careless, twice would be incompetent. We both breathe sighs of relief as we re-enter the Store Bælt and deeper water.

Keeping to the channel as we leave Skælskør.

Unfortunately, the wind has shifted and is now coming from the north-west. Just the direction that we need to go, of course. And there is not much of it. But at least the sun is shining. All caused by the presence of an anti-cyclone centred just to the west of where we are, according to the pressure charts that morning. We take a long tack westwards for a couple of miles then head directly north aiming for the middle of the Store Bælt bridge. We just manage to catch enough wind, but progress is slow. From time to time, the sails flap uselessly as the wind dies completely.

“It’s quite an impressive structure, isn’t it?”, says the First Mate, as we finally sail under the bridge. “I am glad that we don’t have to pay to go under it. Hans said that the toll is €60 each way to cross it by car.”

“As long as they don’t lower a clog down on the end of a fishing line for the fee, like they did on the canals in Holland”, I say.

Approaching the Store Bælt bridge.

We eventually reach Kerteminde on the other side of the Store Bælt and tie up in the town harbour. The town centre is about five minutes’ cycle ride away. It is a pretty little harbour town, strongly dependent on the sea for its livelihood.

Kerteminde harbour.

The woman brushes away the tears from her eyes. She must remain strong for the children by her side. Her son’s face is set like a mask – what is he really thinking, she asks herself. Will he be as strong and achieve as much as his father lying in the ship? He had subdued the unruly tribes on this side of the Great Belt, had become king, and had brought peace and prosperity to Fyn, Langeland and the numerous small islands to the south. But it had been a small uprising on one of those islands that had brought about his end. He had taken his ship – Rubin Tirsdag – named after the great god Tir – and 30 men to quell the unrest, but had been met by a much larger force and had been killed by a single spear thrown by the rebels as he stood on the prow of the ship to lead the attack.

Sorrowing, they had brought the his body back to Kerteminde in Rubin Tirsdag and prepared it for the burial. His favourite horses and dogs had been already been killed and lay in the boat next to his games-board and his other personal possessions. They would accompany him as he departed Midgard, the home of the mortals, to be carried by the Valkyries to Valhalla, where he would join the Æsir to fight and gain further glory alongside Odin, Thor and Tir against the Vanir, until that last great battle, Ragnorak.

She feels alone and afraid, facing an unknown future. Will they be able to withstand the strength of her husband’s enemies – already there was talk of the men of the southern islands coming to do battle and capture the body of the king. They must do all they can to prevent it. But will their men remain loyal now that he has gone?

“It’s very realistic, isn’t it?”, says a woman’s voice next to me.

“Um, well, yes”, I stammer, caught unawares. “I suppose it is.”

I am standing in front of a reconstruction of the ship burial in the Viking museum at Ladby, a small village just outside Kerteminde. The First Mate had decided to have a morning browsing around the shops, so I had cycled out by myself.

Reconstruction of the ship burial as it might have appeared in Viking times.

I walk from the museum through a newly mown field of grass to the knoll overlooking the Kerteminde Fjord. On the knoll is the mound containing the burial chamber. Not a bad view for one’s last resting place. Presumably overlooking the lands that he ruled when alive.

A small path leads down to the door of the tomb. I push the button at the side. The door opens and shuts behind me with a soft hiss. The outside world is shut out and I am in a dimly lit room within the mound. All by myself. Momentarily, panic grips me. What if there is a power cut when I am in there and the door won’t open again? Who would even know I was here? Would they think I am the Viking king when they discover my skeleton?

My eyes adjust slowly to the near-darkness and gradually the shape of the Viking long-ship appears, protected by a giant perspex box over its entirety. The last resting place of a minor Danish king from the early AD 900s.

The Ladby Viking ship burial.

The wooden ship itself has long gone, of course; what remains is its shape left in the earth and many of the items that were put into it at the time of burial – the skeletons of eleven horses and two dogs, various weapons, tools, utensils, riding gear, and even board games. The ship’s anchor is also well preserved. Strangely, there is no sign of the body of the king – one theory is that this was removed shortly after death by his rivals in an attempt to undermine the status of his family.

“How did you get on?”, says the First Mate when I return.

“Good”, I say. “I got some great ideas I want you to do when I fall off my perch.”

“Oh no, you don’t”, she retorts. “Don’t even think about it.”

In the evening, we receive an email from Axel and Claudia, fellow-sailors we met three years ago in Dover and Eastbourne at the start of our circumnavigation of the UK, and with whom we have kept in touch since then.

“What a surprise”, it says. “We saw on MarineTraffic that you are in Kerteminde. We are over at Korsor on the other side of the Store Bælt. What about meeting up in the next couple of days?”

Islands of the imagination, a Scottish dolphin, and a royal slot

I am awoken around 0530 by the sound of shouts and the splash of an engine exhaust as the ecowarriors leave. Through the hatch window I see the top of their mast gliding by, its anemometer spinning in the wind. Then all is quiet again. I snuggle back under the duvet and go back to sleep.

We have a leisurely breakfast and set off ourselves at 1000. It is sunny, the sea is calm, and the islands of Biørnø and Avernakø shimmer in the distance.

“They just look so beautiful”, says the First Mate. “Sort of mystical.”

There is something alluring about islands to the human psyche. My mind drifts back to a book that I read over winter, The Summer Isles: A Voyage of the Imagination, by Philip Marsden, given to us at Christmas by Uli and Ian, friends of ours. In it he describes his voyage in an old wooden boat up the western coast of Ireland to the Summer Isles on the west coast of Scotland to honour the memory of a close friend of his who had died in a mountaineering accident.

In the book, he talks about Tír na nÓg, the Land of the Young, an island in Celtic mythology far to the west of Ireland. Tír na nÓg is part of the Otherworld, where the Tuatha Dé, the ancient warriors of Ireland and People of God, live with their families, and remain forever young, beautiful, prosperous and happy. For mere mortals to get there, you need to be invited by one of the Tuatha Dé, and then make an immran, or voyage, along the Mag Mell, the golden path made by the sun on the sea as it sets.

Following MagMell to Tír na nÓg.

In one of the tales associated with Tír na nÓg, an Irish prince called Oisin meets and falls in love with Niamh, a beautiful woman from the Otherworld who invites him to sail across the sea to Tír na nÓg and live with her. He quite likes it there, but after three years, starts to miss his home in Ireland. She reluctantly lets him sail back again, but warns him never to touch the ground. When he gets back, he finds that, rather than three years, three hundred years have passed, and that all his family and friends have long gone. As he rides around looking for familiar faces and places, his horse trips on a stone and he falls off onto the ground. Immediately he turns into an old man as his body rapidly catches up with the intervening 300 years, and he dies, turning into dust.

Marsden never actually makes it to the Summer Isles, instead they remain a focus of his imagination, rather than becoming reality, while the voyage becomes a discovery of Celtic traditions of islands and the sea. In some ways it is better he doesn’t make it, as the isles remain a place of enchantment and meaning rather than crystallisation into a definite experience. A voyage is a passage of the soul, he says. It is the journey rather than the destination that is important.

We feel a little bit the same. We look forward with excitement and anticipation to each new island or town that we head for, we spend a few days looking at the sights and experiencing its character, then we feel the urge to move on to the next. Each contributes to the accumulated experiences of the voyage, even though the specific memories of each may fade. Somewhat superficial perhaps, without getting to grips with the bustle of life underneath, but the depth comes from the synthesis into a wider picture.

Lost in my reverie, it takes me some time to notice that the wind has dropped to almost nothing, and also seems to have changed direction. We are almost motionless. The boat following us a little way behind us is in the same predicament. We both try to tack northwards to catch some wind, somewhat unsuccessfully. A few seconds later we heel violently as an intense gust of wind out of the blue catches us and spins us around.

“What are you doing?”, shouts the First Mate.

I don’t have time to answer as I fight against the wheel to try to turn Ruby Tuesday into the wind. The sails begin to flap noisily, but we eventually regain a vertical position. Just as soon as we do, the wind dies down again.

“Phew, that was a bit scary”, I say. “I am not sure what happened there. From 10 knots to zero, then back up to 20 knots, then back to 10 knots in a minute or so. Some local topographic effect, I suppose.”

A sudden violent gust out of the blue.

We approach Svendborg, following the narrow buoyed channel under the massive traffic bridge that spans the sound. Far above us, we can hear the hum of the cars and lorries crossing from one side to the other.

“Look”, cries the First Mate. “There’s a dolphin up ahead. It looks like he is welcoming us.”

Sure enough, we see a fin and sleek grey body of a dolphin arching in and out of the water in front of us. A kayaker has stopped and is taking photos. I slip the propeller into neutral and we drift with the current for a few minutes watching him. He seems to relish having an audience and runs through his repertoire of tricks, swimming on his back and his front alternately, diving under the boat, and once, leaping out of the water completely. Eventually he disappears to swim off somewhere else. We learn later that his name is Delle, and that he has been positively identified as having come from the Moray Firth in Scotland just north of where we live, where he was known as Yoda!

Yoda or Delle, the Svendborg dolphin.

“No wonder he was so excited to see us”, I say. “He could probably smell the Moray Firth algae on our hull.”

“I wonder what possessed him to come all the way from the Moray Firth to Svendborg”, says the First Mate. “And all by himself too!”

“I suppose it’s a bit like Wally the Walrus who travelled all the way from Norway to the Isles of Scilly”, I say.

We decide to moor in the city harbour rather than one of the marinas on the outskirts. Luckily there is one berth left. From there it is only ten minutes’ walk to the city centre.

Tied up in Svendborg harbour.

Svendborg dates back to the early 1100s, and was an important trading centre in the Middle Ages. After that it fell into decline, but began to increase in prosperity again with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, when rail links were established and the harbour was developed as an active port. Nowadays, because of its relaxed shopping atmosphere, it is also a popular tourist destination.

We walk up the steps from the harbour, and find ourselves in the main shopping street.

“Look, they must have known we were coming”, says the First Mate. “They’ve rolled out the red carpet for us.”

Special treatment.
Vor Frue Sogn, Svendborg.

“I’ve just spotted the Danish version of SpecSavers”, I say. “I’ll see if I can get my glasses fixed.”

My glasses had broken way back on the Frisian Islands somewhere, but since then I had been unable to find anywhere that could or would fix them. I had been told by one that I would need to take them back to the company I bought them from. Unfortunately, they hadn’t had branches in Holland or Germany. But they do in Denmark.

“Yes, our parent company is SpecSavers”, says the girl behind the counter. “I’ll see what I can do.”

The Danish version of SpecSavers.

Within a few minutes, she has glued the leg back on, and strengthened it with a small plastic tube. And all for free.

“They did it, they did it!”, I sat to the First Mate when I catch up with her. “Now I have my old glasses back again.”

“I think I prefer you with your spare pair”, she says. “I’ve got used to them now.”

The next morning dawns bright and sunny with a cloudless sky. Over breakfast, we sit and watch the clouds roll in from the north. The forecast is for good weather in the morning, but rain in the afternoon.

“I know”, says the First Mate. “Let’s go for a cycle ride out to the Tåsinge Island this morning. There’s a place called Valdemar’s Slot that’s worth seeing, and there are some pretty little harbours to visit on the way. We can be back before it rains.”

“It was good of Valdemar to fit us in”, I say.

“Is that one of your jokes?”, she says.

“It was a bit obscure”, I admit. “Don’t feel bad. Not many people will get it.”

I do a Google Translate and learn that slot means castle in Danish, similar to the German schloss. All is clear.

We unload the bikes and set off. To get to the island, we need to cross the Svendborg Sund Bridge that we had sailed underneath as we arrived. From sea level it towers over us, and I wonder how on earth we are going to manage to get up there on our little bikes. Luckily, the route to it curves around gently, and before long we are on top of the bridge looking down. The view is spectacular. Below us, two yachts are just about to go under the bridge, and in the distance, we can see the harbour where Ruby Tuesday is tied up.

View from the top of Svendborg Sund Bridge.

We whizz down the other side of the bridge without pedalling, and turn left to follow the road around the coast.

The First Mate whizzes down the far side of the bridge.

We reach Trönse, which we had been told has a nice marina and that it is a good place to stay for a night or two. However, we decide against moving Ruby Tuesday here as it is somewhat exposed to the north, and strong north winds are forecast. 

Trönse marina – nice, but exposed to northerlies.

We eventually reach Valdemar’s Slot. I had half-expected a stone construction with battlements and turrets, but it turns out to be more of a country mansion. Nevertheless, it is impressive with its gates, gardens, pond and stables.

The castle was originally built in 1644 by King Christian IV for his son Valdemar. Unfortunately, Valdemar went off to fight and was killed in Poland. It was badly damaged in the Danish-Swedish wars of 1658–60, but was subsequently gifted by a grateful nation to the Danish maritime hero Niels Juel for his third victory over the Swedes in 1678. His grandson created the castle grounds with the lake, as well as the different stalls and stables. The castle is still owned by the Juel family.

Entrance to Valdemar’s Slot.

“There’s a sign saying that it is closed”, says the First Mate.

“Does it mean just closed for today, or closed for good?”, I ask.

“It’s not clear, but it looks closed for good, if you ask me”, she says.

Valdemar’s Slot.

There is a man standing by the gate. We ask him.

“It closed for good a month or so ago”, he says. “Money. That’s what did it. Or at least lack of it. They weren’t making enough from visitors to cover the maintenance.”

He doesn’t know what will happen to it now. Perhaps another buyer might buy it. It’s somehow sad. It has a certain beauty about it, and is now facing an uncertain future. Will it fall into rack and ruin?

“It’s certainly very impressive”, says the First Mate. “But I am glad I don’t have to keep it clean.”

We decide to wend our way back to the bridge via small country roads. Along the way, fields of barley lie freshly harvested. Oak trees spread their leafy branches. Birds chirrup in the hedgerows. Cows graze peacefully in the paddocks. A dog barks as we cycle past. We pass several cute thatched cottages. A trip back in time. For some reason, it reminds me of the Rupert Bear books I used to read when I was a child.

Picture postcard cottages.

I suddenly realise that the First Mate is not behind me. I wait for ten minutes, but there is no sign of her. I wait another five minutes, then decide to cycle back to look for her. Just as I jump back on the bike, she comes around the corner.

“Where did you get to?”, I ask. “

“I was picking blackberries”, she says. “Look. Here are some more. Help me get these. Just be careful of the thorns.”

We start picking.

Picking blackberries.

“Aaaaagh”, she shouts.

“What’s the matter?”, I ask, as I stand on one leg to reach some blackberries without falling into the ditch.

“I pricked my thumb on a thorn”, she says.

We spend ten minutes trying to extract the thorn. It’s not easy without tweezers.

“I think it has gone”, says the First Mate. “It’s not so painful anymore. Look – I wish we could reach those ones up there. There are some really big ones just beyond reach. But these will do. You can have some on your muesli and I’ll make jam with the rest.”

On the way back, I decide to look for a bicycle shop. The clacking in my pedals has started again. I think it may be the bearings having loosened again. I need a couple of tools to take the pedal cranks off and extract the bearings and spindles. There is a bike shop not far from the marina.

“I’ll just nip along to that cycle shop”, I say to the First Mate. “Hopefully, I can miss the rain. I’ll meet you back at the boat.”

“No, I am sorry that we don’t have those tools”, the shop assistant says, when I get there. “Most bikes we deal with these days have sealed bearings and use different tools. You could try Hensen’s though. They might have them”

I look up ‘cycles’ and ‘Hensen’ on Google Maps. It tells me the shop is a couple of miles from the boat, but in another direction. Unfortunately there is also a steep hill to deal with. I need the parts though, so I decide to give it a go. Just at that moment, it starts to rain.

I reach Hensen’s bike shop completely soaked. The owner has an enormous bushy beard and his hair tied back in a pony-tail, and is the spitting image of Gimli from Lord of the Rings. So this is where he ended up. I do a quick scan around the shop to see if Legolas and Aragorn are there too, but they must have gone off for lunch. I explain which tools I need.

“I am sorry”, says Gimli, stroking his beard. “We don’t have those tools any more. They are not used very much these days. But you could try Hensen’s Autoparts. They might have them. They are on the other side of the city.”

I realise that this is probably the Hensen’s that the first cycle shop meant. The rain is torrential now. I speed down the hill again. The brakes are not working very well because of the water. Another hill looms through the sheets of rain. Tired, wet and cold, I pant my way to the top of it and eventually find Hensen’s AutoParts.

“Yes, we have those parts you need”, says the helpful assistant. “Is it raining outside? You look a bit damp.”

Back at the boat, I stand in the cockpit while the water drains from my clothes. A small pool forms around my feet.

“You’re all wet”, says the First Mate. “Did you fall in the harbour or something?”

A defeat, a quiet anchorage, and some ecowarriors

We leave Flensburg in the morning after topping up with fuel. The tank is still half full, and it is the first top up since we started. Most of it is because we were required to motor through the Kiel Canal, so we haven’t been doing too badly. So far this season, there has been a lot of wind, and we have been making the most of it.

We arrive at the Sønderborg marina on the south side of the town and tie up. It’s a box berth, but we are getting fairly experienced in box berths now, and we glide in gracefully and don’t even miss lassoing the poles on the way in or bump the bow against the pontoon.

“We’ll have to get used to calling everything a ‘-borg’ now that we are in Denmark, rather than a ‘-burg’ as we do in Germany, or a ‘-burgh’ as we do in Scotland”, says the First Mate.

“Not only that, I’ll have to look out how to do all these ‘ø’s, ‘å’s, ‘ö’s and ‘ä’s on my keyboard”, I respond. “Why can’t you Europeans just keep it simple? Twenty-six letters without all this fancy stuff on top are quite enough.”

We cycle into town and check out the shops. The prices are eye-watering.

“I’m glad that we did the ‘big shop’ in Flensburg”, says the First Mate. “At least we have enough to keep us going for the meantime.”

I shudder. My shoulders still haven’t resumed their normal shape.

Checking the prices!

“Look at all these umbrellas hanging up in the street”, says the First Mate. “I wonder what they signify?”

“Shoes in Flensburg, umbrellas in Sønderborg”, I say. “Do you notice a pattern here? It’ll be underpants in the next town.”

“Don’t be silly”, she says.

Mary Poppins town.

The next day, the water has risen again due to a wind change. We can hardly climb back into the boat from the pontoon which is fixed and not floating.

“I know”, says the First Mate. “We can use those little folding steps that we bought in Hoorn. I knew they would come in useful some time.”

They work brilliantly.

The next step.

The night air chills our bones, and we wrap our cloaks tighter around us and try to snatch what sleep we can. All the way down the hillside are fires, the orange flames leaping skywards as the soldiers throw on more logs. On the hill opposite are the fires of the enemy. I recall playing as a child on the ground that is now under their control. But it won’t be for long. Tomorrow we will show them, and drive them from the land that is rightfully ours, all the way back to the Danevirke.

“We should never have withdrawn from the Danevirke”, says my friend Johan, his face lit by the flickering flames. “It is the border of our country and a symbol of our nation. Abandoning it seems like a dereliction of duty.”

“The swamps at each end of it had frozen”, I say. “The enemy could have ignored the fortifications and just marched around the ends of it. We would have been outflanked. Now try and get some sleep.”

The Retreat from the Danevirke (from Wikimedia Commons).

We are awoken in the middle of the night by the dull thunder of the enemy cannon. Seconds later, the balls strike the wooden palisades of our redoubts, destroying them in showers of splinters. Grenades fly through the air behind our lines and explode in deafening claps. The enemy have launched their attack. We leap to our feet, out bodies still cold, tired and exhausted. The gun-smoke irritates our eyes, making it difficult for us to see what is happening. Behind us, the Dybbol Mill is hit and bursts into flames, lighting up the sky like a portent of doom.

In the morning, the Prussians charge our positions. Our men put up a stubborn fight and manage to beat them off. Heroes, every one of them. Our warship, the Rolf Krake, bombards the enemy positions from the bay. The Prussians have no warships and can do nothing about her. Things seem to be going well after all.

But slowly the tide turns. The enemy outnumber us and have modern rifles that they can reload lying down, while we need to stand up and are easy targets. They mount charge after charge, and eventually break through and capture one of our redoubts. And another. And another. Our men lie dead and dying around us. I look for Johan, but he is nowhere to be seen.

“National Retreat”, Martin Bigum, 1996.

We fall back to cross the bridge over the Alsund to Sönderborg. Defeat is written in the faces of the exhausted and dirty soldiers and the civilians that trudge along the road through the mud and snow. We have lost the battle and the war. What will happen now?

One of the stragglers, a young girl, is struggling with a baby in one arm and a bag of her possessions. I put my arm around her to stop her from falling …

“Hey, what do you think you are doing?”, a familiar voice says. “We’re in public, you know!”

It’s the First Mate, of course.

“I was just giving you a hygge”, I say.

We are at the Dybbol Mill on the hill overlooking Sønderborg, the site of the last battle of the Second Schleswig War in 1864, in which the Danes were defeated by the Prussian Army. I am imagining what it might have been like for a Danish soldier during the battle. It has particular resonance with the Danish psyche as it was the battle that lost them the southern part of Jutland to the Germans for more than 50 years. To make matters worse, the Danevirke, a line of fortifications built in AD 650 as a defence against the Saxons and later the Franks, and nowadays the symbol of their national pride, had been within that lost territory, a situation that continues to this day even though the northern part of Schleswig has been returned to them.

Dybbol Mill and memorial to the 1864 battle.

We cycle back into town to the museum at Sønderborg Castle. The castle was built around 1200 as a royal palace, but was later taken over by the dukes who ruled Southern Jutland (Sønderjylland) stretching from the River Kongea in the north to the River Eider in the south.

Sønderborg Castle and museum.

The focus of the museum is on the archaeology and history of the region, particularly the tussles between Germany and Denmark over its sovereignty. Woodrow Wilson’s principle of a ‘people’s right to self-determination’ and the resulting referenda at the end of WW1 to settle the question are described in detail. While it was probably the fairest solution, it has still left national minorities on both sides of the modern day border.

The point is made several times that archaeology is more than just a science – it is also a tool to establish ownership of territory as part of a nation. In the 19th century, many of the finds were examined minutely to see if they were more ‘Danish’ or more ‘German’. Nowadays, helped by membership of the EU, there seems to be more cooperation between the two sides, and archaeologists focus on working together to further the science rather than ownership of a particular piece of land.

Spearheads and sword blades in Sønderborg museum. Danish or German?

We leave the marina at 0900 the next morning and join the queue waiting for the Christian X bridge to open at 0938.

“I wonder why they chose 38 minutes past the hour to open the bridge”, muses the First Mate. “Couldn’t they have made it a round 40 minutes?”

Whatever the reason, the bridge opens punctually at 0938 and we follow the flotilla of other boats through to the Alsund, the stretch of water between South Jutland and the island of Als. The wind is from the north-west, and is a gentle breeze, just enough to allow us to sail majestically along the sound.

The bridge opens and we join the procession.

We arrive in Dyvig, a small inlet where we have decided to stay the night. Entrance into the small bay at the end is through a narrow buoyed channel about 15 m wide, which we need to negotiate carefully. We drop anchor in 5 m of water on the northern side of the bay where a few other boats are also anchored, and spend the rest of the day relaxing in the warm sunshine.

The next morning I awake to the sight of dappled light playing on the cabin roof reflected through the small side window. I make a cup of tea for myself and go and sit on deck. It is warm and sunny. The water is like a mirror, only the occasional zephyr of wind rippling it momentarily before it returns to its stillness. The other boats drift lazily at anchor, trees lean out over the water, the reflections of both almost perfect images of the real thing. All is quiet.

Except that it is not. As I relax I start to hear sounds that I am not normally aware of, sounds that my brain normally filters out because they are of no use to me in my daily life. Small birds chirrup. Wood pigeons coo in the trees along the water’s edge. A lone seagull mews as it flies overhead. Swans honk on the shingle spit protruding out into the water. A crow calls raucously, then flaps off into the distance. A fish breaks the surface, spreading ever-widening ripples. A cormorant takes to the air, its wing tips beating a rhythmic sound on the surface as it struggles to gain height. A heron stalks primly next to the bank of rushes, from time to time plunging its bill into the water like a stiletto and withdrawing it with a wriggling fish.

I focus still further, and begin to hear a gentle thrum of sound deeper down – the hum of bees, the chirp of insect legs, the rustling of leaves – almost like virtual particles winking in and out of existence, so low that I wonder if I am imagining it. But it is there.

A quiet anchorage.

I close my eyes and allow my mind to drift where it wants. Time stops. I am floating, detached from, and yet part of, the natural world around me.

There is a loud splash. Someone from one of the other boats has dived into the water. The world of humans once again asserts its dominance, and my reverie is shattered. It’s time for breakfast.

We weigh anchor at 1000 and set off for Faaborg. There is absolutely no wind, and we need to motor for the first couple of hours. The First Mate goes down below for a nap.

“You know”, says a familiar voice. “I overheard you talking last night about your visits to Dybbol Mill and the museum, and what makes a nation. So I thought I would do a bit of reading on the web.”

It’s Spencer. If you remember from last year, he found a way of linking his web into the Worldwide Wide Web and has become very knowledgeable on a lot of things.

“But I really wonder if the nation state will continue much longer”, he continues. “Its’s only a relatively new concept in the history of human affairs, and already there are a lot of things wrong with it.”

“Like what?”, I ask.

“Well, a nation is supposed to be a grouping of ethnically similar people with a common language, culture, history and territory”, he says. “Most modern nations are anything but that. Take many countries in Africa as examples – most were created on a map by Europeans with no regard for tribal differences and shared languages, and borders often just represented arrangements made between the European colonisers on their areas of influence. Most of the war in the last 100 years or so have been over territory and resources and who owns them. Even here in Denmark, the way that Schleswig was divided between ethnic Germans and Danes still causes unease.”

“I know the nation state concept is not perfect”, I say defensively. “But it is the best we have, and it works. Sort of.”

“Possibly”, says Spencer. “But the forces of the 21st century are causing it to creak at the seams. Globalisation and the internet, for example, are making a mockery of national borders. Some big companies have budgets greater than many countries and others already do things that governments used to do, such as surveillance and mapping. The wealthy are able to escape national restrictions, and governments have lost control over the flows of money that may be generated in their own countries. Where is the nation state in all of this? What we really need is a supranational form of government that national governments are subject to.”

“I am not sure that a world government would gain much traction”, I say.

A tall ship is approaching us, and I break off the conversation to alter course slightly to avoid a collision.

A tall ship passes us.

“Look at the disaster unfolding in Afghanistan”, Spencer continues after it has passed. “Twenty years the western countries have tried to build a nation there, and it collapses within weeks after they withdraw. Not exactly a success story. Many in the Muslim world have lost faith in the western concept of a nation state as a form of governance, and want to restore the glories of their past empires, based on their religion. Empires, after all, were the main form of governance for much of human history.”

“But they all fell in the end”, I say. “Most sowed the seeds of their own destruction by overreaching themselves so that they couldn’t afford the costs of maintaining them. Look at the Roman and British Empires, for example.”

“True, but some did achieve a lot while they lasted”, he says. “The Ottoman Empire lasted 700 years and generated amazing prosperity and cultural achievement before it finally declined. Look, I am not saying that more empires are the solution – just that we need different forms of government than the nation state to solve the problems of climate change, globalisation, big data, and all the rest of it. They need to operate at the level of global economic flows so they can be controlled, not underneath it.”

We are approaching Faaborg, and I need to concentrate on entering the harbour. We find a place on the inner pier and tie up. I look for Spencer to continue the conversation, but there is no sign of him.

Tied up in Faaborg harbour.

We have lunch and go to explore the town. Faaborg is an old port, dating to before the 1200s. It became prosperous as a trading centre, trading as far afield as England and the Mediterranean. Nowadays its quaint houses and streets make it a popular tourist attraction.

Faaborg clock tower.
House in Faaborg.
If you can work out what’s going on here, drop us a line.

Just as we are thinking of retiring for the night we hear shouts outside, the sound of an engine, and some bumping of wood against wood.

“I think that we have some new neighbours”, says the First Mate.

I go out to see what is going on. Sure enough, a boat has arrived, and is trying to manoeuvre itself alongside the pier behind us. The darkness is making it difficult. I go and help.

“We are sailing around the archipelago and stopping at different harbours to raise awareness about pollution of our seas”, says the woman, as she throws a rope to me. “It is still legal to dump construction rubble in the seas, and many companies are doing it. Some of it contains toxic material, which is permitted below a certain level, but no-one checks, and many companies are dumping material that is above the limit. It’s killing off sea life. By the way, my name is Vibeke.”

In the morning, I chat to the skipper of the boat.

“Vibeke is a politician”, he says. “She is really concerned about the environment. We are old friends, and I am retired, and this year we thought it might be a good idea to sail to different places to protest about the pollution. There is a harbour fete here today, and we are distributing pamphlets.”

Vibeke appears from the boat to make a video of their plans for the day. Shortly afterwards it appears on her Facebook page. Later in the day, we see her handing out leaflets at the harbour fete.

New neighbours tie up behind us.

“It’s good to see some genuine concern for the environment from a politician”, says the First Mate.

A thunderstorm, an English homeland, and a Big Shop

“When I said that we had a whole new set of adventures in front of us, this wasn’t exactly what I meant”, says the First Mate.

We are sailing between Kiel and the entrance to the Schlei fjord. When we left Kiel, there had hardly been a breath of wind, and we had had to motor almost to the mouth of the Kiel Förde. There the wind had picked up considerably, and, coupled with a long swell from the east on our beam, had made the sailing somewhat uncomfortable, to say the least.

“It’s OK, we don’t have that far to go”, I try and reassure her. “Once we are in the Schlei, it should be calmer.”

I am wrong, at least for the first part. It is quite a long way, and if anything, the wind intensifies and the swell grows. Soon we are heeling at an alarming angle. I take a reef in, and we stabilise a little, but it is still rough. It dawns on me that we are the only boat in sight. Do they all know something we don’t?

We have no option but to push on. We eventually see one other boat, which reassures us that we are not the only crazy ones in the world. After what seems ages, we see the lighthouse marking the entrance to the Schlei fjord in the distance.

“I’ll be glad when we get there”, says the First Mate. “This has been the roughest we have sailed since, since… Well, since the last rough time.”

We surf in on one of the swells, past the lighthouse, and into the calmer water inside the breakwater.

“See”, I say. “At least I was right about that. It is calmer here.”

Approaching the entrance to the Schlei fjord.

We reach Kappeln, a small town on the north shore of the Schlei. Ominous dark clouds are gathering over the orange roof tops catching the sun momentarily. It feels like they are warning us away.

“The forecast said there were going to be thunderstorms this evening”, I say. “Those clouds must be them.”

The town has three marinas along the waterfront, all more-or-less next to each other. We do a quick looksee around the first one, but there are no vacant berths. We motor down to the next marina, a few hundred metres further on. The same there. And the third. What shall we do? The First Mate calls one of them on the phone and asks if there is somewhere we can berth.

“If you don’t mind tying up on the edge of one of the entrance ways, you can have there”, he says. “It’s kind of like half a box-berth – only one stern pole.”

It’s not ideal, but beggars can’t be choosers.

We edge in, but the First Mate misses the pole with her lasso. The wind is catching the bow and blowing the stern around, close to another boat. I reverse out and try again. This time she manages to get the line around the pole and hands it back to me. We motor forward gingerly, and manage to get the bow lines attached. I tighten the stern line to position the boat as parallel with the other boats as possible. At least it will do for the meantime.

Twenty minutes later, the thunderstorm starts. We sit cowering in the cockpit enclosure watching it raging around us. Sometimes the lightning cracks directly overhead and we pray that we are not the tallest mast in the marina. The rain is torrential and reminds me of the monsoon in India.

Waiting out the thunderstorm.

Bedraggled birds cling to the mooring ropes waiting for it to pass. At least they are sheltered in between the boats.

Hunkering down against the storm.

The storm abates during the night, and the next day dawns bright and sunny. We decide to cycle into Kappeln town about a kilometre from the marina and explore. A key feature of the town is its bridge, which lifts in the middle to allow boats to pass through.

The lifting bridge in Kappeln.

The Schlei Princess leaves the dock, taking day trippers out to the lighthouse at the mouth of the Schei that we passed as we came in.

The Schlei Princess.

A musician sings Let it Be. The old ones are the best ones. The songs, that is.

When I find myself in times of trouble …”.

On the hill, where it can catch the wind, is the town windmill.

Kappeln windmill.

A mural highlights the importance that fishing plays in the prosperity of the town.

Fishing for compliments.

The next day we take the bus from Kappeln to the town of Schleswig at the top of the Schlei fjord. We had considered sailing there, but there is another lifting bridge about halfway along, and we had heard stories that it is notoriously unreliable, sometimes remaining down for days.

For a while, we are the only ones on the bus, and the bus driver chats to us about the things to see in Schleswig. She drops us off near the magnificent baroque Gottorf Castle which now contains the Landesmuseen Schleswig-Holstein.

“Well worth a visit if you are interested in the archaeology of the region”, she says.

Gottorf Castle, Schleswig.

The cold north wind blows over the moor, chilling the small group of people waiting on the hillock. Mist rises from the pools of fetid water lying between the mounds of higher ground, as the spirits of the dead writhe in their eternal punishment. The clouds part momentarily, allowing the full moon to illuminate the two men holding the young girl. The women in the group begin to wail, their voices rising against the noise of the wind, and bringing tears to the eyes of the watchers. There is fear in the girl’s eyes, as she suddenly realises the nature of her punishment for betraying Nerthus, Mother Earth.

I shiver, and draw the hastily borrowed cloak around me. We had been born on the same day and had grown up together. We had played in the fields surrounding the village, and had watched and then taken part in the same annual rituals of sowing, reaping and harvest. She had been selected to be one of Nerthus’ servants, but we had remained friends. Then this year following the cleansing rites of Nerthus’ cart, robes and body, she had given birth to a male child. The rumour was that the father was from a neighbouring tribe, the Sachsens. The priests had decreed that she must be punished for this transgression of impurity against Mother Earth, but that her son would be spared. It had been foretold that he would become the progenitor of a mighty tribe of people who would eventually conquer many nations and spread their language to every corner of the world.

She struggles, but her captors are too strong. They hold her under the water until she is still, and the priests place the large stone over her body to keep it from rising to the surface again. Nerthus has been appeased.

I start running, running back to the village, anywhere to escape that terrible place and the bodies of the damned. My task now is to nurture and raise Angel, her son, to fulfil his destiny.

“Why are you walking so fast?”, says a familiar voice. You have that faraway look in your eyes again. Is it another one of your daydreams?”

It is the First Mate. In an instant, I am back in the present.

“I just had an idea that the café was about to close”, I say, thinking quickly. “I thought we had better get there soon if we want to have lunch.”

I had been looking at the prime exhibits of the museum – five bodies that had been found in the peat bogs of Schleswig-Holstein, known as the Moorleichen, and had been trying to imagine the circumstances of the death of one of the bodies, that of a young girl in her mid-teens.

Remains of young girl found in peat bog.
Reconstruction of the face of the young girl buried in a peat bog.

Except that it turns out from recent DNA analysis that ‘she’ was probably a young boy who may have died after a protracted illness. So much for daydreams.

We have lunch and explore Schleswig. The old part of town, Holm, is quite charming, originally the quarter where fishermen and their families lived, now highly desirable and expensive.

Holm, the fishermen’s quarter of Schlesvig.

We leave Kappeln the next morning for Flensburg. The winds are fair, and once out of the mouth of the Schlei we sail northwards on a pleasant beam reach. Soon however, we must turn west and directly into the wind, and we need to motor.

“You know, it’s quite interesting”, says a familiar voice. “I was reading on the web this morning that this area used to be inhabited by a tribe called the Angles.”

It is Spencer.

“Yes, I know”, I say. “In fact, on the bus yesterday to Schleswig, we passed a sign pointing the way to a place called Angeln.”

“That would be named after them”, he says. “But did you know that this particular tribe migrated to Britain after the Romans left in A.D. 410? The part of Britain where they lived became known as Angle-Land, or England as we know it today.”

“Well, yes, I was vaguely aware of that”, I say, casting back to my history lessons at school. Spencer could be a bit of a know-all at times. “But I thought that the Saxons were also involved?”

“That’s true”, he says. “They lived a bit further south from here – where you went to visit the First Mate’s sister, in fact. Together they became known as the Anglo-Saxons.”

“Of course”, I gasp. “The descendants of the girl in the peat bog we saw in the museum. It all makes sense now.”

“The Jutes and the Frisians were also lumped in with them”, Spencer continues. “There’s still a bit of a debate about how they all came to Britain. You see, it used to be thought that they invaded and chased the existing people, the Romano-Britons, over to the western side of the British Isles, to where Wales and Cornwall are today. But genetic research has shown that that didn’t really happen, and the Romano-Britons pretty much stayed put. So the latest thinking is that it may have been a kind of Anglo-Saxon warrior elite that settled here and dominated the local population, but didn’t chase them off. Because they were the rulers, their language, known today as Old English, was prestigious and spread through Britain.”

“It’s amazing that a couple of small tribes originally from the swamps and forests in northern Germany eventually spread themselves and their language throughout the whole world”, I say. “I wonder what the girl in the peat bog would think if she knew that would happen?”

“I have no idea”, says Spencer. “But what I do find puzzling is the anti-German feeling that still exists in many parts of England today, which Brexit exposed. Why should they still feel hard done by by the Germans, when they are German themselves?”

“It’s a difficult one to explain rationally”, I say. “But I am sure that everyone has their own theory.”

“You could say the same thing about immigration in general”, he continues. “You are all immigrants if you go back far enough. I wonder what the Romano-British people thought about those hordes of Anglo-Saxons descending on them from the Continent?”

“Well, there’s no record of them having a referendum about it, at least”, I say. “Perhaps they liked the idea of having some fresh blood?”

We arrive in Flensburg and tie up to end of a pontoon in the City Marina, ten minutes’ walk from the town centre. There is something very appealing about being able to sail to a city centre with your own home and use it as a base to explore.

Arriving in Flensburg.

We spend the rest of the afternoon doing just that. Flensburg is an old city, founded around AD 1200, and is a pleasant mix of German and Danish culture. Although now in Germany, there is a Danish library and several Danish restaurants.

A mixture of Danish and German culture.

Although it wasn’t part of the Hanseactic League, many of the old buildings reflect its past importance as a major trading centre. One such is the West Indian Warehouse, now converted into prestigious apartments.

The West-Indian Warehouse, Flensburg.

We are particularly intrigued by the lines of shoes hanging above some of the streets. No one seems to know what they signify, although there are various theories.

“It used to signify that drug dealers were active here”, says one person we asked.

“No, that’s not right”, says another. “There have never been drugs here. Someone dropped their shoes there from a top floor apartment by accident one day, and other people just thought it a good idea, and started throwing their old shoes there too.”

Take your pick.

Hanging shoe puzzle.

Flensburg beer is well-known throughout Germany.

A popular beer.

We find the Captains’ Quarter quaint and peaceful. Previously it was where the sea trading captains lived.

Exploring the Captain’s Quarter of Flensburg.

“Have you noticed that there seem to be sirens going all the time?”, I say to the First Mate. “Every time I hear one in future, I’ll think of Flensburg.”

“It’s because the hospital and police station are right in the city centre”, she says.

City of sirens.

When we get back, there is a big catamaran tied up behind us. The name on it is Anakiwa.

“That’s a very Polynesian name that you have for your boat”, I say to the skipper.

“It’s named after a place in New Zealand where there is an Outward Bound school”, he explains. “I worked there for a while to gain experience, then I came back to Germany and now I run my own Outward Bound courses, mainly on sailing. It’s all about pushing yourself to the limit so that you know what you are capable of. One cohort has just left, and I am expecting another one tomorrow. They love it, and many come back again. My name’s Ben, by the way.”

Memory stirs. I had been to Anakiwa once before, when our parents had taken us on a family holiday near there in the Marlborough Sounds when I was about 10. Ben is astonished that I have heard of it, let alone been there.

“I guess you are getting used to there being little tide here in the Baltic?”, he says, noticing our flag. “But actually, we have what are called ‘wind-tides’ where strong winds from a particular direction for a period of time can push the water to the other side of the Baltic, raising the water level there and lowering it on the other.

“It has been blowing from the west for several days now”, he says. “You can see here on the pier how much the water level has dropped – probably nearly a metre. The wind has pushed all the water over to the eastern side of the Baltic – they’ll be getting higher water in Lithuania, Latvia and the like.”

‘Wind tides’ in the Baltic.

“I think that we should do a Big Shop before we go”, says the First Mate over breakfast the next morning. “It’s so expensive in Denmark that we should buy as much here as we can to last us.”

We dig out our big rucksacks from the recesses of the boat where they have been stored, and cycle to the nearest Lidl store. ‘Nearest’ is relative in this case – it turns out to be 4 km from the marina. Not only that, it is uphill almost all the way.

We reach the Lidl store. Soon we have a nearly full trolley.

Filling the trolley.

“I think we have overdone it”, I say. “We’ll never get all this back on our small bicycles. I’ll go and put some back.”

“Don’t worry”, says the First Mate. “We’ll manage somehow.”

I groan. I have learnt over the years that the ‘we’ in this case is a peculiar variant of the ‘Royal We’. Diametrically opposite, in fact. What she means is that ‘you’ll manage somehow’.

We load up the rucksacks. Mine is 60 litres in volume, I remember from the blurb when I bought it. Plus the pockets on the side. Fifteen litres each.

“You can carry all the wine and soft drinks”, says the First Mate. “They’ll never fit in mine.”

We somehow manage to get all the liquids into my rucksack. And the potatoes. And the leeks. And the meat.

“What have you got in yours?”, I say.

“Bread”, says the First Mate. “Cakes. And a few other bits and pieces. By the way, it doesn’t look like you have put anything in your side pockets. Here, you can put the onions in there.”

As I put on the rucksack, I notice other shoppers coming out staring at me disbelievingly. I smile at them as though I do this two or three times a day for a living. No-one is fooled. I climb on to the bicycle. The front wheel lifts off the ground.

“You’ll have to lean forward to keep the wheel down”, says the First Mate.

Getting the ‘big shop’ back to the boat.

Luckily it is more-or-less downhill all the way back to the boat. My concern is that the brakes won’t stop me once I gather speed down the hill. But somehow they do, and we make it back. My shoulders feel as if they have a permanent bend in them. The wrong way.

“I’ll never do that again”, I say. “I almost had a heart attack.”

“I was thinking we could have got another carton of wine in”, says the First Mate. “We didn’t have anything on the bike carriers.”

I start unpacking my rucksack.

“Hey, I thought you said you had the bread in yours”, I say.

“Did I?”, says the First Mate absent-mindedly, already answering her texts.

Through the Kiel Canal – we reach the Baltic at last!

“It’s a bit of a race for the marina when the lock gates open”, says the skipper of the boat in front of us. “It can get quite full, and if you want a place for the night you need to make a dash for it.”

We are in the lock at the entrance to the Kiel Canal in Brunsbüttal waiting for the gates to open. We had left Cuxhaven around lunchtime to catch the incoming tide, and had had a good sail up the Elbe assisted by the current and a westerly wind behind us, making eight knots at times with just the genoa.

So much so, we had even overshot the entrance to the Canal slightly and had had to struggle to get back against both current and wind. But we had made it, and the skipper of the boat in front had helped us tie up to the floating pontoons inside the lock.

Sailing up the Elbe with just the genoa.

“But we are lucky”, he continues. “Both of us are at the front of the lock, so we have a head start on the others.”

“Come on”, says the First Mate to me. “We don’t want to miss out. Get the engine started.”

Already the other boats have their engines running and are keenly looking for when the gates open. When they do, they all surge forward like greyhounds released from their starting positions. That is if 10 tonne boats with a maximum speed of 6 knots can be likened to greyhounds. But we are not slow off the mark either, and leave the lock in second position behind our friendly skipper. There is some jockeying for position, but we keep our place and enter the tiny marina to the side of the lock before the others. Sure enough there are not a lot of spaces left, but we find one rafting up to another boat with a Swedish flag. Helping hands reach for our lines and we are soon secured. We are safe for the night.

Safely ensconced for the night at Brunsbüttal.

Not that we have a quiet night. As we are so close to the canal, large ships pass by mere meters away from us as they enter the lock, their engines rumbling and their propellers churning the water as they go. In the end, however, it becomes strangely rhythmic and we manage to sleep well until the morning. We just hope that their positioning systems are precise – an error of a couple of meters could spell disaster!

Big ships passing through the Brunsbüttal lock.

The Kiel Canal was built in 1895 by Kaiser Wilhelm II to provide a way for the German navy and merchant shipping to avoid going around the top of Denmark, as the two countries weren’t particularly friendly at that  time. It is nearly 100 km long, and an average of 90 ships pass through it every day. At the moment, as a concession to the coronavirus, it is totally free to use. Sailing is not allowed, so we have to motor the whole way.

We leave at around 1000 the next morning. It is squally weather – one moment a torrential downpour, the next brilliant sunshine. From time to time huge container ships pass us, dwarfing us with their size. We stick well to the starboard side of the Canal to give them as much room as possible, but are surprised how little wake they produce – they slip past, hardly rocking us.

The First Mate holding her nerve as a large container ship passes.

We approach a ferry crossing. Usually these consist of two ferries that cross alternatively from one side to the other, so that there are two to look out for. Not only that, they have right of way, at least for yachts. The problem is that they can set off at any time, so you need to keep an eye on when they are likely to leave by being fully loaded by cars. It is probably just my overactive imagination, but on more than one occasion, I could have sworn that they lie in wait for an unsuspecting yacht and time their departure just as the yacht is approaching to force them to stop!

A ferry crosses in front of us.

We eventually reach Rendsburg and pass under the railway bridge spanning high above the Canal.

The Rendsburg railway bridge.

“The guidebook says that it was built in 1913 to take the railway over the Kiel Canal”, says the First Mate. “It’s supposed to be the longest railway bridge in Europe at 2,500 metres in length and 41 metres in height.”

It’s certainly an impressive structure. Suspended underneath is the transporter unit that can also take cars across from one side to the other like an aerial ferry. We find out later that it is not working, and is taking some time to repair.

We turn left and enter the Eider River branch to the marina near the city centre. We see an empty box berth and go for it. There is a strong cross-wind blowing, and it is difficult to tie up. Luckily we are helped by a friendly couple a few berths along who see our predicament. Before long we are secure. We’ll need to practice these box berths, particularly when they are long ones and the wind is blowing.

Safely tied up for the night in Rendsburg.

In the morning, we explore the town. It is old, and over the years has flip-flopped between being part of Denmark and part of Germany. Since 1864, it has remained the latter. Although it is connected to the sea by the Eider River, it really gained in importance when the Kiel Canal was built, and is now a proper seaport despite being well inland.

The Marienkirche is one of the oldest in the area, having been built in 1286.

The Marienkirche, Rendsburg.

The Old Town Hall dates from the 16th century.

The Old Town Hall.

There is still a market once a week in the town’s Market Square.

The Market Square, Rendsburg.

“I just want to have a browse in that shop over there”, says the First Mate. “Why don’t you wait here for a minute? I won’t be long.”

I inwardly groan. The First Mate’s sense of ‘long’ is quite different from my own. Nevertheless, I do as I am told and wait in the recessed doorway of a department store. At least I can stay out of the rain.

The door of the shop opens. I move to one side to make way for the person coming out. There is nobody. It takes me a few seconds to realise that it is an automatic door and that it is me who has opened it by standing too close to it. I move a little bit further away and continue my wait.

I’m bored. I bend my leg backwards. The door opens and closes. I wait for a minute and move my arm slowly. The door opens and closes. I lift the other leg. The door opens and closes. I put my rucksack down. The door opens and closes. I pick up my rucksack. The door opens and closes. It’s fun, in an eight-year-old’s kind of way.

I notice one of the shop assistants at the perfume counter is glaring at me. With a flourish, I lift my leg one more time, and move out into the street. The door opens and closes.

“Sorry”, says the First Mate, returning. “That took a little bit longer than I thought. I hope you weren’t too bored waiting?”

“Not at all”, I say. “I had plenty to do.”

In the afternoon, we walk to the Fussweg unter dem Canal, a tunnel under the Kiel Canal for pedestrians and cyclists to cross from one side to the other. There is a steep escalator that goes down deep enough to get below the water depth, then a long wide tunnel like those on the London Underground, and another escalator at the other end.

The escalator down to the tunnel.

“It’s amazing to think of the tunnel supporting all those heavy ships passing by in both directions above us”, says the First Mate. “I hope they have done their calculations right. I wouldn’t like being in the tunnel if it collapsed.”

I rack my brains for my fifth-form physics lessons with Mr Butcher. I seem to remember him telling us that a ship displaces the same weight of water that it weighs itself. So there would be no extra weight involved as the ships pass over, as they would have just pushed water with the same weight out of the way. As we pass the halfway mark of the tunnel, I just hope that he knew what he was talking about and that my memory is still good.

The pedestrian tunnel under the Kiel Canal.

The next day Volkmar arrives. Volkmar is an old friend of the First Mate, and now lives in Kiel. He used to sail in his younger days. We have arranged for him to join us in Rendsburg and accompany us along the Canal back to Kiel.

Volkmar joins us in Rendsburg.

“We are passing through the region of Schleswig-Holstein”, he tells us, as we sail past rolling fields and woods. “It’s had a fascinating history. For a long time the Schleswig part of it was under Danish influence, and Holstein was part of the Holy Roman Empire. But in reality, they were ruled by a common Duke, and it all seemed to work pretty well. But in the nineteenth century, things came to a head, and Denmark decided to annex it. The Prussians weren’t too happy about that, so they invaded it, but were beaten back. A few years later, in 1864, they had another go, and this time they won. So Schleswig-Holstein was absorbed into the Prussian Empire.”

“Lunchtime!”, calls out the First Mate, bringing out sandwiches on a plate. “We can eat while Volkmar tells us about the history.”

“After WW1, there was a lot of debate about where to draw the borders of Germany”, he continues. “In this area, they decided that the best thing to do was to put it to the vote and ask the people whether they wanted to be part of Germany or part of Denmark. It turned out that in the southern part of Schleswig the majority wanted to be German, and in the northern part, the majority wanted to be Danish, so they worked out a border that reflected these results. They tried to follow natural features like streams, but this often ended up with farmers with fields in both countries. In the end, they found a way that took most people’s wishes into account, but in one case, the border even went through a house so that one side of it was in Germany and the other in Denmark!”

Did they have to use their passports to go to the bathroom, I wonder?

“I bet they did all their shopping at least on the German side where it is cheaper. Tea or coffee?”, says the First Mate, putting on the kettle.

“Coffee, please”, says Volkmar, pausing.

“Nowadays, there are minorities on each side of the border – Danish in Germany, German in Denmark – but they live happily enough together”, he continues. “The rights of each minority are guaranteed and respected. In the German town of Flensburg, for example, there is a Danish library, Danish restaurants, and so on, while in the Danish town of Sönderborg, there is a German museum.”

“It sounds like a good way to solve territorial disputes”, I say. “It’s a pity that they don’t do that more often in other parts of the world, rather than resorting to war.”

We are approaching the lock at the Kiel-Holtenau end of the Canal. There are a few other sailboats already waiting, so we join the group and wait to be instructed to enter the old lock used for pleasure craft. Something is said in German on the VHF, but none of us catches it. Not that it matters much, as all of the other boats start moving into the new lock used for the big commercial ships. We decide to follow suit. The lock is vast. There are wooden pontoons floating at water level that we are supposed to tie up to.

We tie up in the lock for commercial ships at Keil-Holtenau.

“Careful not to touch the pontoons”, calls out the First Mate. “The fenders are not much use as they are floating on the surface and are not protecting the boat.”

We find out later that savvy sailors tie weights onto the end of the fenders to hold them perpendicular in the water to work properly. I make a mental note to do that next time.

We edge in gently and manage not to damage the hull. There are rings on the pontoons that we attach temporary lines to.

The enormous gates at the far end of the lock eventually open and we motor forward. We have reached the Baltic Sea!

We enter the Baltic Sea!

“There’s quite a nice marina on the other side of the Kieler Förder”, says Volkmar. “You could tie up there the night and I can get the ferry back home again. There are a few things I need to do there. Then we can meet again in the morning for a bike ride. There are some nice routes on that side.”

“I’d really like to get my bike fixed before we get to Denmark”, says the First Mate over breakfast the next morning. “We can ask Volkmar if he knows any bike shops nearby.”

The mudguard had come off her front wheel some time ago. I had tried to fix it, but we needed a small part and we didn’t have anything on the boat that would do the trick. In addition, both of our bikes have developed annoying clacking sounds from the pedals which I suspect are loose crank bearings.

“Yes, there is a bike shop just up the road from the marina”, says Volkmar. “Five minutes’ from here. I’ll take you.”

Sure enough, the bike mechanic says he can fix it. He makes the small part and ten minutes later, the mudguard is firmly attached. Out comes the special tool for tightening pedal cranks, and that problem is also soon dealt with. The bikes are as good as new. We are glad, as the little folding bikes have proved invaluable, giving us much-needed mobility away from the boat.

Getting the bikes fixed.

Volkmar suggests lunch at a restaurant further up the coast from our marina, so we cycle along the coastal cycleway, though leafy forests and sandy beaches, until we get to Laboe.

“The pizzas are great here”, says Volkmar. “And there’s a nice place just a bit further on that we can have kaffee und kuchen afterwards. It’s one of my favourites.”

Tucking into our pizzas.

From there, we continue northwards. We pass a U-boat display – it looks interesting, but the queue to enter is too long.


On the way back, we hear some lilting violin music.

“Look there”, says the First Mate. “There’s an artist trying to attract people to buy her paintings. That’s novel.”


In the evening, we sit on deck and watch the sun go down over the Kielder Förde.

“Well, we have finally made it to the Baltic”, I say. “It took a while, but we did it.”

“Yes”, says the First Mate. “It feels like the start of another chapter, doesn’t it? We have a whole new set of adventures awaiting us.”

Sunset over Kielder Förde.

A Scottish king, lost soap, and visiting relatives

“I think I’ll go and have a nap”, says the First Mate. “These early starts don’t bring out the best in me.”

We had left Norderney marina at 0630, following our usual pattern of catching the last of the outgoing tide to carry us out through the gat into the North Sea then taking advantage of the beginning of the flood tide to carry us eastwards into the German Bight towards Cuxhaven. The sea is smooth, and the wind is on our beam, and we make a good speed.

Somewhere between Norderney and Cuxhaven.

“So how are you?”, says a familiar voice.

It is Spencer the spider. I haven’t seen him since the first day we arrived. I had wondered where he had got to.

Spencer looking for a chat.

“I’ve been pretty busy”, he explains. “That’s why I haven’t had any time so far to chat like last year. It’s all the paperwork I have had to do to travel within the EU. No longer just free-and-easy travel to anywhere – I can stay in each Schengen country for up to 90 days in every 180 days, but I have to get my passport stamped to prove where I was and when.”

“It sounds complicated”, I say. “I can sympathise.”

“Anyway, there is something I have been meaning to ask you”, he says. “When you arrived back on the boat, you mentioned there was something you wanted to tell me. What was it?”

“Oh, nothing that important”, I say. “You remember the night passage that we did from the Humber down to Lowestoft last year?”, I say. “The one where we talked about one of your ancestors being with a chap in a cave who destroyed his web with a sword?”

“Of course, I do”, says Spencer. “But what of it?”

“Well”, I say. “I got back into doing some family history research over the winter, and by strange coincidence I discovered that I am actually a descendent of that chap. His name was Robert the Bruce, the King of the Scots in the 1300s. It turns out he is my (great-)x22 grandfather.”

“Am I supposed to be impressed?”, he says. “You know, there is one thing that I don’t understand about you humans, and that is why you attach so much importance to history. With us spiders, we just are. Living in the present. We just about remember who our parents are.”

“But your mother told you that story of your ancestor”, I say. “That’s spider history.”

“I suppose it is”, he says, thinking it over. “ But I thought of it more as a good story to illustrate a point, not really history.”

“That’s maybe how it started in humans too”, I say. “When we learned to talk, we’d sit around a campfire and tell stories. The ones that illustrated a point, or information about prey, or places to live, or gave some meaning to our existence, would probably be remembered better than ones that didn’t. Over the years the good stories would be passed from one generation to the next, probably with small modifications each time. Then when writing came along, they were written down, there was less room for modification, and some of them came to be seen as universal truths. Now humans can’t get by without some kind of story to give meaning to their existence. Family history is just one of those kinds of story. Religion is another. Even writing a blog like this is constructing a narrative to give some meaning to our trip.”

We are passing through an anchoring area for container ships and I need to concentrate on not hitting any. Even so, there is a loud hoot from the ship’s horn of one as we pass close to the bow. There is no sign of activity anywhere, and I wonder where the crew are, and who saw us. We manage to pass by without getting tangled in the anchor chain.

Passing anchored container ships.

 “I can see where you are coming from”, says Spencer. “But if it is all just a nice story, then what’s the point? Looking for meaning in stories that you have constructed yourself is like looking for patterns in clouds – you’ll see whatever you want to see. It’s all just an illusion.”

“That’s as may be”, I respond. “But somehow us humans need such stories. It’s part of being human. They allow us to create a sense of direction and purpose for our species. And then we can see where we as individuals fit in and what role we will play.”

“All this Robert the Bruce stuff, for example”, he says. “You have constructed a nice narrative that you are descended from a Scottish king, but the reality is that he is only one of your ancestors and that you are descended from thousands of people, and he is just one of them. Why don’t you talk about the murderer that you are bound to have as an ancestor?”

“Well, I suppose I might do”, I counter, ”but so far I haven’t come across one. But I think part of it is the sense of belonging. I kind of feel an added depth that I am part of Scotland where I live. More so than I did before. I know that it is only a narrative, and that people who have just come from somewhere else are as much a part of Scotland as I am, but they probably also feel something similar for their own homelands as well.”

“Has he been on about Robert the Bruce again?”, says the First Mate, coming out of the cabin with cups of tea. “I bet he didn’t tell you that if you work out the number of people descending from Robert the Bruce over 23 generations assuming just two children per generation, that it comes to nearly 4 million, which is only a bit less than the population of present day Scotland? You could say that most of Scotland are descended from him. It’s no big deal.”

“Interesting”, says Spencer. “But you mentioned progress. Do you think human nature has progressed much since your Robert-the-Bruce? I don’t mean technical progress, as that is clearly developed in leaps and bounds since then, but progress in the sort of people we are.”

“You sound a bit like John Gray, the philosopher, if you don’t mind me saying so”, I say. “All things evolve and change, some things faster than others. Slow variables and fast variables, to use Panarchy-speak. A lot hasn’t changed much  – we still need the basics of life – food, shelter, mates, and we will go to extraordinary lengths to obtain them. We still like power and prestige, so if all these things are what you mean by human nature, then I suppose we are much the same. Those are slow variables. But morals have changed a lot since then – we probably value human life more, we respect each other more, we are much more tolerant towards others that are different from us, we probably have greater empathy for people in other countries. So if values, respect, tolerance and empathy are human nature, then yes, we have made progress. Those are fast variables.”

“You sound a bit like Stephen Pinker, the psychologist, if you don’t mind me saying so”, says Spencer.

A police boat passes us. It has a gun mounted on the back, and seems to be looking at us suspiciously.

Police boat on the look out.

“Are you sure you paid the marina bill before we left?”, I ask the First Mate anxiously. “Perhaps they’ve told the police and they have come to collect it.”

“Well, I was a Euro short, but the harbour-master said not to worry about it”, she says. “I hope he didn’t change his mind. And I did forget to wear my mask when I went to the toilet block just before we left. It could be that.”

The police boat ignores us, and continues on past. I feel a little bit hurt that we are so unimportant.

I turn to continue the conversation with Spencer, but he has disappeared. Was it him the police were looking for, I wonder?

Just as we reach the Elbe and the approaches to Cuxhaven, the wind dies, and we are forced to motor. We follow the green buoys in. Lots of massive container ships pass us.

Massive container ships dwarf us.

The First Mate has phoned ahead and arranged a berth for us at the Cuxhaven Yacht Club. We find it without too much trouble and tie up. Some sleepy seals are on the pontoon next to us.

Sleepy seals welcome us to Cuxhaven Yacht Club marina.

In the morning, I walk over to the washing block to take a shower. The system is that you put €1 in a slot meter to get four minutes of hot water for your shower.

I select my cubicle, undress, and put the €1 in the meter. Immediately it starts counting down. What they don’t tell you beforehand is that the timer is not related to the amount of hot water you get. I feel the water coming out. It is freezing. Gradually it warms up, but by this time 45 seconds has gone past.

I jump under the warm water and shampoo my hair and start to soap myself all over. Unfortunately, I drop the soap and it skithers under the dividing wall between the next cubicle and mine. I kneel down to see if I can see it. It’s on the far side of the cubicle and I can’t reach it.

There doesn’t seem to be anyone else in the shower block at the moment, so I decide to take a risk and retrieve it. I open my door and peer out. It is all clear. Just as I reach the cubicle where the soap is, I hear the main door open and voices. I peer out and see a father and son. Hopefully they will go into their own shower cubicles. I wait for a few moments, but they have come to brush their teeth in the basins. I decide I have to get back to my original cubicle, and try to saunter nonchalantly back. I feel like John Cleese in a Fish Called Wanda, but I ignore the astonished looks and disappear back into my cubicle.

Just as I do, the shower timer beeps and runs out.

Back in the boat, the First Mate looks at me in surprise.

“You’ve still got shampoo in your hair”, she says. “Didn’t you rinse it?”

“There was a problem with the slot timer”, I say. “It ran out of time.”

“We should try and get the money back”, she says.

In the afternoon, we get the bikes out and cycle into the city centre to explore. On the way, we pass the Alte Liebe, the remains of an old pier that today is used as a viewing platform to watch the ships pass by on the way up the Elbe to Hamburg. Details of each ship is announced by loudspeaker to any watchers who happen to be there. We wonder if Ruby Tuesday’s details will be announced when we come to sail past, but suspect we are only minnows and to small to be of any importance.

The Alte Liebe in Cuxhaven.

“Apparently, the name of the Alte Liebe, which means Old Love in English, comes from the name of one of the ships that was deliberately sunk on this spot to create the original pier”, the First Mate translates from the display board at the bottom of the steps leading to it.

Nearby is the Semaphore, a complicated mechanical contraption of levers, pulleys and wire cables that was used to signal to passing ships the weather conditions on the islands of Borkum and Heligoland so that the skippers could decide whether it was a good idea to go there or not. It was only used for a short time before radio communications were developed, and is kept nowadays as a curiosity of a bygone age in marine communications.

The Semaphore indicating wind conditions in Borkum and Heligoland.

“It’s amazing that it needs all those levers just to tell the windspeed and direction”, says the First Mate.

Further on, we pass a tower covered in plastic sheeting in a small park.

Christo work of art?

“It looks a bit like one of those Christo efforts”, I say. “You know, the ones where he covers iconic landmarks in fabric. Maybe he is around somewhere.”

I have a quick glance around, but there isn’t any sign of him on any of the paths or in any of the surrounding trees and bushes.

“I think it is just being renovated”, says the First Mate. “And in any case, I think he died a year or two ago, so it is unlikely to be him.”

No wonder I didn’t spot him.

We eventually reach the Schloss Ritzebuettal. This was built originally by feudal lords of Saxony-Lauenburg, and later taken over and used by officials of the city of Hamburg to control the entrance and exit of shipping on the Elbe. Nowadays it is used as a restaurant and for exhibitions and weddings.

Schloss Ritzebuettal.

The next day the First Mate’s sister Petra and her husband Juergen come to visit us.

We walk out to the Kugelbake, or Ball Beacon, the wooden beacon first built in the early 1700s that marks the somewhat arbitrary boundary between the North Sea and the River Elbe, and with its light was also an important navigational aid. Being of wood, it is rebuilt from time to time due to deterioration from the elements. These days it is used more as the city’s symbol.

The Kugelbake (Ball Beacon), Cuxhaven.

After coffee and cakes, we drive back to Petra and Juergen’s place. They live not far away near Wilhelmshaven.

Juergen is into motorbikes. He has a BMW 1200cc and is setting off for a week’s tour to Italy with friends the day after we leave.

“Do you fancy a ride?”, he says.

It’s a long time since I have been on a motorbike, in fact hardly since I had an accident on one when I was young and damaged my knee ligaments. But I say yes. I am kitted up in all the gear, and feel like a spaceman when the helmet goes on.

“Bye”, I say to the First Mate. “Give me a last hug. As First Mates go, you have been a pretty good one. I am glad that we got the Will done.”

“Don’t be silly”, she says. “You’ll be back. Just don’t fall off, that’s all. And in any case, you have to help with peeling the prawns that Petra has bought. You can’t get out of it that easily.”

Setting off on a motorbike ride.

I sit on the back and Juergen takes me for a spin around the town. I hold on for dear life. I don’t want to miss the prawn peeling.

“How did you like that?”, says the First Mate when we return.

“It’s certainly a bit faster than sailing”, I say.

“Well, you can get back to your normal pace of life by peeling these”, she says handing me a bowl of krabben, or miniature prawns.

They are fiddly and not much flesh on each one, but there are lots of them. After a couple of hours we have finished them.

“We’ll have them for breakfast”, says Petra. “They’re delicious with brötchen.”

Peeling the krabben.

In the evening, we go to a local restaurant for dinner. Their speciality is meat roasted over an open fire in the dining room. A ring suspended by chains from inside the chimney is rotated in alternate directions by the waiters each time they go past it to ensure even cooking. There is a delicious aroma of barbecued beef.

Dinner cooking on the open fire.

My 200 g portion of beef arrives. I have heard of slabs of meat like doorsteps and had always thought it was just a figure of speech. It isn’t.

“Where’s your salad?”, sys the First Mate. “You are supposed to eat it as a side dish with the meat.”

“I have eaten it already”, I say. “I was so hungry and I thought it was starters.”

Dummer junge”, she says.

Exploring two islands and meeting some Frisians

We leave Terschelling at 0600 on the dot, and catch the last hour of the outgoing tide that sweeps us out into the North Sea before it changes direction and begins to carry us eastwards. We have a 75 mile sail in front of us, and need all the help we can get to minimise the time. The wind is from the north and on our beam, but with the long period of northerly winds we have had over the last week, there is a significant swell from the side, and we wallow through each successive wave. It is not comfortable, and we both start feeling queasy.

Leaving Terschelling harbour at sunrise.

Before long, Terschelling is fading into the distance. Other Frisian islands with the weird and wonderful names of Ameland, Shiermonnikoog, Rottumerplaat, Zuideruintjes and Rottumerroog appear and disappear in the haze. We would love to visit them, but all are too shallow for us to enter their gats and harbours.

Fair winds for Borkum.

After a hard day of sailing, we eventually arrive in Borkum harbour. There is only one pier for visiting yachts, and we need to raft up again. There is a strong cross-wind, and manoeuvring Ruby Tuesday isn’t easy. We select another boat of similar size and edge close in to it, but a sudden gust of wind pushes the bow round more than our stern. I frantically try and use the bow-thrusters to avoid our anchor from scoring their side, but the gust is too strong. A disaster looms. Luckily the owner of the boat has seen the danger and is waiting to fend us off. The anchor misses by centimetres and we glide alongside, fenders absorbing the shock and protecting each boat from damage. Ropes are thrown across from bow and stern, are threaded through cleats, and then returned – we are secure. Our new neighbours are from Norway, they have been to the Caribbean, and are now waiting for southerly or westerly winds to take them home again.

Arriving in Borkum harbour.

As we are now in Germany and not Holland, I put up the plain yellow Q-flag to indicate that we still need to clear customs and immigration formalities. I am not sure it is needed, but technically we are in a new country, and with the UK no longer in the EU, I reason that it is better to be safe than sorry. The Germans like their rules.

“The flag looks like it’s upside down”, jokes the First Mate.

“How can a plain yellow flag be upside down?”, I say.

But she is right. I have tied the little loop at the bottom and the long tail at the top without thinking. It’s soon fixed.

Upside down Q-flag?

The next day we cycle into Borkum town and head for the beach.

“Oh, look”, says the First Mate. “There are some strandkorbs. I have always liked them. They are great for sitting on the beach when it is windy.”

Strandkorbs are basically two-seater park benches, but have evolved into quite elaborate structures that can be tilted backwards and forwards, rotated to face away from the wind, have a canopy that can be pulled down against the sun, folding foot-rests, folding shelves for drinks, and storage drawers underneath.

“The most expensive with all the extras can cost nearly €3000 new”, she continues. “Made of teak, with porthole windows, cushions, you name it. Germans think it is the pinnacle of sophistication to own one. But you can also rent them by the day or by the week. See, these ones cost €12 a day.”

Enjoying the beach whatever the weather.

I had always been amused by them. I had seen photos of old couples sitting in them completely wrapped up on cold, windy and overcast days, stoically determined to have a day at the beach in spite of the weather. I can see the point of them, but why not just wait for a good day?

“Often you can have sunny warm weather here, but there might be a strong wind lifting sand from the beach”, says the First Mate, a little defensively. “Strandkorbs allow you to enjoy the sunshine while protected from the wind.”

“I can’t imagine a family with parents and kids all cramming into them”, I say.

“Ah, but they do”, she retorts.

We buy some filled rolls and sit in the small park opposite the train station to eat them. A little girl is fighting with her brother for a scooter. Their exasperated mother grabs the scooter and tells them both to behave. A man with bags of cat litter stacked up on the carrier of his bike parks it and comes and sits on the next seat. Opposite, a woman sits with a laptop on her knees and talks animatedly into her mobile phone. There is a toot, and the small train from the harbour arrives, disgorging its passengers. Two horses wearily plod past pulling a wagon-load full of tourists.

“Life in Borkum, eh?”, says the First Mate.

The small train arrives from the harbour.
Horses for courses.

“Come on”, I say, swallowing the last of my roll. “Let’s get going. We haven’t got all day.”

We find a cycle path leading from the town beach, following the sand line around the northern coast of the island.

The cycle path along the northern beaches, Borkum.

Eventually it leads away from the beach and though a lush green woodland.

The First Mate enjoying a woodland cycle.

At one point, we see a sign pointing to the FKK beach. There is even a bus stop called FKK Beach.

“Shall we go there?”, I say. “Perhaps we can have a swim?”

“I didn’t bring my swimming costume”, says the First Mate.

It’s as good an excuse as any. We cycle on.

The path circles round to the south and we find ourselves cycling back along the southern dyke just as we did in Terschelling. On the landward side are fertile polders, and on the seaward side marshlands growing rushes which give way to the mudflats. There is a strange beauty.

Cycling along the southern dyke.

In the morning, we set off for Norderney. As with Terschelling, we catch the last of the ebb tide to take us out to the North Sea, and then the flood tide to take us eastwards. This time it is only 35 miles, but the swell has persisted, and the wind is strong. We have a good sail, but there is a fierce chop and it is not smooth.

We approach Norderney. There are two channels into the harbour. One, the Schlucter, is from the west, and therefore is the natural one that we would take. The other, the Dovetief, is from the east. Both are relatively shallow, marked on the charts as 2.6 m at low water. The four slight problems are that our keel is 2 m deep, that we are approaching just after low water, in choppy conditions, and the Schlucter is very narrow with drying sandbars on each side. Get it slightly wrong, and we could end up grounded. The Dovetief is wider, with more margin for error, but would entail a long detour eastwards to enter it, then back again.

“Why don’t you call the harbourmaster at Norderney and ask him about the depth in the Schlucter?”, says the First Mate, anxiously. “He might be able to advise us.”

I manage to get through to him.

“It could be touch and go for you, especially in choppy conditions”, he says. “I would wait an hour for the tide to rise a bit more, if I were you, then you should have enough to get through. Follow the red buoys, keeping them to your port side. However, remember that the S6 buoy has moved and you need to keep it on your starboard and not your port.”

We reach the outermost buoy, the S2, and decide to anchor there for an hour. The bottom is sand and the anchor sets well, but with a choppy sea with long swells rolling in from the North Sea, it is not comfortable. Ruby Tuesday pitches up and down, and we both feel queasy. The information about the S6 buoy being in the wrong place also does not add to our confidence.

Eventually the hour is up, and we motor gingerly in, counting the red buoys, S4, S6, S8. As advised, we are careful to go on the wrong side of S6. At one stage, the depth reads 0.8 m below the keel. We breathe in, and slowly it increases again: 1 m, 1.1 m, 1.2 m. We are past the worst. Later I calculate that the extra depth that we gained by waiting an hour is 30 cm. We probably could have made it with only 50 cm under the keel in calm conditions, but with the pitching and tossing of the waves, we could have easily hit the bottom. Better to be safe than sorry.

Threading our way through the Schlucter channel into Norderney (red line).

In the evening, we sit in the cockpit and enjoy the soft golden glow of the setting sun. Suddenly the peace and calm is shattered by the piecing shrieks of a flock of oyster-catchers on the opposite bank. Something has upset them. We watch in fascination as they set upon a solitary black-headed gull in their midst. On one of the posts in the water, a single oyster-catcher seems to be directing operations. Again and again, the attackers dive bomb the gull, who runs this way and that trying to escape. Eventually it gives up and flies away. The shrieking dies down and peace returns.

“Internecine warfare in the bird world”, I say.

“I think it is over territory”, says the First Mate. “The oyster-catchers must think they own that piece of land over there, and try and keep any other bird species away from it.”

I am not so sure. We didn’t see any oyster-catchers there earlier in the day, and after they had proved their point with the gull, they all left. The next day we see a huge flock on another promontory. They don’t seem to be wedded to a specific territory.

Oyster-catcher territory?

In the morning, we unload the bikes and cycle into the town centre. We find the Tourist Information in a stunning building called the ConversationHaus and obtain a map of cycle tracks over the island. Outside there is a band playing “Time after Time”. We sit and listen, but it is their last song, and they pack up.

The ConversationHaus, Norderney.

We cycle out of the town and find a cycle track that takes us around the island. From one of the dunes we have a fantastic view over the rugged interior. It looks wild, but there are cycle tracks criss-crossing it.

Mature dunes in the centre of Norderney island.

We eventually reach the lighthouse in the middle of the island and stop at the restaurant there for lunch.

The lighthouse in the centre of Norderney.

The track eventually comes to the southern dyke and takes us all the way back to the marina. I am conscious that Erskine Childers’ spy novel Riddle of the Sands was set here, and try and imagine Arthur Davies wending his way in his Dulcibella through the narrow channels and fog to Memmert island and the waiting Captain Dollmann in his yacht plotting to invade Britain in WW1.

“Look!”, says the First Mate suddenly. “There’s a plane taking off.”

A small aircraft is taxiing along the runway of the tiny airport in the centre of the island. We watch it climbing until it disappears into the clouds.

A small plane takes off from Norderney airport.

“It’s probably heading back to the mainland”, says the First Mate. “They have regular flights back and forwards.”

Suddenly there is a swishing sound above us and we see half-a-dozen parachutists descending rapidly in our direction, their colourful parachutes contrasting with the white of the clouds. The same small plane is coming back to land again.

Parachutists coming in to land.

“They are probably British paratroopers come to attack Dollmann’s Medusa”, I say. “Carruthers must have ordered it.”

She looks at me strangely.

“You have a weird imagination sometimes”, she says.

I notice that a pattern seems to be emerging for us on these islands. We tie up in the harbour, explore the town on the western side of the island, then cycle eastwards to see beautiful sandy beaches, small villages, and woodland until we reach the nature reserves on the eastern end of the island, then return along dykes with polders on one side and the muddy flats of the Wadden Sea on the other.

“I told you that once you have seen one of the Frisian Islands, you have seen them all”, says the First Mate.

And yet, somehow, each one does have its own character. Terschelling is the summer playground of the Dutch, Borkum is the same for the Germans, and Norderney is supposed to be the new Sylt, the island playground of the international jet set in the North Frisian Islands.

“I haven’t seen any rich and famous yet”, I say.

“No, nor have I”, says the First Mate. “They are probably all hiding in their beautiful houses overlooking the beaches, trying to avoid the peering eyes of the riff-raff like us. And all those small planes we saw parked at the airport probably belong to them.”

Planes of the rich and famous?

In the evening, we meet Jost and Marina for drinks. We had first met them in Borkum when they tied up behind us, and then again here in Norderney when they had rafted up next to us temporarily before being allocated a proper berth. Josh is born and bred in Friesland in Holland and is financial controller at a large school, while Marina is from Amsterdam and is a university lecturer.

They proudly tell us something of the history of Frisia.

“The area was first settled in Roman times, when the people lived on man-made hills on the Wadden Sea mudflats to stop being swept away by each tide”, says Jost. “The Romans considered them a bit primitive as they hadn’t developed any agriculture and lived on a subsistence diet.”

“It’s interesting that the area eventually developed the Frisian cow, the highest milk production cow in the world, and yet were so primitive in those times”, I say.

“Yes, but the cows did exist even back then, but were kept by a different Frisian tribe further inland”, says Marina. “It’s thought that people from Hesse came to Frisia with their black cows and crossed them with the white cows that were in Frisia at the time, which eventually become the modern-day Frisian.”

“My sister lives in Friesland In Germany”, says the First Mate. “It’s interesting how Frisia seems to be split between both the Netherlands and Germany nowadays.”

“Yes, the Frisians were always more interested in their farming than in warfare”, continues Jost. “They never really existed as a separate country as such, but were invaded by various other peoples, including the Vikings, the Franks, the Saxons, you name it. In the Middle Ages, they became part of the Hapsburg Empire, but they didn’t like that too much, so they did revolt, and joined the Dutch republic when it was formed in 1577.”

 “What about the Frisian language?”, I ask.

“There are actually three main Frisian languages”, says Marina. “West Frisian, Saterland Frisian and North Frisian. But there are also a lot of dialects, many of which are not mutually intelligible. It’s pretty complicated. Frisian is also the closest Germanic language to English, with a lot of similarities particularly with the English spoken in Norfolk. Probably due to the trade links they had back then. Some Frisians even joke that London is a suburb of Frisia!”

“In Frisian, we say tsiis for cheese and tsjerke for church, for example”, says Jost. “Old English and Old Frisian were very similar, but English and Frisian are two separate languages nowadays, mainly because of the influence of other languages – English by the Norman French, West Frisian by Dutch, and North Frisian by German.”

I shiver. It is getting late, and we are the last customers left in the bar. The moon has risen and casts a streak of light across the water. We drink up, put on our jackets and stumble back to our respective boats. It has been a fascinating insight into a small part of Europe that I knew little about. Frisia is not just about cows.

Frisia – not just about cows!

A sea battle, a sandy island, and washing the clothes

The Dutch East Indiaman changes tack and cuts in astern of us trying to position herself to fire off a broadside at us from the cannon protruding from her gun-ports. Sailors line the decks, shouting and brandishing their weapons. We are faster and more agile than her, but a cannonball amidships or through Ruby Tuesday’s mast could cripple us and make us ripe for the picking.

I turn stern on to her to minimise our cross-section and pray that her gunners will have trouble aiming in the gently rolling swell. There is a puff of smoke from one of her gun-ports, followed by a deafening boom rolling across the water. There is a swish as the ball flies harmlessly to our port side. I shiver; another shot to get our range, and they will have us in their sights. I tack quickly to gain speed to distance Ruby Tuesday from them, then turn suddenly broadside on, and give the order for our cannon to be fired. I smell the stench of burning gunpowder as ball after ball rips into the Indiaman’s gunwales and rigging, turning her sails into tatters and holing her at the waterline. She won’t be able to follow us now, I think.

“Watch out for that sailing ship behind us”, shouts the First Mate in alarm. “It’s going faster than us, and it’s getting very close. I’d almost say it is going to hit us.”

Hostile intentions?

My mind snaps back to reality. I was daydreaming of the First Anglo-Dutch War in the 1600s, when the English and Dutch were at each other’s’ throats to gain dominance in the lucrative maritime trade. The English had won the first war, but had come second in the following three.

“It’s OK”, I say. “I have it under control.”

We are on the way to Terschelling, one of the Dutch Frisian islands. I had done the calculations the previous evening, and we had left South Harbour in Harlingen just before high water to catch the outgoing tidal flow along the channel. A lot of other boats have had the same idea and we are just one of a long procession. The wind is favourable, coming from the north, giving us a nice beam reach for the first part of the voyage, and we make eight knots. The Dutch East Indiaman recedes into the distance.

In the procession to Terschelling island.

We eventually reach the Schuitengat, the narrow buoyed channel that leads to West Terschelling harbour, and turn into it, leaving the main channel. The tide is now against us as it flows out to sea, and we need to start the engine to make any progress.

We arrive at the marina, and are met by a member of staff in a small RIB who directs us to the space allocated for boats of our length. All the pontoon berths are already taken, but there is enough space to raft up alongside another one.

“We normally have a maximum of three boats rafted together”, explains the staff member. “You can chose where you want to go.”

We decide to raft up to a large catamaran as it counts as two boats, but it also means that we only have one other boat to clamber over. At least we have a place for the night.

Rafted up in West Terschelling marina.

“You can take your glasses into town to see if they can be fixed”, says the First Mate at breakfast the next morning, cutting another slice of cheese.

I idly think the cheese looks like the shape of Terschelling island. Mind you, anything could look like the shape of Terschelling when one of the legs on your glasses has become wobbly and they don’t sit straight on your face.

We unload the bikes and cycle into West Terschelling, the main town of the island. It seems there is an optician there.

“Don’t stand so close to me”, says the optician as I hand him the glasses. “You are supposed to be 1.5 metres away.”

It’s an interesting customer relations approach. I am wearing my mask, and he had asked to see the glasses. I am not sure how I am supposed to give him the glasses unless it is on the end of a fishing line. And in any case, I am not much less than 1.5 m from him anyway.

“I am afraid I can’t fix these”, he says curtly. “They are a special SpecSavers make. You’ll have to take them back to the place you got them.”

I explain that this is a bit difficult, as we are travelling for some months.

“Sorry, there is nothing I can do”, he says. “You could try and fix them yourself, I suppose.”

Fixing glasses is not something I am good at. At least not without the risk of breaking them. And anyway, what are opticians for? Luckily, I have a spare pair back on the boat. They will have to do.

“He was a bit grumpy”, says the First Mate, as we leave. “I wonder what side of the bed he got out of this morning? Anyway, forget about him. I just want to have a quick look around the shops. Why don’t you find somewhere to have a coffee, and I’ll catch up with you shortly.”

While I am waiting, I scan through a small brochure on the natural history of the island that I had picked up at the marina. It seems that the whole of the Wadden Sea that we had crossed yesterday used to be dry land and the islands didn’t exist until fairly recently, geologically speaking. When the ice melted after the Ice Ages, the sea level rose by 60 m and by 7000 years ago it was all flooded. Then wave action from the North Sea started building up sand banks until some of them grew enough not to be covered by the tide each time. Vegetation became established which allowed them to grow further as sand was trapped from being blown away by the grasses and shrubs. The constant supply of sand from the seaward side created beautiful sandy beaches and behind them, dunes. The younger dunes are white from the fresh sand, but as they begin to accumulate organic material from the vegetation, they become darker. In between the dunes, fresh water collects to create marshes.

The First Mate returns from her shopping expedition.

“I read last night that the islands are actually migrating eastwards”, she says. “With the predominant wind from the west, the sand gets blown from the western side and is deposited on the eastern side. All the towns now are on the western end of each island, but they used to be in the middle.”

“We had better not stay here too long, or else we might find ourselves back in the sea”, I joke.

We jump on the bikes and head eastwards, following the well-signposted cycle tracks criss-crossing the island. There is a strong wind from the north, and it is tough going in places. We pass through some delightful forest tracks and eventually reach the beach on the north coast. Unfortunately the wind is so strong that the sand is being lifted from the beach and stings our faces like tiny needles. I now know how Ruby Tuesday feels having her hull sand-blasted to remove marine growth. We beat a track to the café at the start of the dunes and have a cold drink behind the glass windscreens to recover.

Sheltering behind the windscreen from the sand.

We eventually reach the end of the bike path. Beyond is the Boschplaat, an extensive nature reserve of nothing but rolling dunes interspersed with marshes. It’s a wilderness.

Looking over the Boschplaat.

We consider a walk, but rain is forecast. Already a few drops are falling, so we decide to head back home along the southern dyke that separates the Wadden Sea from the polders. These are areas that used to be part of the Wadden Sea mudflats, but which have been drained and are now used for agriculture. A farmer mows the lush grass growing on the rich soil of the former sea bed.

Mowing the grass on the polders, Terschelling.

With the wind from the north, we have a nice beam reach as we cycle along the top of the dyke (did you see what I did there?). Bird life on both sides is abundant. We see geese, lots of oystercatchers, cormorants, terns, and black-headed gulls, to name but a few.

A cormorant dries its wings.

We are particularly taken with the little stone-turners hunkering down between the cracks in the rocks making up the side of the dyke.

“They would have a job turning those stones”, says the First Mate.

Wadden Sea stone-turners.

Back near the town we spy a boat resting on the sand, her keel withdrawn. The local boats are built to have wide flat hulls which can sit quite happily on the exposed sandbars at low tide. Apparently it is a highlight of tourist boat trips to the Wadden Sea islands for the skipper to ground the boat and allow the tourists to walk around the sandbar before the tide returns and they have to get back in the boat. It’s not a party trick that Ruby Tuesday can do with her fixed deep keel, unfortunately.

Boat resting on the Wadden seabed.

We arrive back in West Terschelling. Luckily, the rain has held off, so we decide to have coffee and cakes.

“Apparently cranberries are a speciality of Terschelling”, says the First Mate. “I think I might try a cranberry pancake with cranberry liqueur. You can have some of it.”

The First Mate treats herself to a cranberry pancake.

When we get back to the boat, we have new neighbours. They are a young couple from Amsterdam who have rafted up next to us. They are three deep, and have to clamber over us and the catamaran.

“I hope you don’t mind”, they say shyly. “There was no other place left.”

“Not at all”, we say. “That’s the way it is done here.”

“You know, I don’t think that we have seen another British boat since we started off”, they say.

We had noticed the same thing. There had been a lot of Dutch boats obviously, and German ones were increasing in number the further north we went, even a smattering of Norwegian and Swedish craft. We had even seen one with a Swiss flag, despite that country not being well known for its extensive coastline. But no UK ones so far apart from ourselves.

“I guess it’s a combination of COVID and Brexit”, I say. “Now that the UK is out of the EU, we are treated as a third country as far as things like pandemics are concerned, and are given no slack when entering the EU. And now that COVID numbers are rising exponentially again, we are really persona non grata here. They just don’t want us bringing nasty variants into mainland Europe. And who can blame them?”

Not only that. Now that we are out of the Customs Union, boats are also treated as foreign goods, and need to be temporarily imported into the EU for a maximum of 18 months at a time without paying VAT. And to complicate things even further, UK-registered boats must pay VAT a second time if they are out of Britain for more than three years, even if it was paid at the time of purchase. Many boat-owners are heading back to the UK to avoid this tax before the deadline in June 2022.

“It’s a pity”, says the First Mate. “When I first came to Britain, it was well-known for its pragmatism and openness to people from other countries. Now it has changed, and foreigners don’t feel welcome there anymore. It is well on its way to cutting itself off entirely from Europe.”

It’s true. Brexit was sold as an opportunity to become more global in its outlook. So far there has been little evidence of that. The reality is that a generation of Britons will be more inward-looking because of the country’s self-imposed isolation from their nearest neighbours. The absence of the Union Jack in European waters may be a permanent feature of the future.

A declining presence in European waters?

“I have just discovered that the washing machines here are free”, says the First Mate in the evening. “Not only that, the washing powder is added automatically. We should get all our washing done while we have the chance. The only problem is that they are in tremendous demand, but I have heard that if you get in when they open the building in the morning you have a chance.”

“So, I have been thinking”, she continues. “You are usually up at that time. You can take the washing over.”

“But it’s my birthday”, I protest. “I was thinking of having a lie-in.”

The real reason is that washing machines and I just don’t get on. I just get confused with all the options –  temperatures, soaps, conditioners, fabric types, and colours – that are important in washing clothes these days. After 20 years, I have learnt the buttons to press on the one at home, but every new machine I encounter seems to have a different set of dials, displays and buttons to negotiate. I am usually happy to leave it to the First Mate. Not only that, in this case all the instructions are in Dutch.

In the morning I find myself trudging to the washing block carrying two huge bags of smelly clothes. The washing machine room is empty, so at least I am spared the ignominy of having to be shown how to operate the machine. Ten minutes later I have worked it out. I press the button and it starts to rotate. So far, so good. The machine completes its cycle, and I transfer the clothes to the drier.

An hour later, I return. There is one other person in the room – a man with bulging biceps, an earring, shaven head, tattoos, and a tight-fitting vest with Nebraska University written on it in Varsity Font. He is a lot bigger than me. My drier has completed its cycle, but not all of the clothes are dry yet. I pick out the ones that are dry, and push the button to start the machine for another cycle. Nebraska Man glares at me. I realise he also wants to use the drier. I decide to brazen it out and wait for my cycle to complete. Nebraska Man moves closer and clears his throat.

I crack.

“Are you waiting for the drier?”, I ask, knowing the answer.

Nebraska Man grunts. I take it as a yes, and press the stop button.

“Ah, that’s better”, I say, reaching inside and feeling the clothes. “They are dry now.”

It’s been only two minutes and they are not dry. But at least I leave with my teeth intact. I put it down as a win-win situation.

“These clothes are not really dry”, says the First Mate, when I get back to the boat.

“I know”, I say. “There was something wrong with the machine.”

Not worth losing teeth over.