A sea battle, a sandy island, and washing the clothes

The Dutch East Indiaman changes tack and cuts in astern of us trying to position herself to fire off a broadside at us from the cannon protruding from her gun-ports. Sailors line the decks, shouting and brandishing their weapons. We are faster and more agile than her, but a cannonball amidships or through Ruby Tuesday’s mast could cripple us and make us ripe for the picking.

I turn stern on to her to minimise our cross-section and pray that her gunners will have trouble aiming in the gently rolling swell. There is a puff of smoke from one of her gun-ports, followed by a deafening boom rolling across the water. There is a swish as the ball flies harmlessly to our port side. I shiver; another shot to get our range, and they will have us in their sights. I tack quickly to gain speed to distance Ruby Tuesday from them, then turn suddenly broadside on, and give the order for our cannon to be fired. I smell the stench of burning gunpowder as ball after ball rips into the Indiaman’s gunwales and rigging, turning her sails into tatters and holing her at the waterline. She won’t be able to follow us now, I think.

“Watch out for that sailing ship behind us”, shouts the First Mate in alarm. “It’s going faster than us, and it’s getting very close. I’d almost say it is going to hit us.”

Hostile intentions?

My mind snaps back to reality. I was daydreaming of the First Anglo-Dutch War in the 1600s, when the English and Dutch were at each other’s’ throats to gain dominance in the lucrative maritime trade. The English had won the first war, but had come second in the following three.

“It’s OK”, I say. “I have it under control.”

We are on the way to Terschelling, one of the Dutch Frisian islands. I had done the calculations the previous evening, and we had left South Harbour in Harlingen just before high water to catch the outgoing tidal flow along the channel. A lot of other boats have had the same idea and we are just one of a long procession. The wind is favourable, coming from the north, giving us a nice beam reach for the first part of the voyage, and we make eight knots. The Dutch East Indiaman recedes into the distance.

In the procession to Terschelling island.

We eventually reach the Schuitengat, the narrow buoyed channel that leads to West Terschelling harbour, and turn into it, leaving the main channel. The tide is now against us as it flows out to sea, and we need to start the engine to make any progress.

We arrive at the marina, and are met by a member of staff in a small RIB who directs us to the space allocated for boats of our length. All the pontoon berths are already taken, but there is enough space to raft up alongside another one.

“We normally have a maximum of three boats rafted together”, explains the staff member. “You can chose where you want to go.”

We decide to raft up to a large catamaran as it counts as two boats, but it also means that we only have one other boat to clamber over. At least we have a place for the night.

Rafted up in West Terschelling marina.

“You can take your glasses into town to see if they can be fixed”, says the First Mate at breakfast the next morning, cutting another slice of cheese.

I idly think the cheese looks like the shape of Terschelling island. Mind you, anything could look like the shape of Terschelling when one of the legs on your glasses has become wobbly and they don’t sit straight on your face.

We unload the bikes and cycle into West Terschelling, the main town of the island. It seems there is an optician there.

“Don’t stand so close to me”, says the optician as I hand him the glasses. “You are supposed to be 1.5 metres away.”

It’s an interesting customer relations approach. I am wearing my mask, and he had asked to see the glasses. I am not sure how I am supposed to give him the glasses unless it is on the end of a fishing line. And in any case, I am not much less than 1.5 m from him anyway.

“I am afraid I can’t fix these”, he says curtly. “They are a special SpecSavers make. You’ll have to take them back to the place you got them.”

I explain that this is a bit difficult, as we are travelling for some months.

“Sorry, there is nothing I can do”, he says. “You could try and fix them yourself, I suppose.”

Fixing glasses is not something I am good at. At least not without the risk of breaking them. And anyway, what are opticians for? Luckily, I have a spare pair back on the boat. They will have to do.

“He was a bit grumpy”, says the First Mate, as we leave. “I wonder what side of the bed he got out of this morning? Anyway, forget about him. I just want to have a quick look around the shops. Why don’t you find somewhere to have a coffee, and I’ll catch up with you shortly.”

While I am waiting, I scan through a small brochure on the natural history of the island that I had picked up at the marina. It seems that the whole of the Wadden Sea that we had crossed yesterday used to be dry land and the islands didn’t exist until fairly recently, geologically speaking. When the ice melted after the Ice Ages, the sea level rose by 60 m and by 7000 years ago it was all flooded. Then wave action from the North Sea started building up sand banks until some of them grew enough not to be covered by the tide each time. Vegetation became established which allowed them to grow further as sand was trapped from being blown away by the grasses and shrubs. The constant supply of sand from the seaward side created beautiful sandy beaches and behind them, dunes. The younger dunes are white from the fresh sand, but as they begin to accumulate organic material from the vegetation, they become darker. In between the dunes, fresh water collects to create marshes.

The First Mate returns from her shopping expedition.

“I read last night that the islands are actually migrating eastwards”, she says. “With the predominant wind from the west, the sand gets blown from the western side and is deposited on the eastern side. All the towns now are on the western end of each island, but they used to be in the middle.”

“We had better not stay here too long, or else we might find ourselves back in the sea”, I joke.

We jump on the bikes and head eastwards, following the well-signposted cycle tracks criss-crossing the island. There is a strong wind from the north, and it is tough going in places. We pass through some delightful forest tracks and eventually reach the beach on the north coast. Unfortunately the wind is so strong that the sand is being lifted from the beach and stings our faces like tiny needles. I now know how Ruby Tuesday feels having her hull sand-blasted to remove marine growth. We beat a track to the café at the start of the dunes and have a cold drink behind the glass windscreens to recover.

Sheltering behind the windscreen from the sand.

We eventually reach the end of the bike path. Beyond is the Boschplaat, an extensive nature reserve of nothing but rolling dunes interspersed with marshes. It’s a wilderness.

Looking over the Boschplaat.

We consider a walk, but rain is forecast. Already a few drops are falling, so we decide to head back home along the southern dyke that separates the Wadden Sea from the polders. These are areas that used to be part of the Wadden Sea mudflats, but which have been drained and are now used for agriculture. A farmer mows the lush grass growing on the rich soil of the former sea bed.

Mowing the grass on the polders, Terschelling.

With the wind from the north, we have a nice beam reach as we cycle along the top of the dyke (did you see what I did there?). Bird life on both sides is abundant. We see geese, lots of oystercatchers, cormorants, terns, and black-headed gulls, to name but a few.

A cormorant dries its wings.

We are particularly taken with the little stone-turners hunkering down between the cracks in the rocks making up the side of the dyke.

“They would have a job turning those stones”, says the First Mate.

Wadden Sea stone-turners.

Back near the town we spy a boat resting on the sand, her keel withdrawn. The local boats are built to have wide flat hulls which can sit quite happily on the exposed sandbars at low tide. Apparently it is a highlight of tourist boat trips to the Wadden Sea islands for the skipper to ground the boat and allow the tourists to walk around the sandbar before the tide returns and they have to get back in the boat. It’s not a party trick that Ruby Tuesday can do with her fixed deep keel, unfortunately.

Boat resting on the Wadden seabed.

We arrive back in West Terschelling. Luckily, the rain has held off, so we decide to have coffee and cakes.

“Apparently cranberries are a speciality of Terschelling”, says the First Mate. “I think I might try a cranberry pancake with cranberry liqueur. You can have some of it.”

The First Mate treats herself to a cranberry pancake.

When we get back to the boat, we have new neighbours. They are a young couple from Amsterdam who have rafted up next to us. They are three deep, and have to clamber over us and the catamaran.

“I hope you don’t mind”, they say shyly. “There was no other place left.”

“Not at all”, we say. “That’s the way it is done here.”

“You know, I don’t think that we have seen another British boat since we started off”, they say.

We had noticed the same thing. There had been a lot of Dutch boats obviously, and German ones were increasing in number the further north we went, even a smattering of Norwegian and Swedish craft. We had even seen one with a Swiss flag, despite that country not being well known for its extensive coastline. But no UK ones so far apart from ourselves.

“I guess it’s a combination of COVID and Brexit”, I say. “Now that the UK is out of the EU, we are treated as a third country as far as things like pandemics are concerned, and are given no slack when entering the EU. And now that COVID numbers are rising exponentially again, we are really persona non grata here. They just don’t want us bringing nasty variants into mainland Europe. And who can blame them?”

Not only that. Now that we are out of the Customs Union, boats are also treated as foreign goods, and need to be temporarily imported into the EU for a maximum of 18 months at a time without paying VAT. And to complicate things even further, UK-registered boats must pay VAT a second time if they are out of Britain for more than three years, even if it was paid at the time of purchase. Many boat-owners are heading back to the UK to avoid this tax before the deadline in June 2022.

“It’s a pity”, says the First Mate. “When I first came to Britain, it was well-known for its pragmatism and openness to people from other countries. Now it has changed, and foreigners don’t feel welcome there anymore. It is well on its way to cutting itself off entirely from Europe.”

It’s true. Brexit was sold as an opportunity to become more global in its outlook. So far there has been little evidence of that. The reality is that a generation of Britons will be more inward-looking because of the country’s self-imposed isolation from their nearest neighbours. The absence of the Union Jack in European waters may be a permanent feature of the future.

A declining presence in European waters?

“I have just discovered that the washing machines here are free”, says the First Mate in the evening. “Not only that, the washing powder is added automatically. We should get all our washing done while we have the chance. The only problem is that they are in tremendous demand, but I have heard that if you get in when they open the building in the morning you have a chance.”

“So, I have been thinking”, she continues. “You are usually up at that time. You can take the washing over.”

“But it’s my birthday”, I protest. “I was thinking of having a lie-in.”

The real reason is that washing machines and I just don’t get on. I just get confused with all the options –  temperatures, soaps, conditioners, fabric types, and colours – that are important in washing clothes these days. After 20 years, I have learnt the buttons to press on the one at home, but every new machine I encounter seems to have a different set of dials, displays and buttons to negotiate. I am usually happy to leave it to the First Mate. Not only that, in this case all the instructions are in Dutch.

In the morning I find myself trudging to the washing block carrying two huge bags of smelly clothes. The washing machine room is empty, so at least I am spared the ignominy of having to be shown how to operate the machine. Ten minutes later I have worked it out. I press the button and it starts to rotate. So far, so good. The machine completes its cycle, and I transfer the clothes to the drier.

An hour later, I return. There is one other person in the room – a man with bulging biceps, an earring, shaven head, tattoos, and a tight-fitting vest with Nebraska University written on it in Varsity Font. He is a lot bigger than me. My drier has completed its cycle, but not all of the clothes are dry yet. I pick out the ones that are dry, and push the button to start the machine for another cycle. Nebraska Man glares at me. I realise he also wants to use the drier. I decide to brazen it out and wait for my cycle to complete. Nebraska Man moves closer and clears his throat.

I crack.

“Are you waiting for the drier?”, I ask, knowing the answer.

Nebraska Man grunts. I take it as a yes, and press the stop button.

“Ah, that’s better”, I say, reaching inside and feeling the clothes. “They are dry now.”

It’s been only two minutes and they are not dry. But at least I leave with my teeth intact. I put it down as a win-win situation.

“These clothes are not really dry”, says the First Mate, when I get back to the boat.

“I know”, I say. “There was something wrong with the machine.”

Not worth losing teeth over.

4 thoughts on “A sea battle, a sandy island, and washing the clothes

  1. Hi Robin. I am hugely enjoying reading this. It is like the best kind of serial you used to get in the newspaper! You should publish these – I can just see it: The Collected Works of Robin Blair Matthews! Tracey


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