Careering to Cuxhaven

After being in the Baltic for many years, it always comes as something of a shock to realise that there are tides. A couple of days in the inland waters of the Netherlands does nothing to help with this misconception, so it was a steep learning curve to start planning for a trip out of the Lauwersmeer and along the River Elbe. With the Elbe and tides, it is a case of going from the sublime to the ridiculous with the tides running in places at around four knots on springs, so you don’t want to get them wrong …. So, out came the tide tables and the tidal atlases along with a pencil to do a lot of head-scratching! Eventually it started coming back and we worked out that we needed to be at the Elbe safe water mark at the start of the river at about 9am on Monday. From there we worked backwards to a departure time from Lauwersoog of around 3pm Sunday.

So, never one to argue with the tides, that is exactly what we did. After a quick diesel fill-up at Jachthaven Noordergat we headed out through the Robbengat lock getting out into the channel going past Schiermonnikoog at 2.30pm. From there we hit the ground (or water) running – literally – as we found that we were doing 8.3 knots over the ground – a baptism of fire when it came to tides. Getting out took quite a bit of concentration when it came to working out where the channel was. It is well-buoyed, but the charted depths can be very off-putting as the sands around the island change frequently, so the buoys can appear to be directly over the sands. A boat dried out just off the channel did make me wonder, but we then realised that it was deliberate and they were watching a large group of seals on the sands. The trickiest section comes about 7 or 8 miles out from Lauwersoog and being faced with a wall of white water in the middle of the channel did nothing for my confidence that we were in the right place, but …. we were …. and in fact the minimum depth we had in the channel around 3 hours after high water was 3.0m under the keel, so much more than it felt like.

Once out we headed back east past the Frisian islands and initially the wind and sun were both very obliging giving us a lovely three hours of perfect sailing conditions. However, the wind gradually (and contrary to the forecast) went on the nose, so reluctantly we furled the jib in and motorsailed, tacking past the Riffgat wind farm. From there we headed past the various Frisian Islands – Borkum, Memmert, Juist, Norderney, Langeoog, Spiekeroog and Wangerooge. All the names evoking memories of the wonderful Riddle of the Sands and the momentous row which Carruthers and Davies do in the Dulcibella’s dinghy in thick fog, all way from Norderney to Memmert and back again. At around 3.15am we started crossing the entrance to the Jade and the channels going down to Wilhelmshaven and Bremerhaven. A short detour around all the ships anchored in the waiting area at the mouth of the river saw us approaching the mouth of the Elbe, but …. despite all the head-scratching with tides, we had made such good time that we were a couple of hours too early for the start of the flood into the river. So, we spent a very pleasant couple of hours sailing at around 5 knots and doing just 1.5 – 2 knots over the ground. But eventually the tide turned when we were around the No.15 green buoy and the pace picked up.

We were never short of things to watch and the first was very entertaining. For some time I pondered a big red catamaran steaming aimlessly about in the middle of the traffic separation zone (the TSS) wondering if he knew what he was doing, As we got closer, we realised he knew exactly what he was doing as he was a very large pilot boat, but not just any pilot boat – he was the pilot mother ship. Two other smaller catamarans were buzzing around the mother ship which was occasionally disgorging pilots onto the the baby pilot boats (I say baby boats but they were probably still 50 foot long!) who were then dropping them on the incoming ships. Presumably at some point the outgoing ships drop their pilots off and the whole loop starts again – hopefully the pilots do get a break at some stage.


Dropping pilots onto the incoming ships

Once that game was finished, we got to see all the fishing boats coming in and out.

Finally we got a perfect illustration of the rules of the road. A boat would keep heading straight for us, I would avoid him and, once he had gone past, he would turn round and come straight at us again, so I would avoid him ….. Then he would turn again and …. so the game went on. On the second time past I realised that he had up the day shapes for being ‘constrained in my ability to manoeuvre‘. To me he didn’t seem constrained at all as he managed to turn and aim for me many times and at great speed, but on about the fifth time past, he came out of his wheelhouse and gave a nice wave as I moved out of his way, so I assumed that he was surveying the edges of the channel or something along those lines. Or perhaps he just liked driving in circles ….

Constrained in my ability to manoeuvre

Finally he gave up and we headed on to SVC Marina in Cuxhaven, arriving at about 12.35 – a good passage of 115.77 miles in 22 hours. Not bad ….