The next morning, we decide to head on northwards to Haarlem. We slip the lines from the bollards, and I begin to swing the bow out into the main stream.
“Watch out, watch out!”, shouts the First Mate from the bow.
There is an angry horn blast. A huge barge has sneaked up behind us, and is just about to pass. I had checked a few moments earlier and there was nothing, but in the time taken to free the lines, the bridge to the south had opened and the barge had come through. They move fast, and because the engine is a long way behind at their stern, are almost silent.
Luckily there is just enough room to avoid it. I breathe a sigh of relief. Just as I do, there is a cracking sound overhead and several leafy branches crash on to the deck. The mast has collided with a tree growing out over the river. It’s not shaping up to be a good day.
Luckily they are just the small branches at the side of the tree and there appears to be no damage to the mast or anything on it – the VHF still works, as do the windspeed and direction instruments. The barge passes and the captain looks down at us, raising her eyes with a look of exasperation as though to say ‘the men in white coats will be along shortly’. I try to look as though we work for the local council and are trimming the riverside trees for them, but I don’t think she is convinced.
Making a mental note to always look behind us when we are pulling out, we press on.
“I have just been looking at the map”, says the First Mate. “We’re coming up to the Kaag Lakes. They look quite nice, and it says in the guide that you can anchor there. Seeing as it is such a nice day, perhaps we could do that, have a lazy day in the sunshine, stay the night, then go on to Haarlem tomorrow?”
“Good idea”, I say. She’s right; the day is glorious.
We arrive at the Lakes. It’s like Piccadilly Circus there. Every conceivable shape and size of watercraft is out in force. We need to take care that we don’t run any down. I am not sure that I want to anchor in such a busy place.
“What about over there?”, says the First Mate, pointing to a little bay. “It looks a bit quieter.”
We head in that direction. Suddenly Ruby Tuesday stops.
“Why have you stopped here?”, says the First Mate.
“I haven’t”, I say. “She’s stopped herself. Or rather, something else stopped her.”
I give her more throttle. Nothing happens. We are grounded in the mud. I put the lever into reverse and give it some power. Slowly we move backwards until we are back in deeper water. I imagine a glooping noise in the mud as the keel extricates itself. ‘Deeper’ water is all relative – we have about 30 cm under the keel. If that was in Scotland, we would be having nervous breakdowns.
We find the main channel again, and the depth rises to 80 cm. A little bit further on, it drops to 20 cm. Then 0 cm. We have obviously lost it again.
“I think we had better give up the idea of anchoring here”, I say, reversing again. “It’s just too shallow. Maybe if you know where the channels are you can get into a little bay, but we just don’t know these waters.”
Somehow we find the exit route from the Lakes and join the Ringvaart, the circular canal built in 1837 to drain the Haarlemmermeer and create polders for agriculture. We see an arrow pointing to Haarlem to confirm that we are on the right track.
As we travel along the Ringvaart, we continue to be fascinated by life at the waterside.
We eventually reach the junction with the River Spaarne that takes us through Haarlem. Once again, we must run the gauntlet of a series of lifting and swinging bridges. The good news is that once a convoy forms and we have gone through the first bridge, they know that we are there and try to synchronise the following bridges to minimise the lifting time. The bad news is that it can sometimes take a while for a convoy to form. We later meet one of the bridge-keepers responsible.
“How do you synchronise the convoys once they are formed?”, we ask, thinking there might be some fancy control centre bristling with video screens.
“Easy. I jump on my bike there, and cycle down to the next bridge”, he tells us. “As bikes and boats travel at more-or-less the same speed, by the time I am there the convoy is too, and I can open that one.”
The simple ways are the best ways.
One of the boats in our convoy is full of young lads, each with a beer can in his hand. They are singing at the top of their voices celebrating something, we know not what. On the deck of their boat is an old sofa tied on with bits of string. A pile of empty cans is on the cabin roof. For some reason, the boat has an alarming list to one side. Their course is erratic, to say the least – sometimes in front of us, sometimes behind, and sometimes alongside. By good luck rather than management, they somehow manage to avoid the other boats on the river, although there are some close encounters. Ah, what it is to be young!
We reach the city centre and find a spot on the river bank to tie up to. This time there is power, water and showers available, and consequently it isn’t free. The system is that we have to download an app onto the phone, register with the company by typing in our address and contact details, and lo-and-behold we can pay our mooring fees and activate the power sockets. We will then be billed at the end of the month. All very efficient, I suppose, assuming people are honest. We are glad to have power and water again as the batteries in particular are getting low after four days in Leiden.
We are amused that our front door is between two cars parked on the street.
As in Leiden, enormous barges pass by on their way northwards, sometimes in quick succession. As long as they don’t come anywhere near us, we don’t mind them.
We walk into town for lunch and find a café in the shadow of the Grote Kerk. It seems that to be a self-respecting Dutch town or city it is a requirement to have a Grote Kerk. Or even village, for that matter, I think, recalling the one in Veere in Seeland. We decide not to look inside this one as they charge us to enter. It seems God isn’t providing them with enough. But the lunch is great.
We are fascinated by the bicycles adapted to have a box in front like a wheelbarrow. We see all sorts of things being carried in them, more often than not young children being ferried to and from school by their mums. I wonder if there were many accidents with the box being exposed at the front, but it seems not.
Not far from us is De Adriaan’s windmill, built by a wealthy businessman in 1779. It was used to make cement, then tobacco, but burnt down in 1932. By then it was such a popular landmark in Haarlem that it was decided to rebuild it. It still works apparently.
In the evening, we sit in the cockpit and drink wine, watching life go by. It seems to be the done thing for people get out at that time and cruise up and down the river, to see and be seen. Mostly couples, young and old, but also the occasional family or group of lads or girls. Many are private boats, but many are also rented out by the hour. As darkness falls, the port and starboard navigation lights on each come on, and the river becomes a swirling mass of red and green fireflies, streaking this way and that.
The next day, we visit Teyler’s Museum, reputedly the oldest museum in the Netherlands, and an eclectic collection of art and science objects. It was founded in 1788 by Peter Teyler, a wealthy banker and cloth merchant of Scottish descent, himself a combination of devout Christian and aficionado of the Scottish Enlightenment. The museum is an exuberant celebration of the remarkable changes occurring in human thought during the Enlightenment. What an era to be alive in!
It was the time of Darwin and his new theory of evolution, which was causing uproar amongst the religious establishment because of its conflict with the biblical account of creation. The first two rooms are dedicated to collections of fossils, many of which were used in the debates on the origin of life going on at the time.
I try to imagine the turmoil that must have been going on in people’s minds, the old certainties of everyone having a purpose in life and a future after death being swept away, to be replaced by a world view in which humans were part of nature whose purpose is to survive and reproduce. Having said that, fossils were considered by some to be the skeletons of creatures drowned in the biblical Flood! With him being a Mennonite, I wonder what Teyler himself would have thought. He seems to have been open to new ideas, but perhaps he tried to synthesise these with the old?
The next few rooms are devoted to scientific instruments, many of which were actually used in the museum to make discoveries. There is a large electrostatic generator, capable of generating 300,000 volts, and all sort of smaller gadgets, microscopes, telescopes, measuring devices, all beautifully crafted with great precision in brass and steel, and used to probe the mysteries of nature.
In the central room, known as the Oval Room, among other things there are two large dishes, each at different ends of the room, but aligned precisely facing each other.
“They are used to transmit sound over distances”, explains a museum attendant. “If one person stands here and whispers something, another person standing next to the other one over there can hear what they said.”
I speak into one. Sure enough, the First Mate on the other side of the room smiles. I won’t say what I said.
We reach the rooms displaying paintings and drawings from the period – Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Raphael, Goltzius, Schotel – they are all represented, plus many more recent works. There are paintings of landscapes, seascapes, storms, people, houses, all giving a glimpse of life in the Netherlands as it was then.
“Hey”, says the First Mate, standing in front of a particularly vivid landscape. “Have you noticed that a lot of these paintings have the same title – Olieverf op doek. I wonder what it means? Something to do with ‘landscape’, I guess.”
“That’s funny”, I say. “Here’s a painting of a woman’s head and shoulders with the same title. I was thinking it meant something like ‘Portrait of so-and-so’.”
I look up the translation on Google. It means “Oil on canvas.”
There is a pause.
“Oh”, says the First Mate. “It looks like we need to improve our Dutch.”
That evening, we are invited for a drink to our neighbours, Heinz and Bernadette. He is a retired civil servant whose work was to restructure government departments to make them more fit for purpose, and she is a retired social worker. They are liveaboards and are spending their retirement in their large houseboat and travelling around the waterways of Europe, staying in particular cities they fancy for several weeks and enjoying the cultural delights that each has to offer. The First Mate is particularly pleased to hear that they have been in her hometown of Hamm in Germany, and have seen the famous Maximilian elephant. This month they are in Haarlem.
Appropriately socially distanced on their outside cockpit area, they offer us a triple-brandied beer from Belgium. The alcohol content is around 8%. The conversation inevitably turns to the coronavirus.
“It’s all overblown”, says Heinz. “A perfect example of groupthink based on fear. A lot of people have vested interests in spreading fear. Scientists, for example, get more funding for research, journalists get a good story to write about, broadcasters can make interesting documentaries, politicians get to look good by making decisions.”
“Are you saying it’s all a giant conspiracy?”, I ask.
“No, not a conspiracy as such”, he answers. “At least not one that is controlled centrally. But each person does his or her own little bit of fanning the flames of fear. We all read the newspaper articles on it, we watch the television programmes about it, we talk to our family and friends and neighbours about it. It’s the main topic of conversation everywhere. And that makes people fearful.”
“But you know what?”, he continues. “The actual chances of meeting someone in the street with coronavirus are tiny, particularly as most people with symptoms won’t be out on the streets anyway. We don’t know anyone who has had it. Do you actually know anyone?”
“A few”, says the First Mate. “Although not many. But if you do get it, it’s not a very pleasant thing to have. I’d rather not take the risk.”
“Anyway, that isn’t really the point”, I say. “It spreads exponentially and not linearly, so it can be very low now, but in a few weeks’ time, a large proportion of the population can be affected. You must remember that story about the king who wanted to reward one of his subjects and asked him what he wanted. The subject took a chessboard and said that he wanted the king to put one grain of rice on the first square, two grains on the second square, four grains on the third square, and so on until all the 64 squares were filled. He would then take the amount of rice that had accumulated. The king thought this was rather paltry and that he was getting off lightly, so he agreed. What he didn’t realise was that the total amount of rice involved was more than 700 years of global production. He was only thinking linearly.”
“Well, yes”, says Heinz. “But that didn’t happen in the case of the virus, did it? Most countries showed exponential growth in deaths at first, but then it levelled off, and in most it has now dropped nearly to zero.”
“But that was because of the different measures taken to limit its spread”, I say. “Self-isolation, social distancing, lockdowns, quarantines, masks, washing hands, and the like. Plus the fact that the summer came, and most people were outdoors more. If all that hadn’t happened, it might well have risen exponentially. And it still might, if there is a second wave. We just don’t know.”
“That’s my point”, Heinz says. “I think we are just going to have to live with it. Each winter, it might increase exponentially, but then the summer will come and it will drop off again until the next winter. After all that is what happens with the flus that do the rounds up until now. People die from them every year, but we don’t shut down the global economy to stop that spreading. Why should the coronavirus be treated any differently? We all have to die sometime anyway.”
It sounds to be verging on herd immunity to me. I can’t help thinking that I would like to live a few more years yet.
“I think it is the sheer numbers”, I say. “And its contagiousness. It has spread through the whole world in just a few months. Most traditional flus tend to be fairly local in nature, and don’t spread as fast.”
It’s getting cold, and the beer is finished.
“Well, let’s keep our fingers crossed for a vaccine”, says the First Mate. “Anyway, we need to get going now. We are leaving first thing in the morning. Thanks for a great evening.”
We bid good night and walk back to the boat. An upturned chair floats past. I wonder if the drunken lads’ boat has finally tipped over.