(Ep. 4) Sailing to Holland. This is why you must always stay alert in locks.

Episode 4 is ready.

This episode is part of the continuing story of how we sailed from the cold north to the sunny Mediterranian sea on the european waterways.

In Episode 4 we sail from the last city in Germany, Haren to Holland towards Groningen on the Haren Rütenbrock canal. 

Also this episode contains 6 important tips to prepare for and enter locks on the european waterways.

This is our first time in the small locks with lots of current and close to other boats. We have some moderate drama in the first lock where another boat gets close several times and throughout the day in other locks. 

We get some plastic in the propeller and the engine stops and the boat is floating in the canal without power.

We sail in a convoy with two other boats, a big red boat and a Finnish one. At the end of the canal the two other boats turn left and we turn right towards Ter Apel and Groningen.

During the day we pass many bridges, some are big concrete/steel bridges others are so small that one man can turn them easily.

Blog #4: Sailing to Holland. This is why you must always stay alert in locks.

This blog post is part of the continuing story of how we sailed from the cold north to the sunny Mediterranean sea on the european waterways. 

Our route to the Med.

In Blog #3 we entered the Elbe Weser canal and finally got a taste of some stress free canal sailing.

We continued all the way to Bremerhaven, then up the river Eems to Geeste canal,through Oldenburg and to Haren on the Mittelland kanal.

Here one week later we have reached the last city in Germany, Haren. From here we have to enter the Haren Rütenbrock canal, cross the dutch border then turn right onto the Ter Apelkanaal towards our goal, the city Groningen. It will be a trip of 80 kilometers with 15 locks and around 70 opening bridges and it took us 3 days.

Ready for the first lock in Haren.

In Haren we showed up at the lock at the hour of opening eager to get started and full of positive energy on a nice sunny day.

This was the first time we would be in a small lock with other boats, at this time we still didn’t have much experience with locks. All locks are different and you never know beforehand how to tie up in them and so much can go wrong.

The lock opened up and we entered just after a motorboat from Finland and after us came a large dark red motorboat.

Entering the first lock in Haren.

Some of the bollards in the wall were broken and the distance between them was too far for our small boat so we decided to set both ropes on the same bollard in the middle. This also has the advantage that one person can easily control both ropes, standing in the middle of the boat.

Tying up in the lock.

Suddenly I noticed that the finnish boat beside us was moving closer to us and I asked him to watch out. One thing to always look out for in locks is to always keep an eye on the other boats as people don’t always notice if their boat is moving. Everybody makes mistakes sometimes in these small locks, there is no way around it.

I’m recommending the finnish captain to check his ropes as I suspect his boat will move again when the water starts to flow into the lock.

Talking to the Finnish captain.

The Admiral and I agree that it’s best that she watches our boat towards the finnish boat and that I handle the ropes alone. 

It was lucky that we had both ropes together in this configuration and not one rope far away. 

The lockmaster closed the gate and water started to flow in. Notice how I tighten up the ropes as the water rises. It is very important in the lock to constantly watch your boat and especially the ropes as water level can sometimes change surprisingly fast.

Again the boat from Finland gets close to La Sardina but the Admiral manages to keep it away. She continues to assist the other boat and it gets close several more times.

The Finnish boat moving towards us.

The water is now so high that it’s time to move the ropes to the upper bollard.

Moving lines to the upper bollard.

A curious bystander asks where we are going, I explain to him in German that we are sailing to Groningen in Holland.  

Then the lock keeper is collecting a small fee for our transit to Holland, I think the amount was only 5 euros. He is also asking which direction we are going after this canal ends. We will be turning right towards Groningen, the lock keeper will then inform the lock keepers on that other canal that a boat is moving towards them.

Paying the canal fee.

The gates have opened and that also means there is a current flowing in the lock and suddenly the finnish boat starts to move back with the current. He is very close to hitting the red boat behind us. Again the Admiral is helping them gain control of their boat.

Strong current in the lock and the Finnish boat moves back.

The finnish boat leaves the lock and I get my receipt and we are ready to leave as well.

As we sail out we can admire the beautiful historic ships on the starboard side.

Tips for locks

A few tips and tricks regarding tying up in locks. 

1: Never expect lock keepers to be able to help you in tying up. They will in some cases help you but mostly they don’t have the time and they might not even be at the lock physically. Many locks are remote controlled and the lock keeper might be 20 kilometers away watching you on a camera.

Always be prepared to handle everything yourself.

2: You should always without exception run lines back to your boat and never ever only run them one way. It is dangerous to tie up one way as you would have to crawl up on the ground and back again with your lines. Always avoid using the stairs in locks if possible, they can be slippery, be extremely dirty and pose health problems if you cut your self or may even lack maintenance .

Also you will run the risk of not being able to retrieve your lines when it’s time to leave the lock, your boat might not end up on the level you expect and getting your lines back might be impossible. Tying up after the lock and walking back for your lines will often be difficult also as many locks are fenced in.

3: Have all lines prepared every single time you enter a lock. Always keep all lines well coiled and ready for use with a moment’s notice. 

4: Always follow lock keepers instructions without discussions. 

They may know that another large boat or even a convoy is on the way and they want to make sure there is space for those boats also.

If you are sailing a smaller boat like me then lock keepers might insist that you go in last, that is because they want smaller boats to tie up on the side of larger boats. Again to fit so many boats as possible in the lock. 

5: Always wear shoes

Being barefoot or wearing flip flops is a bad idea in locks as things often happen extremely fast and you can hurt yourself or others if you are not able to hold your boat because your feet are slipping across the deck.

6: Wear lifewest when in locks.

Lifewest is mandatory in most locks and lock keepers will often refuse to operate the lock until everybody is wearing a west. Falling overboard and being unconscious in a lock with strong current is very dangerous and a number of sailors die for that very reason every year.

Feel free to ask questions about locks or anything else in the comments below.

Under the bridges

We have reached the first of 70 opening bridges that we need to pass on our trip to Groningen. Together with the finnish boat and the red boat we are sailing in a convoy so they don’t have to open the bridges too often. The lock keepers are sometimes stationed on a specific bridge all the time but often they are following us on mopeds, cars, bicycles or even by walking depending on distance between the bridges and locks. Bridges vary from large steel reinforced concrete bridges to small bridges that can be opened manually by one man swinging them to the side.

We continue along the canal and it quickly becomes routine with the bridges, the workers know where our convoy is and they know almost to the minute when we will arrive at the next lock or opening bridge.

On a stretch without locks and only bridges the Admiral organizes some breakfast.

The Admiral serving some breakfast.

We are inside another lock with the finnish and the red boat again. This time the big red boat is directly behind us.

Also in this lock it seems to be best that I control the ropes and the Admiral keep an eye on the finnish boat in case of problems. The current is very strong in these locks and it’s difficult to control the boats.

I look back often in this lock because the large red boat is very very close to our mast on deck. But there is no problem from that direction.

Keeping an eye on the big red boat behind us.

We continue and pass the border to Holland, it is the tiny blue sign up there. And then suddenly out of the blue engine problems.

Without warning the engine died with a clunky sound and slowly the boat drifted helplessly in the canal. The best I can think of is to steer the boat closer to land so we are not blocking the canal at the least. The Admiral tries desperately to hold on to anything on land, but there is not much to hold on to.

The Admiral trying to hold us.

The large red motorboat passes us and asks what is going on, I shout back to them that we hit a piece of wood or something.

When we have the boat under control close to land I pull up the outboard engine and discover a plastic bag is stuck in the propeller. Get it cut off with a knife and start the engine up again, but it acts up a little in the beginning. Have to restart it a few times before it runs normal again.

That was quite a shocker, but luckily the bag didn’t do any damage to our engine. On our trip to the mediterranian ocean this would happen a handful times again, but luckily it never did any damage to our engine

We have reached the last lock and bridge on this canal.

Last lock and bridge on the Haren Rütenbrock canal.

The finnish and the red motorboat both turn left and we turn right towards Ter Apel. Today’s first convoy has ended, but we did meet the finnish boat again in Amsterdam some months later.

We continued along the Ter ApelKanaal and later that day we were part of yet another convoy while sailing towards Groningen.

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.