The Story Of Venture II - Part Three

Tony Fleming On Venture II - Hamburg to Düsseldorf

 

The original Hanseatic town dates from 13th century but the majority of present-day Hamburg is a mix of modern and traditional buildings. Lake Alster lies at its center and an extensive park, much of it below the level of adjacent streets, meanders through the heart of the city. Hamburg is an important port and is the second largest city in Germany after Berlin. Although located up the Elbe estuary, 60 miles from the North Sea, the harbor has 60 basins and 42 miles of quays, handling as many as 650 monthly sailings of ocean going ships destined for ports in every corner of the world. Slipways and floating dry docks cater for shipbuilding and repair.

Our reason for being in Hamburg was of course to bring Venture II there for the boat show but we were there for 19 days and had time to look around the city. We made our way one Sunday morning to the Fish Market where, not just fish, but plants, pets, fruits, vegetables, cheese and a countless profusion of clothing and other bric-a-brac, too varied to describe, are displayed on hundreds of stalls. Fruit and vegetable vendors invite customers to choose one of the generous baskets festooning their stands and then proceed to fill it to overflowing with bunches of bananas, clusters of grapes, handfuls of apples, foot long turnips, leaks, cabbages and all manner of fruits and vegetables all the while shouting a running commentary on the cornucopia of contents they are adding to the basket until it is handed over to the buyer for a modest amount of Euros. Packed crowds surge back and forth while fishmongers and cheese merchants shout to make themselves heard above the general hubbub while they too follow the same process - grabbing selections from their packed stalls to fill packets and containers to overflowing.

All this takes place in the open air, which, on the day of our visit, was cold enough for you to see your breath. Under cover, in a nearby warehouse, its roof supported by ornate cast iron pillars and beams, live music is performed with verve and gusto by a group at one end of the building while beer is being dispensed to people who appear never to have been to bed. A break in the music and an amplified voice proclaims "And now - direct from America we present Cher" - and a not-very-look-a-like young woman with a extravagant wig climbs onto the stage and launches into enthusiastic parody of the real thing.

The afloat section of the boat show was held at a small yacht basin called Sandorkaihafen in the HafenCity district, which constitutes Europe's largest urban construction project. I counted more than 30 construction cranes from a single vantage point. The most important - and most expensive - building under construction is the Elbphilharmonie Concert hall which is expected to become as instantly a recognizable landmark as the Sidney opera house when the structure is complete in 2010.

The boat show lasted 10 days during which Venture II was shown to many visitors from Northern Europe including the Scandinavian countries. Open sea boating in this part of the world is mostly in the Baltic, which, by using the Kiel Canal, is easily reached from Hamburg, without going out into the North Sea.

The show finished on Sunday November 1st, and we were anxious to be on our way to our next destination of Düsseldorf, well inland up the River Rhine. The first part of our route took us out into the North Sea where the weather reports were for "severe gale, force 9" with seas "rough or very rough" - terms not used lightly by local weather forecasters. A narrow weather window opened for a few hours on the Wednesday with winds dropping to a mere 15kts from the southwest. Of course that was our intended direction of travel but beggars cannot be choosers so we timed our departure from Hamburg for 1400 on Tuesday. The hour of departure was determined by the tide and we left just before it reached its peak at Hamburg to give us a favorable and increasingly strong outgoing stream as we proceeded the 55 miles downstream to Cuxhaven at the mouth of the river.

Eleven miles downstream of Hamburg we passed Meeting or Welcome Point where inbound and outbound ships are hailed from the shore in a ceremony which has been practiced for more than 50 years. Here the national anthem of the port of registry of the passing ship is played on loud speakers and the appropriate national flag is raised and dipped. Details such as where she has come from or where she is bound for are announced and she is welcomed to Hamburg or bid farewell and urged to have a safe journey and return soon.

A steady stream of ships moved up and down river and we kept to the very edge of the marked channel, or even just outside it, to stay out of their way. Flocks of black-headed gulls in their winter plumage wheeled above our wake darting down to the surface to pick tasty morsels churned up by the turbulence from the propellers.

It was now dark by 5.30 and navigation through the twists and turns of the river and ship traffic was greatly aided by AIS and radar. We were hailed by a nearby pilot vessel and, after some initial confusion, because we had not called for a pilot, we eventually realized that they were asking us to give one of their pilots a lift to Cuxhaven. We duly stopped and started to deploy fenders but after shining their searchlight on us they cancelled the operation. The river was quite wide at this point and starting to get choppy so maybe that caused them to change their minds.

Negotiating the narrow entrance to the Cuxhaven marina in the dark with the tide now running fast and other ships entering and leaving a nearby dock was not easy and not made any easier by the fact that the entrance was unlit and, in place of the expected red and green lights, had a pair of no entry signs. Another worrying factor was the absence of sailboat masts above the harbor wall. We would never have had the nerve to enter it had we not done so on our way upriver just over two weeks previously when the marina had been crowded. We later found out that the marina had been officially closed for the season at the end of November but the harbormaster had kept it semi-open because a few boats, which had been in the boat show, were expected. We were one of those boats but no one had responded to our calls on the phone or VHF prior to our arrival. It was 1945 by the time we tied up having covered the 59 miles from Hamburg at an average speed of just over 10 knots.

The marina was cold, bleak and pretty much deserted. We never did see the harbor master and never found any way to pay harbor dues. Two other sailboats - both of which had also been in the show - entered the harbor after us. One of them was an Oyster 64 on its way back to Ipswich on the east coast of England. Due to their deep draft they had had to wait outside the entrance for nearly one hour for sufficient water to cross the bar. After talking with the delivery skipper we decided to revert back to our original plan to get out of the North Sea as soon as feasible and take the slightly longer but better protected and more interesting route via the Dutch town of Harlingen.

The following morning, we anxiously checked the weather forecast. All three boats reached the same conclusion and headed out into the North Sea just after midday. Venture was in fact the last to leave but that was because we traveled slightly faster than the sailboats. It was blustery, cold and raining when we left the sanctuary of the marina at 1420.

There were four of us on board, and we had two on watch at all times due to the high degree of concentration required when navigating these crowded and tricky waters in the dark and bad weather. This meant watches of three hours on and three hours off. The wind was gusting to 22 knots right on the nose and the seas were typical North Sea - short and steep. Buoy weather in the North Sea routinely give wave intervals at 4 seconds but these felt closer than that. Despite the wind, the skies were clear and we had a full moon to light our way. To port we watched the beams from the lighthouses on the Friesian Islands rise above the horizon and then sink below it. We kept an eagle eye open for the red and green markers and flashing Cardinal marks and checked them off on the charts. Our way was frequently obstructed by fleets of fishing boats following their usual erratic courses. You would no sooner plan on a course of action to avoid them when they would abruptly change direction.

It was still dark at 0535 when we turned into the narrow channel just to the west of Terschelling Island. The waters were wide but the navigation channel was twisty and narrow with side branches to other destinations so we had to proceed with care even with the advantage of modern electronic charts and GPS.

Just after dawn we reached the town of Harlingen and the harbormaster immediately opened the lift bridge to allow us to enter the tight holding basin, which was lined along one side by numerous traditional Dutch sailing barges. Here we waited for 10 minutes for a scheduled opening of another narrow lift bridge opening into a delightful basin lined on both sides by houses in very much the tradition of the Netherlands. After the turbulence and blustery conditions in the North Sea it was wonderful to be tied up securely in such attractive surroundings and to know that the rest of our route to Düsseldorf was through inland waters.

It was made even better when we found that berthing charges had now been reduced by an off-season 50% so we paid just 30 Euros for the night. On the other hand we learned that fuel was the equivalent of US$6.25 per US gallon and had to be paid for in cash in Euros. This was the first time we had taken on fuel since leaving Dover in the UK. I tried to change money at a local bank but my request was greeted with astonishment and the news that there were no facilities for changing money in the town. The only practical alternative was using crew-members ATM's and we collectively managed to scrape together enough for 1,000 liters (USG 265) which was sufficient to give us the safety margin we were looking for to get us up the rivers against the current to reach Düsseldorf. Anybody cruising in Europe needs to be aware that credit cards are no longer widely accepted and cash in the form of Euros - and no other form of currency - is often the only form of payment accepted and facilities for changing foreign currency are few and far between - so come prepared. Our run from Cuxhaven was 168 miles, which took 17 hours at an average speed of 9.6 knots.

The following morning we were underway at 0815 and went first to the industrial part of the port to take on our fuel from a barge named Jacqueline. Through open water, which stretched almost the horizon, we followed a narrow but well marked channel which was deep enough for Venture II for two hours either side of high water. It took about one hour to reach the lock complex at Kornwerderzand which gives access to the Ijsselmeer. This is a large body of water, once part of the North Sea but which, in 1932, the Dutch divided off to form a huge fresh water lake 1100 sq km (425 sq m) by building a dyke 32 km (20 m) long. We shared the lock with a commercial barge and set out across the lake, which averages five meters in depth. As usual the wind was against us which made the waters choppy but kept the hosts of modern windmills turning. For much of the way we were out of sight of land. We passed under a bridge unto a smaller body of water called the Ketelmeer and from there into the River Ijssel. We reached the town of Kempel just before dusk and found a place to tie up alongside the town wharf sandwiched between two commercial barges. We called the harbormaster on the phone for instructions where to tie up but we never actually met him. Today we covered 55 miles at an average speed of 9.25 kts.

Kempel is another perfect example of a traditional Dutch town. We had limited time to look around,and the weather was cold and wet; but we bought some delicious pastries to take with us.

We had stopped for the night just above a lift bridge, which was too low in its closed position to allow us to pass. This was the first of four such bridges along the Ijssel and it was opened at 0930 to let us through. The current in the river was between 2 - 3 knots against us which kept our speed over the ground to only 6.3 kts even though our speed through the water was closer to nine. It was Saturday and large numbers of fishermen sitting right at the extreme edge of the river banks meant that we had to watch our wake very carefully to avoid washing them and all their gear into the river.

The scenery was very pastoral with sheep, cows and horses grazing in fields along the banks. There were also a surprising number of traditional windmills. Huge flocks of cormorants rose off the water ahead of us to resettle on the surface a short distance ahead so that when we reached them they rose once again in a clatter of wings and repeated the process. Flocks of Canada geese were clustered in the fields or wheeled overhead in classic V-shaped formations as they prepared to leave for warmer climes further south. At intervals small ferries were the only means for vehicles and pedestrians to cross the river, which was about 50 yards wide. Most ferries were pulled across by cable but one was tethered to a single upstream cable kept afloat on three small boats which swung in an arc across the river as the ferry moved from one bank to the other. Surprisingly this did not interfere with other river traffic.

We reached a small marina at Doesburg just as it was getting dark and tied up in a berth that was really much too small for us. But as the marina was almost deserted it was no problem. Payment was by the honor system in which the money was placed in a supplied envelope and dropped through slot.

When we awoke the following morning we found we were shrouded in fog, which although not dense was nevertheless too thick for us to safely navigate in the river given the amount of commercial traffic. Simon's i-phone predicted that it would lift at 1300 and, sure enough, it did just that at least sufficiently for us to get underway.

It continued to clear until, by the time we had reached the end of the Ijssel and turned into Neder Rhine we had a lovely sunny day. We looked for a place at the small marina in Arnhem but found no space. We continued further upstream and found space along the town dock in center of town. That evening we went to a Turkish restaurant. The waiter asked where we from and, when we said California, he said "What are you doing here? That's my dream!"

A qualified pilot is required for navigating the Rhine and we had arranged to pick up our pilot in Arnhem. When we had him on board the following morning we retraced our steps for a couple of miles along the Neder Rhine, past the junction with Ijssel, and then along the short Pannerdenskanaal to the Rhine proper.

Once in the Rhine the barge traffic increased enormously. Some barges are family affairs run by husband and wife while others have double crews and run 24 hours per day with watches of six hours on and six hours off working for two weeks followed by one week ashore. The paperwork and crew records are checked every three months on every boat. Radios on the Dutch boats, which are in the majority, finish every message with a kind of squelch noise every time the transmit key is released. This is a legal requirement which identifies the radio and therefore the boat to the authorities. Very few boats have AIS transmitters. Almost 25% of all freight in Germany is moved by water and the Rhine accounts for a good proportion of that.

We had to stop at Emmerich mid morning to have the boat inspected and obtain our permit to navigate the Rhine. An official came aboard armed with a sheaf of forms requiring such details as length, thickness and breaking strain of anchor chain; how many screws and engines of what horsepower and whether we had a bow thruster and, if so, what type and power. This all took around one hour and we continued upstream to Wesel, which we reached at 1648 as dusk was falling. Here we found a berth in a small marina, which also employed the honor system requiring money to be placed in an envelope. We had dinner that night in small restaurant at the Canoe Club located at the marina. One lady did all the work including taking the orders, serving the drinks as well as cooking and serving the meal. She gave us ice cream bars and a liter of milk free of charge because, she said, we had to wait for our meal. Our average speed for today was just under 7 knots.

We were underway by 0830 the following morning and soon reached the major town of Duisburg, which was very industrial. The banks of the river were lined with steel mills and power plants while columns of steam billowed into the grey skies from cooling towers and slender stacks. The speed of the current against us was now 3.6 knots and further slowing our speed over the ground to 6.7 knots.

The river requires constant maintenance and dredging. All along the banks - especially on the outside of the curves - small man-made promontories of rocks, called groynes, protrude into the river to break up the flow and prevent scouring of the banks. Numbered posts along both banks mark every tenth of a kilometer.

A prominent landmark in Düsseldorf is the tall TV tower which we could see several miles before we reached the city. In fact the marina where we would leave the boat was just at the base of the tower. Venture II will stay here for one month before being moved into the exhibition hall just before Christmas. The show itself does not open until mid January but no work is done over the Christmas and New Year period.

Our cruising this year was very different from last with much time being spent tied up in marinas or alongside docks and three weeks being spent on display in boat shows. This year's total, including sea trials to test out electronics and other equipment, totaled just over 1,500 nm.

Venture II will be taken back down the Rhine, through the Dutch Canals and into the English Channel to Southampton when the show ends in early February. We will then prepare for our planned cruise to Scotland, the Faroes and Iceland during summer of 2010.