A Second (German) Bight

Claas offers to help me carry my kayak up the sandy beach as I land on Spiekeroog, the second in the chain of the German East Frisian Island, but first, he says, you have to drink some Rum, its tradition. I gratefully accept and can tell that he and his other fellow kayakers are in for a big night. We met briefly on the slipway back on the mainland as they left and I attempted to gather my things and repack my boat after a day in the car. Jonny Glut is playing at the Old Laramie they say, I don’t know what either is but agree to go with them. They’ve come here for the gig and will sleep on the beach. The crossing over was relatively straightforward, there’s a tidal push front the side as I follow the white tipped marker poles out to the main channel, I can see the church spire on the island and have instructions to aim for this until I can see the yellow buoys, good advice which sees me landing on the beach near a camp ground in the dunes. It’s a relaxed place and I’m told they’ll always make space for kayakers. No sooner have I found a spot (as close to the beach as possible to avoid carrying my kit further than absolutely necessary) and a man comes over from the neighbouring family encampment and offers me their leftover dinner which is lovely.  I turn my back for a minute and he comes charging and shouting towards me. I wonder what I’ve done wrong and then turn to see a massive herring gull helping itself to the potato salad. Max shoes it away whilst I finish off what’s left. A warm breeze drifts over the dunes and carries the sound of music and salty air of the North sea with it, there’s a feeling of inevitability as I follow it towards the pub. An old marker buoy with HM Government stencilled on it marks the entrance. It’s a small building nestled in the sand and spilling out to a makeshift garden. There’s a stage set up under a large tree and a decent sized crowd are swigging beers in the last of the evening light. There’s a laid back feeling to the place. I spot Claas and Helge who have decided that despite us only meeting a coupe of hours ago, I will be their guest for the evening and should not buy my own beer, it’s a very generous welcome and I loosely agree. There’s that satisfied, lethargic glow in the air of a balmy evening tinged with the heat of the day and held under a clear, starry sky. It’s a relaxed and floaty feeling of being on the edge, cast off into the North Sea. Although it was only a short crossing by kayak, it seems like a world away from the cars and buildings on the mainland. 

I’m not sure how you would describe the music of Jonny Glut. There was a brief discussion on the beach earlier about whether he could sing or not, the jury was left out. He’s supported by a band including guitars, double bass, a mandolin and a saxophone, it’s labelled as Country/Folk on ITunes. It’s shouty and anthemic. From what I can make out from Claas’s translation between jumping up and down and shouting out the Lyrics, it covers topics ranging from wayward sailors, social housing estates in Bremen, lost loves and unemployment as well as the classic, sand in my shoes form Spiekeroog which morphs into Iggy Pop’s Passenger with added la la, la la Lalala la’s. It’s a niche fan base and Claas id defiantly one of the most committed. I see him squeezing through the crowd, heading towards a man with bright white hair who is carrying a large basket over his arm.  He returns, grinning with three small jars and some cocktail sticks. We open the jars, eat the plum inside with the cocktail stick, clink them together and down the rest of the contents. We have another when the white haired man passes by us and when Claas tells him about my journey so far, he slyly slips me a few more Kutterpflaume out of the basket.  The rest of the evening is a bit of a blur as the band finish and we head indoors to what has now transformed into a loud europop club. Claas has some very special moves and rules the dance floor in a way that sort of means no-one else can get on it, or at least fear for their safety if they do. It’s a long time since I danced to ‘Ace of Bass’ but it seems fitting.  I wake up sweating in the tent, the morning sun has heated it up to become unbearable. I have a dry mouth and very sore head. An overweight and fairly motionless Oyster catcher sits seemingly paralised, starring at a plastic tub filled with water, unable to move aside from the occasional shuffle. He doesn’t look well and I wonder if he’s also overdone it on the Kutterpflaume.  I find Claas and the others sprawled on the beach shielding their faces from the sun and when I ask how his head is, he points off into the distance somewhere and laughs. I pay for the camping and the warden asks when I plan to leave ’I need the water to come back’ I say in my best German, he looks at his watch, grins and hands me a sticker for the tent. I walk toward the town through the lazy, dusty streets lined with trees and small German houses. Bikes, trailers, trolleys, child barrows, horses and small electric vehicles are dragging supplies and suitcases around the island. Beached boats lie lazily on the sand and wait for the water to return.  A group of children on the beach come over and are interested in what I’m doing. It is like a test of my German vocab as they point at everything I have in my bags and strapped to the kayak and ask me what it is.  I’m struggling and feel embarrassed that my language skills can’t even match those of a small child and am sure I’ve probably told them that the stove is powered by cheese, I’m wearing a cake, the camera is made of fish and I’m kayaking back to England. They leave me to it, a bit confused but I give them a wave as I head off from the beach. 

I’ve waited too long for the water to return, hoping it will lessen the carry down the sea. When I launch, mid afternoon there are a few hours of the flood tide left. It’s a long slog heading west into the sun but the shallow water is amazingly warm, I’d even say it was hot, like a bath. I stop for a rest against the almost perfectly tessellated stones of the harbour wall of the pistol shaped Langeroog before crossing over to the small island of Baltrum, next in the chain. The water is disappearing fast and flowing against me, I’m quite a way out from the shore and only have a few centimetres of water beneath the kayak, A line of ‘Pricken’ or withies mark the channel and I try desperately to push towards it as the boat crunches along the sea bed.  Pushing off with my hands and scaping along with the paddle, I can tell it is the kind of sandy mud that you can’t trust to walk on and I’m a long way from the beach. Looking towards the rapidly descending sun, I start to contemplate spending the night on the mud, in the boat. The thought of this isn’t appealing and I muster all I can to drag, scrape and pull the boat across the almost not existent water. Eventually, after what feels like a few hours, it  eases and I reach the deeper water of the dredged channel, round the harbour wall and breath a sigh of relief to be within sight of a slipway in the small harbour. I’m surprised to see another kayaker who introduces himself as Captain Ulrich, I think his name is probably just Ulrich. He’s friendly and  as he strips down to his speedos, putting on a shirt and chatting to his familly, points me in the direction of the toilets and showers in a small building by the marina. I’ve got instructions from the German Saltwater Union to camp in the yacht harbours on these small islands and manage to communicate to a family sitting down to a picnic dinner in the ramshackle surroundings of the boat yard, that I need the code for the toilets.  A short man with white hair has lots of questions about my trip as he sees me unpack the boat and put up the tent. I’m relieved to have arrived and avoid the night on the mud, I’ve got a dull headache and an exhausted when I tumble into the tent and collapse into a deep sleep. I wake up in the night to the sound of horses snoring outside and feel pleased that I’m not the only one. The next day, I wander round the pretty resort town with it’s collection of spa hotels and wicker ‘Strandkorbs’ (beach baskets) scattered around. There is an interesting museum with a history of fishing and settlement on the island.  I ponder over a cryptic story about the English, the sea and a collection of porcelain figures of King Charles cocker spaniels with gold detailing. I try to imagine what the audioguide might be trying to tell me and make a note to look it up when I get back.  I wonder back past the buzzing of prop planes, across the end of the small airstrip next to the stables and trailers where I’ve put my tent.  I notice there seem to be a lot of ants. It hasn’t been a problem until now but despite checking the ground, as soon as I set up camp I seem to be covered in them. They’re all over my stuff and they’re bitey.  I spend an evening in the tent picking them off one by one like a oversized hit man.  One morning, I open the hatches to the kayak and somehow they are swarming with the little cretins.  I literally get ants in my pants which when sealed into the cockpit with a neoprene spraydeck for 10 hours is not a happy experience. 

I change my approach for the next harbour and plan to arrive on a rising tide with a couple of hours to spare, the sandy flats, salt marshes and dunes make this an important place for migrating birds and seals, there are many areas that are off limits to boats, limiting landing to some set areas, which, on the inland side of the islands in largely the harbours and on the north coast, the beach. I’m not great at calculating drying heights, too much maths involved and this had never been my strong point. The island of Juist has a well to do spa town feeling to it and there is a mix of German and Dutch language. I scoot around the town trying to find a German flag sticker for my kayak before I move on to the Netherlands, it’s a hard thing to come by and I reluctantly give up. I return to the harbour via a bandstand, where small children play with model boats in an artificial pond and the band kicks off its morning set with a march by Wagner. There is an old lighthouse by the harbour and it’s busy with people setting up for a rescue services open day involving large fire trucks, the German Coast Guard and a BBQ with sausages and beer. It sunny and looks like the start of a nice afternoon but I have a tide to catch. I meet Tomas, a German paddler who proudly tells me he’s the only surf kayaker on the island.  He’s spent time training in Anglesey and we know some of the same people there.  He advises that I follow the channel all the way out rather than cutting across the drawing flats. I feel self conscious as I launch the kayak in the slippy mud, next to a demonstration by the German RNLI but am helped by some friendly onlookers. Buoys lie lazily scattered on the muddy bed as if dozing in the afternoon sun, the rhythms of the tides controlling the pace of life. I arrive at Borkum as it is getting dark, it’s a large, unpretty harbour with military buildings, Baracks, warehouses and a lot of fencing signalling that it’s a frontier point and the last of the German Islands in the chain. The charts have a variety of warnings on them about high speed craft operating in the area and I’m feeling apprehensive about the next jump across the shipping lane. There are limited places to land and I can see that the slipway on the edge of the high walled harbour will be a sheer drop of several meters at low tide so make a note to leave when it’s high again, about 12 hours from now. A friendly dutch sailor puts my mind at ease about the crossing and tells me I can’t leave without a hearty breakfast from Scottish Jackie’s cafe, sadly I’ll be gone well before she turns on the friers but I can see the blue and white flag fluttering in the wind along the road. There is nothing open and very few people around, I search for somewhere inoffesnive to put the tent and opt for a hedged lawn with a large anchor in the middle of it and a number of tame rabbits darting around.  It’s right next to the Harbour Master’s office. There’s a small display about the local wildlife on the deck of a lightship that’s floating in the harbour.  I return to double check the launch spot and there is a beautiful sparkling phosphorescence in the water like blue green glitter glinting in the moonlight, I set my alarm for 5am and go to bed.

It’s fair to say I’m  still a bit nervous about crossing this busy channel, the ships coming out of the German port of Emsen, an important centre for the offshore wind industry. I’ve put on a bright orange T shirt and am hoping for the best.  I know as I leave Borkum that there will be no landing point until Schiemonikoog. Small ferries weave around the invisible channels and take people to see the seals and high sided catamaran type boats whizz around servicing the wind farms. There is a huge structure on the horizon which I stare at for a while before I realise it is moving towards me.  It looks like a kit of parts for an oil platform stacked on a ship, top heavy and strange as I hover of the edge of the shipping lane waiting for it to speed past. It’s more likely to be a wind turbine platform although Emden is the place that the pipeline from the Valhall and Ekofisk oil and gas fields comes ashore. I cross behind it and can start to make out Rottumerplaat, one of the two totally off limits islands that form the start of the dutch lands. The water is beautifully clear. I start to get a bit disorientated as it is hard to pick out where the land is, if it even is land or a reflection, an island or the low lying mainland. After a while, heading on a bearing which approaches 180 degrees, I realise I’m paddling away from the island chain towards the dutch coast. I’m surrounded by sandbanks which are constantly changing shape and size, appeaeraing as disappearing and I’ve crossed over into an area that I don’t have printed charts fo, which doesn’t help. I land on the sands briefly and check the digital charts on my iPad to get back on track.  This flat sandy and muddy landscape is home to huge seal colonies and wading birds, the intertidal zone providing a rich feeding ground. The water is shallow and clear, mesmerising almost, as the sun shines through it and cast shadows and patterns onto the sandy bed. The thin lines of the rippling surface make strips of sunlight that dance and jump along the sandy seabed. It’s a hot and still day and the water merges with the sky giving the sense of hovering about the water. The landscape is so flat it’s hardly visible, the wet flats reflect the sky and it’s impossible to tell if the tiny black dots infant of me are what I’m eventually aiming for. The stillness is sublime.  I keep the compass facing west and paddle towards what looks like a box, it’s lines too straight not to be manmade.  If appears to be floating out to sea but I think it is the ferry terminal which starts to emerge in more detail as I get closer.  A boat floats at anchor and I can see the ferry heading in behind it. A large dog stands in the cockpit with it’s paws on the tiller.  As I get closer I hear the sound of a kettle boiling and a wiry man appears from the cabin. We exchange hellos’s and he asks me if it’s dangerous paddling on my own, I give a rehearsed answer but can’t help thinking it is more dangerous to leave your dog in charge of steering your boat. After over 11 hours on the water, I near the ferry terminal with a cluster of masts of dutch sailing barges in the harbour of Schiemonikoog behind it. I pitch my tent in the harbour near a large wicker sculpture of a fish and treat myself to a beer, not realising it 8.5 percent and probably not the best way to rehydrate. I sit on the terrace of the harbour restaurant watching a beautiful sunset.

Schiermonikoog is a pretty and relaxed town with small two story buildings, old merchant houses and a cluster of taller building around the town square which are many hotels. A gateway formed by whale ribs makes the entrance to one of the terraces where I sit drinking coffee, eating spiced apple cake with an enormous helping of cream and feeling annoyed that I am too early for waffles.  The hotel opposite is grander with a glazed arcade along the front and a distinct French renaissance feeling to it. There are no cars on the island and transport is via bus, bike, foot or horse drawn carriages. I spend the day searching for a new set of charts which involves advice from the tourist office to go to the mainland, a trip on the ferry to the chandlery, a fishy lunch only to return to the island and find the shop opposite the tourist office sells the charts I wanted.  It wasn’t a complete waste of time as it was a good chandlery and the trip on the ferry gave me a different (higher) perspective over the Wadensee and chance to learn a bit more about the wildlife. There are huge flood defences and drainage engineering around the lock gates that lead to the inland sea and farmland beyond with several marina and holiday parks dotted around. Back on the island I walk along the brick paved roads where the disobedient sand is scattered across the neatly formed edges, being blown and pushed around. The island is moving too, slowly, but has changed shape and shifted almost 2km in 750 years.  The charts come with warnings that they may not represent the current land masses.  The dunes are peppered with small thatched cottages, simple homes and the tower of an old lighthouse, they give way to a long, deep beach.  Bikes are parked where the path disappears into the sand and a small beach cafe teeters on wooden legs.  A sign on the toilets say they are the last ones before Norway (presumably in a straight line to the North, as I’m sure they had toilets in Denmark) A sign advertises nighttime trip to see the bioluminescent sparkle in the water and the sea laps gently against the shoreline.  Groups of people are gathered to watch the bird life and at the ebb, wander out onto the flats binoculars in hand. A man at the harbour is interested in my trip, he’s deeply tanned with a large, proudly displayed belly and small black and yellow speedos, he’s dripping in gold jewellery and has a formidable moustache.  It’s definitely a look.  He tells me he’s been coming to the Frisian islands with his wife on their boat for over 9 years. There’s definitely a holiday vibe here and as I headed into the harbour on the first day, I’m following a family on a traditional dutch boat, the dad is wearing fluorescent checked Bermuda shorts and has a huge and impressive tattoo of a traditional dutch sailing ship on his back. There are large boats with youth trips on holidays and a woman drifts by on a stand up paddle board, string up the still sunset waters as she passes.

I wake to the sound of wading birds on the mud flats and sense that the tide is out, I wait for it to return enough to slap my way through the gloopy mud spread it around the boat a bit then I’m off. The next days take me onwards to Ameland where the friendly harbourmaster lets me use his chart table to plan the next section. A map of ship wrecks on the menu of the ‘Pirate’ bar doesn’t fill me with confidence.  There is a strong tidal push around the end of Ameland (het riff) and notes on the map that navigation in this area should only be attempted with local knowledge.  As the islands pull away from the coast and the Wadensea becomes more expansive, it becomes a stranger place to paddle in.  I navigate around Englemansplats and can pick out the tower where you can go and visit the seals.  I’m intrigued by the name and imagine a marauding group of shipwrecked English sailors stuck on this uninhabited sandbank. From Ameland I head to Terschelling where, as with all the others, the harbour takes longer to get to than I think it will. I can see the long arm of the protective wall on the chart but can’t make it out. There is a steady stream of fishing boats coming out of the harbour and small motor boats buzzing across infant of me.  It’s coming up to high tide and I realise the reason I can see the channel is that the sides are already covered, a subtle line of small waves jumping along a straight line, the only clue that it’s underneath me. The harbour is full and along the length of the wall are rusting fishing trawlers, majestic dutch barges and tall ships.  I land, tired and find somewhere to pitch the tent on a bit of flat ground next to a car park. I’m nervous about camping here as there are several people hanging around, a footpath leads to an industrial estate and dog walkers are enjoying the pinky light of the setting sun.  I crash out and wake to find my paddle has gone. I retrace my steps and conclude that I hadn’t moved it from the slipway. Kayak paddles are not cheap things but I’m more annoyed that I’ve lost it than anything else. I tell myself it’s my tired carelessness rather than someone else light fingers that are to blame.  I have a quick chat with the harbour master and decide not to waste any more time on it and carry on with my spare paddle. Leaving Terschelling in the bright sunshine and joining a cavalcade of yachts heading out of the harbour on the flood tide is like joining a motorway. Its quite a spectacle, large, small, sailing, motored, everyone is tuned to the tidal rhythm in a string that stretches out as far as the eye can see.  I pick a line just inside the red channel markers, dodging fast moving ribs taking tourists on trips to see the seals.. A couple of men in a catamaran are weaving chaoticly around and I try to avoid them until they come along side and ask where I’m off to.  Theres a busyness about the flood that is met with a contrasting languidity around the ebb. Boats lie lazily beached on the sand with people swimming in the shallows, enjoying a long lunch with loosely strung sails forming sun shades. People wave and snooze in the sun. The water returns and suddenly it’s like a regatta and not uncommon to see fully rigged tall ships sailing by which immediately transports me to a bygone time.

I’ve decided to go outside the next island, Vllieland which is a quick route and less complicated tidally, I should also have a small amount of wind behind me. Passing the timber stilted beach cafe, surrounded by windbreaks, StandKorbs, tents and canopies. It looks a bit like a campsite.  Small surf bounces along the breakwaters and the sandy beach picks up at the back to form a small dune. People wander along the sand with kites and body boards.  A surf school is set up on the beach but there is hardly any movement in the water. There’s a military zone marked on the map and I’m unsure if it’s a firing range or a test site, I pull away from the land to get a bit of distance and can hear the grinding of tanks and trucks beyond in the grassy flats. Seals and bird life enjoy this deserted, deserty place. I tentatively pass the red flag on the beach and the coastguard observation station. I can see sailing boats further out and start to head towards them. The land is sandy and flat, it blurs with the sky and it’s hard to tell how far away I actually am. I hear a whirring noise coming from the sands and look around to see a chinook helicopter coming towards me, flying low and moving in large circles.  I turn the kayak more obviously out to see to signal that I’m leaving and hope they’re not going to launch into a bombing exercise. I head further out and with the helicopter returning and circling nearby, I tell myself they’re not following me but certainly don’t want to chance it.  Behind the low lying sands, I can see the tower of the Texel lighthouse poking up, or at least I hope that’s what it is as it’s the only tall thing marked on the chart for miles. People are scattered around the beach and in the water with small camps of varying complexities. The beach is huge and it’s a long walk for them down to the shoreline. The tide is low and I drag the kayak on its small trolley though the sand and fall asleep in the shadow of its hull, protecting me from the hot afternoon sun. Texel (Humber) is the last island in the chain.