The crew of Andy and Kiki, Grant and Mary, Chris and Jonathan assembled after a lengthy journey by plane, rail and bus to Vlissingen – a wind-swept spot on the West Schelde estuary in the south of the Netherlands – also called Flushing. We had lashings of cake, thanks to Kiki, and even hot chocolate at bedtime! Omens were good as we had seen a pair of storks nesting on a railway signal gantry on the way out. First night we ate in the marina as there was nowhere else in sight with several crew eating sliptong – which turned out to be small soles. Sunday morning we set out early to catch the 8:40am bridge opening (the next one was 10:40am) and tackle our first lock. This was high sided, with no obvious mooring points, so we decided to put Grant ashore ahead of the lock to handle our mooring lines. This turned out to be a mistake as there were ropes slung along the sides of the lock to hold on to and it was almost impossible to get Grant back on board. The locks here are so huge and the rises so small – seldom more than a foot – that holding the yacht steady in turbulence in the locks is not an issue – unlike say the Canal du Midi or the Caledonian Canal. Having one timed bridge in a series has the effect of pulsing the river traffic so all the following bridges opened in sequence (called a "Blue Wave") and we arrived at a very picturesque mooring in Middelburg to stock up with food and buy a replacement shackle and bimony pin – they seem to fall out quite easily – from a floating chandlers.
Anxious to get ahead, so we had some leeway in the schedule, we then headed for Veere and turned right towards the East Schelde estuary. At this stage there was enough sea room to sail, but we found the main sail outhaul extremely stiff. We could possibly have deployed the sail but, the realisation that in restricted waters we might need to furl it quickly, made this not a sensible choice. But with the wind behind we made good speed under genoa punctuated by the occasional jibe. One more lock and bridge combined and we were “free” and so moored up on the downstream lock waiting trots for lunch. The Dutch waterways are really like the Norfolk Broads on steroids – everything is huge – but with one difference – places to moor are very limited and it was not till Thursday that we found a canal side pub to stop at. In the East Schelde the fetch is several miles and the tides quite strong leading to waves sufficient to soak the cockpit at least once and leave everyone wondering whether they should have brought their oilies? We were doing well having passed our targeted overnight stop in Goes and passed Stavenisse – the next well marked mooring spot, but with too little water – and on to Sint Annaland, up Krabbenkreek– a large new marina with an excellent restaurant.
The following day we progressed well with only a couple of bridge/locks – huge for shipping, but with separate “sport” locks – also huge by UK standards – for yachts. We passed into the Meuse of Maastricht fame and through Hollands Diep – surely should have been in Lord of the Rings – to Strijensas. This was an old town with a very tight marina, but where we were able to find a marine engineer to look at the outhaul problem. It was established that one of the three pulleys was missing and a second badly worn. The engineer created a temporary fix with washers and put us in touch with the Dutch Selden agent so we ordered new pulleys and arranged to pick them up from their offices a couple of days later as coincidentally they were located on our route. That evening we had excellent ‘Marco’ burgers in the local pub and reviewed an old lifting bridge which had been restored with EU money such that it could no longer readily open – just like the “as designed”, “as built”, “as modified” comic strip that engineers pass around.
Andy’s extensive passage planning was holding up well especially as all the detailed pilots are in Dutch – a consequence of there being very few foreign boats – or may be it is the other way round. The following day it was back to bridges and canals, but with many fast commercial barges to avoid. We headed towards Rotterdam down pretty busy waterways and finally saw some Blue Boarding in action – this is the mechanism whereby if a vessel displays a blue board you should pass starboard to starboard rather than port to port – used by ferries and barges to cut corners. As we approached Rotterdam we were amazed to see a (?full size) replica of Noah’s Ark moored at the canal side – complete with replica giraffes!
Waterside properties near Rotterdam were conspicuously up-market, but things became more rural again as we approached Gouda for our overnight stop. This was in a tiny canal side marina about a mile out of town. We completed our tour of the town centre which has the oldest medieval hall in the Netherlands with a nearby carillon in a wide market place – consumed ice creams and beers and then returned via an Aldi to eat on board as the only nearby restaurant was pretty pricey.
Next day was an early start to catch a timed bridge, along with a large container barge. Initially we decided to try and keep up with the barge as the following bridges opened in sequence, but 8 knots was too fast for us and after a couple we were told to wait 10 minutes for the next “on demand” bridge to open. A Dutchman with a large dog on board caught up with us and there was some debate about whether the bridges opened faster for natives or visitors. We were now in Holland proper with the land on either side lower than the canals which were consequently quite windy. Anyone looking for a week’s boat handling course should consider a canal trip as there is endless mooring and waiting stationary in front of closed bridges in a strong cross wind and sometimes a current of over a knot (yes, in the canals) is not easy. In fact on at least one occasion with wind caught the bows and we found ourselves pirouetting in front of an opening bridge with an audience eager for some excitement.
We now moved on to the Rhine for the first time and planned a lunch stop at Alphen an der Rijn to pick up the replacement pulleys. We moored at the Selden agent’s warehouse – an interesting mooring with a line of planks at water level to protect the quay – but not good for yachts as fenders under pressure ride up – and beyond that underwater spikes - a remnant of the previous jetty. Clearly sinking sailboats sells spars but, not for the first time, the big fat fender came to rescue and held us off the dangers! The pulleys had not arrived so we went for a long lunch on a pleasant Thames sized bit of the Rhine. After lunch, still no pulleys, so Andy arranged for them to be forwarded to the Amsterdam marina where they eventually turned up and were successfully fitted. We continued our windy journey passing this junction near our refuelling point and sailing across the Braassemermeer, a lake.
We were headed for a marina in Kaag but on the way spotted a riverside restaurant – De Hanepoel – where a quick beer stop turned into an overnight stay at the canal side.
On Friday we continued through multiple bridges with the cross wind causing moments of tension. To add to the excitement at one point the throttle lever became detached. Fortunately we were going slowly and whilst the genoa was rapidly deployed to maintain some steerage way, Grant sprang to the rescue with a spanner and refitted the lever. Soon we were approaching Haarlem with its increasingly smart riverside properties and started on its seven bridges – each opening on demand, but in practice after a few minutes delay. By now we understood the sequence well – first the bells, then the barriers, the red lights go green/red, the bridge lifts, we get a green light and go through. At the first bridge the Brugmeester asked where we were going and we replied the town marina thinking this was a specific spot. Then after the third bridge the same guy appeared again – he must have had a bike to keep up – and offered us a mooring in front of Teyler’s Winkel ...
... and right next to the Gravestenenbrug, which is one of the most photographed spots in Haarlem. As such a newly married couple appeared soon after, being filmed driving along the quay.
The wedding photographer was caught taking a close-up of one of our more hirsute crew to add a bit of local colour – no doubt they will appear in the wedding album as an authentic Dutch sailor. Teyler’s is the oldest museum in the country and houses an amazing collection of early electrical apparatus and a large fossil from Lyme Regis. The winkel is the museum shop next door. Our mooring was reminiscent of Honfleur, but with rather better facilities discretely provided in a small kiosk. That afternoon we toured Haarlem with its enormous church organ played by both Mozart and Handel and Adriaan’s working windmill, recently rebuilt following a fire but previously used to grind waterproof cement and snuff. Later we ate really good fish pie in Babbels restaurant.
On Saturday we had to cross under the A9 motorway where the bridge only opened every four hours, so we left early and moored on the waiting piles to make sure we did not miss it. Even though it was only open for a few minutes we caused a large traffic jam on the motorway. We then joined the impressive Nordzeekanaal – think Manchester ship canal x4 - and sailed under genoa right into the centre of Amsterdam. Once there we talked our way into the very central, but pretty full Sixhaven marina – and wedged ourselves in – I hesitate to say moored - across the sterns of two other boats. When we asked if the pulley parcel had arrived the Havenmeester replied “may be” which left us puzzled. He then assured us that there was no mail on Mondays, but that is when the pulleys apparently arrived, so who knows?
Amsterdam was full to the brim with people, bikes, canals, stag and hen parties and Argentinian steak houses and we ended our week with a really good meal in Cau, which is one of these. The next day after boat cleaning we visited the various Amsterdam museums – van Gogh, Rijksmuseum and the ship museum and then caught a train to Vlissingen(!) on the way to Schipol airport. Canals may not be real sailing but they are certainly not boring.