The Wadden Sea lives
‘The Wadden Sea is the largest wadden system in the world,’ says skipper Andries Terpstra. “You’ll find out what I mean by that.” Photographer Thijs van den Burg and I, Pim Westenberg, have just set off from Harlingen, berth of Terpstra’s ship De Linde, but perhaps better known as the port for the ferries to and from Vlieland and Terschelling. However, we leave the Wadden Islands – literally – and go out to sea with our three-master, to wait for it to dry.

The Linde is forty meters long, has three masts and can accommodate fifty people. However, the ship is only 1.37 meters deep in the water. Due to the flat bottom, without keel, De Linde is ideal for trips on the dry-falling Wadden Sea. The bunches have been loose for an hour and there is nothing but water around us. At first glance, the water seems deep. But appearances are deceiving. “We’re stuck!” andries suddenly shouts from the cabin. Jammed? I look over the railing, but nothing indicates a sandbar. Although… The smell suggests something’s going on. A pungent, acidic air, similar to that of rotten eggs, evaporates from the surface of the water. “The bottom of the ship is tossing up sand and water. The first inch of the soil is oxygenated. Among them are sulphur and iron bacteria. And when they come out, you can smell it right away,’ explains Andries’ girlfriend, Marjolijn.

For a moment I suspect that Andries has made a steering wheel – or error of judgement, but fortunately that is not the case. In fact, getting stuck on the mudflats is an important part of our trip. “And now?” I ask, looking at Andries with hope. The skipper hangs slumped in a beanbag on the deck and enjoys the rest. The tone has been set. For the next six hours, we have nowhere to go.

The crash on the wax is an important part of the trip with the ship De Linde.

Moments later I hang in the kuivernet – a kind of hammock XL – above the water. The waves slosh against the ship and the autumn sun makes me doze off. But the salty air immediately refreshes, after relaxation I think it’s time for effort and I decide to canoe. I keep my gaze focused on the horizon. After all, a seal’s head can always loom. Just down the road, a bird colony enjoys an extensive meal on an already parched stretch of seabed. Ten to twelve million migratory birds find their resting or breeding place here every year, because the tide keeps feeding new nutrients. I use my paddle a few times as a measuring instrument. The water is getting shallower. Other ships or people can’t come here for a long time. We have the empire all to ourselves.

When canoeing, look around you! Maybe a seal will swim by.

Turning the tide
In order to retain his permit, every skipper who sails the Wadden Sea is obliged to purchase a new sea map every year. After all, the Wadden seabed is subject to change. Andries picks up the card for clarification. What immediately stands out is the huge amount of greenery. Each green stain indicates a sandbar. In my performance, a sea map is mostly blue. But that color can hardly be seen on this map. Only a few veils – the fair channels – are coloured blue. ‘The soil is littered with sandplates,’ says Andries. ‘With high tide, the water from the North Sea is squeezed onto the wadden system. At low tide, it’ll run away again. Sedimentation such as gravel, clay, sand and loam remains and increases or moves the mudflats. This means that other places keep drying out.’

Not only the tide, but also the construction of the Afsluitdijk causes the Wadden Sea to change. Previously, a deep, wide channel ran from the North Sea to the IJsselmeer, but it was interrupted by the construction of the dike. As a result, the Wadden Sea is silted up. The waterways towards Ameland and Schiermonkoog must be dredged 365 days a year to prevent this and to keep traffic possible.

On the map of the Wadden Sea, every green spot indicates a sandbox, so pay attention

Water and fire
Once the water has dropped to ankle height, it’s time to disembark, get off the seabed. In the last scrap of crystal clear water we see dozens of crabs and shrimps with the current moving towards deeper pools. Curious shrimp treat me to a foot treatment. Fortunately, the crabs can’t do that. In the places where the water has already been pulled away, mussels, oysters, cockles, otter shells, puitals and beach gapers remain. The Wadden Sea floor can rightly be called a natural paradise. There is something new to discover over and over again. ‘It’s a matter of digging and rooting,’ says Marjolijn, as she examines the bottom with her fingers and finds a beach gaper. ‘The Wadden Sea is alive. Wherever we get stuck, we always see new things.’ Besides second mate, sailor and hostess on the ship, Marjolijn is also an adept nature guide. She fishes a crab out of the water with her hands, braves the sharp scissors and says: ‘This crab is right-handed and a male. Look, his right scissors are clearly thicker and stronger than the left, and at the bottom you see a kind of lighthouse on the abdomen. In females, this pattern looks like a beehive.’ Meanwhile, Andries is already busy building his own lighthouse. On the dried-up soil, he lights a campfire. With a beer in hand, we’ll look for the heat.

A unique experience: campfire on the dry bottom of the Wadden Sea

Wading
That same afternoon we take a walk on the mudflats. Because we start on the open sea, we’re all alone. We don’t have any problems with the quicksand-like swallowing fields along the coast and since we have a boat we don’t have to visit the mainland in time. This way of wading is completely different than I imagined. Sinking to knee height in the mud or wading through the water in waterways is totally out of the question. And the expected crowds also remain out. After a while we notice that the water is starting to return at a rapid pace – the water of the Wadden Sea always returns faster than it runs away – we quickly climb back aboard De Linde.

After a nice wading walk, we enjoy the view on board de Linde.

That night I am startled by ominous noises. The ship beeps and creaks on all sides. With my sleepy head, I decide not to pay too much attention to it and I dope away again. But a few hours later, exactly the same thing happens. It sounds like people are walking across the deck, opening and slamming doors and hoisting the sails. I can’t quite place the sounds.

The next morning, I ask Andries what was going on. ‘First the water moved away from us, so that the pressure of the mass was completely on the ship. The ship then literally shrinks. When the water, propelled by wind force six, returned, the ship went out again. Now you’ve not only seen the tidal change, you’ve heard and experienced it.’

How to get shipwrecked on the Wadden Sea
De Linde is part of shipping company NAUPAR. We boarded at the Willemshaven in Harlingen. NAUPAR had already done the shopping for us. Weekend tours on the Wadden Sea are available for groups from 12 people. From €125 pp including crew.

Naupar’s show-off ship, the Abel Tasman, sails from Lelystad or Hoorn to the newest part of the Netherlands: the Marker Wadden.

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