The European Great Loop

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I always wanted to see with my own eyes the places where Western history was made. Since most of our forefathers were explorers by ship, it seemed fair for me, as an American, to discover those lands just as they’d left European shores to discover ours hundreds of years ago. So in 2007, rather than be retirees watching TV on a couch, my wife, Sue, and I cut all ties with our former land-based lives and chose to live aboard full time. We became amateur explorers by boat.

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Our boat, Angel Louise, is a 1987 40ft Catalac catamaran built in England. Having sailed her from the United States to London, we originally intended to cross to the Western Mediterranean via the French canals—only to find on arrival that she was 6in too wide to go through them. We were crestfallen. Three days later, however, a double-page newspaper advertisement changed our mood. It promoted a 30-day cruise from Amsterdam to the Black Sea. Perhaps, we thought, we could do that in Angel Louise. Instead of locking through the French canals, we could circle Europe by water!

We immediately began our research. The journey would involve sailing from England across the North Sea to the Netherlands, then up the Rhine River to the Main-Rhine-Danube Canal, where a series of locks would take us over the continental divide and back down toward the Danube. From there, we would motor to the Black Sea, pass through the Bosphorus and enter the Mediterranean. After cruising the Med, we would eventually sail into the Atlantic and back to England to close the loop.

There was plenty to do to prepare. To cross Europe, we needed International Certificates of Competence with coastal and inland endorsements, a license to navigate on EU waters, and a new VHF radio that complied with EU rules, along with paper charts. Even with the proper documentation and gear, it still wouldn’t be an easy trip. The Rhine is famed for being fast, with dangerous rocks along its 760-mile length. Indeed, two commercial sailors had died in a shipwreck the year before we planned to travel there. We also read reports of two boat robberies on the Danube in Romania. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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From London, we sailed north to the River Orwell on England’s East Coast. Without waiting for better weather, we had a queasy crossing of the North Sea to Holland. There, Angel Louise’s mast was lowered and stored on deck, and we bought courtesy flags for the 18 countries we would visit on the EU Great Loop.

Cruisers are advised not try to go up the Rhine until June because of the heavy snowmelt in the Rhine’s headwaters in Switzerland, so we motored from Lelystad, Holland, onto the picturesque IJssel River, the Rhine’s northern distributary. East of Arnhem we entered the Rhine along with some heavy commercial traffic destined for Duisburg—the largest inland seaport in the world, in the heart of the Ruhr valley. There are three main channels taking the Rhine to the sea and heavy traffic moves on the river all the way to and from Switzerland.

We found the Rhine’s current to be as fast and treacherous as advertised. Making our way upstream was even harder than usual as river heights were 6ft higher than normal. We worried over where we could stop, where we could get fuel, how we would dodge the heavy commercial tows and ships that our AIS showed to be moving downriver at 15 knots. We worried would we be able to get up the river at all.

At one point we checked our speed over the ground and saw that it took 60 seconds for Angel Louise to pass a navigational buoy. Commercial vessels move at 15 knots and use both sides of the river. Their rules allow them to flip down a large blue board next to their pilot house, signaling opposing traffic to alter normal navigation rules on the spot. Pleasure vessels, like ours, have no rights on the river under the law.

It wasn’t, however, just the commercial barges that made traveling upstream difficult. Whenever we moved to the middle of the river, the faster current slowed us down considerably. We therefore often had to run close to the wing dams near the banks. Sometimes we would also take the inside bank in the river’s wide bends, which not only shortened the distance traveled but took us where the current was slower as well. This slower current, however, often came at the price of shallower waters, posing yet another danger to Angel Louise’s progress. At times, we were forced to slow down to less than a knot. When we finally cleared the Lorelei Rocks and Rhine Gorge, we celebrated at Bingen, knowing that with the Rhine astern us we just might make it the whole distance across Europe and truly do the Great Loop.

After that came the River Main, which winds back and forth past Frankfurt. The Main travel was easy, as huge locks abound. There are, in fact, 74 locks you will encounter by the time you’ve finished crossing the continent, and 34 of them are on the Main. The locks help tame the waters as you go toward the Europa Canal at Bamberg (the former capital of the Holy Roman Empire). The Europa Canal also allowed Angel Louise a reward only a handful of cruising boats ever achieve—reaching the highest point on the globe you can cruise to from the ocean. It’s over 1,337 feet above sea level.

The thrills were capped 10 days later when we traveled eastward down the Danube from Germany into Austria. We arrived in Vienna on July 4 and earned ourselves about three minutes on Austrian national television. When watching it, we were surprised to see ourselves speaking perfect German; our interview was conducted in English and dubbed over. Apparently, not many Americans visit Vienna (or Wien as the residents call it).

Downriver at Budapest, we enjoyed the history and culture of this city that embraces the river. However, we also worried about the remaining passage to the Black Sea. Leaving Hungary marked the end of easy border crossings. At Mohács, Hungary, the Schengen Area—the group of 26 European countries that have abolished passport controls for their internal borders—ends. Since leaving Holland we’d had no border stops, but in Eastern Europe, you have immigration and customs stops at every border. So far, we had traveled 1,350 miles in the 59 days since we’d left the North Sea.

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Serbia is the only country that charged us for “their” Danube. But what really made that part of the trip memorable was the snake that we found with its tail sticking out from under the stove. It was over 3ft long and an inch in diameter. Fortunately, Sue remembered we carried handicap grabbers. So she captured the snake under our table and tossed it into the river.

Later that same afternoon our starboard Yanmar 3JH2E diesel also failed, due (we found later) to a worn-out crankshaft after 8,000 hours of use over 20 years. We didn’t replace it until Istanbul, and Angel Louise felt the lack of that engine through all of Eastern Europe, the Black Sea and the Bosphorus.

We found our way to a restaurant dock in Belgrade with only our port engine providing power. The owner was very kind and knew we needed fuel. He found a panel truck with a plastic tank and hauled over 100 gallons of diesel to the river bank above his restaurant. He then provided a 150ft hose to siphon the fuel from the truck on the riverbank, past his wine bar, through his dining room and down to our boat’s tanks! This was the last fuel we would need through the end of Eastern Europe.

On the river border between Romania and Bulgaria, the Bulgarian River Police stopped us. They warned of “critical” shallow areas downriver and told us to follow them. They then escorted us downriver between big sandbars for almost two hours before telling us, “You will be OK now!” and speeding off.

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Unfortunately, this wasn’t the end of our concern about shallow waters. The water was now dropping fast, and during our final week on the Danube, we followed commercial boats whenever we could keep up with our one engine. If not, we had to be creative. When they got out of sight we used our AIS to mark a waypoint at their position on our chartplotter. We later navigated to those waypoints on the chartplotter to stay in safe water, since the shifting channels made our lower Danube maps and charts inaccurate.

At Cernavoda in Romania, we took the Canal of Death to Constanta and the Black Sea. Its infamous name came from the deaths of almost 200,000 political prisoners while building it during the late 1940s. From Constanta, we cruised north to Port Tomis, where the Roman poet Ovid had been exiled. The marina at Port Tomis found a mobile crane, and other cruising sailors from several foreign boats there helped us get Angel Louise’s mast up for the first time since she had left the North Sea.

After that, a weather window allowed a 40-hour sail across the Black Sea. On arrival, we stood off the Bosphorus for six more hours in the night and entered Istanbul at dawn on September 1. Istanbul had complex check-in formalities, but we employed no agent and did it all ourselves in a full day with the help of a cab driver. A mechanic who worked on Turkish fishing boats installed a new Yanmar diesel while we were floating on a mooring in an Istanbul suburb.

With our new engine purring we proceeded across the Sea of Marmara and through the Dardenelles to Marmaris on the southwest Turkish coast for a winter layover. We liked being in the same port where Admiral Lord Nelson had anchored his fleet two centuries earlier before sinking the French fleet off Egypt’s coast in the Battle of the Nile.

Unfortunately, it was at this point that the 90-day Schengen time limit (the length of time non-European travelers can remain within those aforementioned European countries that have largely abolished their border checks) went back into effect, which meant we were now restricted to sailing on a schedule.

With this in mind, we chose to sail through the Greek isles of Symi, Nisyros, Paros and Epidavros to see the great theater of Epidaurus. We also took a side trip to Athens and walked the Parthenon, before cruising through the Corinth Canal to the waters below Delphi. The Greek cruising was a dream, concluding with our arrival in the port at Ithaca.

From there we made stops at Sicily, Malta, Tunisia and Sardinia. However, misfortune waylaid us again midway between Sardinia and Menorca when we lost our port diesel engine. Fortunately, a Yanmar dealer on Menorca took pity upon us after hearing the tale of our long journey and gave us an exceptional deal on another new Yanmar 3JH5E. We spent two weeks getting our engine installed and running, but could get no extension of our Schengen time.

We were finally able to convince the Italian frontier police that we were leaving Europe and would be traveling directly to Morocco: as a result, our Schengen clock was stopped. After leaving Menorca we flew our yellow quarantine flag and went into Spain at Mar Menor. We did not find a local place to check in, nor did we get visited by the Spanish authorities.

In Gibraltar, we stayed for 31 days to keep Schengen days from accumulating as they, like the UK, do not participate in the Schengen Treaty. While traversing the Spanish coast between Gibraltar and Portugal, we again flew our yellow Q flag. We anchored in three different ports, the last being Huelva, from which Christopher Columbus had launched his trip to the New World 500 years earlier.

We had a fast run from Huelva to Oeiras, near Lisbon in Portugal. We flew the Q flag, but only customs officers came aboard, and they were not concerned about Schengen. So we continued flying our Q flag, with stops at Porto and then Bayonna in Spain. In moderate weather we continued to navigate up the coast all the way around the northwest tip of Spain, heading into the Bay of Biscay as we went into France at Belle Île. There we tied up behind the locks in a tight river harbor. Again in this port, we continued to fly the Q flag. French customs officers boarded us but no check-in was required.

We tried crossing the Raz de Sein at the north end of Biscay but its strong tides stopped us. We simply waited at sea, and then proceeded, flying our yellow Q flag, to Brest and later to Alderney with no troubles. We had to go to the ferry terminal in Cherbourg to find immigration officers, but they dutifully checked us in and out of France (and the EU Schengen Area) so we would have no issue on arrival in England.

We crossed the busy English Channel in fog with aid of our AIS. Our grand arrival in London came on September 16, following coastal calls at six different English ports. We had completed the first recorded London-to-London European Great Loop in 494 days after traveling 6,200 miles. 

*The second half of Ed and Sue’s adventure, the American Great Loop, will be featured in the next issue of Multihull Sailor.

Ed and Sue Kelly have been living aboard full time for the past 12 years. Before retiring to the sea, Ed was a federal and state prosecutor and U.S. Senate staffer

MHS Summer 2018

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