Having been in the Netherlands now for over a month, and, more particularly, having visited Amsterdam, it’s probably time I made a comment about the the people, their country and some of their habits.
Amsterdam is literally teeming with – yes, you’ve got it! Bikes! Most of them thankfully, though, are stationary. When we were in Copenhagen two years ago, we lived in fear of cyclists – they all hared along as if there was no tomorrow; and joining, or leaving a cycle lane was a real leap of faith. In Amsterdam things are more measured; people are polite; they wave you through, stop for you, or detour around you; but there are bikes absolutely everywhere – however, most of them are locked up in enormous bike parks outside the train station, the ferry terminals, alongside all the canals and outside everyones’ houses. I shudder to imagine the mayhem which would be caused if every bike owner took to the streets at the same time!
Most city dwellers seem to favour the traditional Dutch model – sit-up and beg, and as big as a shire pony; whereas out in the countryside the roads are full of the latest racing models taking full advantage of the typically flat terrain.
The Dutch don’t just do big bikes; the also do big boats – and in big numbers. My expectation was that we might see a good few examples of what I would call a Dutch barge – big wooden things with lee-boards. The numbers are staggering – every port seems to have a collection; and as well as the old preserved working boats, which range in size from 20′ to 200′, there appears to be an vibrant market for new steel and fibre-glass replicas, which are apparent in their thousands.
Before we travelled to Amsterdam we were recommended to stay at Sixhaven – a marina on the opposite shore to the central railway station, and served by a free ferry – we were also warned it was very popular. Having to travel only a few miles down the coast, we arrived fairly early, and were directed to a vacant finger berth by the attendant harbour master, resplendent in his white peaked naval cap. As the day wore on, with the steady stream of new arrivals, there began the process of seeing how many boats you can cram into a small space until one squeaked. By late evening there was not one empty spot of water – you could walk from one side of the harbour to the other, in any direction, without getting your feet wet. Accordingly, no-one leaves Sixhaven early – by 11am, most people who wanted to leave, were away, just before the next set of new arrivals started turning up.
Before our journey through he canals began, we were assured that whilst there is a lot of motoring involved, there were places you could sail – what a joke! With a 1.8 metre draught, straying far from the centre of the canal was a non-starter; and the small lakes connecting the canals were also too shallow to venture too far from the fairway. Besides, anyone familiar with this blog knows that the wind only ever blows in our faces! Those lucky devils coming the other way, who could put their sails up, all seemed to have developed a standard technique. I believe this is based around setting your sails at the start of the journey and never adjusting them thereafter. This is partially understandable, since everyone purporting to sail, also had their engines on- this was the norm for anyone sailing to windward, even on open water. On our journey across the Markermeer, we spent two hours trying to overhaul a Southerly 32 – she was able to sail faster, higher and more upright than us. Only when we eventually caught her did we spot the tell-tale exhaust emissions.
Of course you cannot have a canal system like the Dutch without bridges; and boy, are there a lot! To date we have encountered 76 – these have varied in size from pedestrian bridges to motorway and railway bridges. Small bridges open virtually on, or even before, demand, whereas some of the larger ones open only at specific times; and sometimes only 3 or 4 times a day; and it’s amazing how quickly you can come to regard this as almost unreasonable! Can you imagine stopping the traffic on the M4 outside Heathrow to let a bunch of cruising yachts through – but this is exactly what happens outside Schiphol airport – an 8 lane highway is stopped and the whole section raised, 4 times every day for the benefit of sailors. It is evident though, that new roads, particularly motorways are being routed under the canals; and how weird it feels as you see 8 lanes of traffic disappearing beneath you!
Which brings me back to canals. My stereotypical understanding of the Netherlands was that of a small country, criss-crossed with a canal system used for transportation; with a few strategically placed dams (and dykes) to prevent the sea from coming in. Well, to get your mind around what these guys have actually done is truly awesome; and I recommend you read about it, as I will never do it justice – the French apparently said that God may have made the world, but the Dutch made the Netherlands. Whilst we were waiting for a bridge somewhere or other, we got chatting to a Dutch couple; the female half of which worked for the national waterways authority, and they kindly invited us to contact them if and when we reached their home town of Dordrecht. Naturally, this was too good an opportunity to pass-up. They spent a day entertaining us, and giving us a wonderful insight into some of the history, engineering feats and future projects and challenges which will maintain the fine balance between the land and the water. The single standout, iconic symbol of all this, is, of course, the humble windmill – this simple piece of technology was largely responsible for the creation of what we see today, and it is heartening to see that large numbers of these beasts are preserved in their well-deserved retirement.
So it is we near the end of our Dutch adventure, well and truly canalled-out – we’ve had a great time, but it will be nice to get some real sailing done; and in the words of the immortal Jimmy Handley, ‘TTFN’.