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

In this episode 3 we arrive in Kiel, Germany and enter our very first lock in the Kiel Canal. It was also our first experience with strong river currents that makes for some very tense moments when trying to enter Cuxhaven.
In Cuxhaven they have a very interesting wind semaphore that was used to warn passing sailors of bad weather in the North Sea.
We get the mast down and start the trip on German canals towards Holland.

Episode 3 on Youtube.

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


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 🙂

Blog #2: Living on a small island and preparing the boat for the waterways.

Hello world

This is Blog 2 where I will tell you a little more about living on a small island and preparing the boat for the waterways.

Captain JJ Christensen.

Moving to a small island in the cold north

In the years 2013 and 2014 I was sailing around Denmark in the summer on La Sardina while working as an IT consultant onboard. I managed to visit most of Denmark this way step by step.

Born and raised in a small village inland with no oceans anywhere I was fascinated with this new world with boats and the sea. Especially I liked being on the smaller islands of Denmark and I was growing tired of the big city, Copenhagen. It seemed like a good idea to live on one of these small islands.

In 2014 we bought a small house on one of the islands I had visited on my voyages, Ærø. It was a small island only 25 kilometers long and no more than 9 kilometers wide. The island has around 6000 inhabitants in 3 main villages. The house was in the larger village of Marstal that has a big marina with marine shops and shipyards.

This city is very famous for its impressive shipping history where it had up to 400 large schooners in its heydays. Even today it is a must to visit for the many historic wooden ships we still have sailing around in Denmark.

I always dreamed of having one of those wooden boats but it takes a lot of work to maintain them and because I’m such a big procrastinator it will never ever work.

Schooner Fylla arrives in Marstal.

It is also a good island for a photographer to be on. It is well known for its many spectacular  sunrises and sunsets with almost magic colors. Also it has very beautiful landscapes.

The island was also very popular among many eloping wedding couples and there were around 1000 weddings a year when I arrived there. In the end the island had more than 5000 weddings a year, before bureaucracy and legislation axed the wedding business. 

Well, I started working as a full time wedding photographer on the island and during the next 4 years I photographed more than 600 weddings ranging from civil ceremonies only 30 minutes long to all inclusive 15 hour church weddings with hundreds of guests. 

In 2018 it was time to move on from this small island in the cold north in search of nice sunny days, which are so rare for us. My body does not handle the cold and humid climate so well anymore. 

I wanted to sail to the mediterranian sea because as everybody knows they have nice sunny days all the time, even in winter it’s nice.

The obvious route would be to sail into the north sea through the northeast channel and head south through the english channel, across the bay of Biscay and finally pass Gibraltar. 

But another more interesting route would be through the inland european waterways with their charm and history. This ended up being the route we chose.

Preparing for the waterways.

Before making this trip from the cold north to the mediterranian on the inland waterways there are a few things that must be in order.

  • You need a CEVNI certificate that proves you have learned the rules and regulations of the rivers and canals.
  • You need to use your VHF radio on the rivers and you must have a radio certificate to use it legally, and more importantly to not disturb the traffic.
  • Your boat needs to be registered. Normally in Denmark we don’t register pleasure boats but all other european countries expect such a registration paper. 
  • You need some kind of VAT paid certificate or documentation or else you run the risk of having your boat impounded by customs officials in other countries. My boat is from before the VAT was even invented but just in case I got the certificate made.
  • Liability insurance is needed, you should already have this, many marinas will check it and will refuse you if you don’t have it. You also need the insurance to be extended to cover your trip in other countries and the coverage needs to be more than a million Euros.

In February 2018 I finally had all papers and requirements in place and everything was ready except the boat. I wanted to start the trip around March/April 2018. 

Making the boat ready

I had been procrastinating regarding work on the boat and off course all this work still had to be done.

Bottom had to be cleaned and painted, and crutches to keep the mast on deck had to be created. 

Weather was really acting up this winter and it was not possible to start any work on the boat until April 2018. But then finally the weather relaxed just enough to do some outside work.

La Sardina still covered in snow and ice.

First project was to get the boat on land, clean the bottom and paint it again. 

It had been 2 years in the water and it was covered with growth. I’m such a procrastinator that it simply never happens that I get the boat on land every winter as I’m supposed to and this is always the result. 

Many many kilos of barnacles and oysters had to be removed. 

On the other hand, I’m good at always giving the bottom extra layers of antifouling when I finally get it on land. The work I did here lasted for 2 whole years sailing across Europe.

Also I polished the sides so it would look nice and shiny for the trip. Fitted extra boatnames in front which is a requirement on the rivers that makes it easier for lock masters to identify our boat.

La Sardina with new boat name added on the front.

And the boat came back into the water and what a difference this new clean bottom made in speed and so much easier to steer.

La Sardina ready for the water again.
La Sardina ready for the water again.

Next project was to build those crutches so the mast could be stored on deck. It took a lot of watching videos and reading on the internet before I had a clear idea of a design.

But the work went well and after a few days playing around I finally had a working solution that was easy to store and safe, even in case of waves which can happen on larger rivers and lakes.

Finally underway

Finally underway

And finally one unusually sunny day in the cold north everything was ready. Boat was prepared, provisions loaded and I was removing the dock lines for the final time.

A course for Kiel in Germany had been plotted and off into the ocean we went on this sunny and absolutely windless day.