To the Baltic with Nick

In 2003 Griff Rhys Jones wrote a book entitled ‘To The Baltic With Bob’, a story of adventure and plenty of misadventure as he sailed his yacht with a difficult crew to the Baltic. I have had this book on board, together with a few others like it, as Spellbinder and I have made our way over the last week to Kiel, from where I write.

After our enjoyable return in April from Lisbon and the Biscay crossing, it was clear that Spellbinder needed a bit of work to fix a few things which had broken. Over three weeks I managed to replace the bent anchor (I now have a 20kg Rocna), replace my main halyard with a new Dyneema one (reassuringly expensive), replace the gas strut in my vang, reseal a leaky hatch and clean up some corroded fittings on my calorifier, as well as sundry other repairs and improvements, including a nice new bin and some very sharp kitchen knives. I won’t go on, but Spellbinder has had some tlc and appears very grateful for it.

I also spent a bit of time attending several events in the Solent – a Hallberg Rassy Owners’ meet at Yarmouth, the Camrose weekend at the RYS, an Ocean Cruising Club Rally in Beaulieu, and the Coronation weekend and Anchoring Meet back at the Castle in Cowes. All three were great fun, and I owe a big thank you to Charles and Caroline for their help and company at the two events in Cowes.

Caroline helming valiantly in some rather indifferent Solent weather
Dressed overall in the Squadron Haven to mark the King’s coronation. We dipped our flags while the canons fired a 21 gun salute in front of the Castle

It was nice to be back in the Solent in the early season and we had some fine sailing. The time came, however, to start heading up to the Baltic, and Charles remained on board as we undertook the first leg to Ramsgate, which comprised a motor and occasional sail in light winds.

Sailing under cruising chute – the Seven Sisters to port
Heading through the wind farm south of Brighton

Charles and I arrived just after dawn at Ramsgate, and I spent a day shopping and readying Spellbinder for her forthcoming trip across the North Sea. I quite liked Ramsgate – it had been a few years since I had last looked in, and although a little shabby and down at heel in places, I detected signs of revival. Smashed avocado has come to town! I also had a drink at the Royal Temple Yacht Club, which has great views over the harbour, and a fine history. I met some of the cruising members and enjoyed chatting to them.

My next crew was Rupert, and he joined me for our North Sea crossing. We left fairly sharply at 0630 to catch the north-going tide, into a lumpy sea which quickly flattened as the wind dropped. It turned into a long motor over a smooth sea – preferable to a bumpy ride in many ways, as the North Sea produced a cold and heavy wind. We negotiated the many obstacles – Traffic Separation Schemes, wind farms (of which there are many) and gas and oil platforms. It has all got quite complicated. After 28 hours we arrived safely in Den Helder, going into a small marina in a Dutch naval base.

In Ramsgate, about to set out
More wind farms
Sunset over a calm North Sea – cold wind though. We motored through the night with cockpit tent up and heater on…any fool can be uncomfortable
Arriving in Den Helder, a few hours before a bit of a gale and plentiful rain arrived. Always better that way

We did, of course, have to check in with the authorities and the harbourmaster phoned the immigration police, who came and politely and professionally checked our credentials, stamping our passports. I have yet to get used to this new madness.

After hunkering down for the rest of the day, we were invited on board Hero, one of the other Squadron yachts heading up for the June rally in the Swedish Archipelago. Thank you, William and Susannah, for your hospitality on this and subsequent occasions.

Once the bad weather had passed over, and after a morning stroll around Den Helder, Rupert and I headed out and round to catch the flooding tide to Oost Vlieland. We had a great sail in good winds, and a bit of a bumpy sea, along the Friesian Islands, deep into the country so well described by Erskine Childers in Riddle of the Sands. I have always felt a connection to Childers, as he was much spoken of at school, being the only old boy known to have been shot for treason (by his own country, the Irish Free State). The book is wonderful though, and describes very well the tortuous land and seascapes, with swirling tides, shallow and muddy waters, and treacherous sand banks at the eve of the First World War.

The tide running strongly along the Fresian islands
Oost Frieland, in the heart of the Fresian Islands. A very well developed Dutch harbour
We ate well in the marina restaurant

After a good night’s sleep, Rupert and I headed out into German waters, having a good sail in still quite lumpy waves. It was a long day, culminating in a night entry into Norderney, which wasn’t straightforward with quite a sea running over the shallows, rolling Spellbinder about as we came in, and with some of the channel markers unlit. Hero, which had gone in a couple of hours ahead of us, had had quite a challenging time of it. We came in at high water, when things were rather better, but it was still testing.

Rupert hoisting the German courtesy flag

We slept well (again) and mid morning the next day started another long passage to Cuxhaven, aiming to get into the Elbe estuary as the flood started. It is a long way in, with shallows to the south and a considerable distance to sail before you have a semblance of a river forming. Again, we got in at dusk, and I had a whisky on Hero to discuss the day’s sail and plans for next day. Transiting the Kiel canal was the objective, and we motored out down the Elbe for 15 miles or so and waited for the lock at Brunsbüttel to open. The locks are huge, originally designed to take WWI Dreadnought battleships, and now quite large container ships and tankers.

Waiting for the locks to open at Brunsbüttel

Once in, it was all very efficient, with little noticeable change in water level, and we were soon on our way up this 98 km canal, with no further locks except those at the other end at Holtenau.

Heading out from the lock
Following Hero up the Kiel canal

The canal is an impressive feat of engineering, and was completed in the late 19th century, well before the Panama . It was all very easy, if a bit monotonous at times, and we pulled in overnight at Rendsburg.

In convoy with others
Sharing the canal with some quite big ships
…other Hallberg Rassys and swans
The bridge at Rendsburg
My first Baltic mooring in Spellbinder

Rendsburg was very quiet – it was a German bank holiday, and unlike in the UK people weren’t out drinking and eating, We ate well at a marina restaurant and completed our canal transit the next day, arriving at Kiel.

Locking out at Holtenau

Spellbinder is now moored at Kiel Yacht Club, in a box mooring (not an easy way of mooring, especially in a cross wind) and we met up with the crews of Hero and Atlantis and had a good evening together.

I had never used Spellbinder’s bow ladder before, but it is proving useful
Three of the RYS ‘feeder’ fleet assembled in Kiel, with drinks on board Spellbinder (below)

The plan now is to head into Denmark, and explore some Danish islands before heading to Copenhagen to meet Sue next weekend. My new crew Paul arrives imminently.

Thank you, Rupert, for being such good company and crew, being my cultural guide to Germany, and for buying supplies of Baumkuchen and Berliner.

Baumkuchen – ‘tree cake’ – is delicious
Thanks Rupert!

As a slight addendum, and if you are very keen and are still reading this, you may be interested to hear that I was recently awarded the RYS Camrose trophy for the log of my 2022 cruise from Ijmuiden down and around Biscay to Porto. It’s a great honour, and I faced some very stiff competition, but I’d just like to thank all those who came with me along the way, without whom I would not have been able to make it happen.

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