It was debatable whether it was first light when the alarm went off. On the other hand there was no doubt that it was raining, one of those penetrating thin drizzles, out of a lowering grey sky. But there was a good breeze and the ship’s meteorologist was quite convinced that it would soon clear up. The navigator, while he has great faith in the meteorologist’s judgment, wondered if the meteorologist had completely woken up when he pronounced his opinion.


Day was breaking over the land as we set out at 05.30 for our fifteen-mile run up the coast to Flushing and the drizzle was dying away. There was a good westerly breeze, about force 4, and we thought we’d have enough speed to get there without the spinnaker. There were 3 hours of tide to help us cover our distance and once out to sea I made haste to boom the genoa. As I was hauling in the sheet there was a distinctly final-sounding “crack” in the vicinity of the bow, the spring-clip at the inboard end of the spinnaker boom breaking as it twisted in its fitting on the mast. I must have clipped the forward end of the boom on to the genoa sheet out of line with the mast fitting and when the boom came aft the strain had told. We resigned ourselves to continue to Flushing with the genoa slamming if we went off course and hoped that we’d still beat the first of the ebb as it began its rush out of the Schelde, due to start at 08.15. Red wine and flapjacks for early breakfast helped a little to console us.


We made the first six miles to the Dutch border at Wielingen Sluis in an hour ahead of our schedule and became reasonably optimistic that we might fetch Flushing in time. Soon after, its cranes appeared over the horizon, capped by the tall twin power-station chimneys that make the town’s best landmark. A little further and they were followed by the long low coastline of Walcheren itself rising up from the sea.

As we passed the first of the main channel buoys the stream was still well under us but the wind was easing, and as we drew up to the town we began to sense that we were no longer gaining as much over the ground as we had been before. Evidently the ebb set in at Flushing a little sooner than I had calculated, at least on the northern side of the channel where it can whip along the coast to Westkapelle while on the south side by Breskens it is still just on the flood. I kicked myself for not having brought with us the invaluable “Stroomkaart” that the Dutch Admiralty publish for the mouth of the Westerschelde which shows the stream hour by hour for a dozen or so separate spots across the estuary. It helps enormously, but I hadn’t rated the chance of our needing it sufficiently highly to warrant bringing it with us.


Instead, we hoisted the spinnaker, poled it out carefully with our broken boom and battled every inch of our last two miles to the harbour mouth, creeping slowly past the entrance to the old harbour and edging as close as we dared into the shore until we found a little patch of back-eddy on the 2 metre line that finally carried us up to the main harbour pier heads. Yachts and steamers dashed past us towards the sea and a few others, heading with us but out in the main stream, did about as well with their diesels as we were doing with our counter-current. Our sailing had been too easy up to then in a way, and it was good to work for our living for a little — in the last hour we must have made at least a mile and a half!


As we slipped round the breakwater into Flushing harbour the sun shone out, the tide released us and we saw the big lock gates slowly shutting in front of us. Twenty-five minutes later they opened again and Merlin entered Holland, festooned with fenders, her outboard dutifully chugging on the stern. No fanfares, no surprise, no disbelieving customs-men; just a small white hull disappearing into the deep dark canyon of the “sluis”. It felt different, moving vertically instead of horizontally in an Ajax and seemed a long way from the starting-line at Woolverstone — but even more so when we emerged the other end into the “Kanaal door Walcheren” and the day began a second time.


Our “second” day was a hot summer’s day and had a warm north-westerly breeze which funneled round the canal’s corners.

At the first bend we met a large floating crane towed by a tug and dutifully kept to the starboard side of the channel. Canal manners came back to us quickly, but with no “reverse” gear and no “idle” on the engine, “stooging” at bridges was a more interesting affair than it had been on Beachcomber (not that we hadn’t had some interesting moments by bridges in her in the past from time to time!). As the Flushing town bridge opened shortly after we arrived in front of it we carried on past the yacht harbour and under it to make fast to a very tar-smattered and sand covered dumb-barge just on its other side.


The Vlissingen sailing club, we thought, might tell us where we could have the spinnaker-boom repaired and so they did; they also cooked breakfast so we decided to kill two birds with one stone. Altogether, a very useful stop: the welders (DEKO B.V.), up a road just opposite the club and at the foot of the tall power-station chimneys, had very little to do and were willing workers. The two proprietors were building a large steel yacht, and when they’d finished it were going to give up welding and try long-distance cruising instead; in the meantime they undertook to mend the boom by the following morning and quoted a very fair price for the job. We also found some tar-remover at a ship’s chandler, again across the road from the yacht club, to counteract the effect of our mooring berth, and then sat down to an excellent plate of ham, eggs and toast and a good cup of Dutch coffee in the clubhouse.

A visit to the washrooms completed our refreshment and it wasn’t long before we were chugging up the canal again, now in shorts and shirtsleeves. The wind had gone fairly light by then and was infuriatingly still against us but we kept our patience and our fingers crossed, and the motor took us all the way to Middelberg. After a half-hour wait at the second of the two Middelberg bridges at lunchtime (all of them in the canal shut just then) we got through with a flotilla of other yachts and were able to set sail again — interestingly enough not the only one to do so. This got us along better and we overtook a few of them beating to windward in the canal with the advantage of maneuverability, until most of them gave up the unequal fight and left us behind once more with their engines.


At one stage we were slowed up by a crowd of boys swimming, who tacked on to the dinghy in the old Dutch way — perhaps we should have thrown them some money? They always have swum in that canal, I can never think why. A little further along, one enormous “rondvaart” squeezed us up the bank as it swept by, loudspeakers on full bore and diners at tables along the windows staring out at the canal-bank with much the same vacant expressions as the Friesian cattle they were looking at. Somehow passengers in bulk, when viewed from a small vessel, seem rather to lose, their humanity.


Docked under sail before the lock to the Veersemeer at Veere, we managed to keep our engine well hidden and were kindly offered a lift into the lock itself by a Frenchman from St. Valery-sur-Somme with a friend and two dogs on board. Far more continentals seem to sail with animals than Englishmen but, still, to take two all the way from Normandy in a  twenty-seven footer was fairly good going! One of the Frenchmen was quite talkative and our French improved considerably, although the simultaneous alcohol intake may have helped as well!  He took us expert1y into a crowded lock containing a couple of gravel-laden barges and about fifteen or twenty yachts. Remarkably, the lockmasters still kept on squeezing in more all round us. Finally, and after an imperceptible rise, we were disgorged into the Veersemeer and our kind Frenchman took us on until we reached the beginning of the open water.


There we hoisted sail among the thousands of others and decided to set a course to the other side of the pond. It was difficult to tell where to look first as a good proportion of the sails were windsurfers, manned it one can use the word by nubile females in bikinis. Despite these attractive distractions we steadfastly held to our course but within five minutes had run slowly but surely on to a mud bank, clearly marked  (when the navigator concentrated his mind on the matter in question) with a line of withies. Without tide and with only a very light wind we wondered when and how, if ever, we might get off and whether we would be doomed to stay put for the rest of the summer, stores ferried to us daily perhaps by the nubile females.


Notwithstanding this thought we set to and managed to heel her sufficiently to float off without kedging, thereafter keeping outside the lines of withies around the islands! A gentle beat, each tack usually managing to take us generally towards the larger congregations of windsurfers, eventually got us down to the Zandkreek dam separating the meer from the Oosterschelde, where we moored bow—on to one of the three or four jetties across its width. We could have stopped or anchored anywhere, facing an elderly couple or a noisy family sitting by their campervan but unfortunately docking actually on the bank just wasn’t possible even with our relatively long bow. After twenty years, it is quite hard now to tell that the dam was ever built by man so relatively recently. The meer, in fact, which once seemed like a tidal estuary frozen at half ebb, has become quite settled, with lines of holiday bungalows set in pine trees along its shores and camping sites and little harbours dotted along on the banks and on the islands. Once Dutch in the traditiona1 way it isn’t any longer so, but perhaps now the real Holland is no longer the traditional Holland, it has kept up with its people and fulfils their needs as well as it did when its only produce was its fish. The trouble is that it has to fulfil the holiday needs of an enormous quantity of Belgians and Germans as well as the Dutch, and is consequently not a little crowded.


The ensign staff on the stern got caught under our neighbour’s after warp at the Zandkreek dam while we were de-docking and cracked even more finally than the spinnaker boom had done that morning, so the ensign was relegated to the backstay where it kept slipping down to the deck.


Even our nationality now became uncertain and we feared that the windsurfers would take even less notice of us than they had before unless they wondered what our burgee was. Even the burgee soon became unrecognisable, however, as the faint breeze died away and the meer became a glassy mirror. The windsurfers were drifting back to their camp fires and we reluctantly turned to the outboard. The choice faced us of camping on an island and having a very early start, or of chugging back to Middelberg and having a slightly less early start, as I wanted to catch the next morning’s tide back down the coast to Zeebrugge. We chose the second course, and the “third” day began.


It was quite cold as we moored by the lock to get back into the canal at Veere. The gates took a long time to open and we put on jeans and jerseys. Merlin was lying next to a German motorboat with a retired couple on board and just as we left the Frau came out to us and gave us a little bottle “for be warm”. They had come all the way from the Rhine, just two of them, on a three-month cruise and had been through the inland waterways of France and Belgium, but their boat was still spotless. A very kind couple, and the drink inside the bottle a type of schnapps with a fruity taste to it, most certainly was warming and welcome. We had small sips at controlled intervals and eventually slipped back into the canal at 20.15. Darkness overtook us while Middelberg still seemed a long way on but slowly its lights grew from twinkles into spots and then at last into the squares of windows as we approached closer. The canal was full of phosphorescence and about half a mile from the town we overtook a slow moving seal, or what seemed to be such, but which turned out to have legs that splashed behind it. Obviously the mayor of Middelberg was taking his evening exercise.


22.20, docked by the bridge at the entrance to the yacht haven at Middelberg, the havenmeester, just going off duty, let us use the pontoon which is normally reserved for those waiting to go under the bridge and didn’t even charge us for the privilege. Tiredness definitely overtaking us, we found the club house where they told us of a restaurant which was cheap and stayed open late. A quarter of an hour’s walk further on we found it; enormous juicy steaks and salad on blocks of wood, Dutch mustard and a glass of beer, the best value and best meal we’d had yet, and certainly the most welcome. In the seventeen hours since we’d left Zeebrugge we had spent thirteen and three quarters of them under way and had still only moved 33 miles. All the same it felt as if we’d done a good three days’ travelling and once back at the boat we decided to have a good lie in, so the alarm was set for 05.45!


III        Sun and sand in the Schelde


05.45 is actually 06.45 Dutch time and I wanted to get under the Middelberg bridges before they closed for the morning rush hour at 07.30. So, after a fairly rapid ‘musical boxes’ by the third morning the system was beginning to work quite well, but David wasn’t entirely sure of the merits of the timing on this occasion we docked and made for the main canal, to arrive at the first bridge at 07.20. Of course we found it securely shut with two red lights blazing at us and not a chance of opening for another hour. Once moored again by the side of the canal, with a number of other boats the same predicament, David managed to snatch the remainder of his kip.


This rather put paid to our hopes of catching the tide at Flushing, and a slow journey back down the canal sealed the coffin, but the sun was getting hotter again and we reached Vlissingen Yacht Club in time for coffee. The Vlissingen Yacht Club seems to be one of those places where nothing much ever happens and once there one quickly falls into the atmosphere of the place; something to do, perhaps, with being cut off from the sea by a stretch of canal and a pair of lock gates, which takes away the immediacy of, say, Breskens or Ostende. Deko B.V. had done an excellent job with the boom and the chandler sold us a brand new 1 metre long ensign—staff to keep the flag out of the water better less strong? We also tried to fill up with fuel at a petrol station just across the bridge but had run out of Dutch funds and they didn’t accept Barclaycard, so we were forced to make do with our dwindling reserves.


A Dutchman on board a fifty foot ketch (who belied the character of the place by saying he’d just come back from chartering for the winter in the West Indies to give his boat a coat of paint kindly lent us some varnish and a brush. With our staff newly covered and (we hoped) sealed from expansion, we set off at 10.45 for a lazy sail across to Breskens. As it had done the previous day, the wind was dying off with the heat and we doubted very much if we could have reached Zeebrugge on the tide. Anyway, neither of us had seen Breskens for a long time and David had only been in before by car, about thirteen years ago, when collecting me from Beachcomber to drive to Switzerland one summer.


Being low tide at midday we thought we’d find out how the sandbanks in the middle of the Schelde compared with the Gunfleet and the Long Sand, which we’d landed on some time ago. Once through the lock again and back into the tideway we crabbed a course across the estuary, dodging the steamers lying at anchor in the fairway, until we reached the north shore of the. Hooge Plaaten. This is a large sandbank which stretches some five miles up the river from Breskens and is a mile or more wide for most of its length. Slightly muddy at its edges, it soon gives way to hard ribbed sand, punctuated by a few shallow pools, and is populated mainly by flocks of gulls waiting for their next feeding time from the ships in the channel.


We anchored as close in as we could, made our way ashore variously rowing and swimming, and set off for a brisk walk across to the other side. After a while, however, when the far shore still seemed no closer and the barges in the channel ahead of us were staying as small as ever, we began to think that probably the rest of the bank would look much the same as the patch we had walked over and that we might do just as well to see what Breskens looked like from nearer at hand. Also, with the breeze still pretty light we didn’t want to get caught by the flood and find ourselves in Antwerp before we got back to Breskens. More by luck than judgment we slipped round the seaward end of the sandbank with the last of the ebb and had the first of the flood sucking us up the river by the time we made Breskens.


13.25 —“extreme heat” the log reads, as we docked. A certain amount of discussion with the havenmeester resulted in our holding on - for the moment at any rate - to the rather favourable berth we had taken, alongside a pontoon in a spot normally reserved for large motor-boats.

With our total stock of Dutch currency dwindled to a sum just sufficient for a couple of rounds of beer and a loaf of bread we were obliged to become self-catering, so determined to do ourselves proud for lunch and supper on board. “On board” in this case had to be taken literally in its most unseamanlike sense as the boards of the pontoon, which served a multiple purpose of table, chairs, chopping-board, sink and gangway, much to the surprise of the havenmeester’s assistant. No harm was done to the lunch, however, and we consumed a fair quantity of cabbage, tinned ham, baked beans and wine, followed by apples and chocolate, before board became lodging and David crashed out — for the first time in experience without even a sailbag for a pillow. The remainder of the crew followed suit on the boat, and Merlin spent a very restful afternoon.


Later on a good walk through the town was followed by our two rounds of beer in the Breskens Yacht Club, overlooking the old Gebrouder Maas’ yard. This now manufactures fibreglass forty-footers under the name Standfast B.V. and the barman at the club was very reticent on the subject of quite what happened to the old firm, as it was wound up and Frans Maas himself is now heavily involved in Standfast. The four foot tall letters of “Maas” having dominated the harbour for so long it seemed funny to see a different name there, and I hope Standfast can give back a few of the jobs that must have been lost.


The facilities by the yacht-harbour at Breskens are now excellent, showers and clothes-washing machines close to the pontoons with a new club-house which looks to be ready next year overlooking the Schelde, but they do charge fairly steeply on their harbour-dues and we were asked for these for the first time thus far on the voyage. Yet another plunge to our currency stocks, as we had to pay in Belgian.

It was soon time to open the next bottle of wine and set up the primus on the pontoon to make ready our dinner - more cabbage, meat balls, chunky steak, potatoes, followed by cheese, apples, and coffee as an extra as well, just as satisfying as our meals out and all the more so as the owners of the Panamanian-registered yacht now moored ahead of us went off to find their restaurant! Havenmeester unfortunately insisted on moving us across the harbour when we’d done our washing-up, but after we’d done so and had a hot shower we took a genuinely early bed and slept much better for it, as by the next morning there was a trot of four yachts alongside each other in our old berth.