‘For miles in every direction lay a desert of sand’

I’ve been fretting about how we get from Brünsbuttel on October 5 to Wangerooge on October 15. Carruthers and Davies have their little boat ‘Dulcibella’. We do not. We’re planning to turn up on the banks of the Elbe on bicycles.

Even if we did get hold of a Dulcibella-like boat (skippered by someone who knows what they’re doing; i.e. not us) we’ve already been warned by club member Janet that it’s a pretty crazy idea to go out beyond Cuxhaven in October:

I am afraid that if you are not experts, I can not recommend that you venture out beyond the Elbe in October. October is renown for the onset of gales! Boats, North Sea gales and sandbanks are a deadly combination, once out beyond Cuxhaven there is very little shelter, and the tidal  currents, combined with the river Elbe flow means that you have to be very, very careful when ever you venture out there. You could of course be very lucky with the weather, but it would remain very risky.

Sailing in the Elbe has been described as ‘like crossing the M25’ due to the large amount of giant cargo ships steaming up and down there. Then there’s the regular sea fogs. And to make matters worse, according to the book, we’re meant to turn left early at Sticker’s Gat and head off into the sands – rather than take the more sensible route of going out with the Elbe as far as Heligoland and then hacking back in deeper waters to Wangerooge from there.

All in all, it’s pretty obvious we’re NOT going to re-enact this bit of the book entirely faithfully. So what to do?

Well, the good news is that we’ve timed our trip so that we can take advantage of the newly re-opened ferry service between Brünsbuttel and Cuxhaven. Until this year, it had been closed since 2001. (Chapeau, btw, to the person who put together this page of photos of Brunsbuttel-Cuxhaven ferries of yore. It’s great).

Postcard of the Schleswig-Holstein on the pre-1981 Cuxhaven-Brunsbüttel service.

Quite what we do from Cuxhaven is a bit more tricky. Ideally we should tackle the sands and somehow make our way directly to Wangerooge. The fact that this whole area is now a highly protected national park & heritage site to which access is strictly regulated (mainly to let sand worms thrive, and ducks of various kinds to moult) is going to hamper our movements somewhat.

The alternatives as far as I can see are to either take a ferry out to Heligoland and back to Wilhelmshaven and then cycle from there, or to really get on our bikes and tackle the North Sea Cycle Route all the way round the coast to Harlesiel.

By Alexander Karnstedt (Alexrk) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

At least with the latter option there’ll be opportunities to get close to the ‘sands’ experience. Certainly at Cuxhaven I’d be tempted to take a couple of days out to walk across the mud to Neuwerk in bare feet, stay the night and walk back again. (Great article in the Independent about German mudflats walking here). At least that way, we’d be recreating the kind of stomping across the sands that Carruthers and Davies get up to on October 6.

Wattwandern: By Cosmicgirl (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

And let’s not forget we don’t have to get to Wangerooge ’til October 15, so that gives us nine days to cycle what amounts to about 150+km. It looks like a beautiful cycle route to take, and we should even have enough time to make several forays out on to the sands as we go round – weather and nature reserve authorities permitting.

I’d be especially tempted to try and get out to both the Roter Sand lighthouse and Hohe Weg lighthouse, since getting to these would place us right out where our heroes would be doing their remote charting. Both structures would have been in place at the time, but I guess Childers isn’t much interested in allowing Davies to use lighthouses to guide him around the place…

Hohe Weg – By Kirstin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether we can actually walk that far out safely, or find anyone with a boat mad enough to take us out in October is yet to be seen. But if this Adventure Club is going to end up being a real adventure, then this kind of outing will have to be done.

2 thoughts on “‘For miles in every direction lay a desert of sand’

  1. Couple of thoughts on the sailing aspects: i) clearly, you need a skipper who is familiar with the sands and has a boat that can “take the ground” without problems, which rules out keel-boats (unless they have a retractable keel, like Dulcibella). Such boats exist and can, indeed be very comfortable. My friend has a Southerly 40-footer which is designed for just that. A cruising catamaran with its stability, very shallow draught and ability to dry out upright would be even better. Another possibility would be to forget sailing and go out in a powerful motor yacht, preferably one of an aluminium “tinny” construction, which are well-nigh indestructible.

    ii) Anyone who sails the North German coast will know how rough it can be, but fortunately modern weather forecasting is very accurate and while it might well be necessary to wait for your weather window, October isn’t likely to be worse than any other month. Indeed, you are likely to get the equinoctal gale season over with in September, with October being quite calm, even Indian-summer-ish. Anything is possible.

    iii) While there isn’t much in the way of “ports of refuge” out there, Davies knew and Carruthers found out, that a yacht can lie safely within the sands even in a gale, provided that the spot is well chosen for protection behind the banks. Over to local knowledge, preferably backed up by the best modern instrumentation – GPS, fish-finder and chart-plotter, AIS radio, etc – that money can buy!

    In short, don’t give up too early on the sailing part of the adventure, something might well turn up before long.

    In any case, if sailing, you don’t need to go all the way out to Heligoland to turn the corner. If you don’t choose Sticker’s Gat, sailors will usually go down the Elbe on the ebb-tide at high speed over the ground until they can see the channel fairway bouy then hang a left and that keeps you far enough off the sands to be safe. Provided you keep an eagle eye on the depth-sounder, that is! And as you mention, the lighthouses are there for a purpose, and will soon give you your bearings.


    1. Bless you, Tony for being so positive and optimistic. As you say, anything is possible – Lloyd and I are definitely not giving up on our dream of doing this trip.


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