(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.

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

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 🙂