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Brixham to Kiel

English Channel passage from Brixham towards the North Sea

The Picton Castle crew got their ship under way under sail from Brixham in fresh westerly winds. She made her way under sail all the way until off the Elbe River, yards squared most of the time, all sails drawing. We are certainly getting our sailing miles in on this voyage.

We had a perfect Channel passage into the North Sea. We had plenty of fog and rain but a fair wind carried us along in fine style, hour after hour going six, seven, eight, even nine knots, at times we almost raced up channel. On radar and our electronic chart which is patched in with an electronic ship identifying system we could keep track of 20-30 ships at a time. The English Channel is like a busy road, most traffic is in the lanes steaming up or down. But there are also ships crossing the channel back and forth to look out for. All very interesting navigation and ship management.

We didn’t see much but it was nice that the mists cleared off Dover so we could see the famous white cliffs. Shortly the Channel opened up and we found ourselves in the North Sea with plenty of water around us. The sky cleared up properly and winds eased a bit and we slowed but still made good sailing time. There were still plenty of ships here too and now we had lots of oil rigs. Also, reading the charts around the British Isles and the North Sea we see the bottom covered with wrecks. It seems that a great deal of them are casualties of war. They must up fetch fishing gear on these wrecks all the time. The North Sea is not much more than a hundred feet deep in most of the part we are sailing.

Midnight Sun

We are getting pretty far north these days now being in the North Sea. One thing that means is that even well after the sun goes down (1000 or so) there remains a strong sunset glow to the north between sunset and sunrise a few hours later – it never gets really properly night time dark. As we head north to Bergen, Norway this phenomenon will become more pronounced. This and the sun rising so early is a nice advantage for navigating in these regions. It’s also pretty.

Approaching the Elbe

Hamburg, the big important centre of commerce and shipping, is up the Elbe River. And as it happens, the entrance to the Kiel Canal is at a place called Brunsbuttel at the mouth of the Elbe and this we were fast approaching, even a day earlier than expected due to the fair sailing. For most of the way the Picton Castle had been sailing in what’s called the “Inshore Traffic Zone” outside the traffic separation schemes. Traffic separation schemes are basically traffic routing, control and management schemes not altogether different than air what air-traffic controllers employ. Small ships, sailing ships and local coastal traffic often operate in the inshore zones where there is more freedom of movement, less control and we stay out of the way of the big ships.

But as we approached the mouth of the Elbe we entered the associated Elbe Traffic Separation Scheme. It was like going up a ramp onto a busy highway. You put on your blinker, look both ways and accelerate. And then steer carefully. From midnight through until 0800 arrival at Brunsbuttel we steamed down the Elbe, hugging the green side and watching large container ships, small freighters, naval ships, and yachts under sail slide past us and disappear. The lookouts got good exercise running back and forth from the foc’s’le head to report lights and traffic, and the helmsmen could see how much they’ve improved in the last two months, steering confidently while 1000 foot ships passed us at two-tenths of a mile or less. The watch officers consumed gallons of coffee. Just as the sun was rising, we steamed past fishing grounds full of beautiful little wooden beam-trawlers, hauling and setting nets in the warm morning light, surrounded by flocks of hungry birds. Shortly afterward we turned to hug the shoreline of Cuxhaven and carry on down the increasingly narrow and busy Elbe River to meet our pilot just off Brunsbuttel.

The Kiel Canal

The Kiel Canal is one of the world’s great shipping canals along with Panama, the St. Lawrence Seaway, Welland Canal (this one dodges about Niagara Falls, a good thing for a ship to do) and Cape Cod Canal. Built (or dug) in the 1890’s and I think expanded in 1912, much the same time as the Panama Canal, it is a very busy ship thoroughfare cutting off a long trip around the Jutland peninsula of Denmark and probably most significantly connecting the great German Naval base at Kiel with the North Sea so it wasn’t bottled up in the Baltic Sea. This was probably a key agenda item in 1912 as the Kaiser was building a Navy to rival his cousin the British King’s. Today, many ships use it each day and soon it was our turn to take the short cut onto the Baltic Sea ourselves.

Like many canals it begins with a lock. In this case it is not so much for lift or mountain climb as is the case with the Panama Canal but in order to control water current between two bodies of sea with differing tide levels. One of the first things we do when approaching a lock is to incarcerate Chibley, the ship’s cat. She might get the idea that we are tying up for awhile maybe she would hop ashore and have sniff around. So Chibley gets locked into a cabin somewhere. She seems to take it better if we explain well beforehand what we are going to do and then again when we do it. I know, sounds crazy but it seems to be true. If we just toss her in a cabin and lock the door she goes a bit nuts and calls us all bad names and then won’t talk to us when released for awhile…

Ben at the wheel, Dover
ditty bag class
Shackle replaces ratlines
stowing royals in the English Channel

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