Trip Archives: Going Home on Balkonia

Taking my boat Balkonia over the Dutch and German canals and rivers from Franeker to Bremen.

Franeker - Wide Ie

So I happen to have a boat that goes by the name of Balkonia. It needed to be transported from Franeker, in the Friesland province of the Netherlands, to Bremen, Germany. Since both places are located at some kind of waterway the obvious mode of transport is to cruise her along the Dutch and German canals and rivers. The total distance is about 300 km, and the top speed will be 6 km/h.

The day of departure had been delayed by some technical problems but today everything was solved and fixed and I finally set sail left Franeker at 2pm, short-handed (on my own).

The route goes mostly in an eastish direction, first following the Van Harinxmakanaal to Leeuwarden. On an earlier attempt last week we had moored in the city for one night, but today I sped past with still a few hours of sunlight left.

A few kilometers after joining the Prinses Margrietkanaal I decided to anchor in the Wide Ie, a lake-like extension on the canal, near the shore and well away from the navigation channel of the canal. Earlier in the afternoon I had seen another ship anchor in the middle of a lake so I figured doing so would be ok.

The cruising had been easy today. All bridges were high enough for my little boat and there were no locks. That is going to change tomorrow.
I was still a bit stressed over those problems that delayed my departure, but that is slowly fading away.


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Wide Ie - Groningen

The wind had picked up a bit during the night and swung the boat closer to the shore. The anchor had held well according to the GPS, but my gut feeling told me that it had dragged a few meters. Not sure.

I left my anchorage after a morning swim and continued on the Prinses Margrietkanaal past Burgum and through the Burgumer Mar, another lake-like extensions on the canal.

On the Van Starkenborghkanaal, near Gaarkeuken and somewhat unexpectedly for me, I had to go through a lock. On my approach the lock gates were opened but the signal remained red (no entry) and a Dutch announcement was made through some speakers. I didn’t understand a word, so I veered off and made fast at a mooring a bit to the side. I went over to the lock’s control tower where I met a very friendly official who explained that I had to give way to the two big cargo ships that were also approaching the lock. I could then enter last. I went back to the boat and was back at the lock gate when the last of the cargo ships had just went in, but I followed a little too early and they almost squashed me against the lock’s wall when their stern suddenly swerved off towards my side of the lock. I just managed to avoid a collision by going backwards. Lesson learned.
The lock took me up a whopping 40 cm.

Coming through Zuidhorn next, I decided to stop to get some fuel. I still had plenty but wanted to play it safe and get an extra jerrycan filled. I knew that mooring on the side of the canal was forbidden here but I saw someone else park their boat on the side of the canal and figured it would be ok for a short stop. I got the diesel from a petrol station near by, then went to town on the bike for some quick lunch. When I came back half an hour later I saw something big and neon-yellow approach my boat – Rijkswaterstaat! (Not exactly water police, but still official maintainers of the Dutch waterways.) Oh crap.

I went back quickly, unsuccessfully hoping they’d go past, composed myself, and stepped on board of Balkonia where an officer was already waiting. I explained the situation (need moa deezel!) and the very friendly officers let me get away with a gentle warning. Had I come back any later they’d have towed the boat away, they said. Phew! They also gave me some tips for the route after Groningen.
The other boat moored a few hundred meters back was less lucky. The Rijkswaterstaat ship was still stopped next to them when I lost sight of them driving away.

On the approach to Groningen I turned off the Van Starkenborghkanaal at Dorkwerdersluis (lock) and went into Reitdiep. I stopped at Reitdiephaven at the edge of Groningen for the night.

I had not gone through many locks before on any boat, and never done any single-handedly, but they turned out to be easily manageable.


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Groningen - Zuidlaardermeer

A friend of mine, Julius, was joining me today for a couple of days on this trip. I woke up to a txt from him letting me know that he’d be in Groningen at noon. So I had a leisurely morning, got some more diesel (just in case), and some helpful advice from the local harbor master, who also ‘booked’ me a passage through the various remote-controlled bridges in the city of Groningen. That is, just before my departure she phoned the control station who would then track my progress on their cameras and open the bridges upon my approach. And that worked indeed beautifully! The only time I had to wait for ~10 or 15 minutes was at a railway bridge which, of course, could only be opened when schedules allowed.

Despite the good progress I didn’t make it to the railway station in time for Julius’ arrival because the lockie of the handful of manually operated bridges in central Groningen decided to have his lunch break a quarter of an hour early (officially from 12 to 1pm). So I cycled over to the station to pick up Julius and we had lunch as well.

Exactly at 1pm the lockie was back and opened the bridge I had been stuck behind, and once it was lowered again he hopped on his bicycle and raced ahead to open the next bridge for us, and so on. Very nice service. We drove through a lot of duckweed and, once we’d left the low bridges behind, we stopped in Groningen’s Zuiderhaven to clean the engine’s water filter. It was completely clogged and water flow had almost ceased.

We then continued on the Eemskanaal and turned into Winschoterddiep to leave Groningen to the southeast. After a short while we also left the Winschoterdiep behind and turned into Drentsche Diep, a lovely winding canal river that brought us into Zuidlardermeer, which is quite a big lake. We moored on the eastern shore, at a public mooring near Meerwijck. Our map showed a bridge to a restaurant but it didn’t exist anymore. So we had to take the boat and drive over there for a beer and dinner. I need a dinghy.


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Zuidlaardermeer - Stadskanaal

We had planned to leave at 7am but only managed 7.45. The first bridge over the Leinewijk was too low but the map said this and the following bridges and locks could be passed on request in a convoy and would be operated by personnel (volunteers?) op bemande scooters. I called the phone number posted at the bridge and explained our route in English. The reply was a lengthy speech in Dutch before the other side hung up. I hoped the reply was something along the lines of “I’ll be there in a bit”, so we waited.

40 or 50 minutes later I called again and the guy was clearly on a bike or something. We got further with German than with English before and he told me he’d be there in a bit indeed. And so he was.

They (he was joined by a colleague at the first lock) then accompanied us on their scooters along the entire Leinewijk, Kielsterdiep, and Grevelingskanaal (about 15 kilometers in total – a distance that took us probably 3 hours at 6 km/h) and tirelessly opened bridge after bridge for us, many being of the manually operated swing variety. Quite an impressive service.

After their good-byes we were on the Stadskanaal, the canal, and soon had to stop at yet another low bridge. This and the following bridges could be passed in a convoy (i.e. accompanied) twice daily in low season (May and September). I phoned ahead to let the coordinator know that we’d like to take the next slot at 3pm (no other moving boats in sight all day so far) and was told that someone would be with us in time. The guy was there after only 10 minutes or so (well before 3pm) and opened the bridges until we arrived in Stadskanaal, the town. Here our journey ended for today and will be resumed on Monday when the bridges and locks ahead are operated again.

We left Balkonia well moored and locked and went home for the weekend as well.


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Stadskanaal - Haren (Ems)

After a well-deserved Sunday break I returned to Stadskanaal this morning. Luckily, Balkonia was still where we had left her on Saturday.

I called the number of the local bridge keeper (coordinator?), who told me that someone would be with me to open the next Bridge (Eurobrug) within 10 minutes. And indeed, I had just finished preparations for departure when the lights went red/green at the bridge.

From then on traveling was again a blast, along Stadskanaal, Musselkanaal, and finally Ter Apelkanaal. I was ‘handed over’ from one volunteer lock/bridge keeper to the next without delay. Unlike on Saturday, where the two bridge keepers operated all 20 or 30 bridges and locks (or more?) on Leinewijk, Kielsterdiep, and Grevelingskanaal, these guys here only did a few each.

Just after Ter Apel I turned into Haren-Rütenbrock-Kanal, which connects the Dutch canal network with the river Ems in Germany. It used to be part of a bigger German canal network east of the Ems, but most of those are no longer navigable (with the exception of the Ems-Vechte-Kanal a bit further south which is a dead end and not rated for Balkonia’s length anyway). Bridges here are remote controlled from the Ems lock in Haren. Sometimes the bridges were just 10 or 20 centimeters too low, but they were always opened completely and stopped traffic over it for much longer than I needed to get through. Perhaps a technical limitation?

At the outskirts of Haren I was forcefully stopped at a bridge because the lockies/bridgies had gone home for the night. Unfortunately, the only option to moor didn’t have access to the shore. Luckily I had some timber with me and built myself a bridge so I could meet my friend Andi for dinner and a beer.


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Haren (Ems) - Surwold

Exactly at 8am the bridge keepers were back at their post (the traffic light at the water side of the bridge went from off to red) and a few minutes later I was on my way through Haren. At the end of the Haren-Rütenbrock-Kanal I dropped down onto the river Ems through the Ems lock, and paid the fee of 5 € for using the canal. Then I moored just outside the lock and went to town to get some breakfast and coffee…

On the other bank the skippers of the passenger ship Amisia took some interest in Balkonia and we chatted a bit. In the end they gave me their booklet about the canals and rivers in the area, with detailed information about locks etc. Thanks! My Dutch ‘guidebook’ ends here at the Haren-Rütenbrock-Kanal.

Then it was down the river Ems. There isn’t much of a current here due to weirs and locks, and obviously no tide either. Everything went fine and near Dörpen I turned to starboard onto the Küstenkanal.

I made it to Surwold where I stopped at the local marina for the night. The harbor master gave me some hints for the next leg to Oldenburg tomorrow, and there’s supermarkets and petrol stations just around the corner.

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Surwold - Oldenburg

Today was quite a long leg so I started early, around 7am. When I left the harbor/marina the sun was just rising and there was some low fog over the canal. Nothing too bad, visibility was still good. However that changed after a short while and especially the side of the canal not yet reached by the sun (‘my’ side) sometimes disappeared completely. I wasn’t sure whether I was in fact allowed to drive without radar… But what could I do? Stopping (and mooring) was neither possible nor allowed, so I pushed on and after a couple of hours the fog was gone.

The rest of the day was almost uneventful though beautifully relaxed cruising. Boat and engine performed well and I made it to Oldenburg lock by 4.30pm. I decided not to go down onto the river Hunte yet, and instead to leave Balkonia on the Küstenkanal over night, just above the lock, in the smallest possible parking slot ;) (almost).

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Oldenburg - Bremen

Today’s leg of the trip was most amazing. The total distance from Oldenburg to Bremen is approx. 57 km. Under ‘normal’ circumstances (i.e. on a canal with no current) that would be a 9.5 hour trip at 6 km/h. Enter the tide.

I left my tight parking spot approximately an hour after high water and went down the lock onto the tidal river Hunte. The current helped immediately and the top speed on the ~23 kilometers to the confluence with the river Weser at Elsfleth was a shocking 11 km/h (compared to the usual 6 km/h).

At Elsfleth I waited for an hour for low water to pass and continued upriver on the Weser. And again, the rising tide pushed me towards Bremen with up to 11 km/h! That was somewhat unexpected for me. I arrived in Balkonia’s (new) home port after less than 8 hours of traveling.


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