Imagine sailing through Paris in your own trawler yacht. Or up the Thames to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich where longitude on your GPS reads 00.00°. Drifting past German castles on the Rhine, perhaps, or tying up in Amsterdam to visit Rembrandt's house. We did imagine that, and then decided to do something about it.
After six years of ocean cruising, my husband, David, and I decided that we wanted to spend out summers exploring Europe's inland waterways. Ironically, America was largely responsible for this. After crossing the Atlantic from England to the Caribbean we escaped the hurricane season by making out way to Miami and setting off up the 1,000 wondrous miles of rivers, lakes, and canals that make up the ICW.
As well as the pleasures of inland waters, we also discovered the true delights of small–town America, only ever experienced before in movies, as a backdrop to some unspeakable crime. And it was in America that we first appreciated the qualities of the trawler yacht. We sold our sailboat last Christmas and during the winter David embarked on a search of the Internet to find a suitable trawler–type yacht for us in Europe as the average American trawler that is able to cross the Atlantic is too tall for most European bridges. To sail the River Seine through Paris and on down the Rhone to the Mediterranean you need a yacht less than 3.5 meters (11 feet, 5 inches) high. To travel the French canals you need a maximum height of 2.5 meters (8 feet, 1 inch). Europe's inland waterways also require a draft of 1.5 meters (4 feet, 11 inches) or less. What we discovered was that while a number of European boats—including English ones—passed the height, draft, and comfort test, many of them had enormous engines. And while we could afford the boat, our retirement pensions were not up to meeting the diesel demands of two turbocharged 395hp engines.
David found a much larger range of what we were looking for in The Netherlands where they have built comfortable steel trawlers for generations. On most of them the arch or mast can be lowered, as can the awning, and the windows surrounding the helm can be folded down level with the coach house roof. In this way you can have full headroom below and a good steering position and still tackle very low bridges. Alternatively, some styles are built with a low profile anyway and little or nothing has to be lowered.
Searching The Netherlands
Some of the brokers' information that David downloaded off the Internet was very sparse and did not give a good impression of the boats, but with the money from our former yacht burning a hole in our pockets and a great desire to sort out our future summer cruising at the earliest opportunity, we set off in the spring to have a look.
The bulk of the boats in which we were interested were located in Holland, so we booked a flight to Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport and a hired car. Then we looked for somewhere central to stay, as a good starting point for a number of the yacht brokers with boats we liked the sound of. We took a room at a Best Western hotel in the town of Hilversum, some 30km southeast of Amsterdam. People often mistakenly use the terms "Holland" and the "The Netherlands" interchangeably. Most of the boats we were interested were located in the province of North Holland, often referred to (along with the province of South Holland) as just "Holland."
There are, of course, boats and brokers all over The Netherlands and our search took us north and south of Hilversum. All the brokers we visited spoke excellent English and were very helpful. We did quite a bit of touring around while we drew up a shortlist of potential boats, booking hotels by the night using the hotel's Internet system. And car travel was easy via a network of motorways, although, like any other country, it was best to avoid the morning and evening rush hour.
There were a lot of boats to choose from and if you were prepared to wait for ideal conditions to make a coastal hop, or a Channel crossing to the United Kingdom and London, then there were few limitations. And after our time spent on America's ICW, with the large mileages covered there, we were pleasantly surprised by how many of the boats had very low hours on their engines.
We complicated the search somewhat by wanting a boat that would not only pass under the bridges of Europe's inland waterways but also be suitable to sail offshore. Our plans to cruise the Baltic Coast had necessarily been postponed when our ocean–going yacht attracted a buyer, but we still wanted to be able to do that kind of trip. This narrowed the number of boats available to us and inevitably lead us to the major brokers, the two biggest being Sleeuwijk Yachting and De Valk.
The Right Kind Of Boat
A boat's suitability for a particular purpose is defined by its hull shape. For the kind of sailing we wanted to do the most suitable hull shape is round or multichined. This is found in a design the Dutch call a kotter.
Generally speaking, if a boat bears the name cruiser or trawler it tends to be a deep–V hull, which is ideal for inland waterways. And because of their construction method they are cheaper and often better laid out than kotters because the interior design is not dictated by the round hull.
For anyone wanting to spend around 50 percent of their sailing at sea as we did, however, the hull of choise was a kotter and we found a twin–engine version (two 120hp engines) that suited our needs at Sleeuwijk Yachting. She was built in 1979 by Bloemsma and van Breeman Shipyard, a famous Dutch boatyard, and was much older than we had originally been looking for.
However, as an American yachtsman and former Coast Guard we met in the Bahamas once said in relation to boats, "It's all a trade–off," and so it is. Being an older boat she has features that newer ones no longer have because manufacturing costs are prohibitive. Accordingly, in addition to a round hull and bilge keels for stability offshore, the hull of our Bloemsmakottter is built with overlapping steel plates—what the Dutch call gejoggeld—making her especially strong for coastal work.
Something we had particularly noticed on our search was that on the whole Dutch boats are very well presented: clean and in good condition. The kotter we ultimately chose had been recently and beautifully restored, so that she is not only light, airy, and spacious, but most of her equipment had been replaced. She also has a 1,125 U.S. –gallon fuel tank, enabling us to undertake long distances as well as take advantage of those countries selling cheap diesel to yachtsmen.
Making The Purchase
All negotiations regarding the purchase were carried out in English and the sales documents were produced in English. The broker arranged a lift–out for us and a pilot to take her downriver to a suitably sized crane for a survey and then back onto her pontoon again afterwards. The surveyor was very well–equipped with all the latest electronic aids and even spent time with us afterwards making suggestions as to how we could make improvements at minimal cost. His report, In English, arrived the following day. Although the surveyor had given us a good engine report, we decided on a second opinion as we had not intended to buy a boat of this age. At our request the broker arranged for an engine specialist to come, and at the same time the specialist serviced both engines and provided us with the appropriate spare filters, fan belts, and so on.
We also asked the broker to organize a local insurance quote for us—also in English—to compare with those we had obtained from British insurance companies. And suppliers were recommended on request for some additions we wanted for the boat. All dealings with the suppliers were conducted in English.
We intend to keep our new kotter in The Netherlands for the winters, so when it came to registering her as her new owners we decided on Dutch registration. The broker helped with the Dutch–language forms for this, too.
Casting Off To Cruise
With all this done, there was nothing left but to untie her shorelines, shove off from the pontoon, and enjoy the Dutch countryside.
The Netherlands is very flat and so low in places that some areas are below sea level. By a freak combination of unusually high tides, high winds, and torrential rain, in the winter of 1953 the country experienced catastrophic floods and enormous loss of life. To prevent a reoccurrence the Dutch perfected a system of dams, dykes, and sluices. So practiced are they in the art of keeping water at bay from low–lying land that Dutch experts have been sharing their expertise with the U.S. authorities in those areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
As well as flood control, the Dutch network of inland waterways makes the Netherlands an ideal place for leisurely boating, so much so that on a sunny Sunday in July you might be forgiven for thinking that every Dutch family must own a boat of some kind and be out on the water.
This does mean, however, that the country is geared up for boaters, with plenty of marinas, anchorages, and occasionally free riverside berths to tie up to overnight. And you do not have to travel far without arriving at some lovely old town or village. In quite a few of them, boats tie up right in the town centre among the picturesque Dutch barges and overlooked by graceful 16th and 17th century marchants' houses.
Not that boaters are restricted to small towns, of course. We sailed into the heart of Amsterdam where there are some wonderful houses and spent a few days there, including a look around Rembrandt's house. The Netherlands made its fortune from trading and these prosperous merchants built themselves homes that reflected their standing in the community. Some of them lean a little these days. Periods of waterlogged foundations, before the Dutch finally got their flooding problems under control, have given some of the oldest ones a distinct slant but they are no less beautiful for that.
If you crave tranquility, however, and want to escape the bustle of the towns, there is nothing to compare with Friesland, the country's most northern region. It is a place of rambling farmhouses, pasture land, horses, black and white cows, reed beds, herons, and geese. And the main traffic we saw there was cyclists on the canal towpaths.
One of the things that can make our mar a cruise is the way that you are treated. We found Dutch towns and villages not only appealing to the eye, but they offered the courtesy and helpfulness of small American towns. There were other similarities, too, like polite adolescents, welcome mats on door steps, and a greeting as you pass in the street.
The Dutch like to decorate their houses, too. It was autumn when we left and house fronts were decked with gourds and pumpkins ready for that season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, which in Europe means harvest festival. For David, too, it was a season for gathering in—of charts and guidebooks for the Seine and the Rhone, which, all being well, we shall be exploring next year.
Helpful Books: All Available on Amazon.com
RYA European Waterways Regulations (the CEVNI Rules explained) by Tam Murrell
European Waterways: A User's Guide, 2nd ed. by Marian Martin
The RYA Book of EuroRegs for Inland Waterways, 2nd ed. by Marian Martin
Europe Inland Waterways Map and Directory by David Edwards–May
About The Author
In 1998, David and Sandra Clayton decided to improve their health and quality of life by sailing their 40–foot catamaran to somewhere warmer and drier than the north of England. So far their travels have taken them to France, Spain, Portugal, Sardinia, Gibraltar, the Cape Verde Islands, the Caribbean, the Bahamas, and the United States, Canada, Bermuda, the Azores, and most recently The Netherlands and Belgium.