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The Waterways of Holland

Beautiful houses surrounded by flowers greet the canal cruiser.
We chose to start our European adventures in the Netherlands because the boating is easy, facilities are good and reasonably priced, parts are readily available, the countryside and the architecture are beautiful, and the villages are as charming as a Siren. The Dutch are helpful, friendly, and straight forward—and most speak English. Oddly enough, our main problem in starting out was the paucity of literature in English about boating in this gorgeous little country. I hope to fill some of the gaps with descriptions of the waterways, giving a glimpse of the sights along the way and the people who live in the Rhine's delta. Leaving the Wetterwille Jachthaveen, our convenient and well-equipped marina where we were charged only two florins per meter per night (which at the current exchange rate, came to about US$8.50 per night for our 34-foot boat), we headed for the small lock (US$2.60) that raised us to the River Vecht. Like most rivers in the Netherlands, the Vecht does not have much current, nor is it tidal, and has a minimum depth of around 1.5 meters (about 5 feet).

Gorgeous houses line the banks of the Vecht, with wide open curtains showing their attractive, comfortable interiors. Fields are filled with cows, sheep, ponies, donkeys, and horses, and gardeners assure no flower remains whose wilt has even barely begun. The diminutive river admits only small commercial traffic and this is so slow that we passed one barge under tow, filled with lumber and steered with a large tiller by a young man sitting on the cargo. It reminded us of those old fire engines steered by two drivers, one in the cab and one on the far end of the ladder, careening wildly around the corners.

As we glided along the way to the town of Weesp (pronounced Vesp) we passed two impressive, working windmills, a random sampling of the 1,000 remaining in the Netherlands. The top of these large structures turns to face the wind, rotating on rails attached to the roof of the lower structure. As the blades go by you hear a mighty swoosh. The windmills are the defining image of the country, and at some 20 meters (65 feet) high, they are truly a sight to behold.

"As the blades go by you hear a mighty swoosh."
We had to wait a few minutes for the bridge in Weesp to open. The keeper runs two bridges, plus a lock that only operates during floods to keep unusually high waters out of the town. He uses a bicycle—what else?—to go from bridge to bridge. It's just a two-minute ride for him so the wait was modest. But the price was also modest—a mere US 68 cents to go through the bridge. We docked at the VVV (tourist bureau) slips at a similar cost with a row of attractive, traditional, three-story Dutch brick houses, with steep, tiled roofs in front of our boat. We walked across the bridge to a restaurant where they have locally made wheat beer on tap. We sampled some of this, as well as other local brews, while we watched the river traffic from the warmth of the tavern. A beer quaffed in the luxury of a restaurant normally costs about US$1.30, but you can buy one in the store for about US 17 cents each!

A two-minute walk from the boat, the town center of Weesp is some six blocks wide by six long. The church spire, which in these small towns always marks the downtown area visibly from miles away, just barely juts over the rooftops. The picturesque main street is lined with bakeries, vegetable stands with fresh and inexpensive fare, fish handlers, clothes, bike parts, and many more waiting for shoppers under the gray skies. We found a supermarket across a small canal that sold decent red or white French wine starting at a reasonable US$2.00 a bottle.

The fish from the markets is as fresh as can be. Trout runs about $2.50 a pound, fabulous smoked mackerel is in the same price range, while salmon costs a little more. The mackerel is available peppered as well as plain—a protein-rich meal either way.

We remained in Weesp two windy, cold, but dry days. Our next destination required that we cross a bit of the Ijsselmeer; but with the wind from the North Sea hitting us broadside, it would have made for an uncomfortable trip. The Ijsselmeer, no more than three to four meters (10 to 13 feet) deep, can easily develop waves of one to two-meter (three to six-foot) waves that would have rolled us about mercilessly. So we waited for the wind to die down and finally left Weesp at 0830, under blue skies with temperatures around 68F degrees.

Very light traffic makes negotiating the small bridges easier than it looks.
Our destination was not far by cruising standards—a mere 12 kilometers (nine miles) away. Here there are free moorings on the Randmeren, which is the collective name for the channels separating Flevoland (a province formed from reclaimed land) from the rest of the country. Gliding down the Ijsselmeer, we marveled at the birds galore: ducks, geese, swans, herons, loons, and more that we couldn't identify. We passed only a fishing vessel or two and some large commercial barges, but we did see a few boats anchored on the lee side of several of the small islands that we passed. On our port side, Flevoland's dike rose but a few meters from the water, then flattened out as if starched and ironed.

A large barge passed us as we waited, tied to the convenient dolphins, for the opening of the only lock we needed to manage. He entered, his huge prop jutting out of the water, churning the water as we departed, but we felt no effects at all. The lowering of the water in the lock was eerily the same in that it descended so gently and slightly that I was getting impatient for the process to commence when the opposite gate opened.

The anchorage we had noted on the chart was just to starboard past the next bridge, but it was so uninviting that we headed for the free docks on the River Eem, just outside the tiny village of Eemdijke. While these docks have no water, electricity, or sanitary facilities, the dike was just 10 meters (33 feet) away from our mooring with a pastoral scene of sheep and goats grazing along its flanks. On the other side of the river was a country lane, but getting to this road required climbing two short barbed-wire fences and watching out for the sheep droppings—not your ordinary trip to the store.

History in Holland lies around every bend in the canal.
Because May 5 is a national holiday celebrating VE (Victory in Europe, WWII,) locals and passers-by toured on their bicycles by the score. A dozen or more two-wheelers were parked in front of the only grocery store in town, which is more of a general store, while their owners basked in the sun, eating ice cream at the outside tables. After our complete, two-minute tour of Cutesville, we headed our bikes to Spakenburg, an old fishing village whose harbor was crammed with traditional side-keeled (lee board) sailboats. Most of them were built around the turn of the last century and are in fine condition. The streets were jammed with bicycles moving in an orderly fashion along the bike lanes, but the law-abiding Dutch dismount as required when entering a pedestrian zone. The town was crammed with people and the outdoor seating area of every restaurant and cafe was filled to capacity.

A bronze statue of a fisherman in front of the Spakenberg harbor presided over many older women wearing traditional Dutch costume—a dark, floor-length dress and a bonnet with a stiff sheave of fabric bent over the shoulders, leaving a gap above. We assumed that they don these on special occasions, but later discover that this is still everyday garb. Since the Dutch don't seem to mind answering questions, I wasn't shy and asked a few of the women about their dresses, finding that they belong to a Protestant sect popular in this rural area.

Waterfront art dedicated to mariners watches over the boats in port.
Hot air balloons dotted the horizon over the boat later that afternoon, some passing directly overhead so close that we could hear the sound of the gas flame. There had only been one boat in the harbor when we arrived, and while a few boats joined us in the harbor during the festivities, they all departed again leaving the original pair of cruisers. The couple on the other boat were enjoying the sun in the cockpit and invited us over for a beer. He was Kees (pronounced Cas or Kas, a common Dutch name), and she was Ada. He once worked on the modern windmills that line the nearby Randmeren, pumping water and producing electricity, and Ada worked for the orchestra. She sipped an Orange liquor, a sweet beverage that comes out only once a year for the celebration of the Queen Mother's birthday. Orange is a family name, being the same as that of William of Orange, whom the British Parliament invited to be the King of England in the mid 1600s.

The Dutch love to offer lots of advice about places to go and things to do, and Kees and Ada were no exception. We must go to Harderwijk (don't pronounce the 'j'), which was our planned destination for the next day anyway, and stay at the marina next to the Dolfinarium. Kees said we must see the 'flippers' (the dolphins) and the seals. The next morning we arose to the sound of a real cuckoo bird—we didn't know they still existed. Still, we knew it was a bird and not a clock because it was not on time, and there were no little figures dancing to "Knapsack on My Back," We never did see the bird, and probably wouldn't recognize one unless it looked like those on cuckoo clocks.

Basic things you need to know about boating in the Netherlands

 Licenses are not required for boats under 15 meters (49 feet) in length, unless they can exceed 20 mph.
 VHF licenses are required, and the exam is only in Dutch but you usually don't need one while inland; it's illegal to carry one if you do not have a license, though many locals have one anyway. They will honor foreign licenses.
 Bridges open on horn blasts: long, short, long. To pay the toll, put your coins in the wooden shoe tied to a fishing poll that the brugwachter (bridge tender) skillfully swings to you. The amount of the toll is marked on the bridge and is published in the Almanac.
 Stay to starboard unless otherwise directed to avoid collision. The markers are identical to other European countries except for occasional oddballs.
 Speed limit in the canals is normally six kph (4.5 mph), but nine to 12 kph (seven to nine mph) in the rivers, unless otherwise marked.
 The ANWB, a car-and-boat club like the American Automobile Association, produces charts for the inland waterways. It marks lock and bridge dimensions, water depth, moorings, and the all important windmills. The Hydrographer of the Navy produces charts for the Whitens, Ijsselmeer, and Markermeer as well as coastal charts. These are available commercially.
 You are required by law to carry Volume 1 of the Wateralmanak. It has all the rules and regulations, is entirely in Dutch, and is about two inches thick. If you're not one of the people in the world who can read Dutch, not to worry—just carry the book on board anyway. Volume 2 has all the bridge and lock (sluice) opening times, location of marinas, water, toilets,and the like. It is also only in Dutch, but we've learned to read the important things and use it all the time. Don't leave shore without it.
 European Waterways: A Manual for First Time Users; Marian Martin, Adlard Coles Nautical, London, is available in the US and it also has all the basic rules and regulations and you don't need to learn Dutch. We found it to be very helpful.
 Cruising Guide to the Netherlands: Brian Nevin, Imray Laurie Norie and Wilson, St. Ives, is also available in the US. It offers 21 water tours for those with fixed masts up to 17 meters (55 feet)—yes, sailing is possible in the inland waterways. It contains information on approaches to harbors, places to moor, English-Dutch-German vocabulary lists, and helpful references to charts and tide tables. Our edition is from 1996 and already a revision is needed, but a bookseller told us an update is due out this year.


Gary Kirkpatrick is offline  
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