If July was a month spent primarily on land August is definitely a month on the water. We are now in Belgium having crossed the open sea; the Western Schelde estuary, open to the North Sea – but more about that later. For the last few weeks we have been in salt water and sweet water in the Dutch delta – Zeeland in the south west corner of the Netherlands. We started off in this area two years ago
(the town of Dinteloord) and headed east instead of south. The map should help you understand where we are and the route we took.
Mum and our Paul settled onto Skookum in Dordrecht. My mother clambered onto the boat and settled in for a cup of tea and found her sea-legs moving up and down the companionway with ease. Paul on the other hand was very excited. Dordrecht is this lovely historic city, which is highly walkable and bikeable so Paul did a lot of both. As a local tour guide (LOL), I was able to show him around and explore the ancient streets, the market and the Grote Kerk. Dordrecht is such a charming place that Paul was quite beguiled. While we were in the Royal Harbour there was a march to commemorate the loss of the 200 Dutch citizens on board MH17, the plane that was shot down by Ukrainian separatists in July. My cousin was quite moved and very grateful for life, as he was on a plane from Vietnam that flew over the Ukraine, seven hours ahead of MH17
At 60, Paul is a bit of an Indiana Jones type of character; very energetic, swims for an hour before breakfast, which consists of washing-up bowl sized portions of porridge and dried fruit, he bikes everywhere, earned three academic degrees, has an interest in world affairs and politics, and loves to sleep outside. Paul is a teacher now living in New Zealand, where he partakes in sports of all sorts and loves the wilderness camping and mountain walking. Now he is an adventurer, who is now discovering the joys of boating, especially in Europe, and was especially impressed with the Dutch wilderness and national park known as the Biesbosch.
We drove Skookum out to the Biesbosch, where we anchored to boat. The problem was that we needed to take Kerry for a walk and finding a landing spot appeared challenging. The boys, (Martin and Paul) had buzzed around in the dinghy looking for a place to take her, but to no avail. The shorelines were covered in reeds, and there was a thick layer of green algae that flowed around the water, close to the shore. We were concerned that the outboard would get clogged with algae. After supper Martin and I set out with Kerry to a piece of shore where we thought we could land – it was about 10 mins by dinghy. We did need not have worried about the algae, because the outboard packed up about 500 meters from shore – we ran out of gas! Martin and I laughed as we rowed into shore, finished taking Kerry for her walk and ablutions then sat side-by-side rowed the dinghy back to Skookum. It took us about 30 minutes – talk about getting our exercise!
The next day, we moved on to Willemstad, as my mother expressed an interested in going there. We moored next to the dock, which was quite a feat as the tiny marina was packed. We went out for dinner – enjoying a couple of very large kettles of local mussels washed down with a bottle of pink wine. The mussels – a local delicacy were really fresh and reminded my mum of her childhood. Apparently my Gran would buy a pint of mussels leave them over night, feed them with porridge oats to fatten them up and steam them for dinner.
Mum was impressed by this lovely old fortress town; home of William of Orange, and Maurice, Prince of Nassau in 1623. From Willemstad we headed south to Zeeland delta area on a lovely sunny day. My mum loves the boat, as she feels very relaxed and enjoys the fresh air. We had some glorious weather , warm sunny and quite calm. We went to a place called Bruinisse, which was about 30kms from Willemstad. It turned out to take much longer than we anticipated as we had to pass through several locks. This area is very popular with the Dutch, Belgians, Germans and quite a few Brits on the water. The locks were more of an adventure than the adventurous sea as the plethora of flags on the variety of boats in the locks showed. There were locks from Willemstad to the tidal saltwater are known as Krammer Volkerak estuaries, then through another lock to the Oosterschelde, and then a third lock into the quiet salt water lake of the Grevelingen. We stayed the night in the resort town of Bruinisse, which had a gigantic marina. It was a long day on the water so we stayed on the boat with a big pan of paella and another bottle of pink.
Returning through the locks was a lot less fun because the weather had turned to grey, windy, sunny then pouring with rain – a very mixed bag. We braved the more open water driving from inside Skookum and turned down a canal that took us to a lovely small town or large village called Tholen. This settlement was the exit point for Lilian and Paul and we made plans to get them to Bergen Op Zoom – the closest railway station so they could get back to Rotterdam, and catch the bus for the Hull ferry. Our last evening was rainy and so Mum and I decided to stay on board while Paul and Martin went on a pub crawl. Apparently they only went to two pubs and played more pool/billards than they drank beer. Nevertheless it was about 2:00 am when they came home.
The town of Tholen is on the island of the same name. It sits behind a series of high dykes that have protected the polder farmland for centuries. Tholen is apparently the ancestoral home of the Roosevelt family and both Theodore and Franklin D. can trace their roots back to this place. The family set sail for America in 1650 at the height of the Dutch settlement of New York.
We took a taxi to Bergen Op Zoom as Lilian was tiring and she had a long journey ahead. Taxis are expensive in the Netherlands as it cost €30 to go 7kms. We put them on the train but could not buy a ticket as there was no ticket office, no way to pay using cash and we did not have a Dutch debit card. The kind conductor let them ride for free as he had obviously seen this situation before. This compensated for the expensive cab fare. After they left Martin and I wandered around the central area of Bergen Op Zoom – cute place with some interesting architectural features including shops, bars and houses in front of the entrance to the ancient churches. Martin, as an architect found this most unusual.
We hung around Tholen for a couple of days – it was a time to clean up the boat and do the laundry. Weatherwise it was very mixed so we waited for things to improve before setting off to Goes (pronounced Hose). At this point we noticed there was a big increase in the number of Red Ensigns and sail boats around – certainly there were a lot more Brits in this area than we had met elsewhere in the Netherlands.
There were also a number of technical issues to deal with – my computer was on life support and the alternator seemed to be acting up. Martin chatted to a British couple, who had driven their boat over from the Thames Valley to Zeeland on the dock. Martin stopped complaining about his technical problems when the boat-owner explained that his bilge was full of water, and his bilge pump had failed – not a good thing for any boat. It was even more ironic because he was a retired ship surveyor!
We took off back into the semi-open water of Zeeland and headed down a small canal to the tiny city of Goes and its the port – such as it was. There were some large boats in some very tight places in Goes – including Skookum. We stayed a night had a look around the town which was quite charming and rather odd – there was a fun-fair with rides, stalls and very loud music in front of the city hall and local churches.
The juxtaposition of these competing attractions was really quite funny.
We left late in the day and had a hell of a job getting into the lock from the Oosterschelde to the Versemeer headed for Middelburg. Wind and motorboats don’t mix well and Skookum had a problem getting off some of the waiting tie-up places in front of the locks as the wind kept blowing us on. We even rescued a British lone sailor in the lock as he lost control of his boat. Luckily he did not fall in, but we were both holding a few sets of lines to keep us stable.
The weather improved somewhat the next day, no rain some sun and lots of wind, so even the Versemeer (which is more like a lake rather than the sea) was still a bit choppy. Versemeer is water-sport paradise – certainly there were lots of people on the water – kids learning to sail, divers, sailors, jet-skiers, kite boarders, SUP boards, boats like ours, etc but interestingly there were no kayaks – this could be a business opportunity for somebody.
Middelburg is the capital city of Zeeland, and our destination for a few days. We moored just outside the main harbour and set off to look around this lovely city. It was a favoured destination for a number of boats so the marina filled up quickly which was when we saw a very unusual sight – a lovely 38ft sailboat called Chanticleer with a Canadian flag on the back.
Ann and Nigel are a British couple who had immigrated to Canada eons before
(like Martin and I ), they had lived, worked, raised their family and sailed in Toronto. They moored along side us for a few days and we had a number of interesting conversations about travel and the freedom that boating brought. They had had a ‘travelogue’ publishing company in TO, which they sold before setting off to the Caribbean in their boat for a couple of years and then shipping the sail boat to the UK where they for a year before venturing to Europe.
It was wonderful to meet other people who were as crazy as we were, albeit on a different kind of boat – but with the same intention – “Carpe Diem Adventurorum” (yes I made up the last Latin word but I am sure you understand).
Middelburg was as it name suggests in the middle of Zeeland and has a population of about 50,000. It was founded in 1251 and at one time it was the centre for trade of the Dutch East India Company during the golden age of Dutch mercantile empire (1620 – 1780). The historic buildings, beautiful squares and streets show a city that has captured its history, modified it and used it to its best advantage. Even though it was bombed by both sides, and set ablaze during WW II, Middelburg has restored itself to its former stature with some lovely merchant houses on either side of the canal.
The central square and city hall maybe the most photographed places in Zeeland, and the carillon sang for hours during the daytime.
This city was our base for a day of exploration on the island of Walcheren and Zuid-Beveland. A day bus ticket took us to the dam at the end of the Versemeer and its lock through to the North Sea. The sea defence storm surge barrier had faced many challenges recently – especially in the autumn of 2013 when the angry winds and highest tides in decades put them to the test. The sandy beaches and sand dunes of this area are a perfect playground in the summer. There was theme park was a family playground and included access to the surge barrier.
We decided not to bother with the park, had a look around and then took the bus back to Middelburg. Our day bus pass was still valid, so we took another bus to the seaside town of Vlissingen. This was like going to Bridlington on the other side of the North Sea, as we had some ‘kippingling with sauce’ (fried fish) on the sea front of this bustling little seaside town on the West Schelde. Watching the yachts fighting the rip tide to get into the tiny marina gave us a sense of what was to come, as we had to cross this particular patch of open water.
Leaving Middelburg meant we were also leaving the Netherlands. After four months on familiar territory we were headed to deepest darkest Belgium. Leaving the Netherlands was actually quite emotional for us – it has become our home in Europe, a place where we felt comfortable and accepted. Certainly the Maple leaf flag gets lots of respect and we have been made to feel very welcome. Secondly we are in place where English is the second language, and our experience has been that the majority of Dutch people are bi-lingual and speak English with ease.
My friend in Germany explained that most of the TV shows and movies etc shown in the Netherlands are in English with subtitles, so children learn from a very early age. English is de facto the common language of the European Union therefore the most useful language to know in order to work and trade. Lastly the Netherlands is the entry point into Europe from the North Atlantic and the lingua – franca of the business world seems to be English. As usual then, the highly pragmatic Dutch adapted to their place in the world and do what they do best – innovate and trade.
Many people have told me that I look Dutch – being a tall blond woman I guess there are a number of northern European and North American countries that could be my country of origin. Dutch people have no such confusion about their identity. Unlike Canada where the issues of ‘Who is a Canadian and what is Canadian culture?” are constant questions. I can’t believe that Canadians feel that the biggest differences between us and Americans is a socialized medical system and some of us speaking French. There is much much more, but these differences may be less obvious and more subtle. Questions of cultural identity are never asked by the Dutch. The differences between themselves and the Belgians, the British, the Germans are as clear as day even though they live in very close proximity. (Rant over)
It was a long and choppy voyage across the West Schelde. Fast currents, moving sandbanks and some very big ocean going vessels reminded us of moving down the Elbe and the Ems last year. It was a very intense bumpy crossing on the best day (weather-wise) we could expect for the next few days.
We were headed for Antwerp in the Flanders (Flemish) area of Belgium about 35kms across the water. Martin, master mariner that he is, followed the marker buoys across this piece of open water to Antwerp and avoiding most of the wakes from the ocean going vessels that sped passed us.
We cut across a sandbank – even though the tide was low and turning, we still had two meters of water underneath us. We followed the river down through the container dockland, coal port, the nuclear power station and other industrial areas looking for the entrance to Willemdok – the Antwerp marina.
The Netherlands is very organized country known for maintenance, cleanliness and tidiness. The entrance to the lock was a very used looking huge concrete door in the middle of a rather derelict groin along the fast flowing river. We had culture shock.
We waited for the lock to open and the three meter rise into the harbour took quite a while. By this time it was 6:00pm and we had to wait to get into the marina. The marina was full so the harbour master directed us to an unsecure dock with a promise of a berth in the marina the next day. We settled in for the evening, and went to bed quite early, as we were beat after our day on the lumpy open waters.
The next morning we woke up and found ourselves across the other side of the marina butting up and bouncing against a very large boat – someone (we believe a late night drunken reveller) had undone our lines in the middle of the night, set us free from our dock so we floated across the harbour and could have almost killed us!
But we lived to tell the tale and sail another day (and have a look around Antwerp ) but you’ll have to wait for the next instalment.