Nirvana- back to the Baltic in 2015- by Pete Clay
Once tasted, the delights of our East Coast Rivers are addictive. They have inspired music, poetry and art for generations. Ramblers, nature-lovers and yachtsmen alike have succumbed to their charms for generations and for me, as one of their number, The Deben River has always headed the list as the most attractive of these rivers.
Addictive delights of our E. coast rivers
The Sirens of Greek mythology have their counterparts in Nordic mythology and their allure is no less strong. So when the habitual itch to sail further afield in Nirvana could no longer be resisted (this happens every 5 years or so) the Northern Sirens had their way and we began to plan our trip to Denmark- and Roskilde the ancient Viking capital in particular.
Why Roskilde? The Scandinavians have an impressive understanding of wooden boat-building and a great respect for its history. Furthermore the city of Roskilde would soon be confirming its links with Woodbridge, Which have been forged progressively over the past several years. The link, as most will know, is long-ships: our Sutton Hoo burial ship of c. 620 AD and their 14 excavated Viking ships. Their world-leading knowledge of ancient ship reconstruction will play and essential rôle in the proposed full-size reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo ship at the former Whisstocks boat-yard site in Woodbridge.
In 2015 this was to be Nirvana’s fourth expedition to the Baltic. At 90 years old and now 25 years in our ownership, it seemed fitting to celebrate in an appropriate way. The old lady is in very good condition and continual maintenance and professional work, when and where necessary, keeps her equal to such North Sea passages.
A “shake-down” sail from the Deben to Harwich is usually profitable; firstly there are always a few jobs that show up and adjustments to make; then there’s water and diesel to take on board and victualing; and lastly Harwich is a much easier place to start from compared with the awkward Deben entrance.
With the comforting assurance of 3 crew members who were familiar with the boat, we left the Suffolk Yacht Harbour in higher spirits than the weather forecast actually warranted. Masefield’s euphemistic sentiment: “and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by” has a hollow ring to it as one plunges out past Harwich clinging to one’s lunch, one’s courage and one’s sense of humour.
Our trusty bosun, Hugh, was trying to pick out the figure of his wife Marion who had driven to Felixtowe to wave us off. The cry went up: “there she is, on the beach, wearing a yellow scarf!” There was frantic waving as if we were bound on a world circumnavigation and she wouldn’t see her beloved for several years- if ever. Salt water and wind always induce drama and exaggeration!
I have yet to meet anyone who actually enjoys a North Sea crossing. Sleep, comfort and hot food are usually in short supply. The course from Harwich to our intended landfall of Ijmuiden in Holland is a little North of East; so the "prevailing" southwesterly that one might expect would have been ideal. Not a chance, as it turned out, in mid June 2015.
Thus it was that Nirvana found herself fighting her way against an ever more boisterous North East wind to South Holland, the Roompot. This is a large picturesque holiday area with many possibilities for local Dutch families. For visiting yachtsmen it’s both an unexpectedly quiet haven from the rigours of the North Sea and a welcome reward for their labours. It was a relief to lock through into her relative shelter! One of our crew, the ever reliable Lou, left us then - so then we were three.
From there we proceeded under sail in the open and once tidal waters of “protected” Holland and later, under power, through the maze of Dutch canals at the speed of a fast jog and with plenty of time to take in all the sights and endless locks and bridges. With a fixed 40’ mast, route planning is essential. There is a lengthy circuitous route around Amsterdam which costs an extra day. The alternative is an organised late-night convoy which you can join, but a night passage usually takes a day for recovery.
North of Amsterdam the country becomes progressively prettier as one gets into Friesland where the cows are black and white, the horses tall, sleek and handsome and the people speak a strange dialect. This is a part of the country I particularly enjoy- neat little farms, and beautiful flat landscape. It also boasts the largest chain of connected inland lakes in Europe. We always prefer sail-power to diesel-power and there are plenty of opportunities for this here. Sailing the offshore route, whether through the Frisian Islands or round the outside, would at this stage take too much time- much as I love those islands and their fiendish tides.
North Holland is bordered by the river Ems and threatened, as always, by the North Sea. We had a meal in a newish, elevated restaurant in Delzijl overlooking the harbour. Only two years previously this restaurant, despite its elevation, had been knee-deep in water. Plans to raise the sea wall by a further two metres simply continue the endless history of Holland's battle against the North Sea.
At this point, we left the boat at the Abel Tasman yacht harbour- a very inexpensive and friendly co-operative; then we all headed home.
Restored Elbe 1 lightship steaming south in Kiel Canal
With a new crew, a day's sail from Delfzjl out to sea down the Ems river brought us round the German island of Borkum and to the German Frisian island of Norderney. It is possible to cut south of Borkum “inland” across the sands to reach Norderney. Local knowledge talked of the “touch and go” method to cross the shallows on a rising tide to reach the channels leading to Norderney. The Thames barge skippers of our East coast used this practice of ‘touch and go” in order to reach inland destinations or cross sand bars as early as possible on the tide- bumping forward over the sand or mud as the flood tide allowed. Twice we’ve sailed down the Ems past the turning point for this route and twice I’ve “bottled out”. The “bumping” idea (across the sandbanks) didn’t appeal and the area also holds the vivid memory of one of Erskine Childers’ most exciting chapters in "the Riddle of the Sands"- the dinghy trip in fog from Norderney to Memmert. It’s just too famous a place to risk making a fool of one’s self!
Norderney is a traditional German holiday island full of bustle and jollity and a good stopping place before facing the terrors of the Elbe- the Hamburg river. Here we rented bikes and joined the ice-cream-eating melée. Coffee tastes so much better ashore, abroad and with nothing to do but wait for the right weather!
With a fair wind and tide from the entrance of the Elbe up to Cuxhaven it can be a pleasant sail. However there are plenty of stories to encourage caution and wise seamanship- not least another chapter in "the Riddle of the Sands" where Davies nearly loses his beloved "Dulcibella" behind the Scharhorn, a treacherous spit of sand protruding from the South side of the Elbe entrance.
If one is late, even with a favorable wind, and misses the East-flowing flood tide, a normally favorable following wind will simply serve to kick up an horrendous sea against the opposing ebb tide, and all but the reckless or foolish would do well to wait the 6 hours or so for the turn of the tide in their favour. Whilst this might seem a miserable solution in such an exposed place, it would certainly be the lesser of two evils.
Nowadays, with the ubiquitous electronic navigation systems, Elbe no.1, the first of the entrance buoys, is marked merely by a relatively insignificant looking red buoy. In earlier times there was a fine red light ship, reassuringly large and with a huge light on top. (I’ll refer to this later)
There is little sense of achievement or welcome on reaching Elbe no.1 as there is almost no evidence of land anywhere except on the clearest of days. No Bawdsey Manor or Felixtowe Ferry on this river!
After a brief pause in Cuxhaven we pressed on to Brunsbüttel- at the entrance to the South end of the Kiel Canal, Der Kaiser Wilhelm Kanal. This fine canal dug before the First World War was not built for benign or commercial reasons but rather for military purposes and was of immense strategic importance to both the Kaiser and the Fūrher. Today it carries all manner of craft from small yachts to enormous cruise liners, shortening the journey round the North of Jutland by hundreds of miles. There is little to impede the small yacht in this canal. Traffic signals control the tighter bends to allow the big vessels to pass one another safely however the small yacht needs only keep in the shallow water near the bank to remain completely safe.
The canal banks are themselves very pretty and abound in dog-walkers cyclists and fishermen. At many intervals small ferries carry cars and foot-passengers to and fro and always seemed to avoid us. Some hours into our all day trip North up the Canal we met the Elbe1 lightship, referred to earlier, beautifully restored steaming South, and a little later Elbe 3, likewise, clearly the pride and joy of their respective restoration teams.
A possibly unique diesel tricycle in Vejle
A delightful evening in the ancient town of Rendsburg enjoying the benefits of a strong £/Euro exchange rate rewarded us with a fine North German meal of local fish and other delicacies. Because Rendsburg is close to the Kiel Canal the railway has to follow a huge loop to gain enough height to cross the canal. Suspended from cables under the bridge at ground level is a transporter bridge which carries road traffic and foot passengers. This magnificent 1913 iron structure is now under threat – being deemed inadequate for the new Danish and Swedish trains crossing it. The Rendsburgers are very proud of this engineering marvel and there is understandably strong opposition to modernizing or replacing it. (Google “The Bridge-Hunter’s Chronicles” for more information). Leaving the boat in Rendsburg we took this exciting train ride on our trip home to England.
Again with a new crew, my good friend Ian, the two of us set out North to complete the trip to Holtenau where the Kiel Canal terminates with huge locks, which open (for a small fee) into the Kiel bay and the Baltic, or Nord-Ostsee as the Germans call it. With very much lower concentration of salt, and no tides to leave mud deposits and weed round its edges, it feels and smells quite different from our East coast rivers and North Sea. First impressions would suggest a safer and less threatening environment but experience and history tell quite otherwise!
The passage from here northwards up the East coast of Jutland is delightful, past the town of Sønderborg at the bottom of the “Little Belt” and the border between Germany and Denmark prior to the famous 1864 battle of Dybbøl. The history is complex but the border between Germany and Denmark has risen and fallen like a yo-yo being at one time as far south as Altona on the the Elbe. After the annexation of Schleswig Holstein the Prussians successfully invaded Denmark in 1864 and formed the border which lasted until 1922.
Further North in the Little Belt we passed the C4th Nydam ship reconstruction lying by a jetty, black, elegant and much loved by her 30 volunteer boat builders. I had been over to see her in the winter with the Riverside Trust but it was the first time I had seen her afloat. She is of very sophisticated construction and the original- re-assembled in the Schleswig Museum- pre-dates the Sutton Hoo ship by some 3 hundred years. One is not used to thinking of Viking arte-facts pre-dating Anglo-Saxon ones but they did. At the head of the beautiful Vejle Fjord we exchanged Ian for my wife Nancy who passed one another unseen at Billund airport in the care of Ryanair.
Retracing our steps down the Vejle Fjord in glorious weather, Nancy and I headed eastwards to the top of Seeland- the Copenhagen Island- and the Roskilde Fjord.
This has a very winding and complicated channel with several dangerous narrows before one reaches the old Viking capital of Roskilde- a fearsome trip for the sailor without GPS but a great historic protection for the city. All the way southwards there are high points where warning beacons could have been lit telling of impending attack. Then at Skudelev there comes a particularly difficult part of the fjord. In early times there were three navigable channels here. Of the two easier ones, one was barricaded, and the other blocked with scuttled ships. (5 of these now grace the halls of the museum) Northern invaders desperately trying to negotiate the third channel could be picked off easily by the defending Danish Vikings. The Viking Museum in Roskilde owes its existence to the five C11th ships raised from the Skudelev narrows. Ironically a further nine were discovered as they dug the harbour and foundations for the Museum itself!
Nirvana in Roskilde harbour (youth hostel in background)
Once again moored in the harbor, Nirvana’s presence attracted many friends from five years previous as she lay alongside the quay in this rich atmospheric setting. The sounds of side axes chipping away at oak planks; the tap tapping from the smith’s forge as he fashioned iron rivets for the various reconstruction projects; the pungent smell of tar wafting across from the rope-maker’s workshop; all are irresistible to archaeologist, historian, shipwright, artist and poet alike- true serendipity- because always unexpectedly delightful.