Position: 53°52’26.1″N 8°42’29.6″E
After crossing the Ijsselmeer, the towns of Lemmer, Stavoren, and Haarlingen are your three options for continuing on the Staand Mastroute (SMR) across Friesland. Our ultimate goal was the route’s farthest starting/end point, Delfzijl. To get there, Harlingen is the quickest option as it sits on the main commercial canal. Popular with non-commercial traffic, Lemmer offers the longest and most scenic route. Stavoren sits between the two and splits the difference. We opted for Stavoren. Leaving the Ijsselmeer and joining Friesland’s canals meant negotiating a lock. After giving way to a long parade of sailing barges, we entered the lock, tied up and slowly rose the required metre then headed east. Our first stop was Sneek (pronounced Snits for reasons only Sneekers understand).
Sneek claims it is the centre of Dutch water sports. In the warm summer sun and gentle 12 knot breezes, we saw hundreds of sailboats, sailing barges, rowers, windsurfers, and power boats buzzing about the inland lakes just south of the city. Sailing up the main canal we found the perfect spot on a robust municipal pontoon. It came with water and electricity, too.
Within 20 minutes of tying up, however, the harbour master rode up on his bicycle, looking for all the world like Sergeant Carter of Gomer Pyle fame. He chastised us for tying up to the water point and informed us we couldn’t stay. “But we need lots of water!”, Carol protested. That got a chuckle out of him. He pointed across the river and said we could moor behind a large stinkpot. Then added, “The town is empty, by the way. Lots of places to tie up there.” After filling Aleta with water we headed for town.
Passing through a bascule bridge, the narrow canal urged us forward as far as the next bridge. Rather than delay our departure with an additional bridge opening, we pulled over in front of a sailboat from the UK, crewed by Simon and Pauline. Tall, with salt and pepper hair, and wearing sweatpants that Carol found attractive, Simon helped us tie off our lines. Then we chatted for a few minutes about the SMR by way of introducing ourselves.
He said they’d been traveling for a few weeks, and we were the first non-Dutch/ Belgian/ German boat they’d seen. It seems the Brits either don’t know about the canals or choose to ignore them. Which is a pity, or a joy, depending on how you feel about the British.
The quayside began filling up as the evening wore on, but things on the whole were quiet. Carol spent a few minutes feeding a family of moorhens stale bread sticks. The little ones would cheep and call, while mum and dad kept them from paddling forward. But the chicks were always fed first from the small handfuls of crumbs cast overboard.
When it came time to leave early the next morning, I watched a motor cruiser about Aleta’s length turn itself around in the wider part of the canal at a corner immediately ahead of us. There was just enough room, and they had a bow thruster. Undaunted when it was our turn, I took note that our davits were at the same height as the cars parked alongside the canal. That added some stress to the exercise. But I managed to point Aleta in the right direction without shredding any shoreside sheet metal.
Continuing east the Prinses Margrietkanaal, the official SMR turns off the wide, four-metre-deep canal towards Grou and heads north to join the main commercial canal. Reading the chart’s fine print, it turns out the Fonejachtbrug hasn’t opened since 2009. Aleta’s mast towers 18.5 metres (60-ish feet) high, so she wasn’t going to fit under it. She also draws 1.9 metres (6’) and the SMR through Grou is 1.7 metres.
Suffice it to say, we tried. Following the route signs and heading around the buoys in the proper manner, the depth sounder showed three feet under the keel. Things quicky got sticky. There was one other alternative canal a mile in front of the broken bridge. Poking around there also proved sticky and gooey and not much fun. We turned around and headed back towards Stavoren, just in time for a nasty squall to come in and complete our frustrating day.
Harlingen was our next entry point. That meant leaving the Ijsselmeer and going out into the North Sea for a few miles, then heading into Harlingen. It was late when we arrived and the weather forecast for the next couple of days didn’t look great, so we pulled into the old harbour in the centre of town and tied up alongside the wall. Tides still ran to ten feet, which made pulling lines entertaining. After a day we figured out how to use the municipal fender boards and realised had we motored in a little further we could have had a finger pier all to ourselves.
As it was a lovely German family pulled up right beside us and we rafted up. We are at the age when becoming grandparents isn’t the horrifying prospect it once was, although that prospect remains distant. Having the energy of three boys ranging in age from 9 to 3 around was refreshing. A bit like having a passel of puppies that all spoke good English. Their boat was a vintage centre cockpit Halberg-Rassey from the 1970s which looked for all the world like my uncle’s former boat Mashantam. It was a popular design back then with several thousand made, I learned.
Harlingen is charming. Most older Dutch towns have a picturesque 17th century market square which in a few streets devolves into modern architecture. After a few long walks Haarlingen retained its charm for us. The weather blew in for two days. Long enough for me to meet a fellow American and namesake, Michael. Michael and I went off to the pub in search of decent microbrews and found Brew Dock on the other side of a massive sea wall. Turns out the beer was pretty good, and we discussed life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness from opposite sides of the aisle until we got kicked out.
Everyone grew restless. After our out and back from Stavoren, we decided we’d had enough of the canals and would take a shortcut around the outer islands to the Kiel Canal instead. The winds continued blowing Beaufort 6-7 out of the west.
There’s a lot of Beaufort in these parts. I prefer raw knots to Beaufort’s wind scale, but a Beaufort Force 6 is a ‘Strong Breeze’, 22-27 knots, while at 28-33 knots Force 7 is a ‘Near Gale’. Weather for small craft advisories if you were to experience the same in America.
But, going downwind isn’t Aleta’s favourite point of sail. It takes a lot to keep her moving along happily when the wind is astern. Seas were forecasted in the 1-2 metre range, but they’d be following us. Why not skip the rest of the canals and go around the islands, I reasoned? All being well, we should make good time and cover three days of distance to Cuxhaven and the entrance to the Kiel Canal in just over 24 hours. Carol bought the theory, and suspended disbelief on the practice.
Navigating the narrow channel through the outer Friesland Islands and the North Sea proved slow, work into the wind. Worse, our timing was poor, and we fought a one to two knot current the entire way. Whenever the channel twisted sufficiently to get us off the wind we let out the jib for a lift. The last mile nearly scuppered the plan. The seas built, the wind picked up, and our speed dropped to about three knots at full throttle as we bashed into the waves. Spume flecked across the bow as we crashed ahead.
Not looking forward to another 20 hours of that silliness, Carol asked if there was an alternative? A marina sat not too far away and might give us some relief. It was shallow, but we still had a few hours of high tide on our side. Then as soon as we turned, everything settled down. Taking advantage of the moment, I pointed out that this was how it would be during the passage. Not that spray drenched, salty, into the teeth of the wind baloney we’d been dealing with for the past hour. “If you’re sure that’s how it will be, I’m okay to carry on,” Carol compromised.
Under jib alone, Aleta bounded and corkscrewed down the face of the waves towards Germany, making fantastic time. Our wind speed indicator had taken a bashing in Haarlem’s hurricane and like a punch-drunk boxer babbled data at us. With some interpretation, I figured the wind held at a steady Force 6 through the night and by the morning settled down to a sedate Force 5. The seas never built above two metres. In case you’re wondering, the two metres in the forecast mean the average wave height is approximately two metres high. As we all know, that allows for three, even four metre waves here and there. Some of our wilder rolls sure felt like the work of three metres of swell.
As we reached the northern apex of the islands before turning into the Elbe River, the sandbars and low dunes acted as a windbreak, taking some of the spice out of the seas. We pulled into Cuxhaven for a short overnight and refuelling stop before pressing on for the Kiel Canal the following morning. We both slept very soundly.