The Kiel Canal saves a very long trip around the top of Denmark. It is used by lots of commercial shipping, but yachts are allowed to use it too, for a bargain price of €12.
It is 97km long, and took us about 12 hours over two days.
While it did save us a lot of sailing, the relentless heat and monotonous motoring made it a bit of a gruelling two days. Luckily Catherine was less grumpy about it than me and did a lot of the steering.
Passing ships provided interest, and our dwindling fuel supply provided some tension to the first day, though as it turned out we had plenty to reach our overnight stop at Rendsburg.
Finally we reached the locks at the far end, and after waiting a couple of hours for some ships to go through we were allowed to lock through into the Baltic. The lock was massive (the small ones normally used for yachts are being mended) and we shared it with a small container ship and about ten other yachts.
We locked out into the Kieler Fiord and sailed the two miles up to the city of Kiel. It was so nice to be sailing again, with the motor off, and for once the wind was not against us! To complete a great sail, Catherine made a very neat job of mooring us up into a box berth.
Cuxhaven is only 16M downriver from the western entrance to the Kiel Canal – our way through to the Baltic. The tides are strong in the river and we’re on springs at the moment so it only took us 3 hours to sail upriver to Brunsbuttel and the locks.
There are 4 sets of locks – two for big container ships etc, and two for smaller cargo vessels and yachts. Commercial traffic obviously has priority and we were slightly worried about having to wait for the lock out in the river, stemming the tide for potentially hours. We had chosen to sail up river, all the other yachts we saw were motoring and soon overtook us, but they didn’t gain much as when we approached Brunsbuttel we saw them all waiting outside in the river. When we were still a mile away the lock signals changed to allow the yachts into the waiting area so we put the engine on and went for full speed ahead in the hope that they’d hold the lock for us – they kindly did, but only just, almost as soon as we’d cleared the lock gate it started to close behind us.
We rafted against a beautiful german built modern wooden racing yacht, and 10 minutes later were motoring into the flat waters of the Kiel Canal. We moored up in Brunsbuttel for the night and treated ourselves to takeaway pizza whilst we watched the big ships lock through.
“You’re not leaving tonight are you? – In the dark?!” the German sailors on the neighbouring catamaran were politely incredulous of our intentions, but we checked the chart again -the critical buoy on the bar was lit, as was the fairway, although there were quite a few others that weren’t. As Tom pointed out we should have at least 2m of water even if we didn’t manage to find the deepest section of channel. We’d been on Spiekeroog island for 6 days already avoiding days with no wind or those with strong winds from the east and were itching to get going. The forecast was a gentle force 3-4 southerly and it was a full moon, so we set the alarm for 1.30am(!) and at 2am we were motoring out of the harbour using a torch to spot the withies along the channel. For once a cloudy sky masked the moonlight, and needless to say the critical bar buoy was with missing or unlit, we never saw a sign of it despite both of us peering out into the dark for an hour as we negotiated the seagat. Still what might have been a serious stumbling block for other sailors was only a minor irritation to Tom – navigator supremo. I steered whilst he shouted compass bearings, checked the depths and told me where in the darkness to expect the shadows of buoys. Afterwards, when I was celebrating what seemed like an amazing feat at passing the bar unscathed he grumbled that it was cheating really to have to use a GPS. Only Tom would have such scruples!
There had been little sign up to then of our forecast wind, but a gentle breeze from the south picked up and, eager to conserve fuel, we switched the engine off and sailed gently towards the dawn. Even at 3.30am the sky was lightening in the east and it felt like one of those rare occasions when the sea is happy for you to be there. We hadn’t been able to re-fuel in Spiekeroog as they have no cars on the island, hence no fuel. We had about just over half a tank (~ 7litres) but we knew that wouldn’t get us all the way to the Elbe, our` destination and we’d deliberated long and hard over the forecasts to try and make sure we could sail most of the trip, so it was maddening to watch our gentle breeze die to nothing by morning! With a tidal gate to meet and no alternative, we switched the engine on again, taking agonizing glances at the fuel tank guage every hour or so. How we wished we’d bought a bigger fuel tank in the UK!!
We made it to the entrance of the Elbe river as the tide turned in our favour, but we had another 25M to go to the first port, Cuxhaven. We were glad of the spring tide sweeping us in, but even so we needed to maintain steerage way. As it turned out we were saved by an easterly wind (exactly the forecast we’d been avoiding) which began to blow out of the mouth of the river, exactly on the nose, but we could at least now sail. We turned the motor off and tacked in for the next 4 hours enjoying the sail, and feeling very relieved. The wind began to die again but we were only a couple of miles from Cuxhaven and now had 3-4 knots of tide sweeping us in. We moored up in Cuxhaven marina -had a celebratory lemonade, and quickly went in search of a petrol station.
Apart from running aground briefly, our trip along the inside of the German Friesian islands was very successful.
We left Borkum on Sunday evening and crossed a watershed on each of the next four high tides. After each one we anchored out of the channel, sheltered by all the sandbanks that the falling tide left dry. Luckily all the high tides were in daylight so no night navigation was required (the withies are not lit, though they do have reflective tape on).
We even managed to cross two watersheds in one tide, making a total of five, behind the islands of Borkum, Juist, Norderney, Baltrum and Langeoog, and we reached Spiekeroog harbour on Tuesday morning.
We were now only 25 miles from the entrance to the Elbe river, and were nearing the end of the islands. The entrance to the Elbe is notoriously rough so we decided to stay in Spiekeroog and await benign weather conditions.
The next few days were all strong Easterly winds (as usual for this summer), so we just chilled out on the boat in the harbour and explored the island.
The harbour dries out at low tide, but the bottom is very soft mud so the boats just stand up in it.
After successfully crossing behind Borkum, Juist and Nordernay we were just feeling like we’d got the hang of these channels. We’d touched the bottom once: crossing behind Nordernay, but it was only momentary and we were well before high water, so no cause for concern.
We pressed on to the Baltrum channel – the shallowest of all, but according to our survey information still doable with at least 1.6m in the channel at MHW (mean high water). A lot of boats motored these passages, as the channels were quite twisty but we enjoyed sailing them. We approched almost an hour before high water to give ourselves plenty of time to get across and watched the depth carefully as we picked our way along it. As usual, in any tense situation the crew of Lizzie thought a little gentle debate on the optimum distance from the withies would lighten the mood. Not a roaring success.
The most tricky bit was passing other boats. Sticking to “our side of the road” meant veering away from the witihies (but how far?!) and allowing the other boat to pass inside us.
At one juncture, (when it should be noted, the crew was obediently following the withies closely), the ominous scrape was heard, with a new addition: a gentle juddering to a halt and complete lack of progress through the water. “I think we may be aground?” was ventured from the cockpit… The depth sounder helpfully reported that it thought there was 3.4m of water under us. There most certainly wasn’t.
We furled the headsail and attempted to get the boat off using the mainsail first (we were on the upwind side of the channel) eventually resorting to the engine, as several boats passed us and comfirmed it was deeper further away from the withies. We got free!! but the elation was momentary, as Lizzie’s bow had spun round and we were now facing the wrong way down the narrow channel. Tom bravely attempted what we now know to be impossible – a U-turn in what is basically a single carriageway and thirty seconds later we were firmly aground on the other bank (but facing the right direction at least?). This time it was a bit more serious, we were on the lee bank with the wind pushing us on – cue lots of helpful suggestions from the crew of course.
After trying to motor backwards (did i mention Lizzie doesn’t really do reverse?), healing the boat over, and trying to sail off, it was Tom’s herculean efforts punting us off with whisker pole that finally got us moving. Perhaps he spent less time in the engineering library at cambridge than i thought…? In any case I am immensely grateful that we didn’t spend the night humiliatingly (and dangerously) horizontal on a sandbank
Sorry some retrospective blogging now we’ve got internet again!
Tom is not one to pass up a chance to buy charts, so when the wind direction didn’t look set to improve we considered going inside the rest of the german frisian islands – meaning intricate navigation of drying channels over the sands, but calmer seas and more protection from northerly and easterly winds. And more charts of course 🙂
There are 7 main islands – each with a channel behind it with a “watershed” towards the eastern end where at low tide the channel dries to mud – often drying by about 1-1.5m.
The channels are mostly used by shallow draft yachts and flat bottomed barges that can take the ground – Lizzie is shallow enough to get through most of the channels at high tide, but the consequences for us if we were to go aground are quite a bit more serious with a deep keel!
We took local advice from a german yacht in Borkum who reassured us as to depths, and got some up to date survey information from two really useful websites (wattsegler.com and http://wattenschipper.de) which both showed a reasonable amount more water in a couple of channels. Armed with this new information, it looked like lizzie could get behind all 7 islands with her 1.21m draught.
We set off from Borkum on sunday evening, following the first channel to memmert:
As each channel is only passable at high water you can only do one watershed per tide – apart from Baltrum which is a very short island. our first evening’s sail got us over the first watershed and we anchored in peace off Memmert, just out of the Memmertbalje.
On Wednesday we were weather-bound in Lauwersoog. Catherine took the bus into Groningen for the day, leaving Skip and I to work on the boat.
One of the jobs which I didn’t have time for before we left Ipswich was to replace the fuseboard and add some more switches.
The old wiring had accumulated over 40 years and we had added to it, meaning that it had some annoying quirks. For example, we had to switch on the compass light in order to use the depth-sounder, and there was no way to turn off the AIS receiver other than switching off everything at the main isolator.
It took all day to unwire the old panel and wire up the replacement. It was a fun day’s work except towards the end when I got annoyed at only having the type of soldering iron that you heat up in a fire (in our case on the gas hob).
By the time we left for Borkum at 5am the next day, almost everything worked again. Except the autohelm and the chart plotter, but I had Catherine to steer and we use the Android tablet instead of the chart plotter at the moment.
Since arriving in Borkum I have got those two things working and fixed a couple of other niggles.
We have met two interesting singlehanded sailors so far in this trip, both of them Dutchmen.
The first was in Lowestoft, and was on his way north to Norway by a much more direct route than us. He had a relatively modern (1990s?) boat and had made lots of interesting modifications himself, including installing a Torqueedo electric outboard, a movable solar panel, Dyneema rigging and a self-designed carbon fibre wind-vane steering gear. Everything had to be lightweight. We have occasionally checked his progress via AIS since, and he has successfully reached Norway now.
The second was in IJmuiden and was sailing a Contessa 26, the same model as our boat. In fact, his boat was the most similar one to Lizzie which we have ever seen, with almost identical layout and joinery in the cabin. He had done a lot of refurbishment himself and it looked beautiful.
He was sailing in company with his parents who were sailing a Contessa 32. His dad was a massive Contessa fan and this had obviously rubbed off on the son. He claimed the boat was really easy to singlehand, even with a spinnaker, but he got his first boat aged 4 and was now in his mid 20s so has probably had more practice than us.
He had a wind vane steering system which was very similar to the one I’m halfway through building, and I got some good ideas for simplifying the design.
He was flying a large pennant on the backstay with a single large spot on it. Apparently this is the standard signal denoting a solo sailor, and sometimes means the lock-keepers are sympathetic.
Here is a rubbish photo of a similar pennant on another boat which I saw more recently: