Position: 52°22’40.3″N 4°38’18.1″E
If only this was the beginning of a recently discovered manuscript by Ralph Ellison we would all be enriched! Sadly, it is not. It is our thoroughly engaging tale of getting halfway to (the OG) Haarlem.
Leaving Holland’s main rivers with their frenetic commercial shipping and entering the smaller canals relieves the captain of a great deal of stress. Some of the remaining stress is channelled into worrying about depths and bridge heights, but these pale in comparison to being run over by a Rhine Barge bearing down on you at 16 knots, knowing whatever the outcome you, the sportsbote owner, are at fault – not the other guy.
The vast majority of bridges along smaller canals are bascule bridges, also known as lifting or drawbridges. Often the clearance below them is only a couple of metres. These bridges, common in towns and villages, open on demand. Demands can be made by VHF radio, cell phone, or even automatically through your navigation app. We rarely did any of those things since a Dutchman would have beaten us to the bridge and made the call already. These days there’s a 50-50 chance the bridge has an attendant on site. Automation is creeping in and now one operator watching a monitor in a central location may manage a half dozen bridges, or more.
Important bridges on arterial lines like railways or motorways operate on a strict schedule. Understanding that means the savvy captain does some forward planning to match the opening times, or risk waiting two to twelve hours for the next opening.
Inevitably delays occur. On-demand bridges may take longer to open, or close sooner than anticipated. Large amounts of up or downstream traffic will slow progress, too. Crappy planning and misreading the timetable will also cause problems. It was some combination of those events that found us in Kaag, halfway to Haarlem, with no bridge opening until morning.
Pulling over at a rickety dock we tied off and tried to decide what to do next. It was about 17:30 and Kaag is surrounded by watersports facilities, so finding a tie-up for the night shouldn’t have been hard. Except depths in the area are all about five feet and we draw six. As we sat in the cockpit searching for a place to stay, a young woman came out of the house opposite us and told us pointedly that we were on her dock and it was private. No problem! We’re only here for a moment, we’ll leave shortly. That answer seemed to satisfy her and she disappeared again.
A quick survey of the town’s mooring facilities led us to the conclusion we’d already nabbed the best spot. That despite having fallen through a rotten board and nearly gashing my leg when I jumped off to tie Aleta’s lines. With a little light-footed care, we were at least secure until morning. Carol suggested I knock on the woman’s door and ask if we could stay. “Go on, you’re a guy. You’ll charm her into letting us stay,” she suggested in a gender normative stereotyping way. I figured 20 Euro would more than cover it.
I knocked on the door and a young-ish bearded chap cautiously stuck his head out. “Hi, I don’t speak Dutch, is English okay?” It was. “If I give you 20 Euros, can we stay on your dock overnight?”, I ventured. His eyes visibly widened at the offer and his hand almost involuntarily reached out for the cash. “Sure, no problem,” he replied. Deal done, I was halfway back to Aleta when I realised I had forgotten to ask for his Wifi password.
In Haarlem Hurricanes Hardly Ever Happen…
Rising bright and early we cast off the lines and waited for the Ringvaartspoorbrug and Kaagbrug’s prompt opening. From there it was a short trip into Haarlem. It was as well we arrived early in the day, since many of the moorings were occupied. The city’s roving bridge referee was a tremendous help. Her job wasn’t to operate the bridges. Rather, it seemed she was an ambassador for visiting boats; and she helped coordinate openings for the smaller bridges in the centre of town.
If you want a quick lesson in the different types of opening bridges in Holland, Haarlem has them lined up for you. One after the other. Heading in from the south a beautiful modernist bascule bridge on a busy road provides access to the city centre canals. Next is a late 19th century swing bridge, the Melkbrug (Milkbridge), which sits on a fairly sharp corner. After that the Gravenstenenbrug, a small, traditional double lift bridge reserved for pedestrian traffic completes your tour. Everything else is a variation on one of those designs. In Haarlem, each bridge provides enough clearance for one of those low-slung tourist barges to ply up and down the canal easily.
We spent three days longer in Haarlem than we anticipated. We quite liked it by the time we left, even though high prices reflect its proximity to Amsterdam. The historic central core is ringed by modern buildings, themselves surrounded by neighbourhoods of large, fancy, single family homes. With lots of students and plenty of microbreweries and cafés to visit we felt right at home. Note, if you’re visiting Holland, there are two kinds of café, one serving coffee, the other marijuana and sometimes coffee as well. Let your nose be your guide.
On our second day we rented bicycles and toured the Zuid-Kennemerland National Park nearby. Wild horses greeted us at the end of the bike trail, along with the rain blowing in off the North Sea. On our way back a squall nearly knocked Carol off her bike. It was a harbinger of more bad weather due for the next day.
A nasty low hung over the UK and blasted 60 knot gusts straight towards the Dutch coast. Tucked in behind the canal wall and a line of mature trees, we kept our fingers crossed no damage would befall Aleta. The storm blew a force 9 gale for about five hours until it eventually began dying down. By that time Aleta was covered in leaves and small branches but was otherwise intact. The winds were almost as strong (at the top of Aleta’s mast) as the ones we saw in Sandy Hook, New Jersey, when 70 knot gusts howled through the harbour there. That time we had the good sense to be tucked up in bed in a hotel.
The following morning we joined a long line of boats heading towards Amsterdam and the inland seas of the Markemeer and the Ijsselmeer. Both of us having been to Amsterdam several times decided that we’d give it a miss this time and steer directly for Friesland, a place neither of us had been to. The wide Nordsee Canal was easily navigated and surprisingly quiet. Only a few ferries aimed to sink us, but they were on a schedule and pointed directly at their destination, allowing us to avoid catastrophe.
The Markemeer is the first large sea you reach after leaving the Nordsee Canal’s last lock. Like the Ijsselmeer it is really a lagoon. And a man made one at that. Both bodies of water average three metres in depth. Something to consider when the winds pick up and cast waves of a metre or more. Ever thoughtful, the Dutch carved out a protected anchorage not far from the lock joining the two seas. While Carol prepped green beans for dinner, I spent 20 minutes trying to capture the perfect sunset photo and listening to the cheerful trill of the birds as they chatted and dined in the waning light. We were halfway to Friesland.