Donner und Blitzen

Of all the waters we have sailed on this year , the North Friesian coast is the area that I have the greatest respect for . The passage along it has a crowded shipping lane to the North and low sandy islands to the South. There are harbours of refuge along the way , but they are frankly dangerous in strong Westerly winds against the ebb , which means that 50 % of the time you are on a lee shore with nowhere to go. Just getting out of the Elbe can be difficult as it is nearly 50 miles from the Kiel canal exit before you can be said to be in open water . The great river threads its way between treacherous sand banks , often out of sight of land , and like the other rivers along the coast , is very dangerous on the ebb in strong W winds . Of course at this time of year the winds are predominantly from the West , which is why we had planned our departure so carefully to coincide with a SE wind.
All this also explains my reaction when we met a delightful young Swede sailing single handed to Le Havre , where he intended to drop his mast and head South through the French canals. We moored up together in a siding on the Kiel canal , and Lynda fed him whilst I talked him through some of the intricacies of his forthcoming trip. At least that was the intention. However it rapidly became clear that he had no idea of the dangers of this coast , or any of the problems of sailing down Channel in the Autumn. He had no experience of tides , indeed no tidal data or charts or Almanacs of any kind other than a new chart plotter that we eventually figured out how to extract some of the data from. On the other hand he was obviously a resourceful and practical guy who had repaired and fitted out his old boat himself with lots of good electronics and a new engine. He had a complete cockpit canopy which he could employ whist sailing and he had come through some bad weather on the way to Kiel. All he needed was a bit more experience , some basic tidal navigation theory and he would be fine – but was September , singlehanded off the Frisian coast the place and time get this experience?

From Holland again

He promised to stop in Cuxhaven to get the charts and tidal data he needed and we set off feeling a bit happier that we had at least helped point him in the right direction. We too made splendid progress in the right direction , propelled by our hot , fresh SE wind . Speeding along at maximum speed under clear blue skies , wearing just shorts and tea shirts, it all seemed too good to be true …. and of course it was! The high temperatures had fuelled a thundery trough , and at dusk we saw that the way ahead was completely blocked by a wall of sinister black cloud.
With thunderstorms , there is a moment when the wind suddenly dies away , to be replaced by 10 knots of wind directly towards the clouds. This is the time to leap to the halyards . We furled the jib and put the quickest 3 reefs ever into the main , finishing just as the first rain started to fall . Seconds later we had 40 knots on the nose and rain so heavy the visibility was less than a boat length. We put the boat just off the wind with the engine on slow to keep just enough way for steerage in the rapidly increasing sea , and I retired to the shelter of the bubble whilst Lynda steered from below with the remote and stared at AIS readouts on the chart plotter .Outside the wind howled , almost drowning out the thunder , whilst the black horizontal rain changed to grey and white every few seconds in the lightning flashes to reveal the tumbling white caps around us. We experienced a similar storm on the way to Bermuda , but it was far less worrying as there we had hundreds of miles of sea room, whereas here we were caught between the sands to our South and the ships to our North. Both of us thought of Nils , our Swedish friend , and thanked God that he wasn’t out in this .
It must have been extensive , because it was an hour before the wind started to decrease , by which time we had a horrid head sea and a light SW wind , and there was nothing for it but to motor sail . For a while it looked like there was another storm to our South , but this one was a pussy cat and even briefly gave us 20 knots from the stern , but we had to take it easy as we were still bucketing into that head sea.
The rest of the trip was just boring , motor-sailing at 5 knots with occasional attempts at sailing , but we seldom made much headway, for the wind never lasted more than about 10 minutes before it died away again . Eventually we arrived at the Terschelling Zeegat and were followed through the sands by none other than Nils , our Swedish friend. He had started out after us, having decided that the light winds were probably the last opportunity he would get for a while to make it along this stretch. Somehow he had got through the thunderstorm without mishap ( he reported that a catamaran in his vicinity had capsized in the winds !) , and with his powerful new engine hammered through the chop to catch us. If you are reading this Nils , “good on yer mate”. I doubt if your inexperience was anything worse than ours when we first came this way 35 years ago , and in some ways you came through the trip better than we did!

From Holland again
From Holland again
From Holland again

However I’m happy to say that he has changed his plans and is now looking forward to exploring the inshore waters and canals of Holland with his family. And this is what we have been doing as well , pottering back through our favourite haunts at Harlingen and Enkhuizen . Tonight we are moored up in Amsterdam’s Sixhaven again , with the heater on for the first time since May , whilst outside the rain is bucketing down , and we are heeling to a NW gale. Boats heeling in the Sixhaven are about as unusual as sardines heeling in their tin , ( for similar reasons!) so we know it must be bad . The weather has a dangerous feel to it , although there may be a short window to cross the North sea later tomorrow. We will study the tea leaves in the morning .
Good night.

One Comments

  1. Hey there! I have been following your comments with great awe and jealousy!!! It sounds as though you have and are having an amazing adventure and glad to hear that you are both safe and well.
    I notice that you are heading west again – does this mean you are on the way home? We have missed you at HRS and Nick will be especially pleased to have you back, although he has done a sterling job over the summer!
    Enjoy the rest of your travels and I look forward to your next chapter.
    love Bev x

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