Open Water Cruising in Little Dutch Boats
We’re back again after a hectic, exhausting and ultimately successful three weeks.
I flew to Philadelphia last week to collect our new basset hound, Abbie, named Agnes by someone with a dubious sense of humour for the first two years of her life.
The operation didn’t start well. Cynthia and I can fly on all American Airlines flights at very low cost, providing that there are empty seats on the flight. All current and ex AA employees enjoy this privilege, as do nominated friends and family. There are often twenty or more AA standby passengers hoping to board a flight, so actually flying on the day you want is often difficult.
The process is simple. You book a standby slot for a flight, go through all the usual airport hassle of checking in two to three hours before takeoff, enduring security screening involving the inevitable pat down by an over enthusiastic uniformed guard, and then settling down for a tedious wait at the departure gate. At least the paying passengers know that they’re going to get on the flight after twiddling their thumbs for an hour or more at the gate. Those on standby have to wait until everyone with a ticket has boarded the flight, all the time selfishly hoping that a few of them won’t , and then wait for their name to be called to fill any free spaces.
After four hours at Schiphol, I missed the flight by one seat. I spent the night at Schiphol’s quirky Citizen M hotel where everything in the room is controlled by an iPad, and the glass enclosed toilet and shower are actually in the bedroom. I’m quite pleased I didn’t share the room with anyone, especially as the hotel offers a free porn channel. Just kidding Cynthia!
I made the flight the following day, was collected from Philadelphia airport by Cynthia’s generous friend Brigitte, wined and dined at her home, and then driven three hours the next day to Abbie’s kennel home in State College.
I hoped to fly back the day after I collected her, but the high temperature meant that the airline would have refused to fly Abbie. Saturday was much cooler, so I knew I wouldn’t be refused because of the temperature, but I had something else to worry about.
Dogs need a raft of paperwork in order to fly, including a health certificate which is good for ten days from the examination date. Because I was delayed a day going over there, and another day coming back, Saturday was day eleven. Abbie couldn’t legally enter the Netherlands on the paperwork I had with me.
As you can imagine, this caused a little panic. I called approved vets in the area to see if Abbie could have another health check done before she flew. None of them could accommodate her. Our contact at the kennel spoke to the vet who examined Abbie. He suggested that I might be able to slip through the US checks at Philadelphia, but offered some worrying advice about the Netherlands. “The Dutch are great rule followers. The paperwork will be examined in detail. If there are any errors, Abbie many be placed in quarantine, and you’ll incur additional costs and maybe a fine.”
In the meantime, Cynthia spoke to our vet in the Netherlands. “Don’t do it,” she warned, “The checks will be thorough. You’ll be caught and fined!”
The sensible advice of course was to follow the advice given by both vets. I’m not terribly sensible, so I didn’t. I reasoned that if I managed to board the flight, and we were stopped at Schiphol, at least Abbie would be in the Netherlands a little closer to her new home.
My plan at the AA check in desk was to turn on the charm to distract the middle aged lady processing my paperwork. I leaned on the counter and gave her my best smile. She stepped back from the counter and turned to her supervisor for help. I gave up, and let Abbie use her undeniable charm instead.
She did a marvellous job. While the check in supervisor held Abbie’s lead, the paperwork was given a cursory check, and she was booked on to the flight.
At Schiphol,I waited for an hour for Abbie to be delivered to the oversized baggage area. I had to keep her in her travel crate until she was processed by border control. A large and stern faced officer directed me into a booth, held out a hand for Abbie’s paperwork, and then slowly and methodically examined each of the twenty pages. I tried to look calm and relaxed. I suspect that I failed miserably.
He cut the security tags of Abbie’s crate, scanned her microchip, and then returned to the bundle of papers lying on his desk. He paused again at the health certificate. “I’m afraid that you are going to have a problem,” he told me, pointing at the certificate. I held my breath, waiting for the bad news. Maybe trying to sneak her into the Netherlands wasn’t such a good idea. How much would we be fined? What would the quarantine costs be? Would the authorities insist, could they insist, that Abbie was returned to Philadelphia?
“You won’t be able to take your dog to England unless you have her wormed within five days of crossing the border. You’re fine for the Netherlands though!”
Minutes later I was skipping through the terminal on my way back to the boat. Honesty isn’t always the best policy.
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With our fearless, four-footed friend on board, we’ve been able to focus on widening our Dutch boating experience. Much as we have loved cruising the now familiar and extensive waterways between Leiden and Amsterdam, we have a month left to explore as much of the network as we can before we put the boat to bed in September. The extent of our exploration will depend largely on the weather.
We’ve had a few rather windy days in the Netherlands over the last week or two, which isn’t surprising when you consider how few hills there are in the country to deflect a breeze.
Windy days on the UK waterways were always a challenge for me. A flat bottomed, high sided narrowboat is ill equipped for cruising in blustery weather. When I worked as an instructor on the Calcutt Boats hire fleet, I knew that taking novice hirers out on wind rippled water was always going to be an interesting experience.
Escaping the sheltered wharf where the company’s twelve boat hire fleet moored was easy enough. Buildings, a lock, and a tree lined towpath kept most of the wind at bay. The first stage of the helmsmanship instruction as we ascended a double lock was easy enough, as was the short stretch of protected canal which followed. The tricky bit was a wide open stretch passing forty acre Napton reservoir.
As the confused helmsmen and women zig zagged up the canal trying to come to terms with pointing the tiller in the opposite direction to the way they wanted the boat to go, on windy days I always watched an approaching patch of agitated water close to the reservoir with apprehension.
“When we reach that point,” I would say, pointing to the area where the canal’s glassy surface was replaced by small waves marching across our path, “the boat is going to slew sideways. Don’t worry, it’s quite normal. Just steer into the wind”. As I offered my words of wisdom, I would be quietly thankful that I wasn’t cruising in my own boat on such a windy day.
After many years of nervous anticipation when forecast wind speeds exceeded 15 mph, I slowly learned to relax in similar weather conditions on our new boat. The combination of a keel, less wind resistance above the waterline, a much more powerful engine, and a decent bow thruster means that mooring, turning, reversing and cruising are a piece of cake… unless we are on a large lake.
The Westeinderplassen is a very large lake by UK standards. It has a similar area to Windermere in the lake district, but, at less than three metres, is only a fraction of the depth. Because it is relatively shallow, windy days quickly create large waves, which aren’t a problem in a small cruiser like ours if you have the wind behind you.
We left the shelter of Kempers marina at the lake’s southernmost point and watched, slightly concerned, as the wave height increased quickly as we cruised north. The few other motor cruisers on the lake kept close to the sheltered waters of the string of islands to the west of us. In hindsight, they obviously knew what they were doing.
After forty minutes on what felt like a fairly benign roller coaster, we reached a point where we needed to turn broadside to the wind to pass through a channel between two islands to reach the sheltered waters of an Aalsmeer yacht club.
A dozen dinghies from a children’s sailing school bobbed erratically over the white capped waves ahead of us, many capsizing in the strengthening wind. Concerned adults in inflatable dinghies with powerful outboard engines raced between the upturned boats, encouraging the young sailors and shielding them from passing boats.
As we turned broadside to the wind, we slowed to avoid two tiny tots clinging to upturned boats. As Julisa wallowed in increasingly high troughs, and Cynthia and I were deafened by the sound of pots and pans crashing to the galley floor, I remembered advice we were given a few weeks earlier.
“You have a good boat there, but be careful where you take her in the Netherlands. She’s a category D boat, fine for sheltered canals and rivers, and most of the lakes in calm conditions. Beware lakes on windy days though. Julisa doesn’t have any protective rails fitted on the cabin shelving. If you’re caught broadside to a heavy swell, you’ll be eating your dinner off the galley floor”
Fortunately, the only damage we suffered was a few pot dents, and the imprints of Cynthia’s fingernails as she held my forearm in a vice like grip until we reached sheltered water.
Between windy sailing days, we’ve cruised gently through tranquil lake networks and bustling small towns, enjoyed watching a steady procession of gently turning windmills, and all the time worrying about cruising into the unknown.
We’ve been back in the Netherlands since the beginning of April. Our first cruise was on Dutch canals was nearly four months ago. Since then we’ve cruised 393 km, but in all that distance, until two days ago, we hadn’t passed through a single lock.
Locks appear to scare novice boaters on England’s inland waterways more than anything else. Their concern is understandable. English locks can be dangerous. There are different lock configurations to understand, different paddle gear and procedures, and very different water levels and rate of flow at each lock. Tens of thousands of gallons of murky canal water racing through underground sluices, or gates within gates, all controlled by the novice boater himself, can create a boat smashing surge of dirty brown water. Boaters are hurt, boats are sunk, and locks are damaged if the correct procedure isn’t followed to the letter.
English locks are no place for the careless.
Scary as they are, most English canal locks are relatively small. Just one narrowboat will fit in a single lock, two in a double. River locks, often but not always keeper controlled, can be much larger, but are often relatively benign. Even then, the intrepid boater has to be on his guard.
On a beautiful summer’s day a few years ago, I stood contentedly by the side of my boat in a rising self service Thames lock, absently allowing the centre line, loosely wrapped around a lockside bollard, to slip through my fingers. As I waited for the lock to fill, I watched a steady stream of hikers and bikers pass on the nearby towpath. Many turned to stare. It’s a proud moment, thinking that bystanders are looking at your beloved boat with admiration.
I wasn’t quite so happy when a cyclist pointed over my shoulder with a look of horror on his face. “Why is your boat doing that?” he exclaimed.
Because I wasn’t paying attention, I hadn’t noticed that my centre line was trapped on the bollard, effectively holding the boat’s side down while the water continued to rise. The boat was already leaning dangerously towards the water. The lock was still only half filled so, with every passing second, the angle increased alarmingly. I had just a couple of minutes before the boat reached the point of no return and flipped on its roof.
By the time I sprinted to the head of the lock to stop the rising water, the boat was at almost forty five degrees. I could hear plates and glasses smashing as they fell from cupboards and racks. I didn’t mind the glasses so much, but I hoped that my collection of a dozen bottles of red wine hadn’t gone with them.
I was lucky. I lost a little crockery, no wine, and a little paint where the cabin top rubbed against a lockside oak post as it tipped. I could easily have sunk the boat.
I knew nothing about the locks on the Dutch waterways, other than that they are big, and that leisure boaters sometimes have to share with monster commercial barges filled with aggregate. The thought of several hundred tonnes of sand filled steel bouncing around a turbulent lock with little Julisa frightened me to death.
Friday was a frightening day of firsts; first trip through a Dutch lock, first cruise through Amsterdam’s harbour dodging blunt bowed, towering water taxis, first hesitant cruise on what amounts to an inland sea, first time getting lost trying to follow perplexing channel markings, and first time trying to work out what to do in the middle of an ocean with an overheating engine.
It was a very stressful day.
The first first, the lock, was a real anticlimax. We hovered near a motorway bridge spanning what we thought was the lock entrance, waiting for inspiration, then followed the skipper of a sea going cruiser who seemed to know what he was doing. He pulled into a channel with rope hand rails fitted to the three metre high walls to the left and the right of us. He held onto a rope. So did I. He calmly watched as an electric lock gate slid shut behind us. I jumped. He calmly watched as his thick pear shaped rubber bow fender protected his boat’s chrome as the lock water rose over moss covered brick. I winced as the same moss covered brick scraped off the paint where my bow fender should have been. I made a mental note to replace the one I lost weeks earlier on a choppy lake.
Other than that, the lock was a breeze. The front gate slid open and half a dozen cruisers surged forward towards Amsterdam.
Amsterdam is a busy city. Busy roads regularly cross the canal network. Every minute or two we had to negotiate another bridge, ever thankful that we decided to buy a sub 2.5m cruiser. Boats lower than 2.5m can fit under the majority of bridges on the main waterways. Sometimes we only make it by a cat’s whisker but, thanks to a clever device installed by Julisa’s previous owner, we always know whether the boat is going to fit. A spring mounted varnished wooden pole topped by a small wooden sphere is mounted on the boat’s pulpit rail. As we creep towards any suspiciously low bridges, we watch the wooden sphere with baited breath. It’s millimetres higher than the boat’s cockpit. If the sphere clears the bridge so will the boat.
The problem is that, from the cockpit, we’re looking upwards towards the sphere. We can have half a metre clearance, but still look as though we’re too high. During our first week or two on the waterways, we would edge painfully slowly towards each new bridge, ready to reverse quickly if the measuring device struck the bridge. Fortunately it didn’t. Eventually, for half a dozen bridges, I sat on the bow with my head level with the wooden assembly risking decapitation to check how much clearance we actually had.
On our passage through Amsterdam we were relatively confident, at least as far as the bridges were concerned. Our confidence plummeted when the canal spat us unceremoniously into Amsterdam harbour.
“Do we have to go this way!” Cynthia exclaimed, adding new half moon nail indentations to my already punctured forearm. I was thinking the same thing. Everything was so big. The harbour was enormous. So were many of the boats in it. Water taxis carrying a hundred or more passengers raced through the harbour pushing bow waves in front of them which threatened to swamp us. Heavily laden barges the length of a football pitch ploughed through the main channel, oblivious to the tiny leisure craft surrounding them. And cruise ships towered like skyscrapers from their waterside berths.
This is thirteen deck, eighty nine thousand tonne Crystal Serenity, built in 2003 at a cost of $350 million. The red line you can see down the ship’s starboard side is a row of lifeboats. Each one was as big as Julisa. We felt very small.
We cruised through the harbour area as quickly as we could, trying to time stages so that we didn’t meet one of the dozens of huge water taxis which appeared to completely ignore anything in their way. One bore down on us so quickly from a blind spot on our starboard side that Cynthia, rather than telling me about it, simply lurched across the cockpit and pushed our Morse control against its stops. The taxi passed so close that I was sure I could smell the skipper’s breath.
Eventually we left the harbour behind and had half an hour to take a series of deep breaths to prepare ourselves for our next challenge; not one lock, but four of them side by side. All we had to do was work out which one to use.
The workings of this particular set of locks had already been explained to us, but in our emotionally drained and slightly stressed state – actually, I don’t know about Cynthia, but I certainly felt stressed – we couldn’t work out where to go or what to do. As usual, I opted for the mature approach, swore a bit, and suggested that Cynthia took over if she didn’t like what I was doing. Oddly enough, that didn’t seem to solve the problem.
After twiddling our thumbs for a while, performing a number of neatly executed but pointless circles, and bickering a little more, we followed a penis extension of a power boat down a channel marked ‘Sports’. This was obviously the channel for leisure craft. I don’t know why Cynthia didn’t think of it. She did actually, but I wouldn’t listen to her.
We breathed a deep sigh of relief when we exited yet another gentle lock, which was a bit early because the worst part of our journey was ahead of us.
We were on the vast Ijmeer, which merged after a few miles with the even more vast Markermeer, and then the really forbidding Ijsselmeer. The Ijsselmeer is half the size of Warwickshire in England, and nearly ten times the size of Liechtenstein. It’s a BIG body of water for a little boat.
The longer we cruised, the less we appeared to move and the more we realized just how much out of our depth we were, especially when I noticed a worrying dashboard trend.
After six years of dealing with my forty year old Mercedes raw water cooled engine on my narrowboat, I knew a thing or two about overheating engines. If I had a pound for every time I had to stop on the towpath to let the engine cool down before continuing I would have been able to buy myself a nice new reliable Beta Marine engine.
Pulling over on a forty feet wide placid canal is one thing. Trying to stop to let your engine cool down on an open body of water with the nearest smudge on the horizon is a completely different kettle of fish.
I was all for sticking my head firmly in the sand and carrying on regardless, despite the headwind combined with a current which was slowing our normal ten kilometres per hour cruising speed down to just under six.
“Why don’t we make for that island there?” asked Cynthia, pointing to a grass covered hump topped by what appeared to be a large concrete structure.
“Because it’s probably private. We can’t just stop on the first island we see!”
“I thought you said that those little red symbols indicate public moorings?” she asked pointing to a clearly visible red mark on the map in front of me. Cynthia’s better at map reading and directions than me. I’m beginning to suspect that she’s not really a woman.
She was right. The moorings were public, and there was plenty of space for us. Which was just as well as the thermometer was beginning to creep upwards again, as was the wave height.
We found shelter just in time, although the shelter wasn’t quite as sheltered as we would have liked it to be. We spent two nights on the island. The first was very interesting. The pier we were moored against only deflected some of the force of the waves which marched towards us all evening. On several occasions during the night, we were woken by the boat’s violent corkscrewing as we were almost flung from our tiny double bed.
The waves were just as forbidding the following day, so we stayed in the island harbour’s relative safety, watching a steady stream of yachts and coastal cruisers plough through the choppy water without a care in the world. We spent much of the day working out how far short we’d fall if we were to upgrade to a small category C coastal cruiser. Do you know anyone with a spare £80,000?
Today was much calmer. We cruised for two hours through gentle swells to our current mooring at Almere Haven on Flevoland, an area of land reclaimed eighty years ago when the Zuiderzee, an inland sea within the Netherlands, was enclosed and reclaimed.
We’ve done nothing today other than eat and rest. Come to think of it, that’s a fairly typical day for us. Today’s eating was done in the harbour’s ‘Pancake Ship’, an ex second world war Red Cross hospital ship.
I think that we’re going to stay here tomorrow as well. Cynthia’s brother, Jeff, is over here on a three week holiday. She plans to see him before he flies back across the Atlantic. While she’s with him, I’m going to practice staying calm in stressful situations. This boating lark isn’t any good for my heart!
And Now We Are Four…
The sky may be cloudy with the rain falling gently as I write this, but I can’t help feel the gods are shining down upon us this week.