Around the Netherlands by Sea Kayak
Nico and I paddle past the green and white marker where our expedition had begun 28 days earlier. When the bow of my sea kayak touches the tiny patch of sand, uncovered by the tide at the foot of the breakwater, it does not feel as the end of the journey. I had given-up the security of an office job almost exactly two years ago to explore new directions in life. By now I know that my journey has only begun. My thoughts go back and forth to where I have been and where I might go from here. The uncertainty of the future now is a very comfortable thought.
A year ago, at a British Canoe Union coaching course in Anglesey, Wales, I sat in a pub at one table with five (!) paddlers that circumnavigated Great Britain over the years. That provided the final push for me to decide to go on an adventure of my own. I had a good excuse of not paddling around Great Britain; that not being my home country. Around the Netherlands it would be: not done before and a challenge at my doorstep.
The Netherlands is bordered by Germany in the east and Belgium in the south. The north and west face the North Sea. To paddle close to the borders of Belgium and Germany would involve rivers and canals. The total distance would be approximately 1250 kilometers. At first I had no time restrictions but when my coaching calendar filled up for the summer I ended up with a four-week period in August and September 2003.
During the preparations I felt being on a roller coaster ride, not knowing if and where it would end or would lead me next. I carefully experimented with media attention. It felt as having opened a gate that could never again be shut. When all things where locked in place I was in high spirits but at the same time I started to feel the pressure. Had I made myself a house of cards? No way of backing out now!
The decision whether to paddle alone or not was a difficult one. As a sea kayaking instructor I always promote safety. If I would practice what I preach than I should not paddle solo, at least not on the sea. Inevitably this undertaking could get media attention and I better do a good job of promoting the sport. Nico was in-between jobs and could only by February finally give his go on this. We would be paddling together. A small but significant detail should not be missed. Nico and I never paddled more than a day together. There could be a potential personality mismatch. But what we did know about each other was that we would have no problems with paddling long hours and long distances.
By early Sunday evening of August 10th we are ready to go and cannot resist the half hour paddle to the sand spit of Noorderhaaks. Herman accompanies us up to IJmuiden. He was with me when the idea of the expedition got seeded and it sure felt good to have him be part of it. Before leaving Noorderhaaks early the next day, my mobile phone rings and I give the first of our ten interviews throughout the expedition. All reporters at least have one question in common: "Where do you spend the night?". I can always give them exactly the same answer: "We have a booklet which lists all campgrounds that are accessible by water". Having the booklet is one thing, using it is another.
We cross the Schulpengat channel in dense fog. I had announced our intentions to the coast guard on my VHF radio and got information that there would be some outgoing fishing vessels. Sounds in fog are very difficult to locate. We hear an approaching ship, but never see it, although we paddle through its high wake. When the fog clears we see numerous gannets diving for food. A rather rare sight as these birds are not resident and would have flown all the way from Great Britain to feed here. The best way to use the tides would have been a route south to north. But heading south from Den Helder put the most exposed part of the expedition first and end with paddling on the Waddenzee with some sheltered options. We keep high pace, not in the least because Herman is leading the way, as he is the strongest paddler. We individually paddled many times with him before and we like the challenge of trying to keep up with him. We paddle continuously for almost six hours before we head ashore for a break to wait out the strongest part of the flood.
At IJmuiden we can evaluate our first full day on the water. Nico had to throw-up a little earlier; he thinks because of over-exertion. I have deep blisters on my right hand, which is a little bit strange as I have never before paddled more in any season already. The buckle of my waist tow-line created a serious rash on my appendix scar. Nico and I already had different opinions on whether or not we should paddle against the tide for some part of the day. But on the good side, we paddled 65 kilometers and are welcomed by Herman's brother and son and he brought pizza. I cover the rash with second skin, which would stay there for the rest of the expedition. I changed my modified crank paddle shaft for a straight one for a few days in order to change the pressure points on my right hand. Nico recovers quickly and we agree to allow for longer on-the-water breaks whenever one of us feels we need them.
We arrive at Scheveningen with a cool force 4 to 5 Beaufort wind and dense fog. When we ask for clearance to paddle across the harbor breakwaters, we are told to wait for a ship to enter the harbor before we may cross it. Because this ship cannot use the harbor lights for its approach, it is guided in by radar and VHF radio. Every thirty seconds the port authority reports the ship's position relative to the required approach. We have to wait for more than half an hour. Meanwhile it gets dark as well. Out of the fog and darkness a big cargo ferry silhouette silently appears and slowly disappears again between the closely-spaced harbor breakwaters. I plotted our destination in my GPS but I did that too precise as it aims for a location ON the beach and not half a mile off shore. We keep finding ourselves in the surf zone and have to dodge breakwaters. Big illuminated ship's bridges appear to be just restaurants on the shore. After an hour of nerve-wrecking paddling we call it a day.
We had to cross various harbor entrances, most notably, the big port of Rotterdam at Hook of Holland. Kayaks are not allowed near any of these big ports. But the secret is VHF radio, which is licensed in the Netherlands. During the preparations I found out that taking a VHF radio with us would 'open all doors'. At Hook of Holland the Pilot on an oil-tanker exclaimed to the port authority: "What do I see now? Two kayaks crossing the shipping lane? How crazy can it get?". The port authority replied: "They announced their plans!". The Pilot replied: "I see that they nicely will pass our stern!".
South of Hook of Holland the coastline changes dramatically into what is called the Zeeland Delta. We have a beautiful crossing of the Oosterschelde estuary. The water here has an unique vibrant hue; Oosterschelde blue. Force 4 to 5 winds side-on the ebbing tide create irregular waves. I time my forward paddling strokes with the wave action and I am in tune with the rhythm of the sea.
Five days into our expedition, we continue passed Westkapelle into the busy Westerschelde. Our original plan was to paddle all of the Westerschelde to Antwerp in Belgium. But we did not get permission to paddle through the port of Antwerp into the connecting Rijn-Schelde canal. That is, we were allowed through the port, but only on a Sunday and only with a support vessel. We do not want to take chances of being denied access and make an unnecessary detour so early in our expedition. People on shore and during breaks wave to us. Apparently an interview recorded at Domburg has been broadcast by the Zeeland television station. At the beautiful Benedensas lock we leave the open water behind us.
Paddling the canals has one potential downside. They are long and straight. But we find these sheltered waters ideal for practicing forward paddling skills and racing. And that keeps us interested and quite busy as well. We have all day to talk to each other, but many kilometers on end we keep quiet. The topic that comes up frequently evolves around the finesses of forward paddling. We try out different paddling styles and get better at it. Nico and I differ in our paddling style and biorhythm. Nico needs time to warm-up in the morning and peaks during the early afternoon. I, on the other hand, am struggling early afternoon. I get sleepy and my mind wanders off, noticeable as I am not paddling in a straight line then. Air and water temperatures are warm enough to do a Eskimo roll and that puts me straight again. Nico encourages me to experiment with 'slipstreaming'. I paddle my bow close behind, almost touching, the stern of his kayak. In a way it works: speed can be maintained with less effort. But at the same time it totally messes up my paddling rhythm. In any case our sustained paddling speed increases on a daily basis, only seriously affected on that day that we frequently drop our paddles to pick blackberries from the waters' edge.
Our paddling time evolves around the daylight hours. The nights get noticeable colder and early morning mist rises from the warm water in the canals. We start paddling by 8 AM and stop by 6 PM, plus or minus an hour. That leaves us just enough time to set up camp and have dinner before darkness sets in. Nico rightfully calculates that we only have to average 42 kilometers a day. I am much more conservative and would like to create a big buffer to handle possible set-backs. For instance, only now we are learning that the country has a problem: rivers run record low. At Tilburg the lock would not operate unless the lock was full with boats in an effort to retain as much water in the canal system as possible. The magic number for a daily distance that we both are happy with turns out to be '50K'. Nico feels not being pushed too much and I can put '8K' in the 'buffer'.
I feel the pressure on me build. Every day I spend a lot of time to call-in voice-mail updates, both in English and Dutch, for my brother to post as sound files on the website. Arranging and giving telephone interviews during breaks means no physical rest and even more important, no mental rest. Effectively I have no spare time. Nico is much more relaxed.
Carrying our kayaks around a lock generally takes the same amount of time as going through the lock, averaging half an hour. But waiting in the lock gives us the chance to rest and we need that. For longer distances we use collapsible kayak trolleys. My worn-down trolley runs very bad. I dread its every use; it exhausts me, while Nico is just cruising along. Not taking a new trolley with me is one of the loose ends of my preparation that will haunt me the rest of the expedition. The soles of our feet are aching from the pressure against the foot braces. Nico eventually got himself some foam to act as a foot brace. I, on the other hand, thought I could live with it for a while. After the end of the expedition my foot soles took two weeks to fully recover.
We did not bother to check for shipping bulletins for the inland waterways. To our dismay we find that two locks in the Zuid-Willemsvaart canal are under maintenance and therefore closed. What makes it worse is that in-between those two locks there are three other locks. It takes little imagination to deduct that these other locks probably do not operate as well. Big signs show the names of the construction companies and the date of re-opening: next week!
By now we are very close to the river Meuse. But we want to start paddling this river from where it enters the Netherlands below Maastricht. Therefore we make quite a detour into Belgium. While we have a lunch break at Neeroeteren Nico finds out that there is a kayak club close-by. We meet Chris, a racing paddler. For exactly an hour he puts us through our paces and we progress 8.5 kilometers. I am steaming hot. Nico stands in his boat to give a few euro to a passer-by on the high bank and a few moments later we cool-down with a delicious ice-cream.
At Lanaken we enter the lock with the biggest drop in water level; 14 meters. The sloping banks are so high and steep that we dare not think what an effort it would have been to carry the kayaks around this lock. It connects to the busy Albert canal that runs from Antwerp to Liege. On this very scenic part the canal is deeply cut into the surrounding chalk hills. We feel ourselves on a highway without exits. Vertical concrete banks of 1.5 meters high prevent us getting to shore. But it has one advantage. Passing barges create wakes that, rebounded by the banks, provide excellent surfing. We are glad to arrive at Kanne. Here a narrow opening leads to a beautiful marina and a boat slip. While we change clothes our dinner is prepared at the restaurant.
So far we only spent money on one official campground. We therefore decide to spend all the money that is saved on camping fees in local restaurants and on ice-cream. With our high energy-burn, by now we appreciate warm lunches as well. We carry food for five days in the kayaks before having to re supply at grocery stores.
Was the detour into Belgium worth all the effort? In one word: yes! It is August 21st and at the Vise lock we are on the most southerly point of the route and almost halfway. We portage around the big weir at Lixhe. Now we are on the Dutch part of the river Meuse. A broken polyethylene kayak high in the trees shows that water levels have been very much higher earlier this year. Now, the Meuse is a 'trickle', a sleeping beauty. But she awakes early spring, outstretching her arms into the floodplains.
The Meuse is a swift flowing river, and we anticipated paddling for 100 kilometers each day. The river is flowing all right, but the water level is so low that we keep hitting stones in shallow rapids. We end-up walking the kayaks through the shallowest rapids; river walking instead of river running. And where we can paddle, we do not dare to go full speed. We are afraid of hitting stones and thereby damaging the glass-fiber sea kayaks. This 'holding back' gets on my nerves. We only make 39 kilometers per day on the Meuse. But staying with a friend near Roermond recharges us and sets our focus for the second half of the expedition. On August 24th we finally leave the Meuse behind us and take the connecting canal to the river Waal.
We are now on Nico's 'home waters'. He lives quite a distance from the sea but I now know that the conditions on the big rivers can be as challenging and as much fun as on the sea. With the swift river current, upstream going barges create surfable standing waves off the numerous breakwaters. Surfing the wakes of 4 barges that are rafted-up, and pushed by a tug going upstream is an acquired skill. Whenever such a raft comes along Nico takes off. I feel like a beginner on these waters. Surfing in close proximity of a ships hull makes me nervous. But Dutch paddlers that frequently paddle these big rivers are very adept at this skill.
We have to paddle up the Waal for 20 kilometers. Normally we could use the area between breakwaters where there is an eddy. But because of the drought all these areas are high and dry and there are very few eddies. All water is pushed through the main channel. We fight our way upstream.
At the junction of the Waal and the river Rhine we turn into a stretch called Pannerdensch canal. The river Rhine changes its name frequently on its way down to Rotterdam. In search of a place to recharge the battery of my mobile phone during a lunch break, we end-up in a company restaurant. In our paddling clothes we eat our lunch there and are treated on coffee and tea. A mere 11 kilometers later we already leave the Rhine and turn into the river IJssel. We finally have a good current with us and easily do 11 kilometers per hour.
At Zutphen we start heading east and along the border of Germany. When a friend learns we are passing through Almelo she takes charge. For the first time during our expedition we know by morning where we will stay for the night: at the Amicus rowing club. The hospitality at rowing clubs is exceptional and extends to those who do paddling instead of rowing.
We are now at the 'Achilles heel' of our expedition. At Klazienaveen we start the day with a 1 kilometer trolley portage. How I hate my kayak trolley! We end-up with 15 obstructions to portage around on a 35 kilometers stretch of water. Disused locks and dams build by farmers make this part of the country devoid of the pleasure boats that are a familiar sight on waterways elsewhere. I finally have it when the last trolley portage of the day is around a lone house-boat that, by its orientation, totally blocks passage. I find it difficult to remain friendly to the inhabitants that ask us all sorts of questions while I am thinking: "could you not have turned the house-boat 45 degrees so that we could have paddled passed it?" We now make our way into the most north-easterly province of Groningen.
I am a bit envious about Nico's efficiency in setting up and breaking down camp. On paddling trips with others I used to be one of the most efficient. Some paddling partners expressed that they got nervous as they felt being rushed by seeing me waiting. I had devised a routine of taking down my tent last; problem solved. But now I am in the same predicament and I am too stubborn to admit this to Nico. He so far mostly used his beach igloo instead of his much more cumbersome tent. But every evening I hope he decides to put up his beach igloo again. It has proven to be a good-luck charm against the rain. But today it rains slightly. Nico still puts up his beach igloo but now covers it with his exposure bag.
On August 30th we are at the tidal harbor of Nieuwe Statenzijl in the upper north-eastern part of the country. Here we enter the Dutch Waddenzee. De Waddenzee is the name of the area between a string of seven Dutch islands, five to seventeen nautical miles offshore, and the mainland. A string of islands continues along the north coast of Germany in a part of the North Sea that is called German Bight. Navigating the channels and tidal flats of the Waddenzee requires all combined knowledge about sea kayaking in the Netherlands. We could not exactly plan the date we would be paddling here. Now the tides are not that favorable for the fastest route back to Den Helder. A friend will accompany us for the weekend. The ebb tide is perfect to take us to the German island of Borkum. The weather forecast is for force 5 to 6 Beaufort winds out of the northwest. The wind against a 3-knot current makes for a choppy ride to Borkum. We arrive just in time for last orders at the marina restaurant.
From Borkum we use the flood to take us to the tidal harbor of Noordpolderzijl. The wind is still north-westerly 5 to 6 Beaufort. Our course allows for a 2.5 nautical mile southerly drift by wind and current for 45 minutes. Our friend has his GPS permanently on and at one time shouts: "We are heading southeast!". He does not need to say anything more. Apparently our drift by current and wind, is much swifter than we anticipated for. The few transits we can make on 'passing buoys' hint to a raging current. We should at least be going southwest! We change our course to 270 degrees and stick to that. There is a very confused breaking sea over the shallows we have to cross. Waves wrap around a sandbar and collide into chaotic surf. We paddle into an area with surfable standing white capped waves; a little less frightening route than over the top-end of the shallows. To my surprise, we exactly get to the first marker of the channel that winds its way to Noordpolderzijl and I fulfill a long-time goal. When I took-up the sport of kayaking in 1994, I paddled all the way from my home town of Rijswijk to Noordpolderzijl, using only inland waterways. I looked over the dike into the expanse of the Waddenzee and remember wondering when I would be ready to leave or return from it's seaward side as a sea kayaker. Although I planned to a number of times after that first visit, the weather always prevented it. And even today the weather was almost saying: "I'm gonna get you, again..." Although I am, by previous experience, very well aware of the shift in time, strength and location of the tides in this area because of strong winds, we would have missed the channel if we had not adjusted our course. We say goodbye to our friend at Noordpolderzijl.
After an already eventful day we land at on the sand spit of Simonszand early evening. Gone are those nice sunny days. Upon inspection we find that Simonszand was completely flooded at the afternoon high water. Next local high water is at 2:40 AM and the daily inequality accounts for a 37 centimeters lower high water tonight. But the north-westerly force 6 Beaufort wind will create a raise in the water level. Calculating tidal heights is a major part of Dutch sea kayak navigation while paddling the Waddenzee tidal flats. We think we take a calculated risk. Nico protects his beach igloo from the strong wind by putting it in front of my wind screen. We are treated on a triple rainbow: one normal, one mirrored and one with colors reversed. The strong wind blows the rain just far enough over our shelter that I do not get wet. Mind you, it is Nico's shelter and I lie on the 'porch'. Fully dressed in paddling clothes we try to get some sleep. At 2:30 AM the water gets to within two meters of our kayaks and shelter; we have done our calculations right and can brag about it or we were just lucky. Den Helder, where we started our 'circumnavigation' of the Netherlands three weeks ago is getting real close now.
Sleeping in paddling clothes created a potential serious injury. A small wound on my left wrist, incurred while still on inland water, would not close-up in salt water. While lying on my left arm, the latex seal of my anorak prevented blood circulation to my hand even more. I awoke with the back of my hand swollen, inflamed and hurting when I just touched it. My only option was to clean the open wound, put second skin on it and hope for the best. With our destination only a few days away, stopping short of reaching our goal was not a pleasant thought. I could still paddle with the injury but I knew that any doctor would not like the sight of it. The next day the injury got worse but after that my hand recovered.
Leaving Simonszand meant going through surf. I am still anxious going through surf. Already on three previous occasions I have damaged the seams of a sea kayak by pitch poling in heavy surf during training sessions. By now we both sit rock-solid in our boats. I get two breaking waves side-on. But now all I am concerned with is the gear tethered on my front deck. Everything is still there and we are on our way to Lauwersoog on the mainland.
Behind every island in the Waddenzee there is a special area called 'wantij'. The flood enters the Waddenzee from both sides of every island and meets in that area behind every island. This area also has the shallowest channels. We need to be on the 'wantij' at local high water so we can paddle with the last of the flood to the 'wantij', and then just after slack continue using the first of the ebb. High water on the 'wantij' this week is mid to late afternoon. With 'perfect' tides we could 'thread' our way along two islands a day, paddling also on the outside coast. But with the strong winds of the previous days an outside route is not attractive anyway. All entrances between the islands have potentially dangerous shallows with ground-seas and only surf beaches in between those entrances. By now we know we will make it to Den Helder in time and go for a more relaxed approach. This will give us a chance to visit all the islands.
So far during the expedition we did not have any serious set-backs. We paddled every day. But now the wind is making things harder, decision making as well. We wanted to camp on the Rif sand spit. When we leave Lauwersoog we are battling against a force 6 Beaufort headwind. In the strong gusts during rain showers our speed grinds almost to a halt. The waves, steepened by the wind against tide conditions, are now as high as I ever experienced in the Waddenzee before.
The challenging paddling conditions do wonders to my 'mental state'. My body reacts as one with the kayak. Reacting to the wave action does not need conscious attention anymore. The hiss of spilling breakers is partially masked by the sound of the wind, a different boat angle, automatic shifting body weight to compensate. While my body gets strenuously exercised, my mind, burdened with all the self-imposed obligations, gets the rest it needs so desperately.
Concerned that the sand spit will flood this night, we change course to the marina of Schiermonnikoog. By going there we are paddling against the tide and worse, we will be approaching the tidal marina near low water. It is still the best option because there we are in the safety of a lee shore and in the worst-case we will have to drag our kayaks for about one mile over tidal flats. But we are lucky again as we have water, though minimal at times, under our hulls all the way. At dusk we pull the kayaks off the mud onto the boat slip.
The wind abated and nice weather returned when we paddled along the islands of Ameland, Terschelling, Vlieland and Texel. Seals were a frequent encounter. My kayak trolley rightfully broke-down on the very last day I had need for it. We now could pick the date and time for our expedition to end. We decided to visit the sand spit of Noorderhaaks again, and paddle around it before returning.
On Saturday September 6th at 1 PM we paddle past the green and white marker. I feel that I have achieved something. I have paddled a full circle in my sea kayak, but not yet in my mind. In the past year-and-a-half a lot of things had happened. I weigh the insignificance of the achievement to the significance of all the people I met during that period; it changed my life's course. I don't need to look for new challenges as they will show themselves and the adventure continues.
The expedition website is still available.
© A.M. Schoevers