Our fine mid-June weather as we departed Germany soon deteriorated. The sun had disappeared after the first day, and by the time we were approaching the Frisian island of Terschelling the weather was wet and blowing a near gale. All hands (both of us!) were busy with lookout, depthsounder, chartplotter, radar, and radio as we jibed back and forth running down the winding channel. We whooshed by unfamiliar buoy shapes in the gloom remembering the pilot book’s standard warning to follow buoys rather than follow a channel by chartplotter – because the sands shift and channels change….. The radio regularly and disconcertingly blared a warning to some sailing yacht (not us, we didn’t think) apparently blundering into dangerous water. We had timed our arrival well as the last half of the flood carried us into the Waddenzee, but with fair current and a following wind things were happening fast. We rounded and dropped the sails and motored into the wind up the last short leg towards the town of West Terschelling, just as an unbelievably large ferry came charging up the same channel. We weren’t sure there was room for the both of us, but with us sticking as close as we dared to the side of the channel they passed with no problem. An officer way up on the bridge wing towering over us gave us a cheerful wave, and we followed them into town.
The town turned out to be as clean and neat as Northern European seaports tend to be, and the little harbor was absolutely packed full of watercraft: our big ferry, dozens of big gaff rigged ketches, schooners and sloops all rafted together six deep, sailing yachts of all sizes, and even a few motorboats. It did not look like there would be room for Irene, but we tied up at a tiny fuel dock to top off the tanks and inquire. The harbormaster found a spot for us, but just for one night. We were shoehorned into the basin at the end of the harbor, and drank a dram in celebration.
After a quick exploration of the town we headed across the Waddenzee to Harlingen on a glorious sailing day, in company with many traditional craft – to Peter’s delight.
In Harlingen we passed through tiny basins and two drawbridges to find our spot right downtown. Tight spaces and close good natured neighbors are the rule in this country.
Here in Harlingen we had a nice rendezvous with sailors. Facebook is no doubt evil, but has the power to do good for sailors. FB let Dirk and Linda of “Jade” know we were in the area and so we were able to connect for a very fun day, thanks to Zuckerberg.
We headed back out on the Waddenze to cross over to our last Dutch port, Den Helder. We wanted to explore further, but sailors from the USA who plan to explore Europe under sail must carefully plan their schedule around the Shengen Agreement – a group of EU countries who largely abolish internal border checks for their citizens. An unfortunate effect of this agreement has been to severely limit the time foreigners such as us can spend in the Area, which includes many of the countries we wanted to visit. By this time we had already spent time in Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, all Schengen countries, and we would only have a total of three months to spend in the entire Shengen area. We had very painfully passed by many countries we wanted to sail to: Norway and the Baltic countries of Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, in order to save Schengen time for France, Spain, Italy and Greece. We planned a visit to the Channel Islands (out of Schengen territory) in order to stop the Schengen clock for a while. The time for the passage from the Netherlands to the Channel Islands as well as time spent there, and the time to sail to Spain would not count on our Schengen clock.
Another unfortunate reality of Schengen has been a certain level of chaos and inconsistency clearing in and out of these countries (still required for vessels with non EU nationals aboard.) In our experience, no two Schengen countries had the same interpretation of how to deal with us.
So we reluctantly left the Netherlands planning to sail directly to the Channel Islands for Schengen clock reasons. This passage would make more sense in day hops in a sane world, because it passes through shallow water in front of some of Europe’s busiest ports, with big tides and currents, narrow passes and many forbidden areas to contend with such as shipping lanes and wind turbine farms.
The workload (as we passed these mega ports) aboard Irene was high needing both of us to be awake and dialed in. Of course when both of us are on duty at the same time we must deal with fatigue and sleep deprivation, factors that make it more difficult to be alert and dialed in. We make a good team, though, and made a good passage. Ginger handled the complex radio communications, checking her planning notes to verify frequencies as we passed from one controlled zone to another. Peter handled the sail trimming in the frequent course changes. At one point in the wee hours of the night we noticed the AIS icon of another yacht that was roughly on our track (but a dozen miles behind us) was straying into a forbidden area on the chart. Ginger was almost ready to give them a call when they were hailed by a shore station and warned away. We were feeling smug about our high level of awareness until not much later we ourselves were called up ourselves by a dredge (lit up like a christmas tree in the night) and directed to alter course to clear the three mile no-go zone around them. Sheesh!
After several days and nights of this effort we were grateful to be closing in on the Channel Islands, in the dark of course, and picked up a buoy at the northernmost bay on the island of Aldernay and closed our bleary eyes for a blessed sleep of more than an hour or two. We hardly noticed that Irene was rolling from rail to rail every few seconds in the swell. The next day, when tide and current allowed, we moved on south to Guernsey and took a berth in the protected basin at St Peter port.
After a bit of sightseeing, and having had a meal or two out, and after refueling with inexpensive diesel, we felt recovered enough to take a short hop to St. Malo, in France.
France proved a most difficult of country in which to accomplish our formalities. The office staff at the marina where Irene was berthed was aghast at the idea of any sailboat needing to contact authorities. Peter was more than ready to shrug and murmur in a French way “perhaps it is not so necessary to check in….” but Ginger was not having any of it. Google Map lead us astray – a death march in the blistering afternoon heat took us to a neighborhood where no one had heard of an immigration office. Eventually, we were directed to an inaccessible booth at the ferry terminal, and voila! Our passports were stamped! The officials agreed that we had done the right thing – the law was clear that we needed those stamps. We celebrated with a wonderful dinner in the old walled city. Sipping wine during dessert, after we made plans for coffee and croissants in the morning, we reminisced about border crossings both easy and difficult that we had made in years past all over the world.
The hop back to the Channel Islands was notable for a beautiful steady light wind that took us from the locks at St Malo all the way to the sill gate at Jersey, where we tied up and cleared in. Finding the office was not easy, not at the ferry terminal at this case, but the official was very friendly and the procedure was quickly accomplished. A couple of days later, we returned to Guernsey, where we – you guessed it – we cleared customs again. Yes, these two Channel Islands, just a few miles apart, are separate entities each with their own customs requirements.
Advised by local sailors, we sailed Irene a few miles to a spectacular anchorage on the neighboring island of Sark, an island blessedly without cars, and dropped the hook. We needed a few days to prepare for the Bay of Biscay crossing, and Sark was the perfect place for that. Thankfully, we did not need to find the authorities, because Sark is in a customs union with Guernsey.
All too soon the weather forecast promised good conditions for a Bay of Biscay crossing, so we hoisted sail and set off southbound.
The sport of pigeon racing is popular in Europe, and at one point a confused racing pigeon landed on Irene. Since this was not the first time we’ve been visited, Ginger was ready with her pigeon kit: towel (for a nest) and water and food. She herded the bird to a protected place on deck and we tried to carry on with our business without disturbing Mr. Pigeon. After a couple of days of riding with us, Mr. Pigeon flew on – we know he didn’t place well in the race, but he probably arrived much more well fed and well rested than his mates!
Among sailors in this area crossing the stormy Biscay is spoken of with hushed tones, and we had heard many war stories (broken gear, broken marriages) on the docks, but luck was with us this time. Our only complaint would be that the wind was a bit light…
We arrived at the large Spanish port of La Coruña late at night – of course – but had no issues at all finding our way to the yacht basin, where a marinero was waiting to take our lines. The next morning, we visited the marina office. The office staff did not know if we were required to visit any authorities but in the interests of keeping a paper trail of our movements we set off in search of an immigration office.
Found it, but….it closed early just as we arrived. Officers dispersed dozens of people waiting in lines, telling us all to come back tomorrow. Which we did, and learned of the Spanish take on Schengen rules. Here, we were treated not as visitor’s arriving by airplane or ferry, but as proper sea going vessels. Our passports were not stamped (instead a crew list was kept) and we were to follow reasonable rules (stay on board each night, keep within a dozen mile radius of the vessel) and the Schengen clock would not be activated. All in all a very sensible plan that we wish other Schengen countries would adopt.
Lisa and Sean, daughter and friend, arrived for a visit. Before the effects of jet lag had fully worn off we departed La Coruna to sail down the coast. The Atlantic swell was booming in and the wind was light, so conditions were not smooth. We all did well, though, and arrived for our second night at anchor at scenic Isla Salvora late but thankfully not yet dark. We dropped the hook, and the next day explored the island: horses, lighthouse, rocks, and a nice little museum.
Lisa and Sean were aboard for a week of cruising and exploring the “Coast of Death” Costa da Morte. It is a very beautiful scenic part of the world, and has wonderful food and restaurants. The weather and water could have been a bit warmer to suit our heat loving daughter, but a good time was had by all.
We hugged Lisa and Sean goodbye, and prepared Irene for another ocean passage south. We planned to sail nonstop to Gibraltar, past other Spanish ports and Portugal without even a single stop. Why? Schengen, of course.