Blog #3: Sailing in Germany. Trying strong river current for the first time.

Hello world and welcome to Blog #3 where I will tell you about the trip through the rivers and canals of Germany. On the river Elbe we get a taste of how powerful the current can be and it gets very tense onboard. 

In Cuxhaven we get the mast of and we enter the Elbe Weser canal and get our first taste of some stress free canal sailing.

Kiel canal

In Blog #2 I wrote about how we left my small island in the cold north on a very unusually nice sunny day. Later that day we arrived in the city Kiel in Germany after a 7 hour long trip running only by engine. This was the longest we had ever been running on engine alone as we usually have a lot of wind in the north.

In Germany we had to enter our very first lock at the Kiel canal and we were very excited. We had studied so much for the CEVNI certificate and we knew all the theory but had absolutely no practical experience.

By Ralf Roletschek – Own work, GFDL 1.2, Link

In this canal the merchant vessels enter first and we had to wait for the special light signal for pleasure boats. 

We came in and everything was very easy, no problem to tie up at all. Only slight problem was the slippery wooden bridge, one step outside the rubber mats and it was like soap. 

La Sardina in the lock.

The level difference was less than a meter and it changed so slowly that we could hardly feel it. 

So we entered the Kiel canal after the lock.

This canal is 98 kilometers long but we took it nice and easy and spent a few days on the trip with several stops and then some days in the final port of Brunsbuttel.

By Maximilian Dörrbecker (Chumwa) – own work, usingOpenStreetMap data for the backgroundtopographical background from Lencerthis map by NNW for the orientation map, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

In Brunsbuttel I could stand on top of the locks and see how the current changed during the day on the river Elbe. For every 6 hours it would switch direction and it looked like the current was very very strong.

Von user:UlrichAAB – Eigenes Werk, CC BY 3.0, Link

In the inner parts of Denmark where I had been sailing, there is almost never any current or tide to speak of. It is only towards the West sea that we have current and tide, but I have never sailed there. So I was completely unprepared for what was coming. I studied tide tables and researched on the internet to be as prepared as possible. I figured that we should not try to fight the current but sail with it, but I never realized how difficult it would be to leave the river and enter a marina at our destination. This would almost be fatal and nearly ended our trip before it started for real!

River current

So one day we finally headed out into the river Elbe through the lock at the time where the current was changing to the direction of the city Cuxhaven, which is where we wanted to get our mast down.

During the trip down the river towards Cuxhaven the current picked up and became stronger and stronger. Almost to the point where our rudder was not working anymore. This happens when the following current is so strong that not enough water is streaming over the rudder. It can be very dangerous as you can lose control of the boat and just go downriver with no steering at all.

At one point we were being moved directly towards a large metal buoy and the rudder didn’t react fast enough, but I could luckily turn the engine. I sped up the engine and was able to avoid the buoy by a few meters. Okay, this incident got my attention and it was clear that we had a problem with this current.

But we reached Cuxhafen and now came the real shock of the day. When it was time to steer towards land it fast became clear that there was no way that this boat would be able to fight the current sideways towards the entrance. We were being pushed downriver towards the North sea with a current which was at least 5 knots, resistance was futile. Called off the entrance attempt and turned the boat towards the ocean. After a short streck down the river I turned the boat into the current with the engine and turned it all the way up, at much higher revs than I have ever done before.

We were now able to get closer to the entrance at the low speed of half a knot, sometimes even less than that. That were some really nerve wracking minutes while staring at the coast, the entrance and the gps showing the speed. If the speed had fallen to zero, I would have to call it off again and we would have had no other choice than to let the river push us out to the sea and come back when the tide had changed many hours later.

However, suddenly we were at the harbour entrance and safe inside in the calm water. 

La Sardina in SVC marina Cuxhaven.

But I sure did learn an important lesson about currents and I never forgot about that on the rest of our trip. 

The big mistake I made was to arrive at my end point while the current was still strong. The right way would have been when the current ends and just before it starts to reverse. I entered into the Elbe at Brunsbuttel when the current was changing but I should have planned it for the ending point at Cuxhaven instead. So I should have entered when the current was already running towards the ocean and landed in Cuxhaven around the time it ended.

We spent a few days in SVC Marina in Cuxhaven and then moved La Sardina to City Marina just around the corner. We still had to sail out to the river, but with my newly painfully acquired knowledge about tide, we moved exactly in the sweet spot when the current stopped to change direction and there were no problems. 

Weather semaphore

Close to the marina is there a historic weather semaphore from 1903, which was used to show the weather conditions in the ocean for the ships passing by on the Elbe river up until radio messages took over. It has some very interesting mechanical gears and details.

It was separated into two parts, one part marked with a B showed the weather at Borkum and the H part showed weather at Helgoland.

The arms at top show the wind force using the Beaufort scale, each arm indicates two forces. The circles show the wind direction.

Even today the semaphore is showing the actual weather situation at Borkum and Helgoland. A local group is maintaining this very peculiar historic landmark.

Getting ready and then up the river

In City Marina I assembled the crutches again and a nearby shipyard removed the mast and put it on deck.

Then we were ready for the next part of our trip. We had to go back up river to Otterndorf and enter the small Elbe Weser canal and sail towards Bremerhaven.

This time I had prepared the timing of our trip better, no way I wanted to be caught in that river in the middle of a strong current at the wrong time again.

I wanted to arrive at Otterndorf around the time the current changes when the tide is at its highest. That way we would have the most water under our keel when attempting to enter Otterndorf. 

There is a small canal marked with green buoys that must be followed exactly as this area close to the coast is very flat. In our boat with our engine it would be impossible to follow this marked canal in the strong current, we would simply be swept away like a small branch in the river. So, no current this time was crucial.

Finally time to move on, got the engine started and called the lock master on the radio and gave him a taste of, in my opinion, my best german. Slowly we sailed up to the lock in between all the houses in the neighborhood by the marina. It was a strange feeling to have the mast on deck, and I was constantly bumping into it with my head.

The lock opened up and we were finally ready to enter the river Elbe again. This time with a hopefully better plan.

In Cuxhaven the fishermen have a special signaling system where they will blow their horns when entering and leaving the harbour. The current is so strong outside that they can simply not sail in and out at the same time. Those sailing in have the right of way and those inside, who are protected from the current, yield.

As we head for the entrance a fishing ship catching up blows his horn and I chime in with my newly bought compressor horn. But my horn suddenly doesn’t sound that impressive at all.

We went out into the Elbe and the current was giving us a good push upriver and when we arrived at the small canal at Otterndorf there was no current left at all. We sailed into the tiny canal and entered Otterndorf marina with no incidents.

It seemed that I had finally learned how to plan and use the current to my advantage.

We continued down the Elbe Weser canal the next day, finally we got a taste of the real quiet idyllic canal sailing life.

By User:Raboe001 – based on map data from http://www.demis.nl, Copyrighted free use, Link

Goodbye

Thank you for reading and don’t miss Blog #4 where we visit the Dutch people in the lower country of Holland. We also visit the dutch Venice and see a lot of windmills but absolutely no tulips in the fields.

And don’t forget: Boating is hours of pleasure interrupted by moments of sheer panic 🙂

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