Dutch Canals, June 2016

We touched down in Schiphol, Amsterdam’s main airport, under glowering skies that promised and delivered torrential rain. Our intrepid band of HSSC members lead by captain Victor Newton were going to start our exploration of Holland and its famous rivers and canals by getting very wet. Soundtrack for the journey to pick up our boat at Vinkeveen was not the usual high spirited chatter but the squeak of wiper blades. Even oceangoing waterproofs and luggage proved unequal to their task and a few moments handling luggage at the marina left everyone soaked to the skin. A non-existent local taxi service to retrieve the shopping team added to the strained good humour along with wet clothes (both worn and packed in luggage) and a boat with more leaks than a presidential campaign. Particularly hard done-by were Dave and Adele Ramet in the forepeak and Hilary and myself in the Hobson’s choice of a quarter cabin, all finding mattresses and bedding soaked through faulty windows and hatches. Bob Emmanuel and Victor in one stern cabin and Maureen Gorb with Gill Simon in the other escaped a further soaking.

The following morning Le Boat staff arrived and changed some bedding and made some efforts to staunch the leaks. Still with indifferent weather but buoyed up by start-of-voyage enthusiasm we set off for the medieval city of Utrecht.

The boat came with a substantial diesel engine, I believe a Kabuto 389B/MKII, driving the single screw propulsion and a very useful 20 hp Lewmar hydraulic bow thruster capable of continuous use. Tankage was also excellent providing substantial reserves of fuel and water….OOPS, sorry wrong report!

Very flat… Holland, also very wet and Utrecht very old. The result was swollen rivers, far higher than normal, flowing under bridges far lower than would be built today. We had strange looks from people as we proceeded into the ancient city in splendid isolation as other boats peeled off to take less challenging routes. Soon we found ourselves threading our way under ancient arches so tight that on occasion the upper rear handrails just kissed the stone on both sides at once. More worrying, to yours truly on the helm, were various heads and limbs suddenly poking from hatches within inches of passing brickwork, the former spouting sage advice on action to be taken and harsh judgement on my own skills as a helmsman. We proceeded slowly, sometimes coming to a complete stop, either intentionally or by parking the bows on an unseen obstruction beneath a bridge. Victor remained calm throughout and the only casualties were some skin on Bob’s thumb and some feint scars in the thick skin of my ego. Boat and city appeared to escape unmarked, but perhaps only from having numerous existing scrapes in the relevant places.

Exploring the town centre was delayed by waiting for a chap from the marina to fix yet more leaks and arrange things so we could actually lock the boat and leave it unattended. The single bent key would only work in the side door from the outside and the cockpit hatch not at all. Some head scratching leading to a new bolt to secure the latter from the inside finally fixed the problem. Sort of. Utrecht is a wonderful old town and, as often when places are visited by boat which can moor in the centre, appeared unspoilt. We eventually had a wonderful meal in a local restaurant.

The following morning, we were woken by a cacophony of bicycle bells as squadrons of the students and office workers peddled furiously to unknown destinations. That cycling is big in Netherlands goes without saying but the sheer volume of two wheeled traffic was startling as were the strangely upright bikes (very flat… Holland, no need to crouch over handlebars to climb hills or even to reach prodigious speed). Even more of an eye opener were the sartorial choices and omissions of some riders, making absolutely no concessions to modesty, the Dutch simply aren’t worried about that sort of thing. We also had better weather, the night had seen Britain leave Europe, seemingly taking some of the country’s famous rain and cloud with it.

We “set sail” for Gouda with the promise of more medieval splendour, good cheese (obviously) and a promise of absolutely no low fixed bridges. The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley and on the solemn word of some canal-side workmen we diverted from our planned route for many miles only to be told at the next lock (very flat…. Holland, a long distance between locks) that the men were less honest than the quoted Scots tax officer. Retracing our steps we found the necessary channel indeed clear with no sign of any obstruction. Or any of the workmen.

The river in question was truly beautiful, too narrow and pressed in with trees to seem like it could go any distance, but it took us through mile after mile of unspoilt country side. Unfortunately, too many miles to get to Gouda that night and we decided to moor up outside the also medieval (actually part Roman) town of Oudewater. Finding no moorings in the town I reversed the boat back a few hundred yards, thankful for the aforementioned bow thruster, the only way to steer the boat going astern. That went well and drew only a modest amount of advice from other crew. Here we ate on board under the watchful eye of local waterfowl and a cat that bizarrely crept along the very edge of the opposite bank and sat there staring at us, seemingly unblinking, until its eyes seemed to glow in the dusk and then in the mist and moonlight.

We finally made Gouda the next day but sadly (or fortunately depending on one’s weight and medical history) too late for the famous Cheese Market. Instead we gorged ourselves on local culture, exploring the historic town square and surroundings including viewing an intriguing clock. Not just a spectacular early timepiece on the Stadhuis, this is a wonderful blend of outrageous toadying and wry humour with figures pausing in their daily labours to touch forelock to a local prince not just in his lifetime but on down through the ages as long as anyone winds the clock. Any health advantages gained from missing the opportunity for caseun retail therapy (ok, cheese shopping) were squandered through the excellent menu of the recommended restaurant to one side of the square.

The next day saw us heading back towards the outskirts of Amsterdam and the upmarket Uithoorn. Here we tied up on the town quay, now reserved for small boats visiting upmarket bars and a riverside restaurant. A supper reservation at this restaurant equipped us with a generous underestimate of the boat’s air-draft allowing us to moor there but also drawing a couple of anti-Brit/Brexit comments from passers-by. The meal again was excellent, several of the crew enjoying some of the best satay chicken any of us had seen. My meal was also good but, blinded by plate envy for the satay, I can’t remember what it was.

Our final night’s stop before returning to the marina was Veesp following a skim through the edges of Amsterdam. Here again we dined out, Hilary and I braving the elements for a canal-side table with everyone else huddling inside, Our food was very good despite a clearly distressed chef, apparently upset at the prospect of losing his EU Erasmus grant to study hospitality management in the UK.

We didn’t always eat ashore; a catering team, led by Maureen provided food onboard for most lunches and some evenings. Food in all events was very good, and restaurants were in general excellent, a marked improvement from the past when they limited their menus to a few traditional Dutch and colonial dishes.

The week showed the waterways around Amsterdam to be a great cruising ground not only for the old towns dotted in the distance across the landscape but also right on the banks of well-maintained canals and navigable rivers. All was very relaxed, except our entry to Utrecht and crossing a few major rivers with huge and very fast barges. Crossing these rivers was bad enough (a question of turning sharp right into any traffic, doing a U turn and then making a sharp right into the opposite canal) but journeying down them gave any helms-person a severe crick in the neck watching for some great leviathan to appear behind us bearing down at prodigious speed.

Returning the boat to Vinkeveen we said goodbye to Maureen who flew back to London with the rest of the crew heading for a few days in Amsterdam itself. I had visited the city many times in the past to write motoring articles on new cars (very flat….Holland, a good place for canny car makers to let journalists test cars that can’t go up hills). Hilary had found the Rho Hotel, a splendid art-deco confection of former business premises now run as a no-frills hotel just off centrally placed Dam square. Amsterdam is still a great city but changed greatly over the last 20 years. It is now far more crowded and with the previous small pockets of grime and sleazy underbelly rather spread to much of the town centre. Here were even more bicycles. Apparently several pedestrians are mowed down by bikes each day, several of these in turn suffering the same fate under the wheels of other traffic in a brutal vehicular food chain. Only the surrounding canal-side streets are clean and uncrowded as I remember them.

Dam Square, always edgy, now boasted small groups of what were clearly neo-nazi supporters, apparently previously relegated to gathering as only two or threes in side streets, now openly and ironically gathering in the shadow of the huge memorial to the atrocities of WW2. Fortunately, they still looked reasonably and suitably subdued.

That rather brought to mind Anne Frank’s House. I remembered that as an anonymous house like any other, its place in history made even more poignant by that ordinariness. Now we found it with long queues protected by heavy concrete traffic barriers and heavily armed police. A few years ago I read the unedited version of her diary in order to sub-edit and print an article on it in The Sunday Times. The previous edition, heavily rewritten by her father, was hard enough to stomach, the original journal now available is a truly gut-wrenching account of a girl growing up in bizarre and horrific circumstances, a girl we all know to be doomed by the obscenity of the Holocaust. Anyone who has never read the un-edited diary really should.

The trip over we took a taxi back to Schiphol and a return journey that in many ways seemed longer than the outward flight. Thanks again for Victor arranging the whole expedition (if not the weather!).

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