With a changing cast of crew, the skipper of Skylark, sails up the North Sea from Holland to Sweden, down the Baltic Sea to Germany and home through the Kiel Canal (published March 2018)
Every summer, my teenage sons have six-week summer holidays allowing me and my 1973 Pearson 36, Skylark to visit more distant European harbors from her European base in Enkhuizen, The Netherlands. We did the Malts Cruise, several trips to the Channel Islands, the 2015 America’s Cup trials in Portsmouth, UK and the summer of 2017, we sailed around Denmark. All the way around.
For these longer trips, I begin a call for crew the preceding fall. Also, I place an ad on Crewfinder.com detailing the tour I was planning and Virgilio F. contacted me wanting more information. Virgilio is from Portugal, speaks and reads English very well and is building sea miles. I informed him that he could join the boat in The Netherlands and remain onboard until the Admiral (my wife) arrives. The plan was to reach as far east as Sassnitz on the island of Rügen in Germany. Sassnitz was once a major East German ferry port and I thought it would be easy to reach for my wife and one son by the good German train system.
As winter turned to spring, Dominic, an English sailor and old friend signed on, followed by Paul, an American friend and finally, Rick, another American friend from my college days. It was arranged that Richard, Jack, Virgilio and myself would take Skylark to Gothenburg and make a crew change. Richard and Jack only had one week and that got them to Gothenburg. Dominic and Paul would arrive in Gothenburg and help me get Skylark to Copenhagen.
Crossing the North Sea wasn’t the highlight of the tour. It all started well enough. Richard’s baggage had been left in Frankfurt and was to be delivered later to Schiphol, Jack, his son, was flying into Schiphol and would collect Richard’s bag. Rather than wait for Jack at Skylark’s Dutch marina, we decided to head for Vlieland, one of the Dutch Friesen Islands eight hours away where Jack met us by high-speed ferry.
PASSAGE TO GOTHENBURG
The next morning, July 18th, we left Vlieland at 0930 and headed northeast to Skagen, DK. Of course, the wind was coming from the northeast but the weather was sunny. Our first evening, the sky was clear and there was no land on the western horizon, so there a chance of seeing a green flash. Over evening cocktails, we watched the sun slowly set and just as it dipped below the horizon, we saw not only a green flash, but the green flash was followed a nanosecond later by a smaller blue flash. I have seen green flashes at sunrise, double green flashes at sunset, but never a green/blue combo.
That night, the skies turned grey and began to drizzle off and on for the next two days. The winds were from the northeast and reached 25 knots in the gusts. I had prepared chili con carne and spaghetti sauce in advance to cut down on cooking in a seaway and it was good that I did. As it was, we ate chili for three meals in a row.
The waves seemed to be coming from two directions and, since Skylark has a fin keel, she was being tossed around and wanted to be steered by hand. The autopilot wasn’t keeping up with the wave action. Even though Skylark has several good sea-berths with lee cloths, we were having a very bumpy ride and sleep was difficult.
By the time we reached Skagen, the weather was still lousy. We were into our third day crossing the North Sea, so we decided not to stop and continued on straight to Gothenberg, Sweden.
I had just updated the Navionics compact flash cards for the trip. At €100 for each chart card, I had my local boatyard do the updates for me. But, when I changed the chart card from the UK/Netherlands to Skagen/Kattegat, the chartplotter began to freeze leaving one-to-two minute lags in the ship’s position.
Navigating through a narrow, but well-marked channel in the rocky islands southwest of Gothenberg and having the chartplotter freeze wasn’t relaxing.
When we reached Gothenberg, I sent emails to Navionics and to Raymarine to ask if it was a chart problem or a problem with the chartplotter. Should I refresh the system of the chartplotter? Raymarine said that wouldn’t help and Navionics told me that the problem was my old chartplotter. Apparently, Navionics chart updates are designed for Raymarine’s newer MFDs and that there is a problem with using these updates on a nine-year-old chartplotter. I was instructed to put the Navionics card into my laptop’s card reader and delete the “data” file and all files ending in .bp2. The Skagerrak/Kattegat card worked smoothly after that so I removed these files from my other two newly updated cards. Somebody should have told me before. Reaching Gothenberg 85 hours after leaving Vlieland, we motored up the harbor to the marina that is closest to the center of the city, right next to the Gothenberg Opera House. Richard and Jack left on Sunday, July 23rd and Dominic and Paul arrived on Monday, July 24th.
DOWN THE KATTEGAT
We left for the Danish island, Læsø, on Tuesday, July 25th, and arrived late in the afternoon. The day sail was only about 55 miles and we arrived in Vestero Havn. We called the harbormaster on the VHF, who said he would meet us in the harbor. We spotted the young harbormaster in an inflatable and he signaled us to follow him. As we entered the marina, I didn’t see any spaces available. I did notice that the boats packed into the harbor were fixed to buoys by single stern lines. The young man stopped and pointed at the moored boats and said, “Go in there.”
“Go in where?”, I replied.
I didn’t see any spaces available. Evidently, one just slowly pushes one’s bow into the pack and the new neighbors fend you off with boathooks and roving fenders. The final trick is to catch the ring on the stern mooring buoy and use the tension on the stern line to keep one’s bow off the dock. Who says old dogs can’t learn new tricks?
The fairway in Vestero’s harbor was so narrow that while maneuvering out of the pack the following morning, our prop caught one of the lines from the stern buoys. Of course, all the Danes and Swedes were watching our “haven kino” to see what we were going to do. Paul didn’t hesitate to dive under Skylark and untangle the buoy line from our prop while the rest of us made sure that we didn’t play bumper cars with the other boats in the tiny harbor.
We left Læsø for Anholt, a smaller Danish island with only one harbor. We sailed past what was described as the world’s largest wind park. I thought I had already seen that on the west coast of Denmark, after we sailed all night past a steady line of distant blinking red lights. Again, we were faced with the stern line, catch the ring on the buoy and squeeze into the scrum.
Anholt is a treat and has a long history as a strategic military point in the Kattegat. There is a small selection of restaurants and shops near the harbor, but one can rent a bicycle and pedal up the long steep hill to the village. The village consists of small year-round houses, vacation homes, a few more restaurants and that’s it. Eighty percent of the island is what they call Ørkenen, “the desert”. Acres of unfarmed land the east end of which is home to the largest seal colony in Denmark.
From Anholt, we headed towards Copenhagen and since we wouldn’t reach the capitol until sometime in the evening, we decided to anchor in a cove on the north shore of the Isefjord, near Nykøbing on the island of Zealand. The cove was well-sheltered and had good holding in mud.
The following morning, we headed towards Copenhagen and had to fight a strong northerly current for several hours in the channel between Hamlet’s castle and the Swedish shore. As we approached Copenhagen, we opted to find a slip in Svanemollehavnen marina.
We were beginning to experience harbormaster phone numbers and VHF calls that weren’t being answered. The rest of the Danish marinas we visited in the following days had automatic machines that when presented with a credit card would print out a proof-of-payment sticker to fix to one’s bowrail and also a card for electricity use and showers. One could “load” the card with money for showers for the whole crew and actually get a refund for any unused money to one’s credit card when checking out.
When we learned just how far Svanemollehavnen was from Copenhagen’s center, we thought about trying to berth in the small marina directly in the center of town, but surveying that harbor after we taxied into the center of town, we decided it was too crowded and too noisy.
The following morning, we left Svanemollehavnen early and went to Langelinie Havn, the marina next to the famous Little Mermaid statue. We learned that it was important when trying to get a slip in a popular marina during the holiday season, to arrive very early and wait for a departing boat to vacate a slip. This strategy served us well for the rest of the tour.
There was a Netto supermarket a few blocks from Langelinie Havn and I was happy that I brought along a folding hand truck, as carrying 22-liter bottles of drinking water back to the boat was made much simpler. Although Skylark’s freshwater tanks are clean and treated seasonally with water purifying chemicals, I prefer not to trust unknown tap water from the docks.
Having never visited Copenhagen and knowing what an interesting and historic city it is, we did the tourist thing…took a bus tour around the city and then extended our tour by taking an open tour boat around the channels that make up Copenhagen.
Copenhagen was and is a very wealthy city, the kings and queens having “his” and “hers” castles and much of the older architecture is unique. In Copenhagen, Dominic and Paul left Skylark and my college pal, Rick, arrived. Virgilio was into his third week on board and proving to be a real asset. He was showing me features of my chartplotter that I wasn’t aware of and I was correcting some of his knots.
We headed south for the harbor of Rødvig and again, found no harbormaster present. But the showers were clean and there turned out to be an excellent Thai restaurant nearby.
The next port-of-call was Gedser, in the most southern part of Denmark. Great showers, diesel paid with a card, but the town, once a thriving ferry port and fishing harbor, seemed to be in decline with the ferries relocated, the train station closed and no convenient restaurant. We had so much food on board that it was a relief to have to eat on board.
ON TO GERMANY
Virgilio left us at Gedser. Rick and I filled the diesel tanks and left for Sassnitz, originally a ferry port on the East German island of Rügen, near the Polish border. I was to meet my wife and one of my sons in Sassnitz, who were taking a train from Cologne where we live.
I read in one of my English cruising guides to the Baltic Sea, that there was an emergency harbor called Darsser Ort, in a German Nationalpark Vorpommersche, near the town of Vingst. I was curious about this harbor and the cruising guide warned it is necessary to check the channel depth, as it is often silted in and for Skylark’s six-foot draft, unapproachable.
Thanks to the AIS onboard, I saw that there was a boat in the emergency harbor. The AIS further informed me that the boat was a German search and rescue vessel named Theo Fischer. I radioed the vessel and asked how deep was the channel into the harbor. They replied, “Three meters.”
Noticing that there were no buoys marking the channel, we proceeded slowly and entering the harbor saw that there was not only one boat,but two. Theo Fischer had a daughter boat on her stern. Ms. Fischer was probably 25 meters long and the daughter boat was at least 10 meters. We approached a low wooden bridge and since we were the only recreational vessel in the harbor, we just tied alongside.
As we began our cocktail hour, we saw plenty of cranes and herons along the marshy shore and, later, we were surprised to see an eight-point buck appear on the shore.
The following morning, we arose early, made a nice American breakfast of pancakes, maple syrup and bacon and left the harbor. Again, there were no buoys marking the channel and this time we ran aground. Hard. Not knowing where the channel was for sure and knowing that Skylark’s keel doesn’t like to reverse when aground, we tried to turn the boat around. The depth sounder showed 14 feet, but we weren’t moving. We were thinking of inflating the dinghy and using a leadline to find the channel, then kedge off, when we saw the daughter ship approaching.
They very kindly pulled us around by the bow and off the edge of the channel into deep water. They explained that the channel had only been dredged the previous week, so the sides were very steep, going from three meters to half a meter in just a short distance. The buoys were to be reinstalled the following week.
Pointing us in the right direction, off we went. Favorable winds drove us along the north coast of Rügen, past the chalk cliffs, one of which is the famous “Konigstuhl” (King’s chair). Apparently, all the chalk cliffs on Rugen have names.
We reached Sassnitz in the early afternoon and entered the large former ferry harbor. We stopped at a new marina that wasn’t there when we had visited by land 15 years earlier. The German government has plowed a lot of money into the infrastructure of East Germany. There were now several major supermarkets in town and artists had moved into unused buildings and turned them into studios.
When my wife arrived, there was a music and art festival running. The ambience of Sassnitz and its waterfront had undergone a remarkable improvement. The only problem I found in Sassnitz was that the marina had no washer or dryer and the whole town of Sassnitz had no laundromat. So, it was back to washing in a bucket and drying on the lifelines.
From Sassnitz, my wife, son and I headed for the island of Hiddensee. The approach to the harbors on the west side of Hiddensee is through some very narrow, but well-marked channels. It was a bit unnerving to be motoring in the three meter deep narrow channel to the recommended harbor at Klöster and seeing ducks and swans standing just 10 meters away.
Again, arriving around noon meant we could get a slip in the very popular small harbor there. Hiddensee is an old tourist destination and there are no cars allowed on the island. There are plenty of bike rentals and using an e-bike was a blessing for my old knees.
After Hiddensee, my family and I headed to Warnemünde near Rostock. My wife went to pay for the slip, returning with the complaint that the marina had doubled the normal price. It was the weekend of the HansaSail Rostock, a two-day festival of tall ships. The German navy’s sail training ship Gorsch Fock, a three master from Brazil and many old gaffers from Denmark, Sweden and The Netherlands were parading up and down the Warne river. For two nights we were treated to world-class firework shows 500 meters from our slip. Well worth the extra 20 euros.
From Warnemünde, we headed to the German island of Fehmarn and got a slip in the marina at Burgtiefe. There was a sandy beach there with a waterpark. That meant my son wanted to stay another day to play on the waterslides and trampolines. I, on the other hand, occupied myself half a day battling for the washing machines and dryers to catch up on the laundry chores.
THE KIEL CANAL
After Fehmarn, we went to Kiel to be close to the entrance of the Kiel Canal as I was planning to head west through the canal after my wife and son departed and my two Dutch crewmen, Casper and Krijn, arrived.
That day, the chartplotter began to lose the GPS status and although we could see the chart and embedded information, the boat’s position wasn’t showing up. My 30-year-old Magellan Pioneer handheld had finally given up the ghost. I googled reviews of the best new handheld GPSs and the Garmin 78 series seemed to have the best reports. Then I googled where in Kiel I would find one and the only result I found was at the German chain of chandleries named A.W. Niemeyer.
The Garmin 78 out of the box only came with a “world chart” giving no buoyage or depth details. To get a Garmin chart of the North Sea would take three days so I was going to have to content myself with using the Garmin to get a fix and then placing that on my paper chart.
Since arriving in The Netherlands, I have learned how to negotiate locks. I was a bit intimidated by the fact that large ocean-going freighters use the Kiel Canal and my options were either transiting the 50 mile long canal from east to west in one day or stopping at one of the midway marinas. It isn’t permitted for recreational craft to be on the canal after sundown.
My Dutch crew and I arrived at the east entrance of the canal at 0700 and had to wait about 45 minutes for permission to enter the locks. We tied to a floating platform and waited for the water level to rise and the gate to open. Then, it was pedal to the metal, 3000 rpms for the next nine hours to the lock that takes you to the Elbe River.
As we left the canal and entered the river, my crew was on the foredeck stowing the mooring lines and suddenly we were in a wind against tide situation with one meter waves every two meters. My crew got soaked immediately before I could tell them to get off the pitching bow and back in the cockpit.
We battled the waves and southerly currents for two hours before the current in the Elbe slackened and after four hours we reached the marina at Cuxhaven. The following morning, we topped off the fuel and water tanks, headed back out into the Elbe and headed down river towards the North Sea. The Elbe carves a deep channel through its delta and one has to watch the chart and the buoys carefully. There are drying sand banks on both sides of the channel.
On top of navigating carefully, one has to watch for the dozens of ocean-going freighters, container ships and pilot boat heading up and downstream. Very fascinating, but at the same time nerve-wracking.
We had departed at daylight in order to see and be seen by the heavy river traffic, but that meant we were again fighting the current flowing into the Elbe, but unlike the day before, the wind had turned to the north and was blowing the same direction the tide was flowing, which meant we faced a headwind all the way to Helgoland island, our next port-of-call.
The yacht harbor on Helgoland is not small, but it can often be filled with yachts rafting five deep from the docks. Such was the case for us, but we were only the third boat out on our raft, with the other two boats initially trying to discourage us from tying to them by telling us that they were leaving at 0500.
I know this trick. No one likes drunken sailors stomping across their foredeck or falling in their cockpit at 0200. The good news was that both the other boats were going to be leaving at the same time and we would be able to tie directly to the dock, allowing us to reach shore power.
We had a very nice meal at the “Bunte Kuh” (colored cow) and spent the next day sightseeing and shopping for bargains. Hordes of tourists arrived on passenger ferries in the morning and departed in the afternoon and several yachts were having cases of booze delivered to the dockside for loading.
The morning of Thursday, August 23rd, we left for Vlieland, where we originally departed The Netherlands. There are four shipping lanes that follow the Dutch and German coasts in an east/west direction. Our chartplotter was giving us fixes on a schedule of its own so we had to keep a careful watch.
As we sailed west, it took us almost all day to pass another wind park. It seems there is no end to the development of these wind parks in the seas around The Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. Though rather unsightly, they don’t really seem to be a risk to navigation, although they might be problematic in a fog and high seas. Besides wind parks, the North Sea is also peppered with oil and gas platforms.
Continuing to sail with a south-east breeze, we headed west outside the northern most shipping lane. The weather forecast told us that the winds were to change from the southeast to the southwest sometime in the early morning of the next day. We wanted to position ourselves north of the Vlieland/Terschelling channel so we would reach it on a good point of sail. We had dinner as the sun set and began the night watch schedule.
Around 0300, the wind died and then began to pick up from the southwest. We were sailing due south towards Vlieland. At 0400, Krijn and I were on watch and as we approached the east-bound lanes, I spied what appeared to be a 300 meter freighter. The nearer we got to the ship, the more it became apparent that the ship was moving very slowly.
Our AIS was not showing any ships at all or our ship’s position. I kept my eyes on the large freigher. I could see the well-lit bridge deck on the stern and what appeared to be white lights on the bow. As we got closer, it looked as if the ship was at anchor. I thought they might be waiting to enter a German port for loading and were anchored to save fuel. Closer and closer we approached and I began to debate crossing in front of the massive freighter or being more prudent and going around her stern.
When I finally took out the binoculars to have a closer look, I was amused to see what I had thought was a freighter was in fact…an oil platform. The bow lights were a smaller ship, now moving away to the east.
When we finally reached the entrance to the small harbor at Vlieland, it was around 0700 and a call to the harbormaster was answered by a machine with the message that there were no vacancies. We anchored out of the channel next to the entrance and took naps. Around 1000, I radioed and got one of the harbormasters on the VHF who ho replied that he would call us after 1100 and would surely have a berth for us.
A day spent biking through the dunes of Vlieland out to the Old Post House for coffee and cakes was a nice well-repeated habit of Skylark’s crews and the next morning we timed our departure with the rising tide that would push us up the channel towards Harlingen, Netherlands on the mainland.
When we reached the lock at Kornwerderzand and the northeast entrance to the IJsselmeer, there was quite a scrum of boats to get into the lock. We were cut off by what I thought were very rude Dutchmen who jumped the que and then didn’t moor closely enough to the boat in front of them, leaving Skylark barely fitting into the lock.
Once through, one of the Dutch crew told me that the ship’s voltmeter showed both banks were being charged at 18 volts! I quickly disconnected the cables to the engine bank and turned the battery switch so the house bank wasn’t being charged.
The engine had been making a strange sound related to the rpms. So, the next day after tidying up Skyark, I disconnected the alternator belt and seawater pump belt to see what was making an odd sound and quickly saw that the pulley on the Yanmar 3GM30F’s freshwater pump was wobbly. I think one of the water pump’s bearings had gone south. So, the chartplotter isn’t receiving satellite data, the freshwater pump is history and the Balmar alternator is on the fritz. Luckily, this all happened at the end of what was otherwise, my best cruise to date.
George DuBose is an American living in Cologne, Germany. He sails his boat Skylark, a 1973 Pearson 36 with family and friends.