A Night on the Bottom of the Wadden Sea

Of all the spectacular destinations we’ve visited in our travels, we experienced one of the most unique green stays right in our own backyard — the Netherlands — when we visited the largest tidal system in the world: UNESCO World Heritage the Wadden Sea. Find out what it’s like to step aboard a Dutch flat-bottomed sailing ship to experience ‘droogvallen’ and to spend the night on the bottom of the sea…

When things got wet

We’re caught in a massive rainstorm. Horizontal rain lashes against my face as I squint through the thick cloak of water. My shoes are completely soaked through, but I’m thankful to be wearing a borrowed sailing suit, which is keeping most of my body dry and warm. It’s nearing midnight and I’m standing on the bow of the 100-year-old Dutch clipper Willem Jacob. We’re sailing south of the island Ameland on the Wadden Sea in the north of the Netherlands and are on our way to a submerged sandbank to drop anchor for the night. I’m directing a flood light across the black water to seek out the unlit buoys that will show us the way. The beam of light glides across the waves as a buoy pops up on the port side in the distance. I call back to Jurrien, who’s on the deck behind me, and he sprints to the back of the 26-meter-long (85 feet) ship to relay the information. I warm my hands on the flood light and with a huge smile on my face, start looking for the next buoy. This night is gearing up to be an epic one.

Meet the 100-year-old Willem Jacob

Jurrien and I have been aboard the Willem Jacob for almost a week now, for a sustainable island-hopping trip across the Wadden Sea. Over one hundred years ago the Dutch built flat-bottomed ships to be able to traverse the treacherously shallow tidal creeks of the seas and rivers in the Netherlands. Many of these now historic ships are still sailing today and because of their unique build, they’re able to drop anchor and touch down on the bottom of the sea as the tide goes out. Built in 1889, the Willem Jacob now sails between the Dutch Wadden Islands as Eilandhopper, a green ferry service, every summer. So far, we’ve been treated to some fantastic sailing, thankfully with great weather for most of the week. But tonight’s rainstorm’s definitely something else! Luckily around midnight the rain has weakened into a drizzle and we’ve safely reached the end of the buoy-marked waterway without running aground.
Night falls above the Wadden Sea looking towards the island of Ameland in the Netherlands

Dropping anchor for the night

We sail into shallow waters, drop the anchor, and use a wooden prod to measure the depth of the sea bottom on different sides of the ship. The draft of the ship is exactly one meter (3.3 feet) and right now, the sea bottom is only one-and-a-half meters (5 feet) below us. We use the prods to make sure the distance to the bottom is equal all around the ship — this is essential for a safe ‘droogvallen’ experience, because as the tide goes out the heavy ship will drop to the seafloor and rest there, putting all the weight on the steel bottom. So we have to find a straight stretch of seafloor without any big holes, or the ship would be in danger of breaking. When the crew’s satisfied with the ship’s position, the leeboards have been retracted and the anchor’s been checked, we finally go down into the cosy hold, where we peel off layers of wet clothing. It’s blissfully warm in the galley and we pour several tasty local blond beers from the tap at the bar to cheers to a successful sail. It doesn’t take long before my eyelids start to feel heavy however, and together with Jurrien I make my way to our bunk bed in the front section of the hold. I climb up to the top bunk and dive under the covers, falling asleep to the sound of the waves lapping against the hull. I only wake once in the night because of the creaking as the ship descends and starts to rest on the seafloor.

Awaking on the bottom of the sea

When I wake again it’s the crack of dawn and I see an azure-blue sky through the skylight above me. I slip down from the bunk bed and head out onto the deck. Last night’s dark clouds have disappeared completely and in the east, the rising sun is just peeking out above the horizon, casting a golden glow over the Wadden Sea. It’s low tide and the ship has ‘drooggevallen’, or fallen dry, on a sandbank between the islands of Ameland and Schiermonnikoog. I climb over the railing of the ship and down a wooden ladder to the sea bottom. I’m not wearing shoes and the sand feels silky smooth between my toes. I walk past small pools filled with starfish and look out across the sand. The sea has retreated into the distance, with the first sunrays of the day illuminating the glistening sandbanks, the neighbouring islands just visible across the glassy waters. All around me the creatures living in the Wadden Sea are slowly waking up, with chirping birds roaming around the shoal looking for breakfast.
The Dutch clipper Willem Jacob rests on the seafloor of the Wadden Sea as the tide comes back in
Seagulls flying and feeding in the Wadden Sea in the Netherlands

The extraordinary Wadden Sea ecosystem

Among the mud flats of the Wadden Sea — a tidal system stretching all the way from North Holland in the west of the Netherlands towards Denmark in the northeast — lies an extraordinary ecosystem rich with food, attracting seals , harbour porpoises and ten million migratory birds every year. The ever-changing shoals used to be very treacherous for ships and the seafloor around the islands is littered with centuries-old wrecks. Even now, the nautical charts still have to be updated constantly, as the waterways change regularly because of the shifting sands. When you’ve got an experienced captain however, the Wadden Sea is a fantastic place for sailing. Because there are so many sandbanks, there’s no real swell to speak off, and I’ve never experienced seasickness here (while being quite prone to it). As the tide starts to come back in, I make my way back to the Willem Jacob. The tidal creeks can flood quickly and it’s important to always be aware of the tide when mudflat walking — you don’t want to be caught unawares. That’s also why you always have to be accompanied by a guide when you go on a longer mudflat walk from the mainland. Back on deck, I join skipper Tsjerk Hesling Hoekstra for a cup of breakfast tea in the sun. Tsjerk bought the Willem Jacob over sixteen years ago when he was just 19 years old. ‘I already loved to go sailing back then and couldn’t think of a better place to call home.’
Skipper Tsjerk stands next to the steering wheel onboard the Willem Jacob
Sunny deck of the clipper Willem Jacob on the Wadden Sea in the Netherlands

Meet the skipper and ship

While he was studying in the city of Groningen, Tsjerk started renovating the ship. The exterior was restored to its original 1889 look, while the old cargo hold was transformed into a bright room with skylights and enough space for an open galley, several dining tables and a bookcase with built-in fireplace — all by using sustainable materials. The hostel dorm-like front section of the hold can sleep up to 22 guests. The ship’s also certified gold with Green Key, showing Tsjerk’s commitment to run a sustainable business. Tsjerk still loves to sail himself, but now also employs skippers to steer the ship when he’s absent. For several months a year, he works as a captain on massive Tall Ships all over the world. ‘I’ve sailed Tall Ships from Tromsø in Norway to Cape Town in South Africa, but for me the Wadden Sea remains the most beautiful place to sail in the world. It’s so diverse: there’s a fair bit of seafaring between the islands, and on the Wadden, the tidal inlets are always changing. To be able to sail on such a treacherous, shallow sea with such a big ship, I think that’s pretty unique.’

The return of the sea

As we’ve been talking, the sea has returned, swallowing the last stretches of sand around us. We’ll have to wait several more hours for the ship to start floating again and gain enough draft to be able to hoist the anchor and set sail towards the island of Schiermonnikoog, but the waiting only adds to the experience: sailing on the Wadden Sea means slowing down, adapting to the rhythm of the tides and being fully in the here and now.

To read more about the green sailing ferry service Eilandhopper, check out Island Hopping across the Wadden Sea. To book a stay on the ship, see willemjacob.nl and eilandhopper.nl .

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