Helgoland, Obstacles, The North Sea & Puppy Cranes (Aug. 27-30, 2018)

Helgoland, Germany - Total distance traveled so far: 281.9 nautical miles

It’s a rainy, windy, ugly day here in beautiful Helgoland, a remote offshore island surrounded by The North Sea. The wind is howling with 6-knot gusts, even with a huge wind shadow provided by our high-wall mooring. We are waiting at least one more day to set out again. This gives me an opportunity for another brain dump in my logbook. I apologize that these are so long, but it’s really just a journal of all our random activities and my random thoughts that go with it. Thanks for letting me share with you...

Monday, 27 August 2018 - Rendsburg Marina inside the Kiel Canal

This was a day of work and rest. As always, we did a bit of boat maintenance. This is truly an every day thing, but it was light today and we could focus on our real jobs.

I completed an article for a client, but continue to struggle with the routine of working while sailing. When I have free time, all I really want to do is work on our blogs and videos, but real jobs are a necessity so we must make ourselves find a good rhythm that balances our work with our daily life. This is true for anyone in any situation, but while working and living inside this grand experience, we must work harder to force ourselves to do the things we have to do when we want to spend our time doing the things we want to do.

I think Maik is struggling the most with this. He is feeling a lot of pressure, although he would never admit it. I can see it wearing on him a bit. He is slowly releasing some of the responsibilities to me, but he’s still not truly comfortable with handing things over to me completely, especially when we are at sea.

So when we are moored at a port, he is just worn out—physically and mentally. Even if we arrive in the afternoon and have some time, he is just too tired to focus on real work. I can feel the pressure he places on himself, but I just can’t seem to find a way to relieve him of any of it. On days like today when we have a full day with no schedule, it seems to be ok. But we must find a rhythm on the days we sail, and I must find a way to build my own confidence so that he can have confidence in me.

When it comes to sailing experience, there is a big difference in five years and half a lifetime. In fact, five years is nothing. It doesn’t even count, really. Maik, who has been sailing more than 20 of his 41 years, is taking on the full heavy burden of knowing everything. He’s teaching me little by little, but it’s difficult to find a way to transfer that knowledge. Maik can feel things and sense things that my system just doesn’t respond to innately yet.

And it’s going to get more and more necessary for me to find ways to do more so he can do a little less. Heavy traffic will be with us until we get out of the English Channel. Not only do we have tides, and winds, and weather, and waves to think about, but we will also have traffic separation schemes, huge cargo ships, other leisure craft, and offshore oil platforms to maneuver around. The open sea is one thing... you have a lot of room to make a small mistake and recover. When other obstacles are in the way, you must be more aware and more armed with knowledge — and experience (more about that later).

While I continue to get that experience, I must focus on the things I can do. I can take care of organizing the lockers and the cabins, taking care of the dogs, cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry, preparing the coffee every morning, organizing the cockpit so Maik has everything he needs at arm’s length...and of course, helping with the boat maintenance.

I was thinking today about how I’m so grateful that my dad, Doug Lambert (we call him Pops), taught me how to handle tools and fix things. This was long before the days of HGTV and DIY videos. These are skills that have come in handy all my adult life, but they are especially important while living on a sailboat. And sometimes we must fix things while the boat is at sea and in motion (more about that later). This is a new challenge that even Pops, who can fix anything, would appreciate. I’m so happy that he made my brothers and I help him with the various home projects while growing up. I didn’t love it at the time, but I know now how valuable those skills can be. And this is where I can perhaps relieve Maik of some of the pressures.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018 - Second leg through the Kiel Canal

We headed out early to finish our voyage through the Kiel Canal. We knew our weather window for entering The North Sea would be Wednesday, so we had a full day to take this light cruise. We had about five or six hours left to make it to Brunsbüttel, a port at the end of the canal just before the locks that take you out of the canal and into the Elbe River.

The cruising was light and easy so I asked Maik if I could spend the time working on our YouTube video. These videos are really fun to put together, but they take a TON of time! Generally, they take about six hours to create a six-minute video. And this one would chronicle our first week at sea—we had a lot of stories to tell and a lot of footage to go through.

In hindsight, I should have taken the wheel and let Maik work. I really regret this now. I just wasn’t thinking. I was only thinking of the things on my list and didn’t ask him if he needed the time to work. I need to make sure that I take on the easy sailing tasks when they present themselves and give him a break. This was so selfish of me, and I won’t let it happen again. But I must also trust that he will let me know when he needs to work.

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Kiel Canal

I worked on the video for about four hours and burned all my laptop battery life. We were not connected to electricity, so I couldn’t re-charge and was forced to stop. I was so disappointed…so close to finishing. Maik was so sweet. He fired up the generator to charge my battery a little. He knows how I hate to start something and not finish it. But the generator was really loud and annoying, so we let my laptop charge to about 50% and then stopped it. I worked on the video a little more, but by then we were approaching the end of the canal.

The wind and tides were perfect and it was early afternoon, so we decided that rather than mooring at Brunsbüttel as originally planned, we would lock out of the canal and then head on to Cuxhafen, which is another port about 20 nautical miles along the Elbe River close to the mouth of The North Sea. This would take us another two hours today, but give us a head start for the next morning when we sail our way to Helgoland.

We went through the locks with little drama and entered the mighty Elbe River. This is a body of water that dumps into The North Sea and it doesn’t feel like what we think of as a definition of “river.”

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Elbe River

The Elbe is one of the major rivers of Central Europe. It rises in the Krkonoše Mountains of the northern Czech Republic before traversing much of Bohemia then Germany and flowing into the North Sea at Cuxhafen, 110 km (68 mi) northwest of Hamburg. Its total length is 1,094 kilometers (680 mi).

Experts believe that without the Elbe River, Hamburg would not be the economic power it is today. The Elbe has been the city’s gateway to the world, at least since the days of the Hanseatic League. It’s safe to say Hamburg owes its multicultural vibe and worldly character to this mighty river.

And it doesn’t feel at all like a river. It is open ocean, and we found out later that it’s difficult to tell where the Elbe ends and the North Sea begins.

Many other sailboats had the same idea about Wednesday morning’s favorable tides, so we had some company on the Elbe as I marveled at the difference in the scenery. Inside the Kiel Canal there were warm and bright colors with intimate little villages along its banks. As we entered the Elbe, everything seemed to turn from vivid color to black and white, and there was already no shore in sight. The temperature dropped about 20 degrees and, of course, there was much more movement in the air outside the wind shadow of the canal. It was a bit eerie, but marvelous!

Conditions were calm, so I told Maik I would cook dinner for us while we were still cruising. It was not normal sailing conditions with a tilt or heavy wind gusts. But nevertheless, I must say that I was proud of myself for cooking a full dinner while in motion. I chopped up some fresh vegetables, cooked some sausages and potatoes, and made a big, yummy, hearty stir-fry that warmed our chilled bones.

We made it to Cuxhafen in the early evening and began to prepare for an extremely early departure toward Helgoland the next morning.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

When you get to The North Sea, it’s no longer about clocks.  It’s all about the tides. 

I wrote in an blog last week about the monster living under The North Sea taking deep breaths that last six hours. The long breath in is the low tide. The long breath out is the high tide.

We want to leave with the high tide that will blow us out to sea with following currents. We also had favorable winds in the forecast. Perfect conditions had formed for us to depart at around 05:30 and take advantage of the monster’s deep breath out to push us toward our target – the island of Helgoland. 

I have not been seasick since the first two days of our voyage, and for some reason I was not feeling so nervous anymore. I truly felt like I was getting back my sea legs. Even though I would face The North Sea for the first time today, I felt calm and peaceful. I’m sure the good weather and perfect tide conditions helped to calm my nerves. It was also my daughter Shelby’s 23rd birthday, and I knew this would bring us great luck.

Other sailors in the harbor had the same idea.  At 04:00 when I awoke to take care of feeding and walking Cap’n Jack and Scout, there were already sailors preparing their boats for the moonlight departure. You could see a line of white mast lights filing out of the harbor, one by one, also hoping to take advantage of the good conditions.

I did all my usual preparations. I made pots of coffee and tea that we would easily be able to access later. I organized all the seasick supplies in the bin I had firmly stabilized with Velcro on the cockpit credenza so that they would be handy during the day if we needed them. It’s interesting … ever since I organized this “seasick station” in the cockpit, no one has been seasick. Whatever works!

We got the boat ready, settled the Seadogs in their secure cabin, and were able to depart by 05:30 as the high tide pushed us out into the Elbe River right at the mouth of The North Sea.

We hoisted the main sail, then the genoa, then the mizzen. The wind was heavy and the waves were already swelling at about one meter. But it was such a different experience having the current and wind in our favor. We were no longer fighting against the elements as we had to in The Baltic.

The sun began to rise, and we were cruising at about 6 knots. I made Maik some breakfast, performed my first-mate duties like securing the fenders and neatly tying up all the lines. But I mostly just enjoyed the ride and soaked in the open ocean beauty of my first meeting with The North Sea.

We were about two hours from Cuxhafen, and I was really relaxed. I told Maik I would close my eyes for just a little bit. I stayed in the cockpit, and just ever so slightly drifted off to sleep . . .  

About 30 minutes later ...

If you’ve never heard the sound of steel on steel, let me describe it for you. Imagine the sound of a freight train skimming alongside a metal wall. There are no nails on a chalkboard that can compare with this screeching sound. I was awakened immediately to find out that Seefalke’s bow had slammed head-on into an offshore buoy. 

Maik saw the buoy and tried to avoid it. But he underestimated our speed and the pushing current. He tried to adjust the sails, but he couldn’t get Seefalke to maneuver quickly enough.

Steering an 11-ton sailboat is nothing like driving a car. In a car, you can slam on the brakes and stop quickly. You can swerve to miss an obstacle in the middle of the road. You may end up in a ditch, but you can generally make a quick adjustment that will cause the vehicle to change directions quickly.

It’s not at all like this on a sailboat—especially one that weighs 11 tons. You must look way ahead for obstacles because the vessel cannot make quick adjustments. And it definitely cannot quickly stop.

I always thought that buoys were made of some sort of hard industrial rubber that a boat would just bounce off like a bumper car. But I learned today that they are made of steel. In fact, they are small steel boats floating with anchors. If we had been in a plastic or wooden boat, it’s possible we would be at the bottom of The North Sea right now.

Maik sprinted to the bow and bent over the sea rail so far that his waist was the only part of his body touching the boat. He kept his cool, as he always does. But I saw the concerned look on his face, and it sent a chill down my spine. I asked him what happened, even though I wasn’t sure I really wanted to know.  

He only said. “It’s bad.” 

I was afraid to look. I was afraid to know. I just took the wheel as he scrambled.  I waited for orders from my captain about what to do.

He told me to go down to the bow cabin and empty everything out of all the lockers.  I did.

Then I took the wheel again as he went down to see if he could see any damage from the inside.  He came up after what seemed like an eternity but was probably about 60 seconds. He said he couldn’t find it.

I asked again, “How bad is it?”  He told me to go look.  So I did.

I leaned over the sea rail and then saw what I really didn’t want to see. There was a dent in Seefalke’s steel bow that was about a foot wide. It looked like a deep cut, perhaps more than just a flesh wound. Seefalke’s bright orange paint was completely scraped away at the point of contact, revealing her grey steel hull.

Maik told me to get the measuring tape and measure the distance from the front of the bow to the dent…then measure from the top of the deck down to the dent.  I did. I knew what he was trying to do. He wanted to find the damage from the inside, but we needed a point of reference. We had to identify the exact spot of where to look from the inside. We couldn’t safely lean over the sea rail far enough to see the full extent of the damage from the outside. Was there a hole in the boat? Was water coming in? We would only be able to tell from the inside.

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All of this was happening out in the middle of the open ocean while we were sailing at 6 knots.

Maik then went back into the bow cabin.  He ripped apart the thin, decorative plexi-wood wall that separated the cabin from the steel hull. He couldn’t find the dent. He told me to try again to find it. This time I measured from the top hatch (a point of reference I could identify from inside the cabin) to the dent and then went back down.  I ripped apart more of the wall and finally was able to find Seefalke’s dented hull from the inside. I told Maik, and he went down to check it.  We could finally definitively confirm that this was indeed only a dent and not a hole. Seefalke was injured, but she was fine. And so were we.

It was otherwise a perfect afternoon. It was the definition of “fair winds and following seas.” We made it to the island of Helgoland in 8 hours, moored Seefalke, and then assessed the damage. The original hit of the buoy applied the harshest damage, but we bounced off that thing like a pinball machine about four times after the initial hit. So there were several marks and missing orange paint along Seefalke's starboard side. From outside, we could also confirm the flesh wounds were thankfully completely cosmetic.  

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This is where my childhood training from Pops really came in handy and where I finally felt totally confident and helpful. No one can fix something with paint like Michelle. We pumped up the dinghy, climbed in, and began to perform the surgery. We used the electrical sander to smooth out the damaged paint edges (nothing we could do about the dent). Then we applied a little rust-protective primer and several coats of bright orange paint. While there, we touched up some other spots along Seefalke’s hull and got her looking really spiffy!

Maik was really beating himself up for this mistake. He said he could see the buoy that seemed further ahead in the distance, and he did all he could to avoid it. He told me of an article he once read in a yacht magazine in which experienced sailors confessed some of their mistakes at sea. He remembered one of them talking about slamming into an offshore buoy.  Maik is a tremendous captain and an experienced sailor, and by the way, he’s an amazing man. But he is human, after all. However, I take the blame for this one, because I haven’t been able to help as much as I should, and I believe this is putting too much pressure on him.  He’s not getting enough rest, and this is my fault.  I must find a way to help more.

Meanwhile, we had another challenge to face. We were moored at a floating pier next to a massive wall. There is a ladder you must climb to get to the top of the pier.  This is no problem for humans. It’s a different story for canines. When we first arrived here at Helgoland, the tide was high and the top of the ladder was about 10-feet from the floating pier. So I climbed to the top of the ladder and Maik (who is about six-feet tall) simply handed me Cap’n Jack, and then Scout. We were able to walk them and let them play and explore.  No problem.

But remember those deep breaths that the monster beneath the North Sea is taking? We returned to Seefalke and finished our painting project. Then it was time to take the pups out for their evening walk and potty. But by this time, the monster had taken in another deep breath. It was low tide and now the ladder was at least a 25-foot climb. This was simply not manageable to hand off the pups this way.

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High Tide

We had an idea. The pups’ life jackets are very secure and have little handles on the top of them. This is designed so that if the pup falls overboard, you can simply grab the handles and pull them in (or you can grab the handles with a boat hook). When they are strapped into these life jackets, they are velcro’ed and strapped with clamps. There is no way the jacket will come off of them unless you take them off, and sometimes even that is a challenge. Maik rigged a long line with a pulley to create a fairly sophisticated doggie crane. He climbed to the top of the ladder.

There was another sailboat rafted next to us in our mooring. The skipper came over to help us. I was happy I didn’t have to rely on my own knot-tying skills. The skipper expertly tied the knots at the end of Maik’s homemade crane onto the handles of Cap’n Jack’s life vest. Then Maik simply lifted Cap’n Jack up to the top of the ladder—safely and securely. Then we repeated with Scout. Before we get beaten up for this from all the animal lovers, we want to assure you this was safe and secure and we would never do anything to put our dogs in danger.

The four of us explored the island and climbed to the top of the red rock mountain to see the observatory of the migrating birds and enjoy the unbelievable view.

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Low Tide

Helgoland is on a major migration route for birds crossing the North Sea. For centuries, both those on migration and those breeding there, were an important source of food for the islanders. In the early 19th century Helgoland also became a source of bird specimens for collectors and museums. Ornithologist and artist Heinrich Gätke first visited the island in 1837 and moved there permanently in 1841 as secretary to the British Governor. He began collecting specimens of rarities for both artistic and scientific purposes. He spent most of the next 60 years studying the birds.

The Heligoland Bird Observatory, one of the world's first ornithological observatories, is operated by the Ornithologische Arbeitsgemeinschaft Helgoland e.V., a non-profit organization which was founded in 1991 to support research on the fauna of Helgoland.

The pups really enjoyed watching the birds. It was gorgeous and fascinating! Then we found a huge field and unleashed the hounds for a while so they could run and play. We are so happy we decided to bring Cap’n Jack and Scout with us on this journey. We have gotten a lot of criticism from many people on social media who think we are putting them in danger. But they are part of our family, and we can assure you that they are perfectly safe! We love watching them explore all these amazing new places. They get so excited and take in every sight and smell. I am positive that if dogs could talk, they would tell us they are happy to be with us!

We returned to our mooring and thought about putting the pups back on the crane to lift them back down to the floating pier. It was still low tide. We decided this time that I would walk over to a pier about 50 yards away with the pups. Maik would get into the dinghy and come pick them up at the low pier and paddle them safely back to the boat. This was a much better idea, although the pups didn’t like being in the dinghy too much. We actually think they preferred the crane lift.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

I’ve spent most of the day working and then writing this blog. But I did start some laundry and take a shower. The only interesting thing I can report today is how every shower is kind of a race-the-clock event.  I have it down to a science.

In most of these marina shower facilities, it generally costs 2 Euro for a 4-minute shower. Sometimes, I splurge and take an 8-minute shower. First, I get everything organized so when I hit the button and the water starts, I’m ready. I strip down to my birthday suit (I’m no longer modest about nudity, especially in the public common showers…it’s just not a thing anymore for me). I lay out my supplies, and make sure I have everything handy. I can’t waist a second. I turn on the water and start the clock. I spend 30 seconds shampooing my hair, then 30 seconds rinsing out the shampoo. It takes another 30 seconds to apply conditioner, and then I spend 1 minute washing my body. This leaves 90 seconds to rinse off my body and rinse all the conditioner out of my hair. Then the water shuts off.  Done.

When I splurge and take the 8-minute shower, I actually get to shave my legs and relax underneath the soothing warm water. Those extra 240 seconds seem like an absolute eternity!

Think about it…how much time do you spend in the shower? Just for fun, try to take one in four minutes.

I have been thinking a lot about how much water I waste when I’m home and have unlimited access to water. It’s not that way in most parts of the world. In fact, there are 750 million people globally who have zero access to clean water. I can’t promise you that when I return to Gulf Shores I’ll continue taking 4-minute showers, but I can confirm that it’s now on my mind.