Position: 52°22’40.4″N 4°38’18.0″E
Negotiating the English Channel and the northwestern edges of France and Belgium required us to pay more attention to the depth sounder than we had anticipated. The Channel is shallow. Between Guernsey and the Straits of Dover we never registered more than 100 feet on the depth sounder. After Dover we never saw more than 25 feet and often only 12. No-go areas charted between 0 and 3 feet have names like Den Oever (done over?), Trapageer (trap your gear?), and Former Mined Area (nuff said).
This change in topology required a bit of forward planning. It meant figuring out where the shipping channels lay, and how the buoys are laid out, so we could avoid the big ships that might run us over. All that complexity meant keeping our eyes peeled and minds focused – which after 24 hours at sea grows harder with each turn of the watch. After all, there are plenty of things out there that will go bump in the night if you let them.
After you pass Calais there are three main sailing routes to the Baltic Sea:
- Head north around the top of Denmark and through the Skaggerak, a strait, past the umlauts of Göteborg and Malmö and on to the Diacritic Isles.
- Or you could go north around Holland and take a shortcut through Germany along the Kiel Canal.
- Our choice is to cross Holland via its extensive network of canals, lifting bridges, and locks via the ‘Staande Mastroute’ (SMR). We joined the SMR in Vlissingen, at the route’s southern end, and are about halfway through. We should pop out on the German border and from there we’ll go through the Kiel canal.
What is a staande mast, and why does it need a route?
Staande mast translates to standing mast. In other words, a mast that cannot be lowered easily. Thus, the SMR guides sailboats safely across the country with their masts intact. The bonus is there are lots of marinas and fun places to visit along the way.
For some it is a way of avoiding the outside passage, for others it is a holiday adventure in itself. For the Dutch it is a way of life. The SMR is what America’s Intra-Coastal Waterway (ICW) could be if it was still used for commerce, or if Congress believed in social goods.
Aleta is a blue water boat, designed for crossing oceans, not mucking about in canal bilge slosh two metres deep. Here’s a sports analogy that may help illustrate what we’re dealing with:
If you play tennis, or know someone who does (Carol does, I used to a bit), then you know there are two distinct aspects to the game, the service and the volley. The service is the only part of the game that a player controls completely. They cannot blame the other player or the court’s surface for any mistakes made. Once a fair service is in play, then players react to their opponent’s shots. In this way the service is even more mentally challenging than it is physically demanding. You’ve no one to blame but yourself and your lack of practice.
Sailing Aleta is a bit like playing tennis. When we are bounding across the main we react to changes in the wind and the waves, and adjust her sails and direction accordingly. We are reactive. When the sails are stowed and we motor into a harbour, things are in the control of the helmsman. There are no (good) excuses for buggering up manoeuvres and docking. Only a lack of practice. Traveling the SMR is a long series of services: some faults, some aces, and a lot of gentle second shots.
Snug as a Bug
We joined the SMR at its southernmost starting point in Vlissingen. Our first two days of travel involved the steepest of learning curves. A good example of what we’ve been served up recently is our marina in Dordrecht. Tiny in an 18th century way, it hid just off the main river behind a manually operated 19th century swing bridge. I must point out that Aleta lacks a bow thruster which would make life SO much easier when negotiating tight spaces. Fortunately, Tim, my instructor at San Juan Sailing 15 years ago, taught me how to turn a boat around in its length. Carol says I make it look easy. Muah!
Only occasionally do we miss the north sea’s 12-foot depths. On the SMR we’re lucky if there’s six inches clearance beneath Aleta’s keel. The haven meester at our marina outside Gouda assured us that the four-foot-six readings we were getting on our way in were nothing to worry about. “It’s all soft mud,” he said. With enough momentum we ploughed through to our berth, the rudder responding sluggishly in the goo.
Hey Look! Portland, Oregon!
For the first time in a very long time, we are a novelty. American flagged boats are very rare in this neck of Europe. People call out and ask us if we sailed here? Of course!, we say, and get a thumbs up in response. If we have time, we give them the potted history of how we ended up here and curse the plague of Covid 19. We feel like minor celebrities.
Lock Her Up!
The largest locks separate commercial traffic from pleasure craft with designated jachtensluis (yacht locks). Hailing the Volkerak sluismeester (lock keeper) on our VHF radio, I told him our mast stood a full 18.6 metres tall and asked if we had to go through the commercial lock? He asked me, ‘Are you sure your mast is 18.6 metres?’ ‘Yes, very sure”, I replied. “If you are really sure, then you may go through the jachtensluis.”
Two handy displays in front of the lock provided two numbers. One a comfortable 18.7m, the other an ominous 18.2m. Not entirely clear what the meaning was, we relied on the lock keeper’s assurance we’d fit. The broad gates opened and we joined a small commercial barge and five other sailboats waiting to pass through. In general we have taken to keeping to the back of the pack. That way we can watch what others do and learn. Nosing our way in tentatively, the crew of the barge kept calling out, ‘Come forward, come forward.’
That meant squeezing Aleta between their heavy steel hull and a sheer concrete wall 25 feet high. As we inched forward, we looked up and saw that our mast finally cleared the fixed bridge 18.7 metres above our heads. It was then I realized in this lock we were going up, not down. By taking their advice and moving Aleta up we avoided any mishap when the water level rose a half metre. In that moment we learned what the display boards were trying to tell us (bridge clearance before and after the lock filled) and were reminded that the advice of strangers can save you boatloads of money.