An un-forecast wind, meeting friends, and a decision

“Bye, bye, Enkhuisen”, says the First Mate. “We’ve enjoyed being here, but it’s time to move on.”

“Enjoyed it, yes, but not happy to have lost my keys”, I say grumpily.

“Never mind”, she retorts. “It’s not the end of the world. I am sure we can get some replacements at some stage.”

Leaving Enkhuisen.

We are motoring out of Enkhuisen harbour on the way to Makkum, across on the other side of the IJsselmeer. It is not the ideal day for sailing as there is almost no wind, so we continue on motoring, following the line of buoys almost directly north. According to the forecast, there is supposed to be a slight breeze later in the afternoon, so we are hoping we will catch that. At least it is warm and sunny, so we relax and bask in the sunshine.

A flappy sail is not a happy sail.

But not for long. Catching us by surprise, a strong wind suddenly springs up, and within a few moments it is blowing at 16 knots.

“Is this the slight breeze that you reckon was forecast?”, shouts the First Mate, grabbing her towel from the foredeck. “I think you need to study those forecasts a bit more carefully next time. This isn’t a breeze, it’s a Force 4.”

None of the three forecasting websites we use had predicted this, all saying a breeze of around 6-7 knots. Momentarily, I feel a little bit aggrieved that I am getting the blame for nature not obeying human weather forecasts, but there isn’t time to dwell on it, as we haul out the sails and cut the engine. The sails fill and Ruby Tuesday leaps forward. It is a welcome relief on the senses to hear only the swishing of water as it flows under the hull and emerges in a gurgle of bubbles at the stern, rather than the throb of the engine. Sailing boats are built for, well, sailing, aren’t they?

Ah, that’s more like it! Full sails in the IJsselmeer.

Buoy after buoy slips past us, LC8, LC6, LC4, LC2, VF-B, VF-A. Each has its own name and number, making it a doddle to find where exactly in the IJsselmeer we are. A lot of boats seem to be outside the buoyed channels, but we tell ourselves that they have local knowledge, and with our deep keel of 2 m, we need to play it safe and keep to the lanes.

Keeping us on the straight and narrow.

We arrive in Makkum Marina and are allocated a box berth. It seems the owner is away, but will be back in two days. If we want to stay longer, we will have to move to another one. The berth is the tightest we have ever fitted into, but somehow, we manage to squeeze in with centimetres to spare on each side, without even touching the neighbouring boats.

“Breathe in …”. Not much to spare either side on this one!

“Phew, I really didn’t think we were going to make that”, says the First Mate.

“All in a day’s work”, I say nonchalently.

The next day we borrow some bikes from the marina and cycle into town for lunch.

“Oooh, look here’s a place that does uitsmijter and flammkuchen”, says the First Mate. “They are my favourite. You can order one, and I’ll order the other, and we can share.”

I am usually not all that keen on these sharing arrangements with the First Mate, as I invariably end up with the smaller ‘half’. In this case, however, it seems like a good idea. Uitsmijter is not for the faint-hearted – it is a kind of sandwich with bacon and cheese finished off with a fried egg or two on top. Flammkuchen is a kind of pizza. Both not really what you might describe as a fat-free light lunch.

Uitsmijter and flammkuchen – eyes bigger than our stomachs!

I see the First Mate struggling.

“I thought they were your favourite”, I say. “You don’t seem to be making much progress with that.”

“I feel full”, she says, halfway through her share of the uitsmijter. “I had forgotten how much it is. Can you finish mine?”

I am also feeling pretty bloated and am starting to feel drowsy. Heavy lunches always do that to me.

“Afraid not”, I say.

“Put them in this bag and we can finish them tonight for dinner”, she says, pulling out a paper bag. She always seem to have such items concealed about her person somewhere.

After lunch, we watch the lock-keeper opening and closing the lock for boats passing up and down the canal. He collects his payment by dangling a blue-painted wooden clog attached to the end of a fishing rod down to the boat, into which the skipper puts his money. Any change is returned the same way.

“They can’t get away without paying”, says the First Mate. “He won’t open the lock-gate until they do!”

“I wonder if he accepts credit cards if you have no cash?”, I muse.

The lock-keeper lowers a clog on the end of a fishing line to collect the fee.

Later in the afternoon, our friends, Harry & Beate, come to visit us. They keep their boat in Workum, just down the coast from Makkum, and have decided to sail up to see us. We had thought about calling in at Workum to see them on our way up, but we are not able to enter the marina there with Ruby Tuesday, as her draft of 2 m is too deep for it. They are a little late as the lock at the entrance to their marina had been closed for the lock-keeper to have his lunch. First things first!

Harry and Beate come to see us.

It’s good to see them, and we settle down on their boat to a relaxed afternoon and evening of beer, wine, snacks and dinner. They have just flown back from Austria where they went all the way to participate in a dragon boat race against other dragon boats from all over Europe.

“How did you get on?” I ask.

“We came second in our race”, says Harry.

I’m impressed, and am about to say so.

“But there were only two boats in it”, continues Beate. “A lot of competitors didn’t come because of COVID restrictions.”

We decide that coming second sounds much better than coming last out of two, especially having gone all the way to Austria. We congratulate them wholeheartedly.

They bought their sailing boat a couple of years ago and are in the process of refurbishing it. The previous owner lived on it for 14 years with his wife and son, but decided that was long enough and bought a camper-van instead. Consequently the boat is well fitted out.

“We call her Dabeh”, explains Harry. “It’s a combination of the first letters of our daughter’s name and our names. We thought it sounded kind of exotic.”

I have to agree. Perhaps a hint of Arabian? Scimitar-wielding princes and dusky princesses come to mind.

“Our plan is to take her home near Dusseldorf at the end of the summer”, he continues. “It’s great over here in Workum for sailing on the IJsselmeer, but not very convenient for doing work on her over the winter. The idea is to take the mast and sails off and leave them in Workum, and motor back home along the Rhine. Then we will bring her back next summer.”

I can sympathise with him. It’s all very well overwintering the boat abroad, but if it isn’t possible to get to her because of COVID19 or other reasons, jobs get squeezed into the week or so at the beginning of any sailing, or left un-done for some other time.

The next morning, they head back to Workum and we set sail for Harlingen, an ancient fishing town further up the coast. First, we must pass through the Afsluitdijk dam via the Kornwerderzand locks. We follow a couple of other boats into the holding area. Suddenly a loudspeaker booms across the water.

“Willen de boten in het wachtgebied naar de juiste lijn gaan?”, or something to that effect.

My Dutch is almost non-existent, but it doesn’t take much to guess that we are in the wrong lane, and that the lock for yachts is the next one. There is even a sign with an arrow pointing the way for sports boats, which we had somehow missed. We turn around swiftly and manage to be the first one into the correct lock. I pretend that we have been there all along, but I don’t think anyone is fooled.

Waiting in the Kornwerderzand lock.

“We need to take more care reading the signs next time”, says the First Mate.

She’s not wrong.

We pass through uneventfully to find ourselves in the Wadden Sea, a vast area of sand and mud flats that flood and drain with the tides. The area is criss-crossed with numerous channels through which boats with deeper drafts can sail if they know where to go. When the tide is in, it looks just like one giant sheet of water. The route to Harlingen is marked with red and green buoys along the sides of the channel, with dangerous patches of green marked on the charts outside them. The green areas dry as the tide recedes and are probably only a few centimetres deep. Woe betide any sailor with a deep keel that strays beyond the safety of the channels.

Our route from Makkum to Harlingen along the Boentjes channel.

“Why do you think that this channel is called the Boentjes channel?”, asks the First Mate. “Boentjes means ‘beans’ in Dutch. It’s a strange name for a channel.”

“I have no idea”, I say. “Probably some reason that is lost in the mists of time. Perhaps someone lost a can of beans overboard in the old days?”

A random thought flits into my mind as to whether the Dutch have the equivalent of ‘Heinz means beans’. Almost as quickly, it flits out again.

We follow the channel around, and eventually see Harlingen in the distance. At one point in the channel we have only 50 cm of water under the keel, but we scrape though. The water deepens again as we approach the harbour entrance. I call the Harbour Control on the VHF and ask for a berth for a boat with 2 m draft. We are told to go into the North Harbour in the centre of town.

A few minutes later, he calls back.

Ruby Tuesday, Ruby Tuesday. Change of plan. Can you go to South Harbour instead? Right at the end just where the church is.”

South Harbour is further from the town centre, but is deeper. I had wondered if it might be too shallow in the North Harbour. A bridge lifts for us, and we cruise slowly along the narrow confines of South Harbour. Traditional boats line the quays on each side. Teenagers sun themselves on the decks of some of the old boats. A dog looks over the gunwales of one and barks at us as we pass. A kayaker speeds by, his paddles almost scraping our sides. Eventually we find a set of pontoons at the end.

Entering South Harbour, Harlingen.

“Look, there’s an empty berth”, says the First Mate. “It’s free as it has a green nameplate on it.”

The system in some places is that a berth owner can indicate with a green nameplate that his boat is away from the berth and that someone else can use it, for the normal fee of course. It means at least that berths are not lying empty while others are looking for one, and the berth-owner can offset his own fees. A red nameplate indicates that he is only out for a short time and wants it to be free when he comes back.

We go to find the Harbour Office in the centre of town to pay our mooring fees. We are still semi-debating whether to take the Staand MastRoute to Delfzijl rather than the outer route around the Frisian Islands. Harlingen is the last chance we would have to enter the canal system. The problem has always been that it is supposed to be very shallow in certain sections, mostly around Dokkum, too shallow for our draft of 2 m, but can vary with rainfall. But it depends on who you talk to. We had spoken to a few people who had said that we shouldn’t have any problem, but usually these are sailors who have shallow drafts and have passed through unscathed, with no idea of how little or how much water was under their keel. In Enkhuisen, we had met a couple who had just come through from north to south with a 1.9 m draft, and they said that it had been ‘scary’ in places where they had touched the bottom. That had more or less decided us against it, but we decide to check one more time with the harbourmaster here. After all, if a harbourmaster doesn’t know about canal depths, who does?

“I think you might have problems”, he tells us. “It’s only about 1.8 m deep around Dokkum, and I think you would struggle for a few kilometres coming through there. The rest of the route would be perfectly fine.”

That more or less settles it. We decide to take the Outside Route around the Frisian Islands.

“And besides, sailing via the islands is much more interesting, unless you like cows and locks”, he continues.

I have nothing against cows or locks in the grand scheme of things, but with all due apologies to dairy farmers, once you have seen a few cows you have more or less seen them all, and we did do a lot of locks last year in the southern Staande MastRoute.

We find a café and order coffees. The First Mate treats herself to a cake as well.

“You know, one thing that I like about Holland in the towns that we have seen so far is that there is a feeling of affluence”, she says. “In the UK, many of the places looked a bit dilapidated with several of the shops closed or boarded-up.”

Feeling of affluence?

I hadn’t really noticed it. But now that she mentions it, I realise that she has a point. People in the Netherlands have the ‘feel’ of being better off on the whole than those in the UK. Of course, we might have been seeing a biased sample – places along the canal side may be the most prosperous, while we just never see the run-down areas of Holland. Someone needs to study it.

That evening, we hear on the news that the Dutch Prime-Minister has apologised to the nation for allowing the COVID virus to get out of control in the Netherlands, and re-imposed restrictions on bars, restaurants and nightclubs and cancelled all events involving large crowds.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word.

“I don’t think that it will affect us very much”, says the First Mate. “But I wonder if the British Prime Minister would ever admit to the nation that he has made a mistake?”

The numbers of new cases per day in the Netherlands is now not far off the UK on a pro rata basis – 488 vs. 509 per million per day. When we had arrived just over three weeks earlier it was ‘only’ 51 per million per day. It feels like we are out of the frying pan into the fire.

“Somehow, I doubt it”, I sigh.

A storm, lost keys, and a bygone era

“The forecast is for strong winds tonight and tomorrow”, I say. “We might need to put some extra warps on, and batten down the hatches”.

“That all sounds very nautical”, says the First Mate. “Splice the mainbrace, me hearties, and all that. Have you been reading the Manual of Sailing again?”

I suspect she isn’t taking me seriously enough. We have some sailing friends who are in the Isles of Scilly at the moment, and they have emailed us to tell us that they are making a run for it back to mainland Britain as they don’t want to weather the storm in the limited shelter there. The winds forecast for Enkhuisen are the tail-end of their storm.

Depression centred over the Isles of Scilly.

The wind is already starting to rise, and there is a steady stream of boats coming in off the Markermeer for shelter in the harbour. There isn’t a lot of space, so all the newcomers have rafted up to others already there. We are in a relatively sheltered part of the harbour, so I think we should be alright. I put on a couple of extra lines just to be safe and make sure the hatches are closed. I don’t want the harbour master thinking we are blasé about it.

The wind increases and the trees start to sway, their leaves shaking loose and blowing around the harbour. Ruby Tuesday strains against her moorings, the mast moving slowly from one side to the other. We sit in the cockpit and watch the seagulls struggling against the wind to try and get home, and then giving up and flying where it takes them. The sun breaks through the gathering storm clouds for a moment and catches the lighthouse at the entrance to the harbour, and lights it and the sheltering yachts up against the darkening storm clouds.

The calm before the storm.

Then the rain starts. Small drops at first, then becoming heavier and heavier until we can’t hear ourselves talk. We sit in silence. There is something comforting sitting in the cockpit enclosure, protected against the elements, as the forces of nature rage around us.

Warm and dry inside.

The next day dawns bright and clear. We decide to cycle out to the Zuiderzee Museum for the afternoon.

“Have you see my keys?”, I say. “They don’t seem to be in any of my pockets.”

“Perhaps the jackdaws stole them?”, says the First Mate. “They like bright shiny things. Where did you last have them?”

I try and think. I had locked the bike the day before when I went to the harbour office to pay our mooring fees. I hadn’t used them since – the First Mate had locked the two bikes together overnight. We ransack the boat looking for them, I check at the harbour office, and try and retrace my movements after that, but to no avail. Luckily there are only two keys which are missing, one to the boat itself, and one for the bike lock. Oh, and my COVID facemask. All are important, but at least we have a spare of each.

“No problem”, I say. “We can see if there is a keysmith in town, and we can call in with the spare keys on the way to the museum and get him to make copies. We can pick them up again in the evening.”

Mr Google tells us that there is a keysmith not far from where we are tied up.

“It shouldn’t be a problem”, he says when we get there. “Call back after your museum visit and I’ll have them ready.”

Relieved, we cycle out to the museum on the north-east of the town. There are two parts – an indoor part, and an outdoor part, about two minutes’ walk from each other. As the sun has come out, we decide to do the outdoor section first. Who knows what the weather might do later?

The Zuiderzee was a former large body of shallow seawater that extended inland from the North Sea. During storms, it had the effect of funnelling water in from the North Sea and flooding the surrounding land, drowning people and destroying villages on a periodic basis. The Dutch eventually became fed up with this, and in 1932 decided to build a huge dam across the mouth of the Zuiderzee to stop these storms causing so much havoc. The dam was called the Afsluitdijk, and it created a new lake behind it, which was named the Ijsselmeer. Parts of this lake were also drained and made into ‘polders’ or farmland, and even a new province called Flevoland where town and villages were built. A second dam completed in 1975 called the Houtribdijk further divided the Ijsselmeer to create the Markermeer. This was the dam that we had passed through on entering Enkhuisen.

Flooding in the Zuiderzee.

Although the dams stopped the flooding, it did have the effect of destroying much of the fishing culture that had previously existed around the shores of the Zuiderzee, and the museum is an attempt to preserve some of that culture. The indoor part contains many of the different types of boats used in and around the Zuiderzee, while the outdoor part consists of an artificial village constructed from houses from different parts of the region.

Model Dutch village at the Zuiderzee museum.

We stop at one of the houses. Inside is a women dressed in traditional Dutch costume. She introduces herself as a traditional storyteller.

“Can you tell us a story in English?”, I ask. We are the only other people in the house at that moment.

“Of course”, she replies. “Let me tell you the story of the mermaid who lives in the Zuiderzee.”

“Once upon a time there was a young boy named Sijmen who lived in one of the villages around the Zuiderzee”, she starts. “As fate would have it, he fell in love with a girl called Geeske, the daughter of one of the skippers of the village. Eventually, they decide to get married, but first Sijmen has to ask Geeske’s father for her hand in marriage.

“No, you can’t marry my daughter”, is the response. “You are much too poor. Only if you can give me one thousand guilders can you have her.”

Sijmen is a bit downcast at this, as 1000 guilders is an impossible sum for a poor fisherman’s son. So, as one might do in these circumstances, he jumps in his boat and goes fishing.

“Why are you looking so sad?”, says a voice suddenly.

He looks around. Who is talking to him our here in the middle of the sea? Then he spots a beautiful mermaid poking her head up out of the water. He tells her his story.

“Perhaps you made a mistake in counting how much money you have?”, she says.

“No chance”, he says. “I only have 200 guilders. I know, because I count it every night.”

“I still think you might have made a mistake”, says the beautiful mermaid. “Go and count it again.”

So Sijmen goes and counts his money again, and discovers that indeed he has 1000 guilders. Overjoyed he goes back to Geeske’s father and gives him the money and the couple get married. And from that time on, every time that Simjen goes out fishing, he looks for the mermaid to thank her. But he never sees her again.

The Zuiderzee mermaid (from Wikimedia Commons).

The storyteller looks at us and sips a glass of water. Did I just imagine a small tear in her eye?

“Rumour has it that she is still out there”, she says. “Many a fisherman since has seen her. But others say it is just the waves. Make of it what you will.”

We thank her for the story, and continue on. We pass kilns used to extract lime from seashells. Here and there, old fishermen chat to each other in the sunshine while mending their nets, a woman hangs out the washing.

Mending the nets.
Hanging out the washing.

The houses are tiny, yet this was where whole families lived together, and often worked together as well.

Living room in Zuiderzee house.

Real cows and sheep graze peacefully in the lush grass near the canal. A post office has scales for weighing letters and parcels, the carpenter uses his chisels to shape timbers for a boat, and wooden clogs are lined up neatly outside the school classroom.

Carpenter in Zuiderzee museum.
Clogs in the school cloakroom.

The church stands at the centre of the community as a place for people to come together. All relics of a bygone and simpler age.

We stop at the café for a coffee and cake.

“That was one of the best museums I have been in a while”, says the First Mate. “Life was certainly tougher then. But more sustainable. It’s a bit like my parents lived when they were young. I think what impressed me was the community spirit they all would have had – everyone helping each other. I wonder if it will ever revert to that kind of lifestyle again, or has it gone for good?”

A jackdaw alights on a chair nearby and eyes our piece of cake.

“It could come again”, I say. “We only have a high-powered lifestyle now because of cheap fossil fuels. Once they run out and we haven’t found any alternative energy sources, then we might have to accept a different way of living than we do now.”

Over the winter, I had read 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years by Jorgen Randers, one of the authors of the original Limits to Growth book back in the 1970s. I had read Limits to Growth back in my university days, and it had been a major influence ever since. In this 40-year update, Randers uses a mixture of real data, models and projections to hazard a guess at what life will be like over the next 40 years. Global population will keep increasing, but will slow down and peak at around 2040. We won’t run out of fossil fuels, but they will become increasingly expensive to extract, meaning that a greater proportion of our effort will have to be spent on doing that. Use of renewable energy will increase, but again, the cost of this will increase. But the biggest challenge will be climate change and its impacts – more and more effort will have to be spent on dealing with the damage it causes – rising sea levels, flood defences, lower food production and the like. Even though we know now about these impacts, we will be sluggish in doing anything about them, as the consultation and participation of our democratic political systems are just too slow to make the rapid, and sometimes unpopular, decisions necessary. For that reason, China will be the next world superpower and not the USA. The bottom line is that the global economy will change drastically – less money will be spent on consuming things we don’t really need as more and more will be spent on just keeping the world safe for us to live in.

“I am not sure if I would like that too much”, says the First Mate, trying to shoo the jackdaw away. “I am quite glad that we are living when we do. It worries me what our grandchildren will have to face.”

Jackdaw contemplating the future of the world.

It does all sound doom and gloom, but it might not be such a bad thing. Randers argues that consumer culture will be replaced by other things that give us longer term satisfaction and meaning in life, and that the focus on individual rights will give way to more cooperative behaviour where the common good is more important than personal pleasure. And the environment will benefit as a result. It’s a more upbeat perspective than Limits to Growth, emphasising societal change rather than collapse. But is it a change that we will choose, or is it one that will be forced on us?

We finish our cake and get up to leave. The jackdaw flies off with a disgusted look on its face. I am fairly sure it is because he didn’t get any cake, and not because of the topic of conversation. But I might be wrong.

On the way back to the boat, we call in at the keysmith.

“Here they are”, he says. “The bike lock key was easy, the boat one other more difficult, as there is no number or make on it. But I managed to find a blank that is close enough, so I think it should be OK. Give it a go.”

Getting new keys cut.

We cycle home. I decide to try the keys. The bike lock one works perfectly. The boat door key doesn’t fit at all. It’s too late to go back to the keysmith as he is closed, so we decide to do it first thing in the morning before we set off for Makkum.

In the morning, I jump on the bike and pedal around to the keysmith.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to do it”, he says. “It’s a really unusual key. You’ll probably need to get some blanks from the boat manufacturer, and get someone to cut out the pattern from the spares. It’s consumer culture. Sorry. Here’s your money back.”

Up until now, I had had no idea of the intricacies of key science. They had all looked the same to me.

Just before we leave, an email arrives to tell us that our sailing friends have made it safely back to Cornwall, but that other sailors they had met out there and who had decided to ride out the storm have had a terrible night of it, with several boats dragging their anchors, and one being dashed on the rocks. Enkhuisen seems benign in comparison.

Enkhuisen the morning after the storm.

Visiting family, and setting off at last

“I’m glad we went”, says the First Mate. “It was good to see them all again, after all the travel restrictions last year. And I am glad we found a solution to the gas problem.”

We are driving back from a few days in Germany to visit the First Mate’s family, particularly her mother, who has almost reached the impressive age of 88. We had hired a car in Hoorn and driven the two-and-half hours to her home town. We had decided to call the car Strawberry Custard because of its colour scheme. Choosing a car to advertise the rental company had been the latest in the First Mate’s efficiency measures.

Strawberry Custard, our rental car.

We had arrived just after lunch. The barbecue planned by the First Mate’s brother for the evening had unfortunately had to be cancelled as thunderstorms and heavy rain had been forecast. It didn’t really matter, as the time had been spent visiting various members of the family and other friends, making the most of the good weather in the following days by enjoying coffees, teas and ice-creams in the street cafes, catching up on the gossip, and, of course, shopping.

In particular, we were keen to solve our problem of a gas supply for the boat. We had discovered that despite the best efforts of the EU to standardise gas bottles and fittings, every country still had its own system, most of them incompatible with any of the others. The existing bottles on the boat were butane Calor Gas ones from the UK, and could not be filled for love or money on the Continent, mainly because it is illegal. We had found propane bottles in Germany, but of course the dimensions of the bottle were different, and foolishly I hadn’t measured the dimensions of the gas locker on the boat. We weren’t desperate yet as we still had one more bottle of Calor Gas left, so we decided that the best thing to do was to check the dimensions of the German bottle and our locker, and if compatible, to buy one later, along with the fittings, when we were in the German part of the Baltic. Assuming our current Calor Gas bottle lasts until then, of course.

Not easy to find a replacement.

We arrive back in Hoorn, unload all of our luggage, load one of the bikes into the boot, and take Strawberry Custard back to the rental company.

The next day we cycle into the town centre.

“I don’t think you are allowed to ride your bicycle down there”, says the First Mate, as I enter a narrow lane. “It’s only for pedestrians.”

I am not so sure. The sign says Fietsen toegelland buiten winkeltijd. I get out my phone and ask Mr Google to translate. He tells me it means “Cycling allowed outside shopping hours”.

To cycle or not to cycle, that is the question.

It’s a Sunday. Many of the shops are closed, but some are open. Is it ‘shopping hours’ or not? I hate uncertainty, but I do as I am told, and push the bike rather than riding it. I’ve found that it’s easier that way. To do as I am told, that is.

We sit down at a café to have lunch. We can see the statue of Jan Pieterzoon Coen, one of the Dutch Governors-General of the Dutch East Indies, in the Roode Steen square. We had learnt a bit about him when we had visited the Friesland Museum in October, but over the winter we had both read Nathaniel’s Nutmeg by Giles Milton on the history of the spice trade in the East Indies. Different times, different morals, of course, but by most measures Jan Coen was a nasty piece of work. A Calvinist with no sense of humour, he hated the English with a vengeance because they had killed a close friend of his, and was determined to gain control of the spice trade by conquering islands, subjugating the natives, and establishing Dutch colonies. Any Englishmen that he captured were whipped, had salt and vinegar rubbed into their wounds, and were put into cages and paraded around ports to show Dutch superiority. The Bandanese islanders fared even worse – their leaders were hung drawn and quartered, and the people dropped over cliffs into the sea, or shipped off to Jakarta and sold into slavery.

Jan Pieterzoon Coen – putting others in the shade?

“It’s unbelievable”, says the First Mate. “How could people be so cruel? And I thought they were supposed to be Christians. How do you think they reconciled their beliefs with what they were doing?”

“They probably just thought of them as a different category of human”, I philosophise. “Don’t you remember in the book that Coen said the Bandanese were an indolent people of whom little good can be expected. That probably justified in his mind the way that he treated them. Love one another, but only if they are the same as you – that kind of thing.”

“Not very ‘woke’”, says the First Mate. “It’s interesting that his statue is still standing – in the UK, there is pressure to remove the statues of people associated with the worst aspects of the British Empire. I wonder if it is the same here?”

She has a point – the statues of Edward Colston associated with the slave trade and Cecil Rhodes associated with subjugation of Africans are currently proving contentious in the UK. We read later that, in fact, there had been a large demonstration against the Jan Pieterzoon Coen statue in June 2020, but that the authorities had refused to remove it. Apparently many of the Dutch regard him as a national hero.

Another couple come and sit at the table next to us. The First Mate strikes up a conversation with them. They live in Hoorn, and are enjoying the fine weather by having lunch in the town before heading back to watch the Austrian F1 Grand Prix. The Dutchman Max Verstappen is a favourite to win.

“After the Netherlands was knocked out of the Euros by the Czech Republic, we need something else to cheer for”, says the man.

“We were just wondering if you are allowed to cycle in those little streets in that area over there”, says the First Mate, pointing to where we had just come from.

“No, definitely not”, the woman says. “Pedestrians only.”

“But what counts as ‘shopping hours’?”, I ask. “It’s Sunday today, and some of the shops are open even though most are not. How many shops have to be open in a street to count as ‘shopping hours’?”

“That’s a good question”, says our neighbour. “Do you know, I don’t really know. The owners can choose to open on Sunday or not. Shopping hours are definitely before 1800h during weekdays, but I must admit I don’t know what they would be on Sunday.”

I decide to play safe and push the bike through the narrow streets. I don’t really want to cause an international incident over cycling rights. It’s not such a big deal anyway. Either way is good exercise.

With Ruby Tuesday now ready to go, we decide to leave Hoorn around 0900h the next morning. It’s about 13 NM up the coast to Enkhuisen, just a nice distance to get us back into the way of sailing after about eight months. It’s a bit overcast, but the wind is good. I look back as we motor out of the harbour entrance, and feel a tinge of sadness to be going. We had both enjoyed Hoorn, and had got to know it well – its narrow streets, picturesque houses, beautiful harbour, and friendly and helpful marina staff – in the weeks that we had been there. Not quite like home, but somewhere familiar nevertheless.

Leaving Hoorn.

We cut the engine and hoist the sails. Ruby Tuesday surges forward like a bird who has just regained its freedom after being imprisoned for a period and wants to test its wings again. The First Mate takes the helm. She is keen to get more practice on helming and getting the feel of the sails and the wind.

The First Mate in control.

The first hour the wind is from the SW and we are on a beam reach, giving us an effortless stretch. I am always a bit nervous on the first sail of the season – have we forgotten to do something, is something seized up after a long period of inactivity? Weed around the propeller or rudder? Growth blocking up the log paddle wheel? But everything seems to be working fine. I begin to breathe easier.

We reach Kraaienburg, and turn to the NE. This is not so easy – with the wind more-or-less directly behind us now, we need to take care that we don’t gybe. We decide to furl the mainsail and use the genoa only to avoid this. There is still enough power in the wind to push us along at 5 knots, and we are not in a hurry.

Making good progress with the genoa only.

Eventually we reach the Krabbergat Naviduct on the Houtribdijk, the 27-kilometre dam that divides the Markermeer and the Ijsselmeer. Here the road goes under a canal constructed for boats moving between the two bodies of water. Apparently this used to be a real bottleneck for both road traffic and shipping when there used to be a only a single lifting bridge as only one or the other could pass at any one time. Now the traffic can flow through unimpeded underneath while the boats sail through overhead.

Traffic passing underneath the Krabbergat Naviduct.

“That’s clever”, says the First Mate. “It reminds me of that viaduct we crossed on the Forth and Clyde Canal in our little boat with the motorway going underneath.”

She’s right. We had taken our small boat from the centre of Edinburgh to the centre of Glasgow along the Forth and Clyde Canal a few years ago, at the same time as the infamous EU Referendum in 2016. We had crossed the Edinburgh City Bypass on the Scott Russell Aquaduct and looked through at the traffic zooming past underneath.

We arrive in Enkhuizen around 1300h, and enter the town harbour. We had heard that it gets busy here, and that sometimes 20 boats have been rafted up next to each other. We are not all that keen on that as it means clambering over other boats to get to shore, and also probably means that we won’t have power. By chance another boat is leaving from the small number of box berths at the end of the harbour, so we quickly nab that one. It’s perfect – no one else can raft up to it, it has its own power supply, and it is a five minute walk to the town centre. What more could one wish for?

We find a good berth in Enkhuisen harbour.

The owner of the boat in the next box-berth gives us a hand tying up.

“Have you been here for a while?”, says the First Mate, noticing the two folding bikes next to the boat.

“Most of the summer”, he tells her. “We live in Amsterdam, but my wife is working in Enkhuizen at the moment, so we decided to come up here with the boat and stay here. I am working remotely.”

It’s not the first time we have heard something similar. We had met a couple in Hoorn marina who lived in a small poky flat in Amsterdam, and were glad to get out if it in the summer and come somewhere nice in their boat. I can’t say that I blame them.

He shows us how the electric power system operates. We need to purchase a card with credit on it, then place it against a reader, and push a button next to our socket. The First Mate presses the button.

The First Mate getting to grips with the power supply.

“Ah, it’s nice to have power again”, she says.

The power goes off about an hour later.

“Perhaps we have a dud socket”, I say.

We plug into a different socket and press its button. This time it lasts a couple of hours before stopping.

It eventually dawns on us that each button push gives us 1 kWh of electricity, and that we need to push the button a few times to get enough for the day. I calculate that we are using about 4 kWh per day. At home we use about 20 kWh per day. I push the button four times.

We are feeling peckish and find a place serving food overlooking the harbour. As we munch our kibbelings (fried chunks of fish) dipped in garlic sauce, we watch the boats coming in after us, circling around the harbour looking for free spots, and eventually rafting up to another boat of similar size. We feel slightly smug that we managed to bag the last of the box berths, and that we have power and water and no pesky neighbours. It’s the same feeling you get when you have got up early and put your towel on the best sun-lounger on the beach. Not that I do that, of course. In the distance, the sun catches the green onion-shaped spire of the church, and its glockenspiel starts to play a cheerful tune announcing the top of the hour. All is good with the world.

“Look out for those dohlen” says the First Mate suddenly. “They are pretty cheeky, and will steal anything shiny when you are not looking.”

She is referring to the flock of jackdaws have descended on our eatery and are perched on empty chairs, eyeing our food like vultures. The people at the next table pay and leave, and the jackdaws converge on their table, pecking at any food that is left. In nature, little goes to waste.

Jackdaw waiting for the leftovers.

That evening, we hear on the news that Johnson is dispensing of all COVID regulations in the UK on July 16th, despite the number of infections by the Delta variant still shooting up meteorically. The idea is that the country just has to learn to live with the virus. It this wise, we wonder? Will it translate through into more and more admissions into hospital, intensive care, and eventually deaths? Perhaps the vaccine roll out will stop this happening, who knows? But we feel glad that we are in Europe, and are onlookers in this massive public health experiment rather than part of it.

Gambling with people’s lives?

Tests, tests and more tests!

“Well, that wasn’t too bad”, the First Mate says, helping herself to some more salad. “Getting all those tests was a bit of a palaver, but at least it paid off once we arrived in Holland. Now it feels like we are back home again.”

We are sitting in the cockpit of Ruby Tuesday having dinner watching the sun go down behind the trees. With all the snacking we had during the day, it’s more of a light meal than dinner. I help myself to another slice of bread and some cheese. Two crested grebes and their young ones are swimming at the back of the boat, hoping for some titbits. The First Mate throws them a couple of small chunks of bread and we watch them fight over them excitedly.

Crested grebes coming to see us.

She is right – it hadn’t gone too badly. We had left home in the morning for the airport armed with our vaccination certificates certifying that we had had our two vaccinations, the certificate of the PCR test we had had the day before, the quarantine declaration form, and the health declaration form. I was starting to think that we would need a separate suitcase just to hold the paperwork necessary for travelling in a covid19 world. And we still had to have the Rapid Antigen test an hour or so before boarding and get the certificate for that too.

Just about to have our Rapid Antigen test.

Luckily, that too had turned out negative. Eventually we had boarded the plane and managed to get seats together, a change from the last time travelling in the opposite direction. The flight itself was uneventful, and the effects of the early start we had had caught up with me.

I am lying in the dentist’s chair staring up at the TV screen mounted on the roof. An old rerun of Neighbours is on. I am not really interested in it, but it does divert me from the pulling and pushing and twisting that is going on in my mouth.

“It’s looking really good”, says the dentist, looking down at me though his full face mask. “The implant screw has taken, and the bone and gum is looking really healthy. All I have to do now is take this little pin out and we are done for the day. Then next time you come, I’ll put in the implant itself.”

He takes a pair of tweezers and what I assume is the dental equivalent of a screwdriver, and twists it.

“Ah, there it is”, he says. “Ooops …..”.

I feel something drop on to the back of my tongue, and try to block it by pressing my tongue against the back of my throat, but it is too late. I can feel it slithering down, and cough vigorously, but it’s gone.

“I am so sorry”, says the dentist. “The little pin popped out of the tweezers, and I think it’s gone down your throat.”

“It has definitely gone down”, I say. “What does that mean?”

“It shouldn’t do any harm”, he says. “It’s made of titanium. In 99% of the cases, it will go straight through.”

“What about the other 1%?”, I ask.

“There is a small chance that it could go down in your lungs and cause inflammation and lots of mucus. So it’s probably best to get a chest x-ray just in case, and to be sure one way or another.”

I think that he is more worried than he is letting on. I hadn’t really expected this as part of my tooth implant treatment, but accidents happen, I suppose. I arrange a chest x-ray a few days later. It shows nothing in my lungs.

“It must have gone right through you”, says the First Mate. The thought makes me feel queasy, and I try not to think about it.

The dentist looks relieved the next time I see him. “That’s good news. It must have gone right through you”, he says.

“That’s what the First Mate said”, I say. He looks at me quizzically, then knowingly. I have already told him about our sailing project.

A sharp jab in the ribs from the First Mate’s elbow awakes from my reverie.

“You dozed off. What were you dreaming about?”, she says. “You had a smile on your face.”

“I was just remembering the experience over the winter with the dentist and the little pin”, I respond.

“I hope it’s not still in you”, she says. “It might set off the x-ray scanners, and they won’t let us in.”

There is an announcement by the air hostess telling the crew to take their seats and prepare for landing. We fold our tray tables away and put the rucksacks under the seats in front of us.

This was the first time that we had entered Europe since the UK had left the EU. Having heard all sorts of stories about ham sandwiches and the like being confiscated by Dutch customs, we had made sure we had were carrying no food or other contentious items. We needn’t have worried – we were waved through immigration after presentation of our test results, collected our luggage, breezed through customs, and entered Europe! Nothing seemed to have changed, and yet everything had changed – we were no longer EU citizens with the right to roam anywhere within its borders. We were foreigners now. Well, I was anyway – the First Mate still has her German passport.

And we are lucky that she does. Because of the coronavirus, entry to the Netherlands and many other European countries is still banned to non-EU and non-EEA citizens, which now includes all Brits, particularly now that the Delta variant of covid19 is spreading like wildfire through the UK. However, exemptions are made for EU citizens and their spouses, hence us being allowed to enter.

We catch the next train directly to Hoorn. On the way, we can’t help overhearing a telephone conversation of the man on the other side of the aisle. He is speaking with an English accent.

“Yes, I just arrived at Schiphol about an hour ago”, he says. “No, I didn’t have much trouble at immigration and customs – just waved me through. Yes, they did ask to see the PCR and lateral flow test results. No, they didn’t search my bags.”

His experience is similar to ours. When he has finished, I lean over and ask him where is going.

“I have a boat in Greece”, he says. “I am visiting friends in Hoorn for a few days, then heading off out there. But this whole Brexit thing has just made it so much more difficult. It must go down in history as the biggest own goal a country could score. And all for what? I ask you, what good has come out of it so far, or ever will? A couple of piffling trade deals with Norway and Australia that has our fishermen and farmers up in arms? British influence diminished, delusions of grandeur with new royal yachts being built – we are the laughing stock of the world. Pah!”

He sniffs derisively. I try to work out whether he would have voted for Leave or Remain in the referendum. It’s a tricky one.

Arriving in Hoorn.

We reach the marina, and there is dear old Ruby Tuesday just as we left her. Our home once again for the next few months. She is in good shape, a bit grubby from the winter elements, but nothing a good scrub won’t clean up. And then! We are greeted by Rameses and Nefertiti, the two Egyptian geese we had met last year. Except there weren’t two of them, there were three, a new addition to the family since we had seen them last. They seem to have forgotten about the mat episode, or, if they haven’t, are too polite to mention it.

Our Egyptian Geese, Rameses, Nefertiti and offspring – pining for the Pyramids?

And on the boat itself, who should be waiting but Spencer himself! I was secretly hoping he would be still there, as I had enjoyed our conversations last year, but wasn’t sure if he would have survived the winter or not.

“It’s good to see you again”, I say. “And I have got something to tell you. But not now. When there is more time.”

Spencer comes out to welcome us back.

We spend the next five days in quarantine. The rules are that we must quarantine for ten days, but that we can have another PCR test after five days, and if negative, we can finish our quarantine there and then. I ring up the Public Health Service (the Gemeentelijke Gezondheidsdienst, or GGD) and book a slot for us both. The COVID Testing Centre is about 20 minutes cycle ride from where we are.

On day 2, the Ministry of Health ring us to check that we are quarantining. They have received our details from the airline. We tell them that we are on a boat and will stay there until the five-day test. They are happy with that, and run through the quarantine rules with us. All very friendly.

Time flies by. We have enough food on the boat from last year – tins and dried food – to last us. The rest of the time is spent on all the boaty jobs that require doing to de-winterise. First, up goes the bimini and canopy, so that we have something to shelter in when it rains, and to sit under when the sun is too strong. Next the water tanks – flushing them though, then filling with fresh water for us to drink and wash. Then the sails – the genoa and the mainsail. Next is servicing the winches – ensuring the cogs are greased and the pawls oiled. They turn with a satisfying metallic click-click-click. That should keep them going for another year. Finally the engine – a new water impeller, checking and topping up the oil, and tightening the water pump belt.

Servicing the winches – will they ever work again?

On day 5, we jump on the bicycles and head off to the covid testing centre. It looks like an aircraft hangar plonked in the middle of a field.

The covid19 testing centre in Hoorn.

Inside the shed are little tents set up with chairs outside each one. We are told to take the bikes with us and prop them up next to the tent. I am selected to go first, and sit down in one of the chairs. A nurse takes a swab and pushes it to the back of my nose, so far that I am surprised the First Mate doesn’t notice it coming out the back of my head. My eyes water. I am glad when the nurse pulls it out again. I go to get up.

“Good”, she says. “Now the other nostril.”

She either misses, or chooses to ignore, the look of terror on my face.

“That was more uncomfortable than the one back in the UK”, the First Mate says on the cycle back. “I hope it is worth it.”

We have to wait up to 48 hours for the results, so we continue with the boaty jobs.

The next day I hear a call from the First Mate. She is standing next to the bikes propped up against a tree, with an embarrassed look on her face.

“Can you come and help me? I seem to have lost my glasses. I think they fell down a hole near the tree.”

It is about five metres from where she dropped the mat into the water last year. A thought briefly crosses my mind that perhaps there is some kind of gravitational anomaly in the vicinity that targets women of a certain age and makes them drop things.

Where are those glasses?

I peer down the hole next to the tree, using the torch on my phone to provide light. It is some kind of corrugated tubing that presumably is used to water the tree, making sure that the water reaches the soil layers where the roots are growing. At the bottom of the hole, a small beetle stares back at me transfixed as though he has been caught doing something he shouldn’t have been.

“Sorry, buddy”, I say. “I don’t mean to disturb you, but I am looking for a pair of glasses that might have dropped down here. I don’t suppose you have seen them?”

The beetle looks trance-like around the bottom of the hole and back to me again.

“No”, I say. “Nor can I. I suppose they must be somewhere else. Have a good day.”

“Are you sure you dropped them here?”, I ask the First Mate.

“Not really”, she says. “It might have been back there along that path that I was walking along. Or even in town. I am not sure.”

We walk along the path for a bit, but there is no sign of the glasses.

“Never mind”, says the First Mate. “I have another pair on the boat. I can wear those.”

“Here, let me guide you. Old ladies can easily bump into things without their glasses”, I say.

“Get away with you”, she says, crossly. “I am not that old yet. I’ll let you know when I need guiding.”

In the evening, we sit at one of the bars along the inner harbour quay enjoying the warmth of the evening sun, and admiring the sailing boats tied up next to us. The one in front of us has a German flag, and a woman lounging in the cockpit with a drink, speaking into her mobile phone. I get the impression that she is enjoying the admiring glances coming from the bar patrons, whether they be for her or the boat.

Enjoying the evening sun in Hoorn Inner Harbour.

“Well, that’s good news”, says the First Mate, picking at the snacks.

We had received a telephone call in the afternoon from the Public Health Service informing us that the PCR tests that we had had the day before are both negative. That means that we are allowed to end our quarantine and can move freely around the Netherlands as any other European. The drinks we have ordered are a kind of celebration.

“Yes, it is”, I agree, sipping my Weizen beer. “But we still have to follow the rules of social distancing, washing hands, wearing masks, and all the other rules that we have been following for the last year. But at least we are not confined to the boat anymore.”

We sit in silence and soak in the beauty of the surroundings – the old ships in the harbour, the old merchant’s houses beyond, the old harbour office at the entrance. I try to imagine what it would have been like in the days of the Dutch East India Company.

Eventually, the sun goes down and it starts to get cold. We pay the bill and walk home.

“Oooh, look”, says the First Mate. “There are my glasses, hanging on the spokes of your bike. I knew I had dropped them somewhere around here.”

Finding the First Mate’s glasses.

A fitting end to the day. I wonder momentarily if the beetle in the hole has got over his traumatic experience yet.

A Golden Age, and leaving for the winter

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

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

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

Approaching Hoorn.

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

Traditional fishing boat with lee-board.

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

Safely tied up for the winter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A taste of home?

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

Only local spiders allowed!

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

The main harbour in Hoorn.

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

Hoorn harbour, with the Hoofdtoren on the left.

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

Keeping Hoorn safe.

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

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

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

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

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

Ramses and Nefertari, two Egyptian geese.

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

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

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

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

Turtle from the South Seas.

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

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

Heads of the six VOC Chambers.

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

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

One of the rooms in the Westfries Museum.

One room is the kitchen where the beer is kept.

Beer kegs.

Afterwards we find a café and order coffees.

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

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

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

Sacks of spices.

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

Representation of the dark side of Dutch trade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filling up with fuel.

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

We check everything for the last time.

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

Moments later there is a splash and a plaintive call.

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

Ramses and Nefertari take off in fright. They seem to be heading in the direction of Egypt.

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

The First Mate saves the mat from a watery death.

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

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

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

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

We explain our predicament.

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

We load our luggage into the boot and climb in. Just as we reach the end of the street, we see the taxi coming, 25 minutes late. We pretend not to notice it. In the rear-view mirror I can just see the taxi-driver climbing out of his car, looking perplexed. Overhead I spot Ramses and Nefertari returning to the peace and quiet we’ve left. See you both next year, I say to myself.

An intruder, authoritarian populism, and sailing again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are joined by a barge to make a convoy.

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

Through the rail and road bridges one after the other.

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

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

Out of ideas?

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

The Grote Sluis at Spaarndam.

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

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

The barge takes our place.

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

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

Leaving the Grote Sluis at Spaarndam.

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

Turning into the Noordzeekanaal.

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

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

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

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

Spencer pontificates on the Enlightenment.

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

“What do you mean?”, I ask.

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

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

Overtaken by a sand barge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A water taxi passes us.

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

We pass the Central Station in Amsterdam.

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

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

Entrance to the Oranjesluizen.

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

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

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

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

Ruby Tuesday tied up in Volendam marina.

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

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

“Well, what is it?”, I ask.

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

She climbs back on again.

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

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

The First Mate perfects her bow climbing technique.

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

Staying safe.

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

Volendam.

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

Topping up our supplies.

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

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

Tree trimming, enlightenment and groupthink

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

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

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

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

Trimming the trees on the river bank.

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

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

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

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

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

Boats in Kaag Lakes.

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

We head in that direction. Suddenly Ruby Tuesday stops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heading in the right direction, at least …

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

Enjoying the sun and water.
Green fingers?

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

Controlling the bridges.

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

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

The simple ways are the best ways.

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

Having fun.
Reaching the city centre.

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

Ruby Tuesday at her riverside mooring.

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

Our land-based neighbours.

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

Heavy traffic on the river.

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

The Grote Kerk, Haarlem.

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

Wheelbarrow bikes.

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

De Adriaan’s windmill, Haarlem.

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

Taking to the water of an evening.

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

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

Ichthyosaurus quadriscissus.

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

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

Beautifully crafted telescope.

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

Sound transmitter.

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

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

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

‘Bringing in the catch’, by Philip Sadee.

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

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

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

There is a pause.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No more use.

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

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

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

A barge enters the commercial lock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We reach the railway bridge just in time.

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

Houses at the side of the river.

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

Sheep grazing in fields.

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

Road next to the river.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hooglandse Kerk, Leiden.

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

Narrow street in Leiden.

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

Marekirk, Leiden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her voice sounds different yet familiar…

Ada de Holland.

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

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

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

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

Canal in Leiden.

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

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

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

Catching up with Marianne and Anne.

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

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

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

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

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

Courtyard in St Anna’s Alms-house.

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

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

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

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

Noah’s Ark, cheese and liveaboards

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

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

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

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

A water-bus passes us at speed.

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

Johan’s Ark near Rotterdam.

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

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

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

Spencer expounding on flood myths.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaving the Noord river and entering the Hollandse IJssel.

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

Windmill on the Hollandse IJssel.

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

A boat for every household (almost).

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

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

“Ha, ha”, she says.

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

Working out how to get a lifting bridge to lift …

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stadhuis in Gouda.

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

Slightly overgrown canal in Gouda.

A mural captures the terrors of a storm at sea.

Storm at sea: mural in Gouda.

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

Shopping street in Gouda.

“Mmmm, they look tasty”, I say.

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

Where would I be without her?

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

Gouda cheese shop.

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

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

Our mooring place in Gouda.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two tight fits

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

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

Approaching the Volkeraksluitzen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We make it underneath the bridge and into the lock …

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

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

… and out the other side.

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

Sailing along Hollands Diep.

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

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

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

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

The entrance to Maartensgat marina in Dordrecht.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grote Kerk, Dordrecht.

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

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

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

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

Canal in Dordrecht.

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

Mural of city dignitaries. Look for it!

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

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

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

Enjoying our soup and roll.

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

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

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

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

There’s a lot to unpick there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catching up with Harry and Beate.

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

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

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

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