German Bight…..bites! Part 1

5th August 2017

German Bight has a bit of a reputation as the 'washing machine' as that what it feels like to sail it, after all it is even an area to itself on the shipping forecast so it must be true! The next eight days have been probably some of the most demanding we have done from a navigational, boat handling and endurance perspective. It is a huge area of shallow sandy islands with convoluted access, coupled with big tides, strong currents, vicious North Sea winds, oh and busy, tightly regulated shipping lanes…..But really rewarding and interesting to sail it, visiting some places that you would not normally choose to visit!
Our first port of call on our way to the Kiel Canal after leaving Delfzijl was to be Borkum. Delfzijl has a long 3 m easterly exit bounded by a long row of windmills and I catch sight of the old Norgips plasterboard factory that I used to visit every two weeks for a couple of years almost 27 years ago when we lived in Germany. This feel a long trek even before you even reach the main channel of the Ems.

The long easterly exit from Delfzijl


The old Norgips plasterboard factory I used to visit 27 years ago!

Then we have to head west, the first time for 6 weeks and it feels like we are going backwards! We tack our way down the river avoiding the shallows in the centre on a general bearing of 320 up the Dukegat, Alteems and Randzelgat. We are sailing with the tidal stream but there is a steep sea with short pounding waves.


Grace takes a bit of a beating in the typically short deep waves

After 6 hours sailing we enter the Fischerbalje at Borkum, as with most Frisian Islands the channel is just the start of a typical 10 mile slaloms in between sandbanks and over bars to reach the harbours located behind the islands and away from the prevailing North Sea winds. This involves trying to reconcile what you see on the charts and chart plotter with the actual location of the buoys. The advice is always follow the buoyage and not the charts as the sands shift all the time! We also had the dubious pleasure of trying to follow withies, which are simply tree boughs stuck in the mud, if the branches on the top point up, then keep to port, if tied down then keep to starboard……as you can imagine most of the ones we came across had the top broken off in the high winds, so a bit of guess work was required at times! No wonder Davies in the 'The Riddles of the Sands' was always running aground and 'kedging off'…….we often felt the same. Borkum is particularly unlovely for a Frisian Island, there is a delapidated yacht harbour, Port Henry and a larger, ex-military harbour, Burkanahafen which has the lifeboat, a ferry and workboats to service the wind farms that dot the area. It does have a lovely all tide entrance though which is a relief after weaving around the channel to get there! We cannot find anywhere to moor and no one to help or advise, the harbour master does not answer her phone or vhf so we sail back to the yacht harbour, the gap into it is drying fast, there are old tyres on the posts but we get in okay despite a strong cross current across the entrance that tries to push us on to the posts, I understand what the old tyres are there for now. The pontoons are all rickety but at least they have space. Moving forward to the first space we suddenly shudder to a halt, stuck in the mud! There is only 1.2 m of depth and we draw 1.5 m. Going astern hard we pull free, I realise that I must get Grace out of there if we are not to be trapped by the falling tide. It was 1.7m when we went in, it is now 1.5m so no time to waste! Plenty of throttle and Grace is back out in the channel. So back to Burkana, we tie along side a long quay on the western side of the harbour, opposite to the lifeboat. I go ashore and ask in the only place open, a dump of a bar and get told that we must move to the northern end. We do this only to be moved on again but this time by the harbour master who tells us to raft up opposite. We do, onto a nice Dutchman who is very helpful. It has been a run of 26 miles today and our first experience of the German Bight is over. It is not long before we are joined by other boats and soon we are rafted 6 deep with 3 boats on our outside! There is nothing to be done but pay our fees, use the portaloo facilities and go for a walk….I can confirm there is nothing to see in Borkum, it is all a bit miserable. We are now in Germany and take down our Dutch courtesy flag and replace it with a German one.

Our new German courtesy flag

On our return we are now rafted only 4 deep, the liftboat men have told the others to move to where we were originally tied up due to impending bad weather! This does not bode well!


Grace rafted up 4 deep, with our long lines ashore in case of bad weather

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