Suddenly we found ourselves in Delfzijl, located on the Dutch side of the river Ems. We arrived here on the 22nd of July just before midnight. We left Cuxhaven, DE, 20 hours earlier. When we left Cuxhaven, we thought we were sailing to Borkum, DE. From here we would hopefully continue along the Dutch coast. The weather forecasts hadn’t been high with headwinds for many days to come. In Borkum, we planned to wait for a while to see if the wind would change. If it didn’t, there was the possibility to travel inshore via the Staande Mastroute in the Netherlands.
When we approached Borkum, I called the marina to let them know we were coming. The harbormaster told us that there wasn’t enough room for us. By then we were already sailing with the tide down the Eems. Turning around would be very unpleasant and left us with the only possibility to continue down the Eems. We decided that if we were going to Delfzijl, we could as well continue on the canals. We had absolutely no guides, books or information about the waterways through the Netherlands, but we hoped that we could find all that when we got to the marina.
We had 3 knots of current with us, so the sail down the Eems went very quickly. We had to keep a proper lookout as high-speed ferries appeared out of nowhere – also from astern. It was a beautiful sunset, and just as it got dark, we reached the Zeehavenkanaal. From here it was 3 nm to Neptunus Marina in Delfzijl. There was a lot of factories, industrial buildings and big ships along the canal. It was quite the light-show. Happy to have reached the marina we went to bed very tired.
Next day we had a significant schedule – it was the captain’s birthday. We slept in, and I made breakfast with homemade bread and eggs, flags and presents, which I had hidden on the boat since leaving Skive. We spent the day finding information about the canals. In a bookshop in town, we purchased the recommended ANWB Wateraltas “Staande Mastroute”, and we downloaded the app “Waterkaarten” on our iPad and iPhone. We talked to the harbormaster, who told us how and where to get started and gave us many useful tips and recommendations for the trip. In the evening the birthday celebrations continued with a big steak from the butcher and an ice-cold Gin & Tonic. Next day we were ready to start our journey on the canals.
First stop: Jachthaven Oosterhaven in Groningen – 15,9 nm from Delfzijl.
We entered the Eemskanaal through a lock, and from there, we had seven bridges until we reached the marina. We were a bit nervous as to how to handle the locks and bridges, but all went well, and it was easy to contact them on the VHF and many times they would open the bridges without us having to call them. There was a lot of boats in Groningen, but the friendly and loud speaking harbormaster made sure that there was enough room for everybody. The city was lovely with beautiful old buildings, canals, market with fresh fish, cheese and lots of other things – no cars allowed in the centre—the marina office combined with a well-stocked marine shop. We bought a new handheld VHF as our old had stopped working.
In the marina, we got to talk to a friendly family on a big motorboat called “Lobster”. They were sailing in the same direction as us, and we decided to go together to our next destination.
Second stop: JH Hunzegat Zoutkamp – 18,9 nm from Groningen.
When you sail through Groningen city on the Verbindingskanaal, you have to pass through 10 bridges. They are very close together, and a man on a bike follow the boats and open and closes the bridges. It took about an hour and was a wonderful trip with many things to see on the way.
We continued on the Reitdiep, where we had two locks and another 11 bridges before our destination. Until now we haven’t had any problems with depth in the canals, but on the Reitdiep just before Zoutkamp we “touched” bottom. The Wateratlas said 1,7 meters and that is the draft of Idéfix. Luckily the bottom was soft, and we continued without problems. The marina in Zoutkamp was full, but both “Lobster” and we rafted alongside a long traditional Dutch boat just outside the marina.
Third stop: Leeuwarden – 27,4 nm from Zoutkamp.
We said goodbye to “Lobster” and continued to Nationaal Park Lauwersmeer. It was a very windy day, but the water was flat in the protected lake. A lock took us further on the Dokkumer Grutdjip, and after three bridges, we entered the town Dokkum. We had heard that this a charming town and it surely was, old windmills, colourful houses and boats tied up all through town. Unfortunately, we could not stay here, and we paid the lady with the wooden shoe to go through the bridges.
In the next small town, we also had to pay the bridge keeper (3,5 euro). Late afternoon we arrived in Leeuwarden, where you tie up alongside all through the city, most of it in a beautiful park with tall green trees. (Remember to look up before you tie up) All the places were taken, but a friendly Dutch couple let us raft to their boat.
After had been sailing on the waterways for 3-4 days, we were amazed by the friendly people. Always willing to help, talk and give advice and spoke English very well.
From Leeuwarden, you can continue south to Lemmer and the IJsselmeer and Markermeer, or do as we did, go west to Harlingen on the Van Harinxmakanaal. We choose the latter. From here we could quickly enter the North Sea again should the wind change in our favour. The Wateraltas doesn’t cover this part of the canals, but we managed by using the app and a map given to us by “Lobster”.
Fourth stop: Jacht-/Passantenhaven Willemsoord – Den Helder – 45,4 nm from Leeuwarden.
In Harlingen, you enter the Waddenzee and tides and currents become essential once again. Therefore, we had to time our arrival at the locks. We left Leeuwarden at 9 o’clock when the bridges opened. We were ten boats in convoy. Going out of the city, we passed an aqueduct. It was a bit surreal to sail over a highway. The landscape was beautiful, with many traditional houses and windmills along the canal.
In Harlingen, we had to wait for a little at the locks. These were big locks compared to the ones in the canals. On the other side, the conditions were very windy. We had the current against us for a short while, but it quickly turned, and we had the current with us the rest of the way to Den Helder. We set sail, and it quickly became a race as we were five sailboats going in the same direction. The wind and sea conditions reminded us of sailing back home in Limfjorden. At one point the other sailboats made a turn, but we continued as it was the shortest route to Den Helder. After sailing for about an hour, we realized that we had to cross a section with very little water at low tide and the Garmin charts and Navionics showed very different things. It was still 3 hours until low tide and turning around would be a pain in the “bib”, so we continued, and it turned out that there was plenty of depth.
As we were going to stay in Den Helder for a couple of days, we wanted to moor in Willemsoord. The marina gives excellent protection from wind and tides and close to grocery shopping. The lock that takes you into the marina was closed due to rush hour traffic when we arrived. We tied up outside and waited for about an hour. When we entered the marina, the staff was waiting for us and showed where to berth.
We spent the next couple of days doing some grocery shopping, washing clothes and studying the weather forecasts. We went for a long walk along the huge dam and watched all the different ships displayed around the harbour. There is a large marine museum, and outside you can see old warships and a submarine. After a couple of days, the wind wasn’t cooperating, and the urge to experience Amsterdam in our sailboat lead us to the decision to continue south on the canals.