Island Hopping Across the Wadden Sea by Sailing Ferry

Our former backyard UNESCO World Heritage the Wadden Sea is one of the most beautiful parts of the Netherlands. The sea is heavily influenced by the tides, full of tidal creeks and sandbanks populated with seals, and crowned by five small islands that are all popular Dutch holiday destinations. While regular ferries service all the islands, there’s a much more adventurous – and greener – way to discover the Wadden Sea: Eilandhopper. Every summer, this sailing ferry takes passengers to hop across the islands and back again.

Discover Eilandhopper

The sailing ferry service Eilandhopper only operates in summer and usually consists of two sailing ships that each take a different route. The Dutch clipper Willem Jacob is the main vessel sailing every summer and it’s often joined by another ship. Passengers can come aboard the sailing ships on the mainland for a crossing to the islands, choose the ferry service between the islands, or go on a short cruise of the Wadden Sea. Whichever route you pick, you can be sure of a hands-on sailing experience aboard a historical sailing ship of the so-called ‘Bruine Vloot’ – the fleet of traditional Dutch ships that carried cargo in the past.

What it’s like on board

On deck, not much has changed since a century ago, and every ship has an experienced captain and a mate who will show you how to tie knots and operate the sails. You can be as involved as you want to be and if things become a bit too wet outside, you can climb down into the cosy hold, where you’ll find a fully equipped kitchen, benches to lounge on, and a modern bathroom. There’s a cook onboard who whips up delicious lunches and dinners, using mostly local ingredients, many of which come from the islands.

Willem Jacob is certified gold with Green Key , which shows its commitment as a sustainable business. The engine on board is only used when absolutely necessary, making Eilandhopper one of the greenest means of transport on the Wadden Sea and in the Netherlands. It’s an incredible feeling to sail on such a large ship – Willem Jacob measures 26 meters (85 feet) – using just the wind for power.

Looking over the dunes towards the North Sea on the island of Ameland in the Netherlands
Dutch clipper Willem Jacob cuts through the waves sailing on the Wadden Sea in the Netherlands

Stay the night

What makes Eilandhopper special is the possibility to stay the night on the ship. Aboard the Willem Jacob, you can book a bunk bed in the spacious hold for a hostel-like dorm stay with a shared bathroom and hot shower. On the other ships, it’s often possible to book a private cabin. Nights are spent in the harbours of the islands Terschelling, Ameland, and Schiermonnikoog, under anchor in a bay, or even on a sandbank!

Willem Jacob and the other ships of the ‘Bruine Vloot’ have a flat bottom, using retractable leeboards as keels. This makes it possible to drop anchor in shallow waters and to wait for the tide to go out. As the water disappears, the ship drops to eventually come to rest on the sea bottom. The practice is called ‘droogvallen’ in Dutch and it makes it possible to overnight on sandbanks. It’s the most magical feeling to wake up and see the ship surrounded by mudflats without any water in sight. To read more about the experience and what it’s like to sleep aboard the ship, see: A Night on the Bottom of the Wadden Sea.

Note: as ‘falling dry’ takes quite a bit of time, having to wait for the tide to come back in to be able to get moving, Eilandhopper usually only offers one or two ‘droogvaltochten’ per week.

The clipper Willem Jacob with hoisted sails on a cloudy day on the Wadden Sea in the Netherlands

How to get around

The two ships of Eilandhopper use a harbour on the mainland as their base for the summer and they set sail from there once per week. Willem Jacob sails from the tiny harbour of Lauwersoog on the border between the provinces Friesland and Groningen. There’s paid long-term parking available, but it’s also easy to reach with public transport by taking a train to the city of Groningen and a bus to Lauwersoog’s harbour from there. The second ship usually has the Frisian small city of Harlingen as its base, which has its own train station so is also easy to reach with public transport, but paid parking is available here as well. Our first time aboard the Willem Jacob, we stayed for a full week, leaving from and arriving back in Lauwersoog. But if you want to try Eilandhopper for just a couple of days, the experience is also easy to combine with the regular ferries servicing the islands. Most ferries have multiple departures every day, especially in the summer season. The ferry to and from Schiermonnikoog leaves from Lauwersoog, the base harbour of the Willem Jacob. The ferry to Ameland departs from Holwerd in the province of Friesland and the ferries to Vlieland and Terschelling depart from Harlingen, the home base of the second Eilandhopper sailing ship. The largest island, Texel, is easiest to reach from Amsterdam as the ferry departs from Den Helder, but Eilandhopper usually only docks at Texel once or twice per season, as it’s a long sailing trip from the other islands. Between the Frisian Wadden Islands, there’s also a (expensive!) water taxi service. To discover more about the Frisian Wadden Islands, have a look at this article we created for Lonely Planet: Sun, Sea, and Schiermonnikoog: which Frisian Island is right for you? From Terschelling, Eilandhopper offers a day trip to Vlieland, and from all four Frisian Wadden islands round-trip sailing tours are offered as well. Because the Wadden Sea has so many sandbanks, the waves are usually not very high, and I’ve never felt nauseous aboard the Willem Jacob (while being quite prone to sea sickness). Unfortunately, the Eilandhopper sailing ships aren’t accessible to wheelchair users and note that it can be a bit of a climb to get onboard. The regular ferries servicing the islands are accessible however, so I’d recommend checking them out if you have difficulty walking or if you’re a wheelchair user.
The lighthouse of Ameland in the Netherlands has red and white stripes and stands in the dunes

What to bring

Dutch weather can be famously unpredictable, so it’s always a good idea to pack a raincoat. On board the ship, wear comfortable clothing that you won’t mind getting a bit dirty if you’d like to help out with the handling of sails. A thick sweater is also nice even in summer, as it can get quite cold on the water. Layers are a good idea and bring suntan lotion (even if it’s not sunny!). Also be sure to wear flats aboard the ship — heels and sailing aren’t a very good combo. If you’re planning to stay the night, a backpack or duffel is preferred over a suitcase, because it’s easier to stow. You don’t have to bring your own linen, but do bring a towel. There’s also limited capacity to bring your bike aboard, so be sure to check this when booking.

Booking and prices

A round trip sailing tour departing from one of the islands and lasting about three hours starts at around €30. Expect to pay about double that for a crossing and a night’s stay. For longer trips, a chef-prepared lunch and dinner is usually included. In the 2021 season it was about €500 per person to stay aboard the Willem Jacob for a full week. For the current prices and booking, go to eilandhopper.nl.
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