Amsterdam to the Canals – Take Two!

Amsterdam to the Canals – Take Two!

Hardships and setbacks will not discourage a Finnish sailor. Our first attempt to travel south along the canals from Amsterdam had bounced off a closed bridge south of Haarlem, and although our first reaction may have been ”let’s forget about the canals and go out to the sea!” we were pretty soon back on track with the original plan. Heavy winds predicted for the next few days may have played a small part in the decision.

We motored back to Amsterdam. The operator at the Spaarndam locks was not aware of the closed bridge. Fortunately, he was enlightened by a Finnish sailor passing through! In Amsterdam our bad luck with phone and radio connections continued, and for several hours we received no information about whether there was going to be a night convoy through the city or not. Then we were told to come in from the outer harbour, where we had been rocking in windy and swelly conditions. There were two other sailboats in the canal. Eventually we found out there was to be a convoy – with the help of a friendly Dutch sailor, who offered to translate the VHF instructions for us. At 2 am we – just three boats – started our night adventure though Amsterdam.

It was magical! Bridge after bridge, sixteen in all, would open to us as we floated past old houses, streets and parks. At the southern side of the city we went through a lock, and suddenly came to a small lake, Nieuwemeer. The city lights and lanterns of floating houses were reflected on its black surface, the clouds scattered and the bright moon began to shine.

Now it was just a short distance to the Amsterdam airport, where we would have to wait for a highway bridge to open at 5 am. That was only about an hour away. But it just so happened, that we fell asleep, exhausted from the day’s and night’s travels, and didn’t wake up on time. Instead we enjoyed a good rest and motored through at the 12:30 pm opening.

And now things got interesting! Now we arrived into a water wonderland we had never known existed – the real, strange Holland surrounded by water. There are floating houses, and small plots with houses on them, with canals between them instead of streets and roads, small hamlets with parking lots for boats instead of cars, children’s playgrounds, small parks and lawns, surrounded from all sides by canals. There are endless fields and pastures, dotted with canals, still lush green in October and November, with cattle, sheep and horses. Old windmills that used to pump out the water from those fields. Villages, where small rafts move people and bicycles across the water, and where you can park your boat on the edge of the canal and pop into a supermarket.

Journey along Holland’s canals – click the thumbnails to see bigger pictures.

In many places the canals widen into small lakes, where new waterfront houses are built along the shores, and every couple of hundred meters you can find a yacht club and a marina. All traffic and transport travels along the canals, and there’s all sorts of it: long, low cargo ships, tugs and barges, and pleasure boats of every size and style.

The Dutch ingenuity in canal and other watery construction is surely unsurpassed. If the sea levels begin to rise, the impact will naturally be the most dramatic in these low-lying lands, but the Dutch people have lived with their water for centuries and must be up to the challenge better than anyone.

After Amsterdam our first stop was a small town of Alphen aan den Rijn. We found a good spot by the canal’s edge, took a nice long walk, and spent a pleasant moment in a pub with the locals – who are quick to notice a stranger and eager to exchange a few words any time. In the morning we continued on, but for a couple of days it was cold and rainy. We motored through Gouda and the outskirts of Rotterdam, only stopping for the night at some random pontoon.

After another set of locks we came to a river, where the current kept slowing us down, until we got to a larger body of water called Hollands Diep, south of Dordrecht. We planned to stop at Willemstad, a small fortified town that seemed worth a closer look based on the map view alone – or what would you say about this?

©Google Maps

The small town proved very cosy. The historical town is surrounded by well preserved stone walls and water-filled moats, with seven bastions named after the 17th century Dutch counties. Close to the harbour stands an old town hall with a bell tower, on the other side of town the country’s oldest protestant church, and in between you can find a few blocks of pretty old townhouses surrounding a large windmill, nowadays some lucky devil’s private home. In the summer this idyllic place must be full of tourists, but now, in November, we could only count two of us. We cycled around the bastions, walked around the town, and enjoyed a rare occasion of dining at a restaurant.

Beautiful town on Willemstad – click the thumbnails to see bigger pictures.

This was the end of our adventure along the canals and inland waters of Holland. It was short, but full of impressions! Between Willemstad and the North Sea there remained one bridge and one lock, and after those, we would again be sailing in the open sea.

Amsterdam and Haarlem – canals, bridges and bicycles

Amsterdam and Haarlem – canals, bridges and bicycles

We spent a week in Amsterdam. During that time it again became evident we don’t like big cities, however joyful, pretty and original. Big cities never rest – they are filled with hoards of people, cars, and bicycles by day, and by night they’re still not quiet – the sounds may be muffled but there’s a constant hum that never ceases.

The Sixhaven Marina we were staying at provided a nice oasis in the big city. It’s surrounded by bushes and shrubs, small cottages and floating houses. For us it was a nice getaway after our visits to the busy, hectic city.

Amsterdam is full of boats and bicycles. The whole city has been built for boats and bicycles, and we soon noticed that it was pointless to try and venture deeper into the city by any other way of transport. So we launched our little rubber dinghy, and started our own expeditions into the endless canals. The traffic is busy even there, but we could still travel at our own speed, make stops whenever we felt like it, and observe to our heart’s content. 

And there was no end of things to observe: beautiful, old houses, neat house boats, bridges and tunnels, churches and palaces. And bicycles, bicycles everywhere! On the streets, on the bridges, on the numerous floating bicycle parking barges, trains and ferries… The very natural effect of all this was that we desperately wanted to have bicycles of our own! And to think of it, what could be a better place to buy a bicycle than Amsterdam, where there is a bike shop in every block!

We chose folding bikes, because we don’t have space on our boat for any other kind. We don’t really have space for anything at all, but we decided we would make room. On our very first bike ride, you see, we realized how the bicycles would change our lives forever! How much more we would get to see, how quick and simple and free it would be compared to walking or having to rely on buses.

Now that we were prepared for adventure the Dutch way, it was time to continue our journey from Amsterdam – the Dutch way, along canals. You can follow the Staande Mast (Standing Mast) route south along two alternative ways: either with the night convoy through the city, or in daytime through Haarlem further west. The two routes join on the lake Brassemermeer south of Amsterdam.

We chose to travel during the day, and headed therefore along the Nordzeekanaal towards Spaarndam and its highway bridge that only opens a few times a day. Our timing was perfect. Soon we were also through the Spaarndam lock, and continued towards the city of Haarlem. There are 10 opening bridges in Haarlem, and while meandering through the lovely looking town we were almost sorry we would not be staying there. It was dark by the time we were past the town, and approaching yet another opening bridge in the suburbs.

But the bridge wouldn’t open! Nobody answered our VHF calls, or any of the phone numbers we tried to find on the guide books or websites. We tried to tie off to a couple of waiting areas close to the bridge, but our keel got stuck in the mud before we were close enough. There was something really strange going on here!

Finally someone answered the phone at the Harbour Office in Haarlem, and we were told the bridge we were trying to get through was under renovation, and would be for the next two weeks! But why hadn’t anyone told us before? At the locks in Spaarndam, or at any of the 10 bridges we had passed, having had numerous radio conversations along the way? Why didn’t anyone wonder about a Finnish boat purposely making its way into a dead end? Perhaps it’s not in the Dutch nature to be curious about such things. Well, who knows – we made a u-turn and motored through a few bridges back to Haarlem, where we parked on the side of the canal and called it a day. We would get to see this pretty town, after all, and to ponder about our next move.

The next day was Saturday, and it was a market day. We walked along the narrow, winding streets to the market place, Grote Markt. It was wonderfully full of delicacies, and no doubt other things – but we always seem to end up in the fish, meat, cheese and bread stalls, whatever the country. It wasn’t cheap, but we couldn’t resist buying at least a few different items.

A day’s visit was enough for a very pleasant impression of the town. For us, Haarlem definitely belongs in the ”right size of town” category – it was full of life and bustle, but not crowded, small enough to walk through at a leisurely speed, and full of old houses, beautiful details, views of the canal, churches and windmills. We had no regrets about the dead end trip!

Inland Waterways to Joyful Amsterdam!

Inland Waterways to Joyful Amsterdam!

Canal cruising in Amsterdam

Den Helder is one of the spots where you can easily get from the North Sea to Holland’s inland waterways – the lakes and canals. We wanted to know more about this peculiar country, and what would be a better way to do that, than boating along its canals!

Den Helder in the morning mist – the shapes in the background are not churches and temples, they are warships!

You can travel along the canals on a sailboat without taking the mast down via the standing mast route – Staande Mast – from Delfzijl in the north to Vlissingen (Flushing) in the south. However, for our draft – 2 metres – there are a couple of places not deep enough on the northern part of the route. That’s why we chose to sail as far as Den Helder. It’s a big naval base, and the Royal Navy Yachtclub was a convenient spot to come and go. We rested there a couple of nights, then motored across the Waddensee to the locks at Den Oever.

It was quite exciting going through the locks, particularly as we had to go together with many other boats and ships. But we got out of the other end in one piece, and found ourselves in the lake IJsselmeer. Time to say goodbye to the tides for a while!

Enkhuizen

It was calm, so we motored across the lake and arrived in a small town called Enkhuizen in the evening. We tied off to a big town quay, as it seemed very quiet, and we had no desire to maneuvre our lazy beast of a boat in a tight marina. And now for a nice evening walk into this pretty little town!

Enkhuizen, together with many small towns of the area, had its heyday in the 17th century, when it was a major port in the North Sea. This large bay, formerly known as Zuidersee, was dammed in the early 20th century, and since then, a lot of its area has been claimed for agriculture. I don’t believe Enkhuizen has changed much since those old times – quaint, narrow houses lean against each other along the canals, and the bells of Drommedaris, the town gate, play cheerful tunes day and night.

There are countless waterfront restaurants and bars, but we found a fish shop by the first bridge and had cod for dinner at home. The next morning we continued through a lock into Markermeer, another lake. The lakes are very shallow – Markermeer is just over 3 metres deep. At first the depth reading made us hold our breath, but after a while you actually get used to it! Our charts were very accurate, and the lake bottom absolutely flat, so there was really nothing to worry about.

We had a great downwind sail across the whole lake, which took a few hours. Then we reached the shipping lane bound for Amsterdam, and boy, it was busy with traffic – long, narrow cargo ships, tugboats and rafts. Approaching the city, we went through an opening bridge and one more lock, quite easily and routinely, and so we had arrived in Amsterdam!

For the first time in the history of this blog, it’s actually now up-to-date – we are still here in Amsterdam! It’s hard to find time to write during passages, but you can follow our Facebook and Instagram pages to see what’s going on!

North Sea Moods and a Beach Holiday in Borkum

North Sea Moods and a Beach Holiday in Borkum

We raised the sails as soon as we were out of the Helgoland harbour. Our destination, the island of Borkum, happened to be exactly where the wind was blowing from. The opposing current was right there to greet us. The current would naturally change direction every six hours or so, but even when flowing with us, it didn’t seem to affect our speed very much.

Tacking back and forth in these waters is challenging also because there is very little space for it. As the darkness fell, we didn’t dare to venture close to the shore, as we wanted to stay in deeper waters and were afraid of running into fishing nets. Outside the shipping lanes there are endless wind farms, and beyond these, numerous oil and gas platforms. Because of all this, we had to keep crossing the shipping lane from time to time in order to make any progress at all – naturally after checking with the AIS that no ships were around at the time.

© Navionics

Late autumn nights are long even in Central Europe. The darkness lasted for more than 12 hours, and time seemed to stand still. The wind was fresh, waves were high and choppy. It was quite uncomfortable indoors and neither of us wanted to brave cooking a hot meal in those conditions. But in retrospect, everything went actually really well! Our boat handled the weather smoothly, and despite the simple menu and lack of sleep we were doing alright! To us that’s more important than a fast passage, although both of us swore several times we would never ever deliberately sail in such unfavourable conditions. After all, it took us 36 hours to make this 80 nautical mile trip, and the distance travelled was actually 120 miles!

We had chosen the island of Borkum as our next destination, because its harbour is always accessible regardless of the tides. After the cloudy, pitch black night we were greeted by a happy sun and a blue sky. It’s incredible, how the gloomy, grey sea can suddenly turn so blue! The wind was lighter, and the last few miles of the journey we had a speedy current with us. We made our speed record of 9,1 knots approaching Borkum!

Borkum is the westernmost of Germany’s East Friesian islands. The Friesian islands dot the coastline from the Netherlands to Denmark, and separate the Wattenmeer Sea from the North Sea. They are low-lying sand and mud dunes, and the sea behind them gets very shallow during low tide, with only a few boat routes across it. Borkum, once the home of whalers and pirates, has been a popular tourist spot for a couple of hundred years, with wind beaten grasslands, marshes and pastures, and above all, endless sandy beaches. Late autumn seemed to be a very busy season for holidaying, for people and animals alike – there was a large group of seals enjoying a sunny day on the beach!

There’s a small, nice looking visitor marina, which was unfortunately too shallow for our draft – just 1,8 metres. But there are visitor berths in the larger marina basin, which is a noisy working harbour, full of wind farm vessels, supply ships and passenger ferries. But for us it was a convenient spot because we had an appointment in Kiel, and ferries to the mainland ports leave just around the corner. Now, in October, there were still a few guest boats coming and going every day. There’s a cute little train that runs to the town of Borkum, some 5 km from the harbour. Cycling is very popular on the island, and so is mud walking! We saw busloads of people every day, equipped with gumboots for the adventure, but also many who had obviously roamed barefoot through the wetlands.

Our mainland trip lasted a few days, because we wanted to spend some time in Hamburg along the way. Then it was time to continue our sailing trip to the Netherlands. Our next passage to Den Helder was 120 nautical miles, and it took us exactly 24 hours. This time we had the wind on our beam, and there was no need for zigzagging. Sailing can be pure joy, too! Sometimes it can be a long wait though – we had to come this far from our home port to have our first sail in truly favourable winds!

From Den Helder we would start our inland adventure through lakes and canals of Holland!

Helgoland – a Red Rock in a Windy Place

Helgoland – a Red Rock in a Windy Place

It was the weather gods of the North Sea that this time conveniently chose the next destination for us. And we obeyed: this late September Saturday seemed like the perfect day to sail to Helgoland instead of beating further southwest. For most sailors popping out of the Kiel canal the island of Helgoland is a natural stop along the way, being a tax free zone with cheap diesel and alcohol. We still had plenty of diesel and were not particularly thirsty either, so we had not planned to stop.

I had briefly visited Helgoland before, on another sailing journey long ago, but had hardly any recollection of the island beyond the colourful rows of houses and the tax free shops. This time the weather gods gave us several days to get a real feel for the place, and we had a blast!

The island of Helgoland has a varied and unusual history. It once belonged to Denmark, but the British invaded it and made it their colony in the early 19th century. It became a fashionable place for sea bathing among the upper class. At the end of the century, however, the British traded Helgoland for Zanzibar, which was ruled by Germany at the time.

Then darker times followed, just like it did in the rest of the world. During the First World War civilian population was evacuated and the island fortified. The first naval battle of the war was fought in Helgoland waters. After the war, people were allowed to return, but when the next war broke out they had to leave again. During WW II Helgoland was used as a base for German submarines, coastal artillery and the air force.

After the war was over, the British Navy used the uninhabited island as a practice target. One of the biggest non-nuclear detonations was carried out here in 1947, when the navy planted a total of 6700 tons of explosives in the island’s tunnels and fortifications. Luckily the “Big Bang” wasn’t enough to destroy this magnificent red rock in the middle of the North Sea, but it did create a new “Mittelland” between the low “Unterland” and high “Oberland”. No buildings survive from the old times, but since the 1950’s the town and harbours have been built anew.

Click the thumbnails to see bigger pictures.

Today it’s a very distinctive holiday paradise. Despite the lack of historical layers that make many places interesting, the scale and atmosphere of the little town is very cosy and pleasant. Little shops are full of the most exotic cognacs, whiskeys, liquors and cigars, and even this late in the autumn the cafes, restaurants and indeed, the beaches are still bustling with people.

The wind started to blow quite briskly the very next day after our arrival. It veered to the north and became a near gale. It was wonderful to watch the white capped waves marching in from the open sea towards the northern shore, where the famous lonely stack of rock called “Lange Anna” stands beaten by the elements.

Great bird colonies, particularly a large number of gannets, live out here on the cliffs and ledges. It was fantastic to watch the gannets flying in the strong winds – gliding effortlessly, and making fast plunges into the sea. I watched one gannet in particular for a long time, flying very close to me, paying no attention to me standing only a few feet away. Or perhaps he wanted to give me a private flying show! I also observed a flock of seagulls playing in the waves, taking off on their wings just before a breaking wave. Such skill!

Finally the heavy winds subsided and it was a good time to continue our trip. At least that’s how it felt then – the North Sea obviously reserves the right to say the last word! On the 4th of October we headed out from the shelter of the Helgoland harbour, and turned our bow southwest. Except that we couldn’t really do that, as the wind was blowing from the southwest! The waves came from southwest, and our newest acquaintance, the current, seemed to continually flow from the southwest too! It would be a long day, and an even longer night… But more about that next time!

From Baltic to North Sea!

From Baltic to North Sea!

During the two months that we spent in Kiel we became very well acquainted with the town and its surroundings. We liked it there, and by this time it already felt almost like home. But now it was nearly the end of September – time to finally move on!

For the first time during the whole summer our boat looked clean and spiffy enough to actually qualify for a photo! Then we backed out of our slip and were on our way towards the Kiel canal!

We arrived at the Holtenau locks waiting area bright and early in the morning – quite unnecessarily, as we had to wait for almost two hours. There were a lot of ships going in, and the old locks were under renovation. Perhaps they will be open for pleasure craft next summer, which will certainly make things a lot smoother.

Eventually we got in with about ten other boats, and it was relatively easy to tie off alongside a low pontoon running the length of the lock. Then the gates closed behind us, and we had officially left the Baltic Sea.

Baltic Sea behind us…
… and the North Sea ahead!

The Kiel canal is not particularly scenic, but the day was sunny and warm, so we had no complaints. We saw a lot of ships, bridges, ferries, and lush green countryside with small villages and manor houses. A walking and cycling path runs parallel with the canal, and most people we saw there would wave cheerfully at us.

Because of the late start we weren’t able to transit the whole canal in one day – pleasure boats are not allowed to travel after sunset. We decided to stop at Rendsburg, about one third of the way from Kiel towards Brunsbüttel. We ended up staying in Rendsburg for two nights, because the town seemed worth a day’s visit.

It was a pleasant small town with an old church and half timbered houses, many of them dating from the 16th century. Also, it just happened to be the market day, and we found fresh fish at a market stall – a surprisingly rare treat even in maritime Germany!

Click the thumbnails to see bigger pictures of Rendsburg town!

The second day of our canal transit started grey and drizzly, with beautiful foggy vistas all along the way. And suddenly we were in Brunsbüttel. Approaching the locks, we enquired about the next opening over the vhf radio, and were told to motor straight in. There were no other boats in sight. The locks closed behind us, and just like that, all by ourselves, we popped out into the North Sea!

Officially, of course, it was the river Elbe, but these were tidal waters – the first we had ever sailed our boat in! It was only afternoon, so we could easily make it as far as Cuxhaven, particularly as we had the current with us. Despite the somewhat narrow entrance to the Cuxhaven marina, we made it in just fine in a sideways current.

Cuxhaven

And now, finally, to the North Sea! For Baltic sailors, who have never had to take into account the tides or currents, passage planning in the North Sea is certainly a lot more challenging. We studied the tides carefully and caught a nice early morning downhill current from Cuxhaven into the open sea. There we were met with a not so nice opposing wind, soon to be joined with an opposing current, and topped off with very unpleasant, choppy waves. For many hours the combined effect of these meant we weren’t really moving anywhere.

On our starboard side we could see a small island looming in the distance. It was Helgoland, and it seemed to stay in the same place all day. After hours of struggling with unfavourable weather we finally decided to give up and make a turn towards the island. Maybe it was telling us not to take too big a bite of the North Sea on our very first day there!

As soon as we had the wind on our beam, our boat practically flew all the way to Helgoland. The entrance is very easy, and the marina is well protected. We tied up to the side pontoon and were ready to explore this unusual place that was not part of our original plan. But, as we know now – plans are never to be taken too seriously! More about our visit on our next post!

Helgoland
Classic Boats Overdose

Classic Boats Overdose

This time I’m not going to write that much. Instead, I will fill this post with photos of some pretty amazing boats we had the pleasure to see up close. I have always loved classic, wooden boats, and I don’t think there could be anything more beautiful than a long, slender 12 mR yacht in all her splendour and elegance of good old days… except perhaps a J class boat, that’s even longer and more splendid and elegant – but I have not yet seen one with my own eyes!

When we first heard there was going to be a big regatta for classic boats in our “home marina” – well, we’ve stayed here the whole summer, and feel very much at home, so I might as well call it our home marina – we got so excited we could hardly sleep at night. I did, anyway. Come to think of it, I did sleep just fine. I don’t think anything could really affect my ability to sleep. But I was excited!

The regatta was called German Classics 2018, and it was held at the marina in Laboe, near Kiel, on the weekend of August 16th to 19th.

On the preceding Wednesday we saw a great, dark blue boat in the Laboe harbour as we dinghied into town for our grocery shopping. And she was flying a Finnish flag! We knew it was Blue Marlin, a 12 mR yacht that can often be seen sailing in the waters of Helsinki – we spotted her a couple of times ourselves while sailing there on our little boat.

The next day the town basin began to fill with more boats. There were other 12 mR yachts – ten of them altogether – but many others as well, big and small. Many smaller ones sailed in as they had no engines, and it was interesting to watch the skill and experience of their skippers and crew as they maneuvered their way in through such tight spaces.

Here are some of the 12 mR yachts that participated in the race. Click the thumbnails to see bigger pictures and read more about the yachts!

The races began on Friday. It was rainy, so we didn’t see much of what was going on. But in the evening the skies had cleared and it was warm again as we walked into town to enjoy the lively atmosphere. The harbour basin was absolutely packed with boats, and what a colourful sight it was with all the wet clothing and bright spinnaker sails hanging out to dry!

Saturday was the second and final day of the races, and the weather looked much better. We parked our dinghy just inside the town harbour’s breakwater, where we could see all the yachts heading out towards the sea.

As soon as the big 12 mR yachts were out, we set out to pursue them, but alas! – they were all so much faster than our little dinghy! The starting line was somewhere further off, and with the choppy waves that kept breaking over our bow and sending spray over us and our cameras, we decided not to follow the great fleet of boats any further. Still, it was wonderful to see all these wooden beauties out there sailing in such great numbers.

Back in the Laboe town quay there were big festivities again in the evening, and for a classic boat enthusiast it afforded a great chance to have a good look at the wonderful boats, so gorgeous down to the smallest detail.

Aren’t they beautiful? Click the thumbnails to see their details up close!

No Plan B – Just Life

No Plan B – Just Life

During the long, dark winter evenings we planned our great journey south. We would cast off on the 1st of June, make a quick stop at Gdansk, and by July we would be through the Kiel Canal and well on our way down the English Channel – in time to cross the Bay of Biscay before the summer was over.

We did cast off on the 1st of June. Our stop at Gdansk didn’t turn out to be a very quick one, but eventually we were on our way again, in the direction of Kiel, Germany. And in Kiel we arrived. Now, almost two months later, we are still in Kiel. What happened?

This is a blog about sailing, about leaving our ordinary lives behind, casting the lines and heading into the unknown. While I have written about some very personal experiences involved in such a big life change, you may have noticed I haven’t actually included that much personal detail about us. Perhaps I may do that in the future, but to me it feels quite insignificant. We’re just an ordinary middle-aged couple, who wanted a change, and made it happen. Those of our readers who don’t know us personally, are probably here for the sailing and for the journey, and those who do know us, will likely acquire their knowledge of our personal matters through other sources. But maybe some kind of an explanation of the delay is in order.

So – what happened? We stopped in the wonderful Marina Baltic Bay in Laboe, a small town at the mouth of the Kiel Bay, for some boat projects. We had a clever electronics wizard onboard who found out why our autopilot and navigation instruments had died – and could breathe life back into them. We had new batteries installed that doubled our energy storage capacity. We had a new battery monitor installed. We changed the whole running rigging. We fixed the creaking floors before they would collapse. And more, and then some more.

But it wasn’t just the boat’s batteries, vents, pumps, wires, and central units that were being diagnosed and treated – some of our human parts needed fixing too. And that’s why we stayed. July was over, August came and went. After the initial shock and worry, there was the festering uncertainty of whether we would be able to resume our journey – and to which direction? How late in the year would it still be possible to cross the Biscay? How long would it still be safe to sail down the Atlantic Spain and Portugal? What would happen to all our plans about reaching the Mediterranean at a certain time? Of seeing a number of islands before settling down for the winter?

It felt aimless and frustrating to be stuck like this. We were the front seat spectators to all the other boats heading through the Kiel Canal and beyond – they would stop at the marina for a night or two, and then be on their way. We would stay.

One of the boats doing a very quick pit stop in Kiel was Ocean Lady, heading towards the Canaries for the ARC Atlantic Rally, with the first Finnish lady crew to participate in the race. A mysterious Finnish couple in a rubber dinghy helped the Ocean Ladies find a berth in the Laboe Marina, but the next morning, before we had a chance to introduce ourselves properly, they were already in the Kiel Canal…

But then, one fine day, it dawned on me. It – the Journey. We were on our journey, we are on our journey. Why should we care if we can’t exactly follow a line that’s been drawn on a chart, or reach a certain town or anchorage or some other spectacular place marked with a dot? We have left our home far behind, we have sailed the first 800 nautical miles quite convincingly. We can stop and stay for a while, and we don’t have to call it a delay. Delay from what? We didn’t miss a flight. We weren’t late for work. There is no deadline for our journey, except – well, the deadline…

So, instead of moping and waiting impatiently for some indeterminable departure date and a permission to leave, we decided to enjoy all the wonderful things around us. After all, not everyone is just passing through Kiel. Many come here to race their boats in the numerous regattas (more about this on our next post!), many more enjoy the beautiful sandy beaches and clear waters. The small towns around the Bay are full of life, summer festivals, excellent food and interesting things to do and see. Buses and ferries run frequently to the city and other villages, and we have a great little dinghy for exploring the surroundings at our own leisure.

The Kiel Bay is full of interesting boats to see! Click the thumbnails to see captions and bigger pictures.

The people are friendly and helpful. We particularly like their cheerful ”Moin, moin!” greeting that reminds us of home – perhaps it was the Hansa tradesmen from around here, who introduced this greeting to the Finnish language. Everything works with the well known German punctuality, be it a boat servicing appointment, a boat parts delivery, or a doctor’s examination. We are in safe and professional hands, as one would expect, but it’s the genuine kindness and warmth we have come across, that has quite taken us by surprise!

So, we are on our journey, and our journey will continue. Soon, but not necessarily on a set, fixed date. We will go south, just like we have planned all along. But we have learned a thing or two about plans lately. It will be hard, particularly for me, as I do so like to make plans – but we have to be ready to chuck them whenever something more interesting or fascinating comes along. 

We won’t make it to the Mediterranean this year, but it no longer matters. Instead of long passages of several days and nights we will make short daily hops and take our time in the places we will stop. No worries, no hurries, no must-do’s or see’s. Just think how many wonderful places we would have sailed past without as much as a passing notion, if we had kept to our original plan? 

Turning that wheel across the Southern Baltic

Turning that wheel across the Southern Baltic

Our boatyard visit in Gdansk was supposed to be a quick two week pit stop on our way far, far south from the Baltic Sea. We ended up staying for five weeks – partly because we kept having new ideas the whole time while observing the work in progress. The end result, a stern arch that accommodates a sizable array of solar panels and quite a lot of other equipment, is a piece of excellent workmanship, so the visit was definitely worth it. Now we should be able to produce all our electricity, without the need of sailing to marinas to plug in. 

Click the thumbnails to see bigger pictures and captions

But we were anxious to leave! So anxious in fact, that we just upped and left – and forgot to clear up and tie down things down below. We had been in the safety of a quiet river and had forgotten all about the big waves in the southern Baltic! What a mess they made inside the boat! But first we made just a short trip to downtown Gdansk, where we planned to do some provisioning the next day. Before the Gdansk Marina there is an opening bridge. We would have had to wait for an hour for the next opening. It proved an impossible mission, particularly as there was a very cosy looking Italian restaurant right in front of the waiting area. We ended up having pizza instead of waiting for the bridge, and made the quayside our own little marina.

We started the next leg of our journey from Gdansk on Wednesday evening, July 11th. It was a downwind sail in a pretty good easterly wind, but the waves were still on the beam because the wind had been blowing from the north for a good while. Poling out the genoa would have helped the awkward situation, but our spinnaker pole lines were in such a bad shape it was out of the question. Our whole running rigging was in such a bad shape, we didn’t want to put unnecessary strain on it. New lines and halyards would be waiting for us in Germany, we just had to get there.

After the first night, as we were sailing west along Poland’s coast, our autopilot died. It had felt rock solid, so it was a real surprise. We were still over a 100 nautical miles from Bornholm, where we had planned to take a little break. After hand steering the whole way we really needed that break! Keeping a steady course is hard enough in daylight, but on a cloudy, moonless night it’s next to impossible. Especially after the wind died and we had to motor, there was no way to tell where the boat was headed, other than staring at the compass.

After a 40 hour sail in gloomy, grey weather with several rainy patches we suddenly saw the island of Bornholm smile at us in bright sunlight. It was a hot day! We made our way into the marina at Rønne, the island’s biggest town. The next day we took a bus to Allinge, a small town on the northwestern corner of the island. Bornholm must be the sweetest place in Denmark, and consequently the whole world, since Denmark must be the world’s sweetest country! We topped up our tanks for beauty, peace and harmony in just a couple of days, but felt like we could have stayed for months – or a lifetime, for that matter.

Allinge’s small harbour was absolutely packed with boats. There was a summer festival at the main square next to the harbour, with live music and a wonderful atmosphere. We had a delicious lunch at one of the several smokeries – “røgeri” – and lazed around admiring the rocky northern coast of the island.

It was time to move on again. Leaving on Sunday, July 15th, we had a good day of sailing before getting caught in a dead calm. The calm lasted all the way to Kiel, but at least the sea was flat which made hand steering easier. And there were plenty of wind farms and shipping lanes to keep the helmsman from falling asleep.

Then we lost all of our navigation instruments: the wind, speed, depth. They had been taking occasional naps before, but now they were as dead as the autopilot. We’ve had such a wide variety of problems with our boat’s systems and equipment, and now yet another one! But what is there to do, but to shrug, smile, and resign to your fate. At least we would soon be in Kiel, where we might be able to find professional help in fixing our systems. And there would be a package full of ropes and batteries there waiting for us – and a brand new dinghy!

The dinghy is here! But how did it get so filthy on our first trip together?
The Malbork Castle and its War Thirsty Knights

The Malbork Castle and its War Thirsty Knights

Navigare necesse est, like they used to say in Rome. But there are other things almost as important to us – like history and architecture, and especially these two combined – that are as much the reason for this journey as the sailing itself.

Three and a half weeks into our two week boatyard stopover, and several days of freezing in a northerly gale we were quite ready for a little change of scenery. So we took a bus to the Gdansk railway station, boarded a train and travelled about 50 km to the southeast. There in the middle of lush fields and pretty country villages stands a magnificent medieval castle by the name of Malbork.

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Malbork, originally called Marienburg, is the world’s largest brick castle. Series of defensive walls and moats surround the Outer Bailey, the Middle Castle, and the High Castle, complete with the Grand Master’s Palace and the Church of the Virgin Mary. The numerous yards used to be filled with auxiliary buildings such as workshops, mills, armories, larders and cellars necessary to maintain a large army of knights and monks.

The castle was built by the Teutonic Order, formed in 1190 to aid Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land. Its original services included security and health care, but the Muslim invasion of Palestine made things a bit tricky and sent the knights north in search of new employment. After a couple of detours they found it on the shores of the Baltic Sea, that were inhabited by ancient folks called Old Prussians. Here the humble charity work gave way to a more boisterous occupation of converting pagans with swords and bayonets.

Grand Masters of the Teutonic Order

The brotherhood had notable friends, such as the Holy Roman Emperor, under who’s protection it quickly grew into an independent monastic state that spanned from today’s Poland to the northern reaches of Estonia. The knights monopolised the trade of amber and carried taxes from people and commerce. Their success in battle was based on the latest know-how in fortification technology and on their heavy cavalry. The Malbork Castle was one of over 120 castles from which the knights ruled their land. The building works started in the 1270’s. In 1309 the Grand Master’s seat was moved to Malbork from Venice and the castle had to embody this remarkable status.

The knight’s profession provided a decent career path to the younger sons of noble families, who had no inheritance to look forward to. They took the oath of obedience, chastity, and poverty. But they didn’t have to give up all the pleasures, for big tournaments were held within the castle walls, and the fine vaulted ceilings could undoubtedly tell a story or two of feasts with no lack of food, beer or wine. On a normal day at the office these knights were busy with projects like ”the Slaughter of Gdansk”, which left the whole town levelled, buildings and people and all. After a couple of hundred years, the ancient Prussian language and culture had vanished without a trace.

In 1410 the Teutonic Order lost the battle of Grunwald to the Polish King Wladislaw II Jagiello and his cousin, the Grand Duke Vytautas of Lithuania. The Malbork castle could withstand a long siege with no trouble, but the knights’ payroll was delayed. For compensation, they sold the castle to the Kingdom of Poland, and in 1466 it became one of the royal residences. In 1772 Poland was divided into three parts, and the majestic Malbork castle was turned into barracks for the army of the Prussian kingdom. The soldiers had no interest in gothic architecture, and used the great halls for equestrian training among other things.

At the beginning of the 19th century – lucky for us today’s tourists – historical monuments became fashionable. Restoration works were started to preserve what was left of Malbork, and during the next 100 years the castle was painstakingly brought back to it’s former glory. Then the Second World War happened, and in 1945 more than half the castle was destroyed in a battle – back to square one! Fortunately, the drawings and documents from the previous restoration survived, which helped the work that is still ongoing. The Malbork Castle became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1997.

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