What I Saw – by Jackie Philpott
Boats, Boats And More Boats
In September I went with my husband to visit our son, Max, in England. Max is a major in the United States Air Force, posted at a small village called Henlow Camp. Before we arrived Max told me that there is no body of water in Henlow, but he promised to drive us around, find some boats for me. First we drove from Henlow to the town of Bedford, where we parked and walked along a beautiful embankment with flowerbeds and wide walking paths that curved along the River Great Ouse. It’s called the Embarcadero. The Embarcadero was all very bucolic, just a few blocks from a tired part of town where the shops are boarded up and people seemed to wait an awfully long time at bus stops.
To my eye the River Great Ouse is a narrow body of water, but it is navigable all the way to the North Sea – after draining first into what is called the Wash. The Wash is a rectangular bay with multiple estuaries at the northwest corner of East Anglia on the East Coast of England. In Bedford the River Great Ouse is narrower than Three Mile Slough in the Delta, and slower moving. For those of you in the South Bay? It is approximately the same width as the Westpoint Slough down in Redwood Shores.
Five separate high school rowing teams share the Longholme Boathouse in Bedford, but we visited on the weekend and no one was around for me to chat up. The sculls and shells were all carefully stowed, each in its place. The doors to the boathouse were wide open, so I was able to photograph them. They are beautiful boats, and their paint rivals the colors on new Corvettes. Shiny and clean, they line the shelves like jewelry.
The next day we travelled from Henlow Camp to Cambridge on the train, and walked to the River Cam from our hotel. The Cam is the best-known tributary of the River Great Ouse, and flows through the city of Cambridge. Walking along the River, we came to the Mathematical Bridge at Queens College. The bridge is famous as an engineering accomplishment. It’s an example of a voussoir arch bridge, the entire arch held in a state of compression by the force of gravity. Designed in 1748 by William Etheridge and built in 1749 by James Essex the Younger, it was repaired in 1866 and then rebuilt again to the same design in 1905.
I never know when my sailing network might come in handy. Queens College is a gated campus, but a sailing friend told me to give his name to the porter who is in charge of the gate that leads to the Mathematical Bridge. Mike Smith, who used to teach at Queens College, completed the Singlehanded Sailing Race from San Francisco to Hanalei Bay in July of this year. I bought him a shave ice over there on Kauai and now we are friends for life. When I told Mike that I would be visiting Cambridge he assured me they would recognize his name at Queens College. He said his name would get me through the gate. Indeed it did, but only after the porter looked me up and down and said, “You don’t look like you’ll cause too much trouble.”
A punt is a flat bottom boat with a square cut edge at either end and is made for use on shallow waters or small rivers. Punting on the River Cam has been compared to the way gondolas are used in Venice. Twenty-seven years ago my 12-year-old son and I visited Cambridge University, and I had insisted upon renting a small punt. You can imagine my son’s embarrassment, surrounded by languorous college students while his mother punted us along in a dress.
I would have liked to have rented a boat this time, too, but instead we did the sensible thing and watched as other tourists floated past with young people who had been hired to ferry them around. In my opinion that didn’t look like much fun, but we’ll visit again and maybe then we won’t be so sensible. Maybe Max will join us?
Later, while we walked through the campus of Kings College, I stopped to chat with another porter about the beautiful lodgings that students enjoy. He told me that rooms are allotted according to grades, with the better students being assigned renovated rooms overlooking parks and gardens. I’m not sure that kind of meritocracy would be allowed here in the states, but I could be wrong.
After our hike around Cambridge University we went to an outdoor festival across the street from our hotel, where I found more boats!
In a park called Parker’s Piece, I introduced myself to Julio O’Malley as he helped children into and out of an aquatic version of bumper cars. He was quite good with the kids, who were surprisingly aggressive with each other on those inflatable boats. They reminded me of the One Design races here on the San Francisco Bay, especially that fleet of Moore 24s. Ruthless! Just like those little kids.
Down the street from Parker’s Piece is the Scott Polar Research Institute, outside which we found this replica of the lifeboat James Caird. Sir Ernest Shackleton and a small crew sailed the 22.5’ boat in search of rescue after losing their ship the Endurance to the ice of Antarctic waters in 1916.
Most people who love the ocean know the story of Shackleton’s arctic explorations, but if you haven’t, read it here: www.jamescairdsociety.com/the-james-caird/
This modest little boat had a starring role.
After five days in England, we boarded the Eurostar from London. It took four hours to get to Amsterdam and I photographed my first windmill through the window. The window was a little dirty so the photo isn’t included here, but I was excited to see it. The Eurostar cost $183 per person and we were served breakfast at our seats. It was fast and clean, sort of like the Amtrak from Emeryville to Stockton, which takes about two hours and costs only $12.
From the Eurostar window I began to understand what I had already read about the Netherlands. Approximately 26% of the Netherlands is below sea level and 59% of the Netherlands has the possibility of ending up beneath the water when a big storm hits or when the water levels rise. There really is water everywhere, and in between all the water is farmland, flat and lush and green like our own California Delta in the spring. One huge difference is that there is no Mount Diablo in the distance, visible from everywhere.
On the Water In Amsterdam
Four hours after leaving London we arrived at the Amsterdam Centraal Station. Our hosts in Amsterdam were friends Kees and Jeannie Gispen, who have an apartment in the Princess Irene neighborhood.
Kees was determined to rent a flat-bottomed aluminum boat in order to show us his beautiful city from the many beautiful waterways of the Amstelkanaal. Along the way Kees talked about the crucial importance to the Dutch people of the control of water represents. According to Kees, “The Number one priority is to not be drowned by the Sea!”
We walked to a boat rental concession called the Mokumboot. Closed for the day, Kris and Rai were working on their boats. They weren’t unhappy about it. Working on small boat engines? It’s a fine way to spend a day.
Following their directions, we walked further to the Pipe neighborhood where we found a different boat concession called Boaty.nl on the Keicergracht (Emperor’s Canal). Eefje Roubous was very nice and told Kees that she would rent us a slightly different boat than the ones available from Mokumboot. This one had an electric engine and a short tiller.
Now here’s the thing about certain boaters – and Kees is that kind of boater. He likes to go fast on the water. He didn’t realize how slowly this boat’s little electric engine would go. It was a real slowpoke, which frustrated Kees to no end. I laughed and laughed, and told the story of his behavior last year in the Three Bridge Fiasco.
In January of 2023 Kees and I doublehanded my boat in the Fiasco. During the race it really bothered him when so many faster boats passed us by. At one point he even yelled at me in Dutch.
I yelled back, because I could tell he was being mean about something:
“What did you just say?”
He yelled louder in English: “This boat is too damned SLOW! You need a FASTER BOAT!” Except he didn’t use the word “damned.”
To make up for me embarrassing him with that story, I invited him to join me for the Fiasco again in 2024. It will be held on the last Saturday of January, so put it on your calendar now. Wave hello to Kees.
Anyway, here we were, slow poking along the canals in Amsterdam with no worries at all about causing a wake. What kinds of boats did we see while we putt putted around the Amstelkanaal? All kinds of boats, including lots of rowing sculls and shells. We motored (slowly) past several boathouses during the day. Here in the Bay Area rowers spend their time in protected waters like Lake Merritt, the Oakland Estuary and along the shores of Redwood City in the South Bay. It is much more common to see individual and double rowers everywhere in the protected waterways of England and the Netherlands. We saw many more rowers on the water than runners in the parks.
Rowers in sculls are everywhere in Amsterdam, both in the country and between the streets of Amsterdam proper. A coxed four is designed for four persons who propel the boat with sweep oars and is steered by a coxswain. Then there are single sculls, occupied by one person, and shells with eight rowers and a coxswain.
Small, low canal boats line every canal and every other boat on the water passed us by, to Kees’ chagrin. Our slow speed meant that I was able to take lots of photographs. Boats are all built low and close to the water, which enables them to fit under the many lovely bridges. At one point we were able to see through the arches of one bridge to the arches of six other bridges. The view is called Seven Bridges. Of course.
What struck me while visiting England and the Netherlands were the gorgeous bridge designs, each one a work of art. I couldn’t stop photographing them, and here are some for you to admire, too.
The next day we drove two hours north to the port town of Harlingen. Established in 1462, Harlingen is located on the Wadden Sea. It is the largest town of 11 in the province of Friesland. The province’s topography rarely exceeds 50 feet above sea level. Friesland has the lowest population density of any province and is only a fraction of the national average. It appeared to be very rural, and Kees told us that the Frisians have maintained both their own language and literature to a considerable degree. It was quite a lovely drive.
When we arrived in Harlingen our group split up and I wandered off around a corner to find sailboats. And boy, did I find them! I turned a corner to find Noorderhaven, the smaller of two yacht harbors in Harlingen. It was full of hundreds of sailboats tied up med style. I made a beeline for the smallest sailboat, which had just been tied up by two young sailors. Their boat looks very similar to several boats across from my own in Richmond Yacht Club Harbor: Ariels or Tritons, both designed by the Swedish naval architect Carl Alberg.
I called across to the two young sailors. “Hello! Welcome to Harlingen!”
They looked at each other and laughed.
“May I come interview you for a boating magazine in California?”
They nodded, still laughing, and I made my way to the gate and walked down to where they were still in the process of disembarking. Of course, they both spoke perfect English. Lucky me.
I introduced myself to Anna Engler and Camille Westerhof of Hamburg, Germany. They have known each other for two years, during which time they learned to sail while taking sailing courses together. They bought this pretty little 28-foot sailboat with its 16hp Volvo inboard engine only two months before this day. Anna and Camille had just arrived from Hamburg after island-hopping for three weeks. I interviewed them from the dock.
Jackie: What is the name of your boat?
Camille: Kluntje. It’s a Friesland name, it means… the sugar rectangles? Sugar cube! It’s a dompkruiser (built at the Domp Shipyard in Netherlands).
J: Let me get this straight: You just learned how to sail, you bought the boat two months ago, then you got on it and sailed here all the way across the Wadden Sea from Hamburg?
C and A: Ja. [grinning]
J: Do people think you’re crazy?
C: [they both laugh] Probably
J: Have you slept offshore?
C: Only on anchor.
J: Did you replace the rigging before you set sail from Hamburg?
J: And how many headsails do you have?
J: And when did you decide to go cruising together?
A: It is a long story, but last year we decided to do a sailing course. One other girl was with us as well, but she left yesterday to go back to Germany. The plan was to find a boat in the summer and go sailing. In the spring of 2022 we started the course.
C: In autumn we did a sailing course and then in the winter we did the resting, then in spring we finished the sailing course. You are required to have a certain certification, like a driver’s license, to drive a boat.
J: To rent a boat?
C and A: No no. To drive. To sail.
J: In California you don’t need a license to sail.
A: Well, in Germany you need a license for everything.
C: It has a long keel and tracks well. The mast is nine meters. We sailed here with lots of wind. At one point we had just one storm sail up. It was a bit windy.
J: Did that worry you?
A & C: [smiled at each other] A bit.
J: During your stopovers, you tie up, you spend the night and then you re-provision?
C: Sometimes we stay multiple days if we like it, or just for rest or if there is no wind.
J: What was it that caused you both to want to sail?
C: I grew up in this town [Harlingen] and with the harbor here you’re always around boats.
The boat has no windlass, but they carried 50 feet of chain and 240 feet of rode. We briefly discussed the differences between countries regarding regulations governing porta potties versus heads aboard sailboats. Kluntje has both.
J: In California you are required to be three miles offshore in order to flush your head overboard.
C: There are no police in international waters. It’s preferred to tie up on this side because the dock floats up and down and you don’t have to re-tie your boat. If you are on the other side there is no dock and you must adjust the ropes. We fly a German flag because it is registered in Germany, but we are also a guest in Netherlands so we fly a Dutch flag, too, to show that we appreciate this country and we are not invaders.
In order to enter the Noorderhaven sailors must ask for two bridges to be raised. It costs approximately $22 per night to stay in the harbor. In Europe sailors can travel freely, and they don’t have to show their passports to the harbormaster when they check in. Several boats were arriving then, the bridges had obviously been opened. Sailors are jockeying for position, calling to each other and paying close attention. Some are rafting up to each others’ boats. They are all sailboats, long and sleek and all much larger than Kluntje.
Camille then responded to questions by people arriving on larger boats and steps off his boat to grab lines and help. I call out to thank him and shake hands with Anna before leaving, thanking her profusely. They have been more than cordial.
Biking In The Countryside
When Kees visited California in January we had talked about the water issues facing farmers in the Delta, including efforts to reduce encroachment of sea water up the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. In the Netherlands those issues are very similar and taken vastly more seriously. For the people of the Netherlands, managing water is a matter of survival.
The Rijkswaterstaat (RWS) is the most powerful government agency in the Netherlands, responsible for the management of the major waterways, the seas and rivers. It maintains dikes, dams and storm surge barriers. The RWS is also responsible for protecting the coastline. District water boards are responsible for regional waters, such as canals and polder waterways, and protect the country from flooding. District water boards are also responsible for ensuring that farmers have sufficient water for their crops and that waste water is purified. Farmland is all below sea level, and water egress and ingress are controlled by a vast system of locks and hydroelectric power pumps that run 24/7.
I had told Kees how much I appreciate the Delta, and he was prepared to show me how similar it is to the Netherlands. In order to do so, he decided that we should all ride electric bikes through the countryside in order to see the waterways close up and personal. So we rented bikes and rode them on a 20-mile ride through the countryside along the Amstel River. Bicyclists have equal right of way on the roads in the Netherlands, and they follow driving rules the same way as car drivers. Or so they say. It was unnerving for me to 1: try to remember how the bike worked, and 2: try to figure out who had the right of way in all the roundabouts. Bicyclists are so purposeful in the Netherlands! So brave!
Along the way it rained on us and then the wind almost blew us off the roadway. It was an adventure, for sure. I kept stopping to take photographs because everything was so interesting. That meant I had to unpack my camera from my waterproof backpack, shield the lens, then wrap it up again and tuck it back into my backpack. It was worth it, though, because I got these wonderful photos.
We rode south of Amsterdam to the Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, veering off into the countryside past lush green farmland with water flowing everywhere along narrow streams.
Polders have been formed in the Netherlands since the 12th century. What is a polder? A polder is a low-lying tract of land that is enclosed by low embankments known as dikes. In the California Delta we call them levees. Seventeen and a half percent of the surface of the Netherlands is water. Polder is property that has been reclaimed from swampland and is now farmland. Soil levels became lowered, up to river water levels and lower. There are dikes along all rivers and canals.
We bicycled through small towns with beautiful old churches. Toward the end we boarded a ferry across the Wavel River to Nesann Amstel Ring Dikes. In case you’re interested, the ferry costs 75 cents per bicycle and passenger. In the Delta? Ferries are free.
One of the last things we did before leaving Amsterdam was visit the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. As a knitter, I was attracted to a display of four simple woolen hats in a glass case. They all date back to sometime between 1650 and 1700. They all resemble a wool hat you or I would wear on the San Francisco Bay during the winter months. Maybe a little more moth eaten, but not much more than my own.
In 1980 archaeologists discovered the graves of 185 Dutchmen – whale hunters and workmen of the train oil refineries – who had died on or near Spitsbergen during the 17th century. The men were bundled up so tightly against the fierce cold that only their eyes were visible. The skeletons were still wearing their knitted woolen caps. Each cap was unique and it is surmised that the men were able to recognize one another by the pattern of stripes on the caps. I found this display quite poignant.
Next month I’ll write about what I learned at the Sausalito Boat Show a week or so ago. While I was there I talked with Nick Leal, owner of Compass Canvas. His sailboat used to be across from mine on E dock. Nick told me that his business keeps him so busy that he doesn’t have time to sail or go out on any boat at all. So he sold it.
One day his sailboat was across E dock, and the next day it was gone. I hate it when that happens. But then? A few days later I walked over to admire the new power boat that had taken its place: a beautiful 32-foot Nordic Tug.
Yes, it has taken some time, but I have learned to appreciate different kinds of boats than my own. Call it an epiphany, a movement toward inclusiveness. Why not? Then I looked inside and recognized the owner! Wow. You think you know a guy and then he goes and buys a power boat.
I have come to realize that a number of people who are “of an age” are selling their sailboats and buying power boats of one kind or another. They can’t imagine not being able to spend time on the water, and so they are giving up their sailboats and buying alternatives. I will be writing about them in future articles. In other words, next month I’ll write about people I know who have gone over to THE DARK SIDE. Wait for it.
Enjoy your time on the water and write to tell me about your own boating experiences. Thank you for reading. I can be reached at email@example.com and let’s all be careful out there.