“Volkeraksluizen lock, this is yacht Ruby Tuesday”, I say, realising as soon as I say it that I am actually saying the word ‘lock’ twice. Sluis is Dutch for lock. “We have an air draft of 18 m and are intending to head eastwards towards Dordrecht. Can you advise which lock we should take?”
We are approaching the Volkeraksluizen, a system of locks separating the Volkerak from Hollands Diep, a river connected to the Rhine and Maas rivers. The Volkeraksluizen are the largest locks in the world in terms of tonnage of shipping that use them, and actually consist of four locks, three for commercial ships, the fourth for yachts (or ‘sport boats’, as the Dutch call them). We are a bit nervous in taking a mere sailing boat through such a busy place.
“Ruby Tuesday, this is Volkeraksluizen. You can go in the sports boat lock. It has a height of ssszzzzcccrrrrzzzzt”, comes back the answer. Static obliterates the last part of the sentence. I ask him to repeat it, but again I can’t understand him. Perhaps it is my hearing. I am left hoping that he heard me correctly and that there will be enough space for our 18 m. I had hoped we would go through the commercial lock as the clearance is unlimited.
“Don’t worry”, says the First Mate. “I am sure he heard you properly.”
But I am still worried. Normally it’s the other way round – the First Mate is the worrier, and I think things will always work out for the best. Except this time. The route guidebook says that boats higher than 18 m should go in the commercial lock. I know that we are just on 18 m, but what happens if the water level is just a few centimetres higher today than yesterday? Or if my measurements the other day were slightly out?
We enter the sports boat channel and wait in the queue for the lock to open. The bridge over the top of the lock looks awfully close to the top of the mast from where I am standing. At the risk of irritating him I decide to call the lockmaster again. Better to be safe than sorry.
“Ruby Tuesday. You will be alright. The height of the lock is 18.1 m today”, comes back the laconic answer. “Make sure you go underneath the bridge first.” Do I detect an element of ennui?
Well, I suppose that 10 cm clearance is better than -10 cm. In any case, there is not much we can do now, as the lock has opened and we are moving in with other boats piling in behind us.
I look up and wait for the VHF aerial to catch on the bridge and whip back or break, but miraculously it doesn’t. We motor under the bridge and loop the lines over the small bollards at the side of the lock. That 10 cm is just enough. At least we know for sure now that our air draft is less than 18.1 m!
The water in the lock rises 50 cm. It’s just as well we went under the bridge first, or we would have been stuck on the other side. As we wait, water flows into the lock sideways somehow and pushes Ruby Tuesday away from the wall. We have to hold onto the ropes for all we are worth to stop bumping into the next boat. Apparently it is part of a clever mechanism to make sure the brackish water of the Volkerak doesn’t mix with the fresh water of Hollands Diep.
“See, I told you that you didn’t need to worry”, says the First Mate. As we pass the lock control room, the lockmaster bends over the rail and looks down. I imagine that he is wanting to see for himself the yachtie who had to ask him three times about the height of his lock. I wave to him anyway. He doesn’t wave back.
We turn to the right into Hollands Diep. The wind is now directly behind us and quite strong, so we fly the genoa only and make a good pace.
Off to our starboard side is Willemstad, another picturesque Dutch town, but we decide to forgo its pleasures and press on towards Dordrecht. After an hour and a half, we take a left into another river, the Dordtsche Kil, heading northwards up to Dordrecht. The wind is now from the port beam and still very strong – great for sailing normally, but as we have to stay close to the starboard bank, we decide to motor. It wouldn’t look good being blown onto a lee shore!
Further on, we turn right onto the Oude Maas river and eventually reach the railway bridge in Dordrecht. There are a queue of boats waiting to get through which we join. In 20 minutes, the bridge lifts, two large container ships go through first, then it is a mad rush as the plethora of small boats that have gathered jostle for position. The bridge only opens for six minutes exactly before the next train is due. Missing it means waiting for another two hours for the next opening.
Just after the railway bridge we see a small sign on the right pointing the way down a narrow channel to Maartensgat marina where we plan to stay. We almost miss it. We turn down it, only to find another sign almost immediately to the left pointing to an even narrower entrance to the marina. There is about a metre on either side of Ruby Tuesday as we slide through. Inside we tie up to a small pontoon that appears to be empty.
“We can stay here for a bit”, I say. “I am sure we will be told to move, but let’s wait until we are.”
At that moment an enormous motor cruiser appears in the entrance. How it managed to squeeze through is beyond me. Our escape is cut off. We then see a man with a beard cycling along the road alongside the marina. He comes down to the pontoon. It turns out that he is the marina manager.
“I have got you allocated for over there”, he says to us, pointing to a small gap towards the other end of the marina. “I want you to turn around just in front of that and reverse in. You can tie yourself to the neighbouring boats and get on and off via your stern. I have this place allocated to that motor cruiser there.”
The place for turning is only slightly larger than Ruby Tuesday. We motor slowly down, my mind whirling to work out a plan for the turn. With a combination of bow-thruster and reverse lock on the rudder we manage to start her rotating on her axis.
“There’s about a metre free here”, calls the First Mate from the bow. There is about a metre free at the stern as well. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot anxious faces looking from surrounding boats, boat hooks at the ready like knights just about to enter a jousting tournament. Somehow we make it. Ruby Tuesday is facing back where she came from. We reverse into the designated space, where eager hands from our neighbours reach out to fend us off and guide us in. I start breathing again.
Maartensgat marina is right in the centre of town with the Grote Kerk church towering above it. Apparently the church has 67 bells, with the largest weighing nearly 10 tonnes. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your point of view, these bells ring out every quarter of an hour. Great in small doses, but difficult to have a conversation sitting in the cockpit of a boat just below. Once an hour would have been enough.
“Look at the flag on top of the church”, says the First Mate. “It looks just like the no entry sign on the canals.”
She is right. We both know from the CEVNI course that a flag or sign with red-white-red horizontal stripes means no entry.
“Perhaps the riff-raff are not allowed to enter such a magnificent church”, I say.
After lunch, we explore the city. Dordrecht is actually an island surrounded by no less than five rivers, the Oude Maas, the Dordtsche Kil, Hollands Diep, the Beneden Merwede and the Nieuwe Merwede. Like Amsterdam, there are a network of small canals throughout the city that small boats with next to no height can move along. Houses come right down to the waterline. I wonder how they manage to keep their cellars from flooding, if they have any.
One of the houses has a mural painting of some of the city dignitaries.
“Look, here’s a nice bakery”, says the First Mate, never one to knowingly pass a bread shop without seeing what it has to offer. “Let’s have a soup and a roll there. I’m a bit peckish.”
We sit by the window to keep our distance from other customers. The owner comes over and asks us where we are from.
“Wow, that’s impressive”, he says when we tell him. “To sail all the way from Scotland and find yourself in my bakery. I’m honoured. Here, let me take your photo from outside looking in.”
The next morning we give Ronald a hand to leave. Ronald is one of our neighbours who we have exchanged pleasantries with from time to time. The talk turns to covid-19 while we wait for the marina manager to arrive to help him out of the tight space.
“I just don’t believe that it is that serious”, he says. “The reaction is just over the top. We haven’t got it, and no-one we know has it. We are all just being manipulated by ‘them’.”
“Who are ‘they’?”, I ask, doing my best Louis Theroux impression.
“Anyone who is not ‘us’”, he answers. “’We are the common man, and we are being fooled. By the government, the rich, the powerful, the elite, big pharma. The world is just falling to pieces. That’s why we bought the boat. To escape. To be our own bosses and live our lives as we want to.”
There’s a lot to unpick there.
“But why would ‘they’ want to do that?”, I ask. ”How would anyone except for a very few benefit from a pandemic?”
“I read somewhere that the wealth of the richest billionaires in America has increased by nearly 30% as a result of the virus”, says Ronald. “Look at the guy who owns Amazon – his fortune has increased by $70 billion just since March. An increase of $70 bn! Can you imagine that?”
I have to agree that it is rather obscene when lots of people have died or have lost their jobs or businesses. But I can’t see that the pandemic was engineered by the rich and powerful, or even governments, for that matter. The UK government, for example, seems to have been particularly inept in responding to it, let alone engineering it. But perhaps I am being naïve.
“And where would you escape to?”, I ask. “Most places in the world seem to have covid-19 now.”
“Sweden”, he says without hesitation. “We are going to sail there next year.”
“But they have one of the worst infection rates in Europe”, I say. “They were far too lax with their rules early on, and then numbers got away on them. Now they are paying the price.”
“Yes, but it’s all about freedom, isn’t it?”, he says. “The government there just set guidelines, not rules or laws. Then they left it up to the individual to decide whether or not to follow them or not. Not like the nanny state that we have here in Holland or in other European countries.”
I am just about to point out that the Netherlands is also pretty lax in comparison to some European countries like Belgium, and that numbers of cases are starting to rise again anyway, when the marina manager arrives to give a hand in getting Ronald’s boat out.
“I enjoyed that conversation”, says Ronald. “Next time we meet, we must continue it.”
With them sailing south and us north, and with covid-19 on the loose, I wonder if we ever will.
In the afternoon, Beate and Harry visit us. They are friends from Germany, old flatmates of the First Mate. Harry is an IT consultant and Beate a graphics designer. They are into dragon boat racing and have been in Amsterdam for a weekend of racing with other enthusiasts, and are just on their way home. They have been following our progress on MarineTraffic so know exactly where to find us. So much so, they park on the road next to the marina, looking down on Ruby Tuesday.
They come down and we have refreshments in the cockpit, socially distanced and with a nice breeze blowing through between us.
“Ding, dong, ding, ding, dong”, say the 67 church bells above us. “Dong, ding, ding, dong.”
“Wow, that’s quite a welcome”, says Harry. “Did you lay it on?”
“Ding, dong, ding, ding, dong”. Luckily the bells drown out my answer.
It’s nice to catch up with all their news. They have just bought their own sailing boat which they keep in Workum, on the eastern side of the IJsselmeer, so we have lots to talk about. They are spending time doing it up, but have already done some sailing in it. We arrange to meet up at some point once we reach the IJsselmeer ourselves.