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Sunday, 29 May 2016

Sneek - Norderney, Germany (29 May 2016)

We returned to Sneek very efficiently on Tuesday 24 May having flown from Southampton to Amsterdam and then onwards by the very effective Dutch railways.
We had taken the precaution of checking, through a Dutch Cruising Association colleague, that the first bridge at Leeuwarden was now back in operation. Thankfully it was and we negotiated the many bridges, including another one undergoing works. This was a railway bridge and the helpful Bridge Master said that he would have to contact the station to see when he could open. It also transpired that the construction work had to stop as the bridge swung so we also had the bridge workers waving us through! There are quite a few bridges in Leeuwarden but we passed through that very attractive city in about a couple of hours.

Leeuwarden's leaning tower
After leaving Leeuwarden the canal became very rural with reeds at each side and little traffic. But there were still bridges. Usually bridge or lock openings are free. But in some Frisian towns it is customary to pay Brug Geld, a fee for the bridge. Often this involves putting the appropriate money into a wooden clog which is dangled from the Bridge Master's window on a long pole as you pass; so a speedy deposit is required!

Brug Geld payable so Andrea stands ready to grab the clog as we slowly pass
Having made reasonable progress (in canal travel terms) we were contemplating mooring for the night in Dokkum, an attractive Frisian town. However we opted instead to moor at one of the occasional pontoons provided on the canal side in the middle of open country. These pontoons are designed to allow up to three medium size (10m) boats to tie up. The maximum stay is 24 hours and there are no facilities; but also no charge. The one we choose was only about 4km from Dokkum so out came our folding bicycles and we headed along the nearby cycle path to town.
The casual mooring in the middle of open country
Dokkum is built on a mound so most unusually for the Netherlands has sloping streets! On the five points of the mound there were originally defensive forts but in the nineteenth century three of these were replaced by windmills which still stand today. It also has attractive historic buildings and a network of canals, the main ones being wide and attractively landscaped. Although now inland it was once a flourishing port.
On board Whileaway it was a very quiet evening. Until we cast off the following morning no one passed on the canal or the footpath and being in the middle of fields we were surrounded by bird life. We particularly enjoyed the black tailed godwits with their noisy call and rapid flight. At least one pair had a young chick which they seemed to be teaching to fly. Amazingly they weren't scared of us and walked within feet of Andrea as she stood on the path. A lovely tranquil evening and an enjoyable way to start the next day. We planned a shorter travelling day on Thursday and there were many fewer bridges. We began by passing through Dokkum.
Canals surround the mound on which the old town of Dokkum stands

After a few bridges in small towns we then passed through a lock and into the Vaarwater naar Oostmahorn, a wide estuary cut off from the Waddenzee by a large dam. We continued heading east along the scenic river or canal with fields of highland cattle at the waters edge. They are grazed here as the ground is rough and (presumably) wet and they can cope with such conditions and stay out throughout the year.

Highland cattle, some taking a dip!

By lunch time we were at Zoutkamp, tied up alongside in the Binnehaven (the old harbour).
Zoutkamp was established as a fortress by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century and was then taken over by the French. It has a strong industrial and fishing past and boasts a fishing museum.
After finding the Harbour Master (Owner/Manager of the bar/restaurant at the head of the harbour) we explored the small town and had a fish plate for dinner at a local restaurant where the owner was interested to know where we had been and why we were in Zoutkamp. 
In the Binnehaven at Zoutkamp
Our plan was to move on about 20nm to Gronigen the next day. However we decided that if we made an early start we might be able to make Delfzijl. We had of course already spent time in Gronigen delivering and then reclaiming our car after the problem with the bridge at Leuwarden hampered progress somewhat. It is an attractive city but having spent many hours there we decided that we would see if we could make Delfzijl. To do so would mean us getting through more bridges than we had ever achieved in a day, many of them in Gronigen and its environs. Just after 0745 we slipped our mooring and moved out of the Binnehaven to join two other boats that had just come through the Zoutkamp bridge. 
Typical village or small town lifting bridge

At the first bridge we were to be joined by another boat and that and one of those from under the bridge stayed with us throughout the day. We passed through a succession of bridges and by soon after 1100 we were on the far outskirts of Gronigen and into a truly horrible lock. Unusually there was a significant change in the water level and as it rushed in the boats were buffeted. We lost a steel plate that covers the rubbing strake with a plop as we were bounced against the lock wall. Grin and bear it! Onwards to begin tackling one bridge after another. One held us up a little longer than others but it was a railway bridge!

Through the centre of Gronigen
We got to about bridge five or six where we had to wait. Then the Bridge Master appeared on his bike. In the Netherlands towns Bridge Masters sometimes cover two or perhaps three bridges, cycling between them to open them. So sometimes you are let through one but then have to wait for the Bridge Master to cycle by you to open the next bridge. The Bridge Master duly opened the bridge and let two oncoming craft through. He then promptly shut the bridge and peddled off – it was just after noon and all the bridges shut for lunch from 1200 to 1300!

We can see the Bridge Master hurriedly cycling from one bridge to the next!
Soon after 1300 we were permitted to continue and by about 1430 we were leaving the last of the Gronigen bridges behind and heading the 15m to Delfzijl.
We enjoyed travelling right through the centre of busy Gronigen especially the squeaks of the University students and others as Bridge Masters tried to close the barriers on the many cyclists and pedestrians seeking to cross to allow the bridge to be lifted.
We finally got to Delfzjil (now with six boats in company) at around 1700. We had all opted to moor in the sea side of the harbour so had to go through the lock and we were now mixing with big sea going ships and barges. Fortunately Pieter and Reita on Watervogel who had been with us since soon after Zoutkamp were in contact with the Lock Keeper and we had instructions as to where to wait.
We were moored in Delfzijl at 1750 after 10 hours motoring, having completed just 34nm but set a record for us of having had 31 bridges lifted as well as the 2 locks.
That evening I exchanged passage plans with Pieter as he too was heading for Norderney through the wattfahrwassern, the drying channels between the mainland and the islands. Originally all this area was land but at some time the sea flooded the area creating the low lying islands.
On a sunny Saturday morning with a light NNE wind we left Delfzjil in company with Watervogel heading for the German island of Norderney. As at times we are using shallow (some drying) channels between the islands and the mainland with very careful pilotage is required so that you do not run aground. This route also requires anchoring for 2 hours in deeper water south west of another island, Borkrum, to wait for the tide to turn as we have to get over a drying patch. When  Watervogel anchored and was going astern to dig the anchor in the gearbox cable broke and thus the engine couldn't be got out of reverse gear! So after discussion of all the options (and having switched off the engine) we offered to tow Watervogel slowly back the 15nm to Delfzjil. Repairs were carried out after the weekend. 

Towing Watervogel back to Delfzijl
We set off again the following morning in less favourable conditions. We again anchored at bouy 39 until 1345. The wind was then F5, around 20kn, much more than the forecast F4. A German boat Ciao Mare came past just as were raising the anchor. So we followed her. We had just 0.1m (4 inches) minimum clearance on the first drying patch. Then a little way past we were in the middle of a deeper channel just behind and parallel to Ciao Mare and we both hit a sandbank not marked on the charts. We were both aground for 20 to 25 minutes in F5/F6. In the choppy conditions we bounced a bit so it was not a nice experience. But we both struggled off and found the deeper water again. At this point we were also fighting the tide and the wind on the nose which slowed us down so we were a little late at the next drying patch where we have to follow a narrow channel marked only by withies (tree sapplings) on one side. The minimum there was 0.4m luxury of 15 inches under the keel. Half way along the 2nm of withies we had to avoid a fishing boat then a car ferry coming the other way! We were very surprised that they were also using this very narrow channel as we passed close by. Eventually we arrived in Norderney at 1830 by which time the wind had dropped to F4. Once we had passed the withies and were on the last 5nm stretch to Norderney the German skipper of Ciao Mare called on the VHF to  invite us to his boat for a drink later to help steady all our nerves! He later told us that he had travelled this passage three or four times and this was the first time he had run aground. Exchanging notes and looking at the paper and electronic charts it is clear that we were in a buoyed channel when we ran aground!
A restful day in Norderney was now planned!

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Amsterdam - Sneek (3 May 2016)

Off again on a new season of cruising!

On 19 April we took the overnight ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland and by just before 10 am were at Orange Nautical services where Whileaway had been stored for the winter. On Wednesday we completed the last few winter jobs; on Thursday she was craned back into the water; and on Friday morning the mast was stepped. These few words summarise three hectic days work as we put various pieces of Whileaway back together again! There were a few last minute snags, but fortunately all were overcome. Helpfully we enjoyed sunny and dry, if a little chilly, weather. But that was to change.
Whileaway dangling mid air!
On Saturday 23 April at 0830 we cast off with the aim of a long passage to Lemmer on the east coast of the Ijsselmeer. With a fair wind we would be there by around 1800. There was a brisk breeze as we motored through central Amsterdam but we made good time to the Orangesluizen, the lock built in 1882 at the eastern end of the canal which admits you to the Markermeer. After just a brief wait for the lock to open and then what seemed a negligible fall in water level we were out and heading a very short distance to the Schellingwouderbrug. We have been under this busy lifting road bridge a few times and know that, apart from in rush hours, it opens every 20 minutes.At 1030 then, only 10 minutes to wait. A couple of other boats were waiting too and when at around 1045 a Dutch boat turned around and passed us he shouted across that it wasn't opening until 1500! We returned to the waiting pontoon at the lock and, in company with a crew on a German boat, headed towards the lock keepers look out. There we were told that the bridge had a mechanical defect that had caused it to break down. Temporary repairs had been made but until a permanent replacement part arrived they were limiting lifts to three times a day! That was the end of our plans to make Lemmer that day! We did though have a wander through the immediate vicinity and take lunch at a very impressive Garden Centre!
Schellingwouderbrug firmly closed!
By 1500 a flotilla had gathered and the bridge duly opened to let the many waiting boats flow both ways. By now the weather had, of course, deteriorated and so we ended up motoring into an increasingly gusty NW wind (soon on the nose) towards our revised destination of Enkhuizen on the west coast of the Ijsselmeer. Initially the wind was around 20kn and the sea just choppy, but by the time we were passing Marken (about half way to our destination) we were getting prolonged gusts of 26-29kn (F6/7) and significant waves which we were ploughing our way through. All this slowed us considerably and at a couple of stages I was weighing up the merits of diverting to Hoorn or running back to Monnickendam, both of which we had visited in 2015. But the wind (and more importantly the sea state) did eventually ease and we eventually made it, in company with four other yachts, into the lock between the Markermeer and the Ijsselmeer at Enkhuizen. On into the harbour to raft up against a startled Dutchman at nearly 2100, so somewhat later than planned. Fortunately we had only visited this attractive and interesting town last autumn so all we needed was a restful night.
At 0800 on Sunday morning we were off again for our trip NE across the Ijsselmeer to Lemmer. This time just around 16nm and as we started with a light breeze of 10kn and sunshine (although cold), who wouldn't be looking forward to that? Within the first 20 minutes the first of a succession of black clouds began to pass over us bringing with it winds of 25+kn and rough waves. This pattern continued for the next three hours with winds bringing sustained gusts of 30kn and regular substantial bursts of hailstones. During one heavy spell, the wind indicator lost control of it senses and began gyrating madly around the 360 degrees and recording winds of 0-50kn! Of course it was now malfunctioning so I made a note to tackle a repair as soon as practicable. Consequently we were very pleased to see Lemmer and pass through the lock and into our last canal network in the Netherlands on the Standing Mast route.
Lunch time stop in Lemmer town centre
Lemmer is a very attractive town where the canal passes right through the town centre. We took advantage of “High Street” moorings to tie up, have a quick walk round between showers, and then have lunch.

But then we were off again, into the same changeable conditions but including strong wind gusts, black skies and horizontal hail stones before getting to Sneek (pronounced “Snake”) where we were pleased to tie up after two tough days. On Monday morning we explored Sneek, another one of those very attractive Dutch towns with fine buildings and attractive canal sides throughout the town.
Stad Huis (Town Hall) in Sneek

Waterpoort, old guardhouse,in Sneek
However the wind was very cold so we were pleased at lunchtime to begin a journey back to England for the funeral of a dearly loved Aunt. This involved a train journey (using three trains, all on time) to Amsterdam Central; a bus to the Orange Nautical Services yard on the other side of the central canal where Whileaway had been relaunched a few days earlier to collect the car and then a drive to the ferry at the Hook of Holland.

The funeral was at Colchester so we took the overnight ferry to Harwich on successive days returning to Whileaway on Wednesday 27 April. The weather had not improved, it was still very cold with temperatures dipping to 3 or 4C at night and only reaching 8C during the day. On our return it was "Kings Day" in Holland, a bank holiday, with many people wearing orange.We had an easy three hour drive to Sneek to offload some provisions and then went about 50 miles further west to Gronigen, our planned ultimate destination on this leg, where we had decided to leave the car. We then returned to Sneek on the excellent Dutch railways. 

Next morning we set off up the canal heading for our next planned stop of Leeuwarden and got through four bridges (including a railway swing bridge) making reasonable time and covering some 20nm. 

The railway swing bridge opening after a brief wait for a train to pass
However disaster then struck. We got to the edge of Leeuwarden and the first of half a dozen bridges through the town only to be told by a waiting harbour patrol boat that the first lifting bridge was closed and being repaired. It would not be open again until Mid-May! The only way round it currently involves a 150nm detour because a crucial lock, as the Kornwerderzand lock on the NE of the Ijsselmeer is also currently closed for repairs. So the diversion involved a passage back across the Ijsselmeer to Den Over and then a trip back along the North Sea reversing direction to re-enter the canal system at Harlingen. We thought that not only did we not have enough time to complete that but the weather conditions had been so unpleasant of late that the route did not appeal! We were caught out by this news; but as there had been no obvious advance warning so had another British and a German boat and presumably others on different days too. In effect a key part of the Standing Mast route is impassable. In very windy and wet conditions we adjourned for a discussion with the other British flagged boat "Batavia" with Ian and Renska (a Dutch lady living in England) at the canal side a couple of miles back. We both agreed that the immediately obvious thing to do was return to the small town of Grou, some 10nm back, at least for that night, whilst we evaluated options. So in more driving rain there we moored up for the night.

Having thought about it we concluded that our only options were either to leave the boat in Grou where we had come for the night or retrace our steps a little more to Sneek where we had left the boat for a couple of days when we returned to the UK for the funeral. Whatever option we choose we now also had to get the car back from Gronigen and cancel our arrangements to leave Whileaway there! We also decided that if we had time to spare we would catch up on a few maintenance jobs on the boat and perhaps visit some towns by train.

As it was we decided to spend a couple of days in Grou and a very pleasant little place it is too. As with others it is surrounded by water, the people are friendly and the atmosphere enjoyable.On the Friday evening we also invited Ian and Renska to join us. We learnt that they too were heading for the Baltic for the summer, having brought their boat in the Netherlands last summer.
 Fine 17th century house in Grou
On Saturday we motored just 10nm back to Sneek and returned to the harbour which we had left a few days before. The Havenmeester was surprised to see us and I explained our problem. Given that we couldn't now get to Gronigen, could we leave Whileaway in Sneek. Yes, it is possible he said, but maybe not on the visitors pontoon. He promised that by Monday he would find us somewhere which he duly did. By now the weather had begun to improve with sunny days, even a frost one night, so we tackled the maintenance jobs.

In addition on Sunday we travelled to Gronigen to retrieve the car and took the opportunity to spend time exploring the city. Some impressive buildings and a buzzing city centre with cafe life in full flow is the shorthand description. It is a university town, the buildings being right in the city centre, so that adds to the atmosphere.
Railway station from the age of the train in Gronigen
Canal side moorings in Gronigen
Similarly on Tuesday, on our way back to the UK, we spent time in the "prohibited town" of Leeuwarden, smaller than Gronigen and ringed by the main canal. as we were now in a fortnight's school holiday many families were around. We also noticed that the three principal centres of Sneek, Leeuwarden and Gronigen, within a radius of less than 30 miles of each other, all had large and thriving shopping centers with few empty premises. All of these places also had seemingly thriving industrial or business parks with what appeared to be many small businesses as well as larger commercial undertakings. Finally the Netherlands have clearly been investing heavily in infrastructure during the recession. Numerous new major roads and railway improvement schemes, just the sort of investment that should be being made at this time, are evident throughout the country. 

Leaning tower in Leeuwarden
On our return journey we also visited Harlingen in the NW of Frisland. This is north of the lock between the Ijsselmeer  and the North Sea and  also provides access to the canal network. There are fine old warehouses, now mainly converted to residential, and has a big fleet of historic Dutch barges.

Harlingen barges
Also on our way back we crossed the Afsluitdijk dam between the Ijsselmeer and the North Sea, linking the village of Zurich in Friesland and Den Over in Wieringen, quite a triumph of engineering built between 1927 and 1932 and 32km long and nearly in a straight line.

Mid point of the dam, Wadden Sea (part of the North Sea) on left and Ijsselmeer on right
The first leg of our summer cruise had not been an unqualified success! We had not had summer weather and had only covered 100nm in four days when we were sailing. May be we had started too early; or perhaps what the weathermen had called unseasonably cold weather was to blame. Either way we did not make as much progress as we may have hoped.