“Oh no”, says the First Mate. “I don’t want to clamber over the anchor to get off the boat! I’ll break my leg. What am I going to do?”
We have just arrived at the marina in Vlissingen in Holland, and have been allocated a ‘box’ berth, which consists of the boat’s bow facing the pontoon with two poles at the back to tie the stern lines to. To get onto the pontoon you have to climb over the anchor.
We talk to our neighbours, who by a lucky chance are heading off in a couple of hours for a week or so, and say that we can use their berth while they are away. It has the pontoon running alongside the boat, which is what we are used to. The First Mate thanks them profusely. It will certainly make life easier. We are getting a bit old for anchor-abatics.
Vlissingen is a harbour city on the vast mouth of the Scheldt River in the south of Holland, and used to be the home port of the Dutch East India Company. Even though it has had its ups and downs over time, it is still a major harbour and shipbuilding site today. Crossing from one side to the other of the Schelde in a sailing boat as we had done in our passage up from Oostende is not an exercise to be taken lightly, with strong currents, frequent ferries and large ships all to be taken into account.
Apparently its name is derived from the Dutch word vles for bottle, as an itinerant saint arrived at the city one day and gave the contents of a bottle he was carrying to some of the starving inhabitants. Miraculously, the contents never ran out, so as one does in such circumstances, he named the city Vles. The -ingen bit got added later. Whether that is true or not is debatable, but in any case much later the English couldn’t get their tongues around Vlissingen and called it Flushing. Even now it has both names, often with the Flushing in brackets after Vlissingen.
We walk into town to explore. Immediately we are surprised at the lack of covid masks compared to Belgium. Whereas in Oostende everyone was wearing masks, on the streets and in the shops, here no-one is. We do have ours with us, and do wear them, but we feel distinctly odd.
There is a market in town that day, and the First Mate buys some fruit to keep our vitamin C levels up.
We walk down to the harbour and watch the pilot boats coming and going to guide the big ships up the Westerschelde.
We are planning to do the Staande Mastroute, a route through the Dutch Canals where it is possible to keep the mast up the whole way by using lifting and swinging bridges. Although there are a lot of canals in Holland, most have fixed bridges en route making it impossible for yachts to travel through unless they take their masts down, and even then many bridges are too low. The Staande Mastroute starts in Vlissingen where we are at the moment, and wends its way through Zeeland, Dordrecht, Gouda, and into the IJsselmeer, the large body of shallow water north of Amsterdam, and from there up to Delfzijl in the very far north.
We spend the morning in the local chandlers buying the necessary paraphernalia.
“Look at this”, says the First Mate, holding up a horn you blow through. “I read somewhere that you need a horn at some of the bridges to let the person in charge know you are waiting, and also to communicate with some of the barges who use horn blasts to signal their intentions.”
It’s only seven euros, but I wonder to myself if we will really use it.
We end up buying the ANWB Staande Mastroute official guide book, with lots of detailed maps, but unfortunately all in Dutch, and a couple of other maps for bits of the route that are inexplicably not covered by the official guide. And of course, the horn. Back at the boat we test the horn. Three ducks peacefully feeding near the boat fly off in fright, flapping their wings wildly.
It is also a legal requirement to have a copy of the ANWB Water Almanac Vol 1, again all in Dutch, but it is permissible to have a digital version of this, so we search the internet for it and download the latest copy. Sorted!
The next day, I spend the whole day swotting up on my CEVNI test for the waterways of Europe. CEVNI (Code Européen des Voies de Navigation Intérieure) is a bit like a driving license for waterways, and is a legal requirement in some countries such as France, although, as luck would have it, not the Netherlands. It comes as an endorsement on the International Certificate of Competence (ICC) which I obtained when we started sailing. There is a book you have to swot up on and then sit an on-line multiple-choice test – not hugely demanding, and you do get two tries at it even, but there is a lot to remember all the same. I had been meaning to do the test before we started, but with one thing and another, just hadn’t got around to it. But now we are just about to start the real thing, I decide it is advisable to do it.
By mid-afternoon, I have read the book through and memorised what all the signs, the horn signals, buoy colours, and the lights meant, as well as all the other miniscule details, so I decide to give the real test a go. Lo-and-behold, I pass with flying colours, with 15/15 and 15/15 for the two parts to it. I am now qualified to take on the waterways of Europe! At the very least, I can hoot back the right response when a barge hoots a warning to us that he wants to overtake us on the starboard side. (Normally overtaking is on the port side.)
We leave Vlissingen the next morning along the Walcheren Canal. The bridge lifts at 1012 and we are on our way.
The next city, Middelburg, is not far and we arrive just after 1200. We tie up in the marina in the centre of town, and go and find a place to have lunch. Middelburg is the capital of Zeeland province, and is very picturesque. There is a feeling of wealth built up over centuries through commerce and trading. It also used to be a centre of science and technology, with the microscope and telescope having been invented here by the resident lens-makers.
We walk into the town centre and have lunch. Even though much of it was destroyed in WW2, it has been rebuilt as closely as possible to what it was like previously. The town hall, with its red and white window shutters is particularly striking.
Even the cormorants in the moats around the city have their own houses.
“I know”, says the First Mate over breakfast the next day. “Why don’t we go for a cycle ride today? It’s all so flat, and we could cycle out to Domburg here on the coast, and come back this way.” She jabs a finger at the map spread out in front of us.
We unload the folding bikes and assemble them on the quayside. It is the first time we have had them out this trip, and the tyres are flat. I pump them up.
We set off. Before long we are lost.
“We were following route 36”, says the First Mate. “But it seems to have disappeared. I can’t see it anywhere.”
Luckily we come across a map board nearby showing cycle routes in Zeeland. It takes us a few minutes to work out that the numbers refer to waypoints and not routes. Number 36 refers to a junction on the route and not the route itself. We find a pen and paper and write down all the waypoints we need to pass through to get to Domburg.
We set off again. We pass through lots of rural land, with healthy-looking crops growing, contented cows grazing, quaint little villages, the odd windmill in the distance. All lower than sea-level with the sea held back by dykes. Quintessential Holland.
Eventually we reach Domburg on the coast. A huge dyke separates us from the sea. The town is full of German tourists. We sit down at a café and are addressed by the waiter in German.
“Zwei cafés, bitte”, says the First Mate. “Ein Stück Erdbeer-Sahne-Kuchen mit zwei Gabeln bitte.”
“Did you ever have that story of the boy who saved Holland by putting his finger in the dyke to stop a leak?”, I ask, while we wait. “It was a story we had when we were growing up.”
“No, I don’t think we had that one”, says the First Mate. “Tell me it.”
“Well, once upon a time there was a young boy called Hans”, I start, trying to remember how the story went. “One day he was walking along the road at the base of the dyke with his little brother, when he saw some water seeping through the soil. Worried that the small leak might get larger and larger, he stuck his finger in the small hole to block the flow, and told his little brother to go and get help.”
The coffees and strawberry cream cake arrive.
“The little brother set off while Hans stayed there with his finger in the hole”, I continue between mouthfuls. “Night-time came, and still there was no sign of help arriving. Hans started getting cold, but he stayed there as he knew if he didn’t his country would flood. He stayed there the whole night, and was just about to fall asleep through cold and exhaustion, he saw lights and heard voices in the distance. It was his father and some other men, coming with picks and shovels. They soon patched up the dyke and Hans and his brother became national heroes for saving their country and people from drowning.”
“That’s a nice story”, says the First Mate, wiping a cake crumb from her lips. “It really captures the Dutch spirit. It must be nice to be a hero of your country.”
Later I read that the story was written by an American author who had never been to Holland until years after she had written it. I feel a little bit let down.
“Come on”, says the First Mate. “Have you finished your coffee? I don’t really like it here much. It’s too touristy. Let’s get going.”
We get back on our bikes and cycle along the top of the dyke. On the other side is a long sandy beach. Some people are swimming in the sea, but it looks cold and uninviting so we decide to give it a miss.
Further along we come to Westkapelle with its rather impressive looking lighthouse. There is a tank commemorating the liberation of Zeeland in WW2.
We take the inland route back to Middelburg, and arrive just as it is getting dark. It’s been a long day.
The next day we decide to push on in Ruby Tuesday along the Walcheren Canal. We eventually reach Veere on the edge of the Veerse Meer, and tie up at another box berth, but luckily this one also has a pontoon alongside. The First Mate breathes a sigh of relief. The church bells ring as if to welcome us. It might be just my imagination, but the tune seems to have a part of Whiter Shade of Pale in it.
Veere is another lovely little Dutch village with a picturesque harbour, but catering almost entirely for tourists. There is not even a shop for provisioning close by. Apparently in the Middle Ages, the village was a major port for importing wool from Scotland in an early version of the EU. The local nobleman even married the daughter of James I.
We find a place to sit, and order a Radler, the First Mate’s current favourite, and a Weizen beer for me. The waitress is a bit curt. Perhaps she has had enough of foreign tourists for the day. But it doesn’t stop me from enjoying the yeasty flavour of the cloudy Weizen beer made from wheat. We don’t leave a tip this time.
In the afternoon, we decide to measure the height of the mast so that we don’t get caught out going under lifting bridges and through locks. When we bought Ruby Tuesday, we were told that the height was 20 m, but we didn’t know if this was a precise measurement or an educated guess. Better to be safe than sorry.
We tie a spare halyard to the end of the topping lift at the end of the boom and pull it to the top of the mast just before it goes into the sheave. We then mark it where it meets the surface of the water. The halyard is obviously not quite vertical because of the width of the hull, so we measure the horizontal distance from the base of the mast to where we measured the waterline. Then by measuring the halyard to the waterline mark and using a bit of Pythagoras, we work out that the mast is exactly 17 m high. Mr Rose, my old maths teacher at high school, would be proud. There are still the navigation lights and the VHF aerial on top of this, so we allow another 1 m which makes it 18 m. So a bit less than the 20 m that we had been told, but at least we know now what the minimum height of clearance is that we need through bridges and the like.
Just as we finish, the church bells ring out their tune.
“And so it was that later/As the miller told his tale/That her face, at first just ghostly/Turned a whiter shade of pale”, I sing disharmoniously in accompaniment.
“Is that song hard to sing?”, says the First Mate. “It’s certainly hard to listen to.”
I’ll need to have a word with that girl one of these days.