A bridge too far? From Flushing to Hell's Gate

Hunter Peace's picture
Submitted by Hunter Peace on

During the 80s and early 90s we regularly sailed to Holland for our annual cruise but had never explored the ‘Staande Mastroute’, so the plan was to enter Holland at Vlissingen and sail the canals, rivers and lakes to Den Helder. Our intended start from Beaulieu on 22 June 2013 was delayed by gales so we left Gosport on Monday 24 June for Dover arriving at 2230 to find HMS Puncher and Dasher already tied alongside in the outer harbour. An early start saw us leave first for Ostend but we were quickly overtaken before the shipping lanes. We arrived off Ostend harbour after an uneventful passage to find it closed for an hour to allow Goliath, a wind turbine construction barge to leave fully laden and under tug (pictured below). After an excellent fish dinner at the RNSYC and a morning shop for provisions we left at 1115 to take the tide up to Breskens reaching 10.2 knots just before its narrow harbour entrance which, if missed, would have found us in Antwerp.

Whilst paying the Harbourmaster next morning I met Brian Humber who had arrived in a serious thunderstorm in the middle of the night, quite a challenge. Across the always busy Westerschelde, we entered the Vlissingen sea lock (pictured below) through the Walcheren canal, past Middleburg, to the Veere lock and into the Veersemeer (11 nm). We spent a very comfortable night next to the exquisitely restored Zeemuse Schouw at the Veere pier and dined on raw herring and Seetongue at the Veere Yacht Club.

Veere pier

Now Friday 28 June we crossed the Veerse Meer and locked out into the Oosterschelde, north towards the Zeelandbrug then through the Keeten Mastgat passing Bruinisse to port. I had been kindly loaned some Dutch charts by Bob Fairman to supplement my rather ancient collection, however despite having a Dutch wife, I struggled with the text. The chart indicated a separate lock for yachts into the Volkerak approached by a separate channel. On arriving outside the lock it became clear the bridge was fixed but an illuminated display declared a clearance height of 18.3 m. Lazy Life’s air draft is 17 m so by lowering the masthead pennant, I was confident we would pass safely under. A greater challenge faced us at the far end of the Volkerak to pass into Hollandsdiep. This time there was no illuminated sign but a VHF call to the lockmaster revealed a ‘guaranteed’ clearance of 17.1 m, we just got under! We had encountered serious barge traffic in the Volkerak which uses separate sets of locks accessed from separate channels and it turned out that these have bridge lifting sections, I must improve my Dutch. After waiting sometime for countless barges, we crossed the main Hollandsdiep channel to Willemstad (38nm), a very pretty moated town and found a comfortable alongside berth near the centre. We were to find throughout the cruise that no marina or harbour responded to VHF calls for directions to a berth, you just take pot luck.

Saturday saw us leave Willemstad for Gouda, through Hollandsdiep into the Dordtse Kil, then a right into the Oude Maas, through Dordrecht under the Spoorbrug Dordrecht  after a longish wait, only to be trumped by the next bridge the Verkeersbrug Alblasserdam. Road bridges normally open on demand but this one had a clearance of 12m on the fixed section, enough for the commercial barges to pass under, so our usual trick of following a barge did not work. I had always wondered why yachts were required to carry a copy of ANWB Deel 2, being all in Dutch, it’s close to gibberish but apparently if you can read the railway timetables in it the long waits at rail bridges can be alleviated. A sharp right at Stormpolder another lock and bridge took us into the Hollandsche Ijssel and a further lock and two bridges eventually to Gouda (32 nm). Despite its fame Gouda only has one ‘marina’ a narrow dead end canal in the industrial area. There was just one gap for Lazy Life, at 48ft plus the dinghy on davits, it was a tight squeeze.

Sunday saw us following the Gouwe, through Alphen a/d Rijn (photo 9) and another eleven bridges before entering the Braassemermeer (photo 10) and a further bridge into the Aalsmeer on the edge of Schiphol Airport.

following the Gouwe through Alphen

We had decided to take the night convoy route through Amsterdam rather than the longer canal loop via Haarlem. We had to wait until the 1830 opening of Bosrandbrug and the Schipol-Basculebrug into the Nieuwe Meer where we tied up alongside the waiting pontoon for the midnight opening of the Nieuwe Meer lock and rail bridge. Gabe Langerak, LSC’s HPO Amsterdam, joined us on board for dinner but sadly was flying to London early next morning so missed the undoubted highlight of the trip. By midnight there were 12 assorted craft awaiting the convoy north and after a couple of false starts the rail bridge eventually opened to permit entry into the lock. The plan was for each of the next 10 bridges to be opened in sequence but for as short a time as possible, so we were instructed to keep close together but, like the M25, when one slows down we all end up stopping. In this case it was in the dark and with a strong tail wind, it’s one way of honing one’s boat handling skills. After the final rail bridge into Central Station we tied up at 0130 alongside the canal quay just one road bridge short of the North Sea Canal (28nm).

We should have taken the 1000 bridge opening Monday morning rather than 0900, as yachts had hardly started leaving Sixhaven Marina by the time we arrived searching for a berth. It was packed, they say it is only full when the Harbourmaster cannot see any water. There was no sign of him and in our search I ended up puncturing the dinghy on a metal spike on a turning post. Sixhaven was tight to manoeuvre in when I first went there in 1986 but then yachts were 30 ft. rather 50 now.  Eventually safely berthed we headed for the red lights (not literally) and risked our lives amongst the thousands of Amsterdam cyclists. It was also time for a part crew change, Alec Downing who had been a brilliant cook and crew was replaced by Michael Hodges to join Richard Taylor and myself. I had planned on more crew but due to unavoidable circumstances three had to drop out at the last minute but three of us, plus the bow thruster proved adequate. On Tuesday we took a trip in a glass top boat around the Amsterdam canals and visited the beautifully restored Maritime Museum and the Flea Market where I bought an antique Dutch marine oil painting, the signature is not too clear but begins with’ Willem van de’ something! 

From Amsterdam the ‘Staande Mastroute’ crosses the Ijsselmeer and eventually exits Holland at Delfzijl, a popular short cut for yachts heading to the Baltic. Our route to Den Helder largely followed the Noord Holland canal, finished in 1824 to provide a reliable route for Dutch East Indies ships to reach Amsterdam. It quickly proved too small and was replaced by the construction of the North Sea Canal in 1876. The Noord Holland canal starts at Sixhaven but this lower section is currently subject to substantial refurbishment works and the construction of the new tunnel under the North Sea Canal at Central Station, so on Wednesday 3 July  we headed west to the river Zaan passing the new Amsterdam Marina to starboard. This has just opened and provides extensive and spacious moorings with a ferry service to Central Station. First a road bridge then the Wilhelmina lock into the Zaan, the first and only lock or bridge that requested payment and then only a modest 5 euro. The river winds through Zaanstad, a busy industrial area full of chocolate factories, and after another 8 bridges opens into the Alkmaarder Meer where we promptly ran aground in mid channel, our first and only grounding with a draft of 1.85m. We reversed off and rather gingerly felt our way across this lake which has a very irregular bottom and into the Noord Hollandsch canal. Just one more bridge saw us arrive in Alkmaar (19nm). Famous for its weekly cheese market and cheese museum, Alkmaar is quite delightful and has recently installed a long visitor’s quay next to the old Harbourmaster’s office (photo 13) with electricity, water and the nicest showers so far, all for 22 euro per night. We found most inland marinas charged around 20 euros whereas coastal marinas were usually double that.

Thursday saw the final leg of our inland journey and another 15 bridges as we followed the canal parallel to the North Sea with just fields and sand dunes between us. There was much less traffic here but still the odd surprise, an hotel barge completely filling the canal approached us and we had to squeeze the starboard bank to let it pass. Beyond Burgervlotbrug the canal widened and straightened and was lined by both old and new windmills. We arrived at Den Helder (22nm) and found a vacant berth at Marine WV but no one was about and the town did not look too inviting so we dined on board. Den Helder, a Dutch Naval base, has the feel of Gosport with similar dubious attractions.

With just one more lock to reach the North Sea we had rather surprisingly only passed through 12 locks since entering at Vlissingen but had negotiated some 70 bridges, 11 rail and 59 road of which 2 were fixed, all within 6 days and a total distance of 148nm. To my surprise the chart plotter covered the entire route in great detail.

Friday saw us passing through the last lock into Den Helder harbour where we refuelled before taking the tide across the Waddenzee to Texel. Oudeschild is a surprisingly large harbour with substantial visitor’s moorings between posts and a new Harbour office with excellent facilities. We hired 3 bicycles and headed for Den Burg the main town which is a popular holiday resort.

It was the first really gloriously sunny day and the shipping forecast promised NE4/5. This was too good to miss so instead of heading for West Terschelling we left early Saturday morning to take the ebb tide south on passage to Harwich. In the event the wind was NE 2/3 so we had to motor sail to keep up a reasonable speed crossing the deep water route just before dusk.

Our hope of seeing the green flash at sunset was thwarted by long dark bank of pollution on the horizon (photo19). We found the AIS on the chart plotter extremely useful in identifying the heavy shipping we encountered, particularly at night, and were able to call up ships where our CPA appeared less than a mile. We arrived at the RHYC Woolverstone after 25 hours and 160nm. We spent Sunday enjoying the heat wave, their splendid new clubhouse and listening to the Wimbledon Men’s Final.

restored clubhouse at the Royal Harwich

Monday 8 July saw early start to reach Long Sand Head to take the tide down to Ramsgate but it was an uncomfortable sail dead downwind and frustrated by the new Thames Array which demanded a significant diversion to reach Ramsgate. We had encountered many new wind farms particularly on the sandbanks approaching the Suffolk coast and at night found their red lights disconcerting as they screened vessels port hand lights, surely they should be blue or orange. A particularly nice dinner at ‘Bon Appetite’ a French restaurant below the RTYC in Ramsgate rather raised our view of the town. Another early start on Tuesday to catch the tide to Dungeness and onwards to Sovereign Harbour, Eastbourne and another lock! Wednesday, again in beautiful sunshine, we left for Beaulieu having a great sail to the Looe Channel which we past through at 10 kts (photo 21) only to shortly after lose all wind and motor sail the rest of the way. The total cruise covered 730 nm with 582nm at sea. My thanks to Richard for his faultless navigation, to Michael for his newly found catering skills and excellent ship spotting and all the crew for their patience and companionship.