Friday, July 24, 2009

Back in Holland after some adventures

When we left Helgoland, we had a plan A and a plan B. Plan A was to sail to Scheveningen if we had favorable winds. Plan B was to go in at Den Helder if we didn’t have good winds and then go through the IJsselmeer to Amsterdam and the North Sea Canal, emerging again at IJmuiden and skipping most of North Holland’s North Sea coast. Plan B was recommended to us by a couple of Dutch sailors who stopped by the boat in Helgoland. They were heading to Terschelling and also advised us when the best time to leave Helgoland was.

We ended up devising a third plan en route. When we left Helgoland, at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, the 21st, we didn’t have optimal wind, so we motor-sailed slowly in the direction we wanted to go. Our first adventure happened just across the shipping lanes into the Elbe River: we heard strange sounds from the engine compartment—never a good thing. John opened the compartment and told me to shut off the engine immediately. The alternator belt (like a fan belt in a car) was separating. It hadn’t broken yet—thank goodness—but it needed to be replaced, and we had a spare. We had favorable current and a little wind, so I nursed us past the ships in the anchorage at about two knots while John changed the belt.

After that everything was slow and a little boring except for during my midnight to 3 a.m. watch when the wind kicked up from about 40° to starboard. Good enough. I shut down the engine and we had a nice sail for four or five hours doing over seven knots with favorable current.

Then it got boring and slow again until about Ameland. (I tried to find a map for a geography lesson, but not everywhere I mention shows on the same map. You can Google the Frisian Islands and click the map link for the islands and Google other places individually if you're interested.) The seas started building, along with wind on our nose, and the current wasn’t helping either. We bashed along, tacking across the inshore traffic zone along with about a half dozen other sailboats that we could see. At one point a boat in front of us started behaving oddly, and we started gaining on it. I was at the helm while John tried to get some rest below, and I wasn’t at all sure what was going on. We had plenty of wind by then and were doing over six knots, so I shut down the engine to slow us up so that we wouldn’t get too close. It turned out that the other boat was reefing. When I started seeing sustained winds over 20 knots, I called John and we reefed too.

Soon we heard a gale warning from the Dutch coast guard radio station. The quality of the transmission was terrible, so we couldn’t hear the details. By next we were near the passage that could take us into the Waddenzee between Terschelling and Vlieland, so I thought that was an option if necessary, but it wasn’t too bad yet, so we went past it.

And then the GPS on the chartplotter quit working. Except it wasn’t only the GPS that quit: it was all of the instruments feeding information to the chartplotter including the radar. At this point we were bouncing around on the three-meter (10-foot) waves pretty good, double-reefed and using only the staysail for a head sail. We do have paper charts as back-up and a hand-held GPS, which is attached to our AIS, so we knew where we were, where the big ships were, and whether we were likely to run into each other, and we could see the islands. I figured out that we could use the electronic charts on the chartplotter (the only part of that bit of Raymarine equipment that was still working) and plot our progress using coordinates from the hand-held GPS.

This all worked out because we were using the wind-based steering on the autopilot, and that still worked. Since we sail short-handed—just the two of us—whoever isn’t on watch during passages needs to try to sleep, so whoever is on watch is basically single-handing most of the time. It definitely keeps you awake when you have to run down below to get your position and plot it every 15 minutes or so. It also means that you don’t want to attempt any tricky navigation.

During my watch we were still tacking back and forth because we don’t have enough engine power (it was back on) to go into the wind and against the current. When the positions I plotted after tacking started being behind where they were on the previous tack, I woke John because I didn’t know what to do. I actually thought that the engine wasn’t working.

John checked and confirmed that the engine was actually turning the propeller shaft, but we didn’t have enough sail up to make progress. The 30-knot winds that I had seen for awhile were gone, and we were back around 20 or less, so we brought out the jib. That helped enough, and eventually the current changed, and we made it around the corner (Vlieland and Texel).

I swapped watches with John so that he could get some uninterrupted sleep and I could get rid of my darkest watch (midnight to 3 a.m.), which I usually hate, in return for John’s two half-dark watches on either side. When I went off watch at midnight, we talked about whether we should attempt to get into Den Helder through a narrow channel with strong currents or just go on to IJmuiden on the outside. We decided to see how it was going when the time came to make a decision. That was during John’s watch, and he told me when I came back on that there had been a passenger ship circling outside the channel waiting for the current to change, so he decided to continue on. Wise man.

The rest of the passage was uneventful, and we’re now at the Marina Seaport in IJmuiden. We’ve paid through tomorrow night and may decide to stay longer. If the wind is favorable, we may decide to go on to Scheveningen. We can do that with our paper charts and hand-held GPS, or even with a compass because we would be within sight of land the whole time. We’ll see.

Today we took public transportation (bus, bus, train, bus) to the Raymarine service center in Leiden and dropped off our defective chartplotter and autopilot control (because the autopilot control was also misbehaving). Marko at De Jong & Zoon will call us when he knows more (probably Tuesday). Meanwhile, we’re considering doing more sightseeing, maybe taking the fast ferry into Amsterdam to visit friends. We’re flexible.

By the way, to those who look for our position reports on Yotreps or ShipTrak when we’re underway, we apologize. We were unable to get a good enough connection on the short-wave radio to post updates on the last passage (or get weather files or e-mail either). We’re actually too close to the station we need to connect with. It’s in Belgium, so we’re likely to be out of touch unless we have Internet until we get to Normandy.

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