Fun on the Friesian Coast


Spring tides and Westerly winds are a dangerous mix on the North Friesian coast as you need to avoid any of the river entrances on the ebb. After Vlieland we couldnt seem to time the entrance to the Elbe to coincide with the flood so decided on yet another stop , this time at Borkum .

40 years ago we came this way in Undine, our 100 year old gaff cutter , beating home from our first trip to the Baltic. The wind got up , the fog came down and we were immensely relieved to find the safewater mark marking the entrance to the Ems estuary (with no navigation aids other than traditional dead reckoning.) I recall surfing in on huge seas and negotiating the hairpin turn into the Borkum channel under sail , at night and with a dead engine ( the pilot said you should never attempt it unless you had daylight , a reliable engine and local knowledge!) and then sailing in to a tight little harbour and berthing alongside with barely a scratch.

It was going to be interesting to visit the scene of this adventure , and we weren’t disappointed by the Borkum Channel. By the time we reached there the Spring ebb was running hard against 20 knots of NW causing impressive seas down which we surfed in a manner that brought back memories of our previous experience. The entrance is marked by the Fischerbalje beacon whose shape is still indelibly etched on my memory from the drama all those years ago. In complete contrast , the harbour itself is much bigger than I remembered , and far from a superb feat of seamanship required to enter and berth alongside it is big enough to berth a battleship , as indeed it probably once did !

This first of the German islands was anything but crowded ( you could count the number of visiting yachts on the fingers of one hand ) and all the better for it. The people were very friendly and we took a day off to explore the little holiday town with its gaily coloured deck chairs so well remembered from our last visit.

It was still going to be difficult to time a passage into the Elbe on the flood so the decision was made to visit Helgoland and time our passage from there. To get there you have to stay to the South of the shipping channel, cross the entrance to the Jade and Weser estuaries , then cross the shipping lanes into the Elbe, all of which are crowded with ships. Halfway there the visibility closed in to less than 100 metres and the fun began. Our first “target “ turned out to be a Dutch yacht , and when I called them up to warn them of our presence they asked if they could follow us as they had neither AIS or radar, so we proceeded in convoy . With Lynda on deck and me glued to the radar screen and radio we sheperded them across and both arrived in Helgoland in good order.

This was the first time we had viisited this little rock , a duty free holiday island that reputedly is jam packed and a bit grotty in the season but was today putting on its best face with its brightly painted houses and just few enough people to be fun. One of the things we noticed both here and at Borkum was the number of signs saying this or that was Verboten. Indeed whilst cycling round Borkum we had been told spontaneously by a walker that the path we were looking at ( we were lost!) was also “Verboten”. Perhaps in translation it sounds more severe than meant but seems ( to this slightly anarchic Englishman) indicative of a very ordered law abiding society. In Helgoland bicycles are verboten , but perhaps the island is far enough off the mainland for a little bit of rebellion to creep in because the crafty islanders have chopped the front half of bicycles off and welded it to the back half of a scooter. It might look like a bike from the front – but its a scooter- so its OK!

One strange aspect of the trip so far was that the whole of the North sea was covered with a kind of white algal overgrowth which blew downwind across the water looking for all the world like the spray blown downwind in a 30 knot breeze. Thus , although the winds were mostly moderate , part of my subconcious associated the sight with much more wind and I found that I was as nervous as a cat , repeatedly glancing at the instruments to make sure it really wasnt a gale! I wonder if this is yet another side effect of overfishing ( trawlers hoover up the big fish , and the lack of big predators causes an oversuppy of tiny fish , who eat the zooplankton , which are not present in sufficient numbers to control the algae.) I must ask Bryony.

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