The North Sea Again
25 August 2017 | Suffolk Yacht Harbour
Barbara & Craig/Sunny & warm
We finished our last blog post in Göteborg, the first big city we had seen in weeks. We connected up with the local Raymarine service center, and they very gamely honored our warranty on some expensive electronic instrumentation (Yay!) Quite a bit of our time in Göteborg was spent on that repair issue, but we also had a chance to explore the city a bit and spend time with Henrik, Tina and their two kids. So nice to have local friends when you're visiting a new city. The family is newly returned from 7 years in Saudi Arabia, and becoming reacquainted with the summer temperatures in a moderate northern climate. (I'm sure winter will be the real challenge for them).
In the GKSS Marina we watched the local sailing life with amusement. There was a class of 6 year olds every day, being indoctrinated in water safety, group marching and the Swedish style of boating. Teens were very fond of going swimming off the swim platform late at night, long after sunset. I know it's summer, but that looked mighty cold to me (Craig says the surface temperature may have gotten up to 68ºF!). We got laundry done in a space with the best view of any laundry room I've ever encountered. We got the refrigerator loaded up and awaited the arrival of our friend, Peter Mitchell, who had offered to help us with the passage to England. We had met Peter in Florida when we unloaded Sequoia off the Merwedegracht this past March. Peter was there helping his brother, Bob with Bob's sailboat which was also aboard the Merwedegracht.
Three big and related questions were very much on our minds: What did the weather hold for the passage to England? Would we be able to get out of the Schengen zone by our drop-dead date of August 21? What was the best route from Göteborg to England? The Schengen question probably requires the most explanation. All the nations of the EU plus a few more, but not including the UK and Ireland entered into a treaty establishing the "Schengen zone". Most non-EU citizens (including Americans) are restricted to 90 days in the Schengen zone. If you overstay your 90 days, it's not clear what the penalty is. It apparently depends upon the country and the mood of the immigration official you're dealing with. But penalties could include a ban on re-entering the Schengen zone for as much as 10 years. So we were strongly motivated to get out by the August 21 deadline. The question of course is what if awful weather prevents you from leaving? Hence our concern with weather and routing.
We considered going around the top of Denmark. We also considered going through the Limfjord which cuts across Denmark using a slow winding route. The route we finally chose was to go south, past Denmark, into Germany, and through the Kiel Canal. Having Denmark and then Germany between us and the North Sea allowed us to avoid (or at least postpone) some very windy conditions. Then we would have an opportunity to wait out any bad weather at the western end of the Kiel Canal.
Peter arrived, and we immediately cast off and headed south for a 24 hour passage. We had lovely weather with light to moderate winds, passed three different beautiful historic tall ships under full sail, and marveled at some of Denmark's beautifully engineered bridges between its islands. We stayed overnight at Nyborg and the next day continued to Holtenau at the east end of the Kiel Canal.
The next day we motored the length of the Kiel Canal to Brunsbuttel, where we had first met Cori & Jens at the beginning of the summer. There was a real traffic jam at Brunsbuttel. (Everyone poised to finish their summer cruise?) It became obvious that we would have to raft onto other boats in what was really a fairly small space. After initially rafting to a large power boat, a space on the dock became available, so we moved over. Not long after that we had three other boats rafted onto us. We took the opportunity to have a restaurant dinner at a Croatian restaurant which sounded interesting. It turned out the maître d' was Pakistani, and quite a charming fellow. Craig wanted to order a hot spicy dish, and the maître d' warned him against the particular one he selected. Turns out the maître d' was right.
The weather reports indicated some strong winds were coming in a day or two. Our choices were to wait at Brunsbuttel (a mob scene), to continue out the Elbe River to Cuxhaven (an unknown quantity), or to go 16 miles out into the "Bight of Germany" to Helgoland and be prepared to wait there. We chose to go out the Brunsbuttel lock and down the Elbe to Cuxhaven. The current flowing out of the Elbe River gave us a strong boost, and it looked like the winds would hold off for hours, so we decided to continue on to Helgoland, a tiny island 16 nm out into the North Sea.
What a different sort of place! It turns out we spent three days there, departing on the last possible day to meet the Schengen rules. In the interim there were some very strong winds and exciting looking seas outside the entrance.
Helgoland is well-known among the Germans as a duty-free zone. Everyday small cruise ships disgorge hordes of German tourists onto the island. Many come equipped with roller-bags which they pack full of liquor. The island has belonged to Denmark, England and Germany in recent history. After World War II, the Brits had the island and used it as a bombing range. Great parts of the island were obliterated, and when it was finally handed back to Germany in 1952, rebuilding had to start from scratch. The island is covered with pre-fab houses and hotels painted bright colors. There were offices selling condos, although I cannot for the life of me imagine why anyone would want to live there. The only vehicles seem to be electric, and bicycles are prohibited (!!!?) The winds are so strong that only the hardiest plants can grow there. There are lots of duty-free shops, but also curio, souvenir shops, restaurants, bakeries, jewelery stores, coffee shops - all for the tourist, apparently. Once the little cruise ships leave in the afternoon, everything shuts down. There are some nice restaurants, and we did find one where we met some other boaters who were in the harbor with us.
The responsibility for the harbor is seemingly divided between the "sea refuge" people, the local sailing club, the "marina" and the SAR (Search and Rescue) folks. Then there was some entirely separate organization that ran the toilets and showers. They charged 1 euro for using the toilet, or 2 euros if you also want to wash your hands. What kind of public health policy does that encourage?
We were tied up to the dock in the "sea refuge" section. It was designed to have rows of boats rafted to each other. We were first tied to a sailboat called the Helgoland Express which was owned and operated by a fellow who runs a sailing school based on the run between Germany and Helgoland. Two other boats were rafted outside us. The Helgoland Express left the day after we got there, and we maneuvered our way directly onto the dock. Soon after there were three boats rafted onto us. Apparently there are times when up to 12 boats are rafted together. There are 7 or 8 spots on the dock where lines of rafted-together boats anchor their rafts. The lines of boats have a hard time staying straight, so the 12th one ties onto a buoy that's out there in the marina just for that purpose. Even so, in the kinds of wind we were having, it seems like it would be very hard on a boat to have 11 other boats pressing against it. I'm sure lots of fenders are being popped when there are that many boats.
On August 20, the winds were very strong (we saw up to 39 knots on the anemometer), but some easing was predicted for the next day. We planned to leave regardless, having in mind our Schengen zone deadline. It turned out that most of the harbor emptied out on the 21st, most heading back toward Germany (having stoked up on cases of wine, liquor and beer). We headed west toward England. I was edging toward seasickness in the big seas, and Craig and Peter very kindly took over most of my duties. Fortunately the seas moderated, and by the next morning, things were much easier (and my incipient seasickness gone).
The North Sea is relatively shallow, and is full of wind farms, oil platforms and lots of ships. We stayed out of the traffic lanes, but had a lot of work dodging fishing boats, wind farms, and the various other obstacles that were out there. I was glad to have prepared food for the passage ahead of time, so there was relatively little work needed to keep the crew well-nourished.
We had originally intended to sail to Portsmouth, and put the boat there for the winter. But while in the Göta canal, we had met an English boater who persuaded us that the East Anglia area would serve our winter storage needs just as well, and at a significantly lower cost and much shorter distance from Germany. So we were headed to Suffolk Yacht Harbour on the Orwell River near Ipswich. The passage was about 300nm, about 2 days, although we had to slow down significantly so that we wouldn't arrive in the pre-dawn hours.
At the mouth of the Orwell River there is a huge container port, and the traffic control contacted us as we approached, directing us toward the path for yachts that had not been immediately obvious to us from the chart. Shortly thereafter two very large container ships exited the port, taking all available space in the deep traffic channel. We continued on to Suffolk Yacht Harbour, where we are now settled for the summer's end prep for having the boat hauled out and placed in a cradle for the winter. Our focus for the next week is cleanup, fixing some pernicious deck leaks, laundry, and making copious notes about what gear we are leaving, and what parts need to be brought back next year.
It feels good to be here, and yet we're sad that our summer's adventures are nearly over. We have logged nearly 4000nm in Sequoia and yet have not seen many of the places we once imagined that we would get to. We will share our broader impressions in the next blog.