Storms and Friends
15 June 2017 | Marstal, Aero Island, Denmark
Barbara/7 knots wind, thin high clouds
We last wrote as we were arriving in Vlieland following a very interesting passage through the North Sea. As it turns out, the North Sea wasn’t done with us. We had only planned to spend two leisurely days in Vlieland, enjoying some beach time and learning about the Frisian Islands culture. But the sun was nowhere to be seen, and instead we found ourselves buffeted by strong winds, thunder, lightning, and occasional downpours. We paid for one additional night and then another, after hearing that the North Sea had waves of 5 meters (16 feet) plus.
We had moored along one side of the marina, alongside the dike between the marina and the sea. As it turns out that wasn’t so wonderful, although there weren’t really many places in the marina that were better. The maximum wind gust we recorded was 58.6 knots, and for the first day and night we had sustained winds of 45-50 knots. The wind blew at us sideways, across the dike, and for most of that first day and night we were heeled over 15 degrees, just from the force of the wind on the mast and rigging. You’d think it would have gotten better at low tide, when we were 10 feet or so lower alongside the dike, but it didn’t seem to make much difference. I got out our high-seas rubberized mats so that the dishes wouldn’t slide across the counters. We doubled up our mooring lines, and added many ties to the rigging to attempt to stop the clatter. As I lay in bed that first night, I could hear at least 5 different rhythms clattering in my ears, and I truly thought (in one of those sleepiness-enhanced fears) that we were going to be torn off the dock and thrown across the harbor. I moved onto one of the center-of-the-boat settees, and slept much better.
That first day, a ferry came into the marina, docking with an amazing feat of seamanship in a harbor that didn’t have much more room for her than just to rotate on an axis. It was a three-deck ferry, and we can’t even figure out how she got in the narrow entrance. Certainly the rotation was done with the assistance of bow thrusters and stern thrusters, but still incredible.
(We’ve now learned that most of the sailboats and motorboats in our size range have bow thrusters, and the marinas are sometimes built with tight turns and narrow waterways that seem to assume everyone will have them. At first we were a bit scornful because piloting a boat with bow thrusters seems to require a lesser degree of boat handling skill, but I think we will come to regret that Sequoia doesn’t have them.)
After that first day and night in Vlieland, things improved a bit, but the forecast was still for high winds (in the 40 knot range) so we elected to remain. We ventured out to the harbormasters office, to the Marina’s restaurant and to the little convenience store for some basic groceries. The convenience store catered primarily to the tourists who weren’t there because of the weather. Out in front of the store they had a big display of beach chairs, sand toys, pails, shovels and the like. It seemed incongruous given the actual weather out on the beaches. In heavy rain, we walked the kilometer to the showers in our foul weather gear. It wasn’t actually that cold, so there was a risk that coming back from the shower you’d need a shower again.
We met some of the other sailors who were stuck there for three or four days, and made some new friends. Many people were able to advise us about sailing in the North Sea, passing through the Kiel Canal, and some of the places worth visiting in the Baltic. One generous sailor headed in the other direction has loaned us his charts for the Kiel Canal up to the south of Denmark, and we’ll mail those back to him in a week or so. It seems like an incredible act of generosity.
There were a number of historical Dutch boats in the harbor, apparently there for sail training. They didn’t go out during these stormy days, but there were always plenty of people aboard. As the weather improved we walked to the village of Oost Vlieland, found some groceries and a nice restaurant. The walk took us by the village’s ferry landing, where we watched more incredible feats of seamanship as the ferry headed into the landing, then used a heavy piling to pivot around 180 degrees ending up with its stern to the vehicle ramp. (All this during winds of about 25 knots). During the process, the engines stirred the water into a frenzy, and the seagulls went crazy, going for small sea critters that were sucked by the turbulence onto the surface.
We very much liked Vlieland, despite the rather trying circumstances of our first visit. I’m sure we’ll be back.
Finally, after consulting with the harbormaster and the weather forecast, we decided to head out on Friday midday. The Dutch historic training ships were headed out as well, and we enjoyed watching them handling the big sails and the huge leeboards. The route north around the island and into the North Sea requires careful navigation. We were told that the sands shift with every storm, and that the Dutch relocate some buoys every week. (None of that is reflected on current charts, so you just have to trust the Dutch Navy that the buoys are going to be in the right place.) (They were).
We planned an overnight passage to Brunsbüttel, which is just at the entrance to the Kiel canal. The passage was more or less uneventful. In these northern latitudes at this time of year, it never really gets dark. The sun goes down at about 10 pm and it’s back up by 3 am. The horizon is light all that time, and there was a full moon to boot. We had an easy time seeing all the huge ships heading to or from Hamburg or the Kiel Canal. There was an extensive wind farm with a red light on every wind turbine, oil platforms, and every kind of navigation buoy at frequent intervals. There was a large field of freighters anchored, apparently waiting their turn for dock space at Bremerhaven. The wind was favorable and we made good time for our entrance to the Kiel Canal.
You never know what the lock set-up is going to be, what lines you need to have ready and where to position your fenders. Our first lock experience was in Ballard (Seattle) many years ago, and my recollection is that you had to have two 150 foot lines in case they routed you through the big locks and you needed the lines to go up and back, even when you were at the lowest water level. The smaller locks had floating bollards that slid up and down in channels, so you were always tied closely to the wall, level with the boat. We had no idea what the Kiel Canal locks would have.
As it turned out there was a third system in use – floating platforms were along the sides of the locks, with rings on the floats as attachment points. The platforms were only about 8 inches high, so your fenders needed to be down in the water. Someone had to be prepared to jump off to run lines through the rings. So of course we were prepared for something else altogether, and there was a mad scurry to change our arrangements to match the conditions. It was something of a fire drill, and some of the other boaters looked on with amusement (or perhaps I’m imagining all that).
The water level changed very little between the North Sea and the Kiel Canal, so locking through didn’t take much time at all (except for the wait while boats filed into the lock). We exited the other side and immediately turned left into the Brunsbüttel marina, where we were to meet Cori and Jens Kosyna. There was a fair/flea market in full swing, with amusement rides, food carts, vendor tables and big crowds. Between the fair and the dock there was a narrow waterway and a railing. We felt somewhat like zoo animals on display behind a fence and moat. The amazing thing about Brunsbüttel is that when you turn away from the fair in the opposite direction, you’re just a few feet away from absolutely monstrous ships heading into or out of the lock. We felt like awe-struck children in the land of the giants.
Cori and Jens were driving over from the Kosyna family sailboat, two hours away in Arnis. The plan was that they would ride through the Kiel Canal with us, meeting the rest of the family at the other end, and retrieving the car at a later date. After they arrived we had dinner together and then got some well-deserved sleep for an early departure the next morning.
The Kiel Canal is a wonder of 19th century German engineering. Very well maintained, and big enough to accommodate large ocean-going freighters. It was our job to stay out of their way. Being Sunday, the charges for commercial boats was much higher, so the traffic was very light. Every now and then there is a ferry crossing, almost always with a hotel or cafe alongside. Sometimes the buildings appear to be quite historic at the ferry crossings. Alongside the canal, on both sides, there is a path for hikers, bikers and even an occasional motorcycle.
The canal is 53 miles long, so it took us pretty much all day. At the end we reached the Holtenau locks, where quite a bit of construction is taking place. Only one of the four locks is now in operational condition, so they’ve waived the lock fees for recreational boats. Ahead of us in the lock, there was an extremely large barge, with tugs on both ends, carrying what appeared to be the bottom of a very large ship under construction. Each half of the ship bottom was the full width of the barge. The barge filled about 80% of the lock’s width, so this ship, when assembled, will not be able to go through the Kiel Canal.
Waiting for us at the Holtenau Marina in Kiel were the rest of the Kosyna family – Cori & Jens’s two children and Jens’s parents. Cori was an exchange student from Austria who stayed with us for a year, back when we lived in Forest Grove. We have maintained a close relationship with her and Jens, although the last time we saw them was at their wedding 6 years ago in Hamburg. They now have two happy, bright boys with a lot of energy. The boys reminded us a bit of our two sons when they were that age. We had met Jens’s parents at the wedding, but we really got to know them better on this trip, and we feel like we have become good friends.
Kiel was getting ready for “Kiel Week” which is a nautical celebration with many historic ships. We ended up tied on a dock with 6 or 7 big Dutch sailing ships, some square-rigged, and all with lee-boards instead of keels. They were all in the range of 70-100 feet long. During the 18 hours we were there, we saw more and more of the Dutch ships come in, and as we have moved North, we have seen yet more of them, mostly heading south toward Kiel.
Monday morning, accompanied by Cori and her older son, we sailed north toward the Kosynas’ home port of Arnis on the Schlei inlet. We headed into a Northwest wind, which gradually quickened to 30 knots, making for somewhat of a wild ride. We pared the sails down to a minimum – 3 reefs and a reefed jib. Two of those historic Dutch ships blasted past us, having a great sail, likely heading for another of these historic ship festivals known to Cori.
Arriving at the Schlei inlet, we found the marina at Maasholm, which had side-tie space available. (More about the trials and tribulations of docking at marinas in the Baltic Sea in a future blog post.) For the next two days, waiting out the strong winds, we had a great time with the Kosyna family, checking out available restaurants, re-provisioning, and having lots of good conversation.
I will leave you there, and I promise lots more good adventures to come!