In 2015, we cruised to Norway’s Lofoten Islands on our Nordic 40, Juanona, which we’d sailed transatlantic from Maine to England. Our 2016 plan was to cruise through the Netherlands to the Kiel Canal, sail into the Baltic as far as Stockholm, then cruise the western coast of Sweden and the southern coast of Norway. We were uncertain where we’d spend the winter of 2016-17, although the United Kingdom and Ireland were our default destinations because they are much more liberal than the rest of Europe with regard to visas for U.S. visitors.
It’s only a hundred miles from Ipswich, on England’s east coast, to IJmuiden, Holland, an easy overnight sail except for the clutter of targets on the AIS. There was also a lot of chatter on the VHF, always professional but sometimes bordering on the humorous. One cable-laying ship was on the radio much of the night, imploring other vessels to give him adequate clearance. Someone responded, “There’s no way I can give you a mile clearance, give me something I can work with.” After a protracted discussion, they eventually negotiated a half-mile of room.
Every new country we visit requires a learning curve, and in Holland, the challenge would be locks, bridges and sluices, that and figuring out the meaning of signs, chart nomenclature and VHF protocol. Surprisingly few resources are available in English. But we quickly learned that the Dutch are masters at organization and make things as easy as possible. With an age-old orientation to the sea, they give priority and respect to mariners. Traffic on any a busy road was promptly stopped to open a bridge for us.
After our landfall, we headed south along the canals to the town of Haarlem and tied up along the same section of a canal wall that we later saw depicted in an ancient plan of the town. Before land reclamation, Haarlem was a major port along an important waterway, and it offered us our first taste of the rich history that the Netherlands is blessed with. Here, too, we first encountered the genuine friendliness of the people we met and their willingness to go out of their way to be helpful—what would prove to be a hallmark of the cruise, and what made it so special, both in the Netherlands and later in Norway, during which we made some very special friendships that will last for years to come.
Haarlem also served as a useful base for train trips to such interesting destinations as Delft, a quintessential Dutch canal town featuring an excellent backdrop to Vermeer’s now rebuilt studio and an introduction to Willem van Oranje (William the Silent), considered the father of the country. We also traveled to Leyden, where we found the same neighborhood in which the Mayflower Pilgrims lived and worshipped, and the alley where William Brewster published the writings that inspired them. From the 13th to the 17th century, Leyden was a leading textile manufacturing center and the Museum De Lakenhal, housed in one of the original guild halls, recalls its importance in an impressive way. We also biked to Keukenhof Gardens in the heart of tulip country and visited the Aalsmeer Flower Auction. Twenty million flowers from around the world are auctioned here daily, in a building covering 128 acres—the largest building by footprint in the world.
The previous September, our nephew Rudy had helped us sail down the east coast of Britain, and we had taken him to see Hadrian’s Wall, where archaeologists recently excavated handwritten Roman tablets preserved in the anaerobic soil at the Roman fortress of Vindolanda. Rudy later volunteered to help at the dig for a couple of weeks and then in May he rejoined us in Amsterdam. From there we sailed across the shallow inland sea, the IJsselmeer, to Hoorn, another historic city from which the 1615 expedition that discovered and named Cape Horn sailed.
The town is chock full of ancient structures, including a trio of buildings adorned with a wall pictorial depicting the 1573 Battle of Zuiderzee, in which the Dutch beat the occupying Spanish. To sail through the same lock and past the same defensive tower carved in the mural made us feel like we were living in a history book.
By the end of our first two weeks in Holland, we had fallen head over heels for the country. It’s a historic, visual, artistic and cultural feast that is compact and easy to get around thanks to its efficient trains, buses and bike routes. We also continued to meet friendly and helpful folks everywhere we around. While tied up to the town wall in Hoorn, for example, we were visited by a local sailor named Thijs Nouwens who had crossed the South Pacific and loves meeting sailors from afar. When Thijs suggested that the “private club” (meaning noncommercial marina) in Hoorn had nice facilities and an active year-round community, we immediately decided we would like to spend the winter there, instead of in UK as originally planned. Not only that, but we soon changed our summer plans as well: rather than head into the Baltic, we’d now simply sail to southwest Norway, then return to the Netherlands and put in an application for an extended stay. (We would have liked to have also visited Sweden, but did not have enough time to make it all the way there and back within the three-month visa period granted us under the continent’s Schengen rules.)
With these plans in mind we, therefore, exited the freshwater IJsselmeer at a lock through the Afsluitdijk, part of a 20-mile dike the Dutch completed in 1932, thereby sealing off Holland from the North Sea. On the seaward side, the Frisian Islands called for careful attention to the tides and currents but rewarded us with stunning panoramas of windswept beaches and tidal estuaries.
We’d read that the Norwegian coast east of Lindesnes (Norway’s southern tip) gets very crowded in high summer. We, therefore, headed instead for Egersund, a town on the southwest coast, about 310 miles and what proved to be an easy 50-hour passage away from Vlieland in the Netherlands. While in Egersund we noticed a trace of diesel bug in our fuel polisher filter and set out to find a better antidote than the additive we’d been using. The local stores didn’t have anything, but when I inquired of the crew of the maritime rescue service boat (part of the highly regarded “Redningsselskapet”) they immediately poured out a bottle from their own supply of what they called “the best stuff available.”
The rugged natural grandeur of Norway provided a distinct and refreshing contrast from the quaint, largely manmade environment of the Netherlands. We were also pleased that we’d have some more opportunities for anchoring out in secluded coves, which are not readily available in Holland. While southern Norway isn’t quite as rugged or dramatic as the coast farther north and you don’t get the magical 24 hours of light, the scenery is still impressive, with numerous cruising destinations and many fascinating glimpses into both European and Viking history.
From Egersund we sailed to Mosterhamn, where Olaf Tryggvason first brought Christianity to Norway after he became king in the year 995; a 12th-century church, still in use today, replaced an earlier wooden one built on the same spot. After that, we stopped at Skudeneshavn, an old fishing village on the south coast of Karmoy Island. As often happens when tied to a town quay in a tiny harbor, we ended up with a couple of boats rafted alongside and met a lovely British couple and two fun Norwegian lads. Next day we took a bus to Avaldsnes, an important Viking stronghold in the Middle Ages with a fine learning center describing the history and excavations that have taken place there. Later that same even evening, Max was cooking dinner when he happened to look out the galley window and who should he see but the familiar face of his old friend Paul Nadeau, looking down at him from the dock. As it turned out, earlier that afternoon, Paul had been sailing his 23-footer boat down the Karmsundet, a narrow passage and part of the “northern way” from which Norway is said to get its name, eventually deciding to pull into Skudeneshavn for the night. Once upon a time, Paul had spent his childhood summers on Bailey Island, Maine, where he’d also happened to have sailed with Abbot Fletcher, Max’s father, in many local races. Wandering the town that evening, he’d seen the American flag, then “Orr’s Island” on Juanona’s transom, prompting him to investigate further. We agreed it was one of the most stunning coincidences we’ll ever have in our lives; and for the rest of that evening, we had a memorable reunion with Paul, a geologist who spent much of his career with Statoil and, until recently, taught graduate courses at the University of Stavanger.
We spent the next few days exploring the Hardangerfjord and hiking to a viewpoint of the Folgefonna Glacier near Sundal. Rather than sailing into Bergen, we decided to visit by bus from a nearby town named Os, where shortly after docking, we were visited by a gentleman named Gunnar Furnes. We invited him aboard and learned he was a fluid dynamics engineer who had done work in a variety of areas, from testifying about particulate pollution coming from the UK to studying the effects of ocean currents on suspended undersea pipelines. Gunnar is one of those soft-spoken, understated gentlemen that you immediately take a liking to. Before we knew it, he was driving us around Os, showing us the famous Oselvar workboats—lapstrake boats comprised of only three strakes—that he helps restore, as well as the surrounding countryside.
We wanted to visit the town of Telavag, destroyed by the Nazis in reprisal for some of their residents helping the resistance during the Second World War, so we docked at a town on the other side of the island and hopped on a bus heading in that direction. When the bus reached the end of its route, we were still several miles from Telavag and learned there wouldn’t be a bus heading that way for another two hours. Our bus driver, though, said, “My shift just ended, so I’ll drive you there myself,” a kind gesture was another reminder of what a special place this is.
The day after that we had a glorious downwind sail along the beautiful Nyleia passage and then sailed back down the Karmsundet to a tranquil hurricane hole at Vestre Arsvagen. As we raised anchor next morning, a man in a skiff zoomed along, invited us to his home and asked if we knew his friend Ernest Godshalk from Massachusetts. We didn’t have time to visit, but promised we would stop by next time we were in Norway—likely to be next summer because we love cruising this country so much! We also stopped at the serene monastery at Utstein Kloster, built on the site of the former royal residence of King Harald “Harfagre,” meaning “fair-haired,” the unifier of Norway after the Battle of Hafrsfjord in the late 9th century.
Max’s great-great-grandfather, Peter Christian Assersen, was born on Midbrod Island near Egersund in 1839, emigrated to the United States and became the only Norwegian-born Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy. Knowing nothing about his life other than his birthplace, we set out to find out what we could. The Egersund town office had no records but sent us to the town’s old church. Their records didn’t go back far enough, but the helpful woman there printed out the addresses of the four Assersens in the phone book. We then sent a postcard to each and a week later got an email back from one of them, telling us they weren’t related, but that their daughter had married someone who was. We started communicating with Max’s cousins and agreed to meet when we were back in Egersund on our way south.
It was with considerable excitement that we awaited the reunion. We found that we couldn’t have chosen a more wonderful family to be related to. Max’s fourth cousin, 78-year-old Oddbjoern Skadberg, is as tough as they come but with a most gentle heart. He has done winter fishing in the Lofotens, has tended the Egersund lighthouse that we learned Peter Assersen had helped build as a teenager, and he remembers a lot of the family history on the tiny island of Midbrod where he still lives.
We spent a day with Oddbjoern, his son, Bjoern, daughter-in-law, Sylvie, and their two daughters. We also visited their family homes, the surroundings where Peter Assersen grew up, and we went to the top of the Egersund lighthouse. On the way up the winding staircase, we passed a window in an interior wall with a tall shaft, as if for a dumbwaiter opening far below. Oddbjoern explained that before electricity, the light keeper had to manually wind up a weight to keep the light turning—a sort of giant grandfather clock. A picnic that included salmon caught earlier in the day by Oddbjoern rounded out a most special and memorable day: all the more so given the fact we now live in the house on Orr’s Island, Maine, that Peter Assersen’s son-in-law, Rear Admiral William B. Fletcher, purchased in the 1920s; that and the fact that Juanona is named after the Lawley sloop that Fletcher sailed for over 30 years and on which Max sailed as a child. It made us feel not so very distant from the person whose roots we had sought and discovered on this small island on the coast of Norway.
The next day we had a window to head south, and given the predominance of southwest winds in the North Sea at this time of year, it was an opportunity not to be missed. A low was passing by to the east, and we rode the northerly winds on its westerly side back down to Holland. On our approach to Vlieland, we were boarded by the Dutch border patrol. We’ve also been boarded in the UK, Scotland, the Netherlands and questioned on the VHF in Norway. They’d been uniformly professional and friendly and have never given us any trouble whatsoever, although it’s clear they are on the lookout for undocumented immigrants, drugs, stolen boats and the like.
By now the summer holidays had started in earnest, and the Dutch were flocking to the Frisian Islands. For our part, we returned to the IJsselmeer and explored its east side, basing ourselves at the quaint town of Hindeloopen.
Throughout our Holland explorations, we’d been supported by a friendly Dutch sailor named Henk Zonnevijlle, who we’d had aboard for cocktails, along with his wife, Kiki, back when we were moored in Hoorn. Henk had given us several valuable tips on currents and navigation of the kind you don’t readily pick up from the cruising guides. One time we’d also emailed Henk when we were trying to figure out how to navigate the shoals and currents of the Waddenzee. A few hours later received both some thorough notes and a chart annotated for us in English. When it came time to fly back to the States, Henk also offered to check on Juanona while we were away since the marina was “only an hour’s drive from his house,” as he put it.
In Hindeloopen we met another Henk when he and his wife, Lena, pulled into a slip adjoining ours. Hearing that we were planning to sail to Denmark and Sweden the following year, they encouraged us to come over so they could show us their favorite anchorages as well as an overview of the kind of information that you really only get from having been there. Again, meeting folks like this who go out of their way to be helpful was the norm that summer, to an extent we’ve never experienced before. It’s been so extraordinary that it even provides an upbeat antidote to the doom and gloom that transcends so much of the daily news.
In Hindeloopen we spent a couple of days with our friend from Hoorn, Thijs Nouwens, and his wife and daughter, doing the Dutch thing: biking. We also explored the Friesian interior by train, with a stop at Franeker where the Eise Eisinga Planetarium was an eye-opener. Between 1774 and 1781, a humble tradesman named Eise Eisinga built a scaled planetarium in his living room, powered by a pendulum clock with nine weights that still ticks on its original wooden cogs and displays with remarkable accuracy the intricate movements of the solar system. We left Juanona at a marina to head back to Maine, planning to return in the fall and make our application for an extended stay.
In both the Netherlands and Norway, our overwhelming impression is that governments are generally good stewards of the country’s wealth, and most of the citizenry seem to feel their government is working for them. Norway has had the foresight to save it oil wealth, knowing it is a finite resource, and in a relatively short period of time has created the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund. Similarly, the Netherlands benefits from the “polder model,” of consensus decision-making whereby from ancient times cooperation was required even amongst competing parties.
Both countries have industrious, educated citizens with cohesive social structures. The infrastructures are among the best we have ever seen. To borrow a phrase from our friends Dick and Ginger Stevenson, the Netherlands probably has the greatest concentration of “I wouldn’t mind living here” locations of any country they have ever been. To us, Norway is probably a close second.
Norway offers a traditional cruising experience of coastal sailing in spectacular scenery, with many opportunities to anchor out. In Holland, we do a lot less sailing and not much anchoring: instead, the boat is both our caravan and a base to explore the fascinating surroundings, which gives us the best of both worlds. We’ve been surprised that in two seasons of sailing in Norway and one in the Netherlands, we’ve run into just one other U.S.-flagged yacht. In the end, we were so pleased with cruising these waters—and feeling like we’d only scratched the surface— that we decided to keep Juanona there longer than the two summers we’d originally planned.
Max Fletcher grew up racing and sailing in Maine and has cruised extensively in many parts of the world. He and Lynnie Bruce live in Harpswell, Maine, where Juanona, a Nordic 40, is based. This article first appeared in Voyages, the annual journal of the Cruising Club of America. The CCA has more than 1,200 members, all accomplished ocean sailors. The club has 11 stations around the United States, Canada and Bermuda and is co-organizer of the Newport Bermuda race.