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

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

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

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

Sailing up the Elbe with just the genoa.

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

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

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

Safely ensconced for the night at Brunsbüttal.

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

Big ships passing through the Brunsbüttal lock.

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

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

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

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

A ferry crosses in front of us.

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

The Rendsburg railway bridge.

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

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

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

Safely tied up for the night in Rendsburg.

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

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

The Marienkirche, Rendsburg.

The Old Town Hall dates from the 16th century.

The Old Town Hall.

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

The Market Square, Rendsburg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The escalator down to the tunnel.

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

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

The pedestrian tunnel under the Kiel Canal.

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

Volkmar joins us in Rendsburg.

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

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

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

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

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

“Coffee, please”, says Volkmar, pausing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We enter the Baltic Sea!

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

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

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

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

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

Getting the bikes fixed.

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

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

Tucking into our pizzas.

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


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

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


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

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

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

Sunset over Kielder Förde.

A Scottish king, lost soap, and visiting relatives

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

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

Somewhere between Norderney and Cuxhaven.

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

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

Spencer looking for a chat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passing anchored container ships.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Police boat on the look out.

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

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

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

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

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

Massive container ships dwarf us.

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

Sleepy seals welcome us to Cuxhaven Yacht Club marina.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Alte Liebe in Cuxhaven.

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

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

The Semaphore indicating wind conditions in Borkum and Heligoland.

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

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

Christo work of art?

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

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

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

No wonder I didn’t spot him.

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

Schloss Ritzebuettal.

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

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

The Kugelbake (Ball Beacon), Cuxhaven.

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

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

“Do you fancy a ride?”, he says.

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

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

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

Setting off on a motorbike ride.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peeling the krabben.

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

Dinner cooking on the open fire.

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

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

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

Dummer junge”, she says.

Exploring two islands and meeting some Frisians

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

Leaving Terschelling harbour at sunrise.

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

Fair winds for Borkum.

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

Arriving in Borkum harbour.

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

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

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

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

Upside down Q-flag?

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

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

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

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

Enjoying the beach whatever the weather.

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

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

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

“Ah, but they do”, she retorts.

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

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

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

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

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

The cycle path along the northern beaches, Borkum.

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

The First Mate enjoying a woodland cycle.

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

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

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

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

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

Cycling along the southern dyke.

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

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

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

I manage to get through to him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oyster-catcher territory?

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

The ConversationHaus, Norderney.

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

Mature dunes in the centre of Norderney island.

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

The lighthouse in the centre of Norderney.

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

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

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

A small plane takes off from Norderney airport.

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

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

Parachutists coming in to land.

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

She looks at me strangely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planes of the rich and famous?

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

They proudly tell us something of the history of Frisia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frisia – not just about cows!

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

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

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

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

Hostile intentions?

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

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

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

In the procession to Terschelling island.

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

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

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

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

Rafted up in West Terschelling marina.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Mate returns from her shopping expedition.

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

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

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

Sheltering behind the windscreen from the sand.

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

Looking over the Boschplaat.

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

Mowing the grass on the polders, Terschelling.

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

A cormorant dries its wings.

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

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

Wadden Sea stone-turners.

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

Boat resting on the Wadden seabed.

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

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

The First Mate treats herself to a cranberry pancake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A declining presence in European waters?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I crack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not worth losing teeth over.

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.


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.”