The wonder of withies


Thursday 13th July - Borkum to Nordeney - 21nm

We haven't really island hopped 'properly' yet. Not the behind-the-island-over-the-green-bits stuff. We sailed from mainland to Vlieland, a short hop in deep water on to Terschelling, then back to the mainland. Then we sailed from the mainland out past the islands and back in to Borkum. However along the length of each island inside is a shallow channel which dries out completely at low water but is navigable when the tide's in, thanks to carefully placed withies. When the red and green channel marks are replaced by a line of withies you know you're on the green bits of the chart and, at our draft, must follow them closely. Until now we haven't tackled one of these.

What follows might only be of interest to sailors, and I give my 
apologies in advance to Brian Hammett and any other sticklers reading this for the use of the term "paper charts" to distinguish between these and the electronic files we upload to our chart plotter. They are of course not called "paper charts" at all, they are the REAL THING and hence are "charts".

The chart people, whoever they are, do try to keep up with the constant changes which are made to navigation marks as the sand and mud shifts. We were impressed with the accuracy of the paper set we bought for the Dutch Wadden (at the unholy price of 49 euros). These come complete with an electronic version but we could only see that on our tablet, not the plotter. They proved more reliable than the electronic charts from Navionics despite our having updated those (also at vast expense) only in March (the same time as the paper ones were printed). 
I'm not just talking about withies now: when we came to enter the Ems having skirted Schiermonnikoog and Rottum on the way to Borkum the channel marks were different and even the route to take was different. The paper charts/tablet seemed to correspond better to the actual buoyage so we followed these and not the plotter which at times showed us over green bits in shallow water when we weren't. (Brian will be pleased!).

So now we're in the German Watten, without the relevant set of new paper charts (too mean, and won't get much use out of them and anyway we do have a paper chart for this, albeit dated 2000, thanks to Avola). We are planning to take not one but two of the inside withy routes over the green bits where it dries, called Wattfahrwässer. In this case first the Borkumerwattfahrwasser and then the Memmerterwattfahrwasser. If you don't mind I'll abbreviate them to Wfv from now on.

Howard's done his homework so we have acquired from different Dutch neighbours in previous harbours a fairly recent list of the depths at high water of the various Wfvs and a photo, taken on our tablet, of an up-to-date chart. He even calls up the Ems Traffic Service as we leave to establish that at low water the tide had made 7cm above prediction. Good news.

So to start with it's simple enough:
12 noon we set off and take the buoyed channel east.
12.35 no more buoys, withies now so we're on the green.
We are motoring though other yachts are making a show of sailing it. Headsails only, and engines still in gear. We make no pretence and have better visibility ahead for it.
13.15 back to buoys at the east end and deeper water. Didn't touch once.
The channels, or Seegats, between the islands are deep but they can be very rough especially at high water when the sand banks outside offer less protection from the North Sea, and when the wind is onshore, and when that sea has been whipped up by strong winds. As now. To steal a phrase from a sailing book I've been reading it's like being in a washing machine, albeit only briefly as we dash across. And actually we don't get wet. And only one drawer flies open with a crash.

To get to the next Wfv we are passing the small island of Memmert. For the next few miles we're on a "Riddle of the Sands" nostalgia trip. No need for me to rewrite a hundred year old (plus) novel here but even just the name Memmert conjures up images of spies rowing in the fog, sunken treasure or some much darker secret on the island, enemies in sailing galliots lurking in gutways, and general amateur derring-do. 

We pass along the "inside" of Juist next with a neat collection of red tiled roofs to show where the main town is. Again the withies are spot on and we don't touch. This Wfv has more water and the channel through is less variable but the washing machine at the far end is the exit of the River Ems so it is wider, rougher and has a confusion of buoys. We're on our own now as the yachts with us either went into Juist or turned up the Ems.

The boat bucks and rears and rolls wildly as we hang on, Howard at the helm trying to make sense of what he can see and me head down comparing chart plotter at various levels of zoom with photo of a chart on the tablet (hard to see in the sunshine) and a paper chart that's 17 years old. If I run out of ideas there's always the chart on page 10 of "Riddle of the Sands".

Our spies rowing in the fog in 1903 returned to Nordeney to find their yacht Dulcibella being given the once over by their enemies. Our welcome is gentler but not much. The harbour master of the Yacht Haven is on the first pontoon and shakes his head doubtfully. "Sehr schwierig" to find us a berth apparently, but he manages. Danke schön.





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