Did you know you can cross Europe, from the Mediterranean to the North Sea, by boat? Well you can, and it’s a giant adventure.
My husband Aladino and I had spent the past two years exploring the Mediterranean on board our small 28 foot sailboat, but the Canadian in me was longing for some cooler weather. I had always wanted to sail in Northern Europe, so we decided that would be our next cruising grounds. The only question was how to get there.
The two most obvious options were to either sail through Gibraltar and up the Atlantic coast of Portugal, Spain, and France; or to just get the boat trucked across the continent. Neither sounded particularly appealing to us, especially because of the weather window. We wanted to arrive to the North in time for the summer sailing season, which means we’d be sailing the Atlantic when the weather is still cold and winds not at all in our favour. And getting the boat transported on a truck seemed rather anti climactic.
The only other idea was to take the boat through Europe via inland waterways. We weren’t even sure if it were possible. We had some experience with European canal travel already, from when we had launched our boat in Switzerland and followed a series of canals down to the Mediterranean coast. But could there be canals that would take us all the way to Europe’s Northern coast? It was time to consult a map.
We unfolded a giant map of Europe which showed all the canals and rivers, and started tracing a finger along various routes. Many were too shallow for our boat. Many were old canals that were no longer navigable. But we did eventually find a path that seemed to work. It would take us up the Rhone River, then the Saone River, through the Rhine-Rhone Canal, and then all the way down the Rhine River before arriving in the Netherlands. We would travel through two of Europe’s biggest nations, France and Germany, getting an intimate view into the daily life, small towns, and industrial underbellies of each nation. This promised to be a grand adventure.
We left the Mediterranean behind in November, pointing our bow up into the Rhone River. The Rhone is a powerful river, once a raging torrent that has now been somewhat tamed by dams and dredging. Still, we wondered if we had made a huge mistake. The currents were almost too much for our small 21hp engine. We crawled upstream, making an average of 2 knots with our engine at full throttle. It was cold — we heard that it had snowed just a few days up river.
There were no other pleasure boats to be seen. The pleasure craft harbours had all closed for the winter. The gorgeous medieval towns, normally bustling with summer tourists, were now quiet and empty feeling, inhabited by only a few year-round residents. Strangely, we loved it. It felt like we were on a real adventure. We would dock every night at a closed down harbour, not having to even pay for our spot because there was no one to pay. Water and electricity were usually turned off, but we didn’t mind. We had a diesel heater on board and enough water to last. Every evening we’d explore another beautiful medieval town, feeling as if we were the only souls to roam the streets. In the mornings we could still usually find a boulangerie somewhere to buy fresh bread, and then we’d set off again to make more slow progress upstream.
Soon we arrived to the Saone River, where only a few more days of travel would lead us to the Rhine-Rhone Canal. This is the part of the journey I really looked forward to. We had taken this canal before when we left Switzerland. A guidebook that I had on board described it as one of the most beautiful canals in all of France. It is exactly what you might imagine when you picture French canal travel — the tiny and charming towns, the small locks each with a lock keepers house next to it, steep vineyards sloping up to imposing castles. It’s unhurried and stress-free. There are no currents, no commercial traffic — just gorgeous French countryside in all directions. And it was good to have these few weeks of relaxation, because what was to come would test us in a whole new way.
The next and last part of the journey was new to us. The Rhine River, one of Germany’s main commercial arteries. We had heard that the Rhine would sweep us quickly to the Netherlands, with sometimes alarmingly swift currents. We were also told to expect a lot of commercial traffic. Both were true. Sailing down the Rhine felt like playing one of those video games where you constantly have to steer around obstacles, all while travelling at breakneck speed. A constant stream of huge commercial freighters marched up river, and as a pleasure boat we had to give way to all of them. There was no particular rhyme or reason. They came up any side of the river they pleased, and we had to dodge them along with any rocks, debris, sand banks, or other obstacles in our way. The scenery was mostly industrial — great heaving and belching production plants manufacturing all sorts of things that needed to be loaded onto ships and brought elsewhere. Nuclear power plants, piles of shipping containers, clouds of smoke — that is my memory of the Rhine. It’s not an experience I need to repeat.
There is one beautiful part of the Rhine, called the Lorelei Valley. It’s a steep gorge that the river runs through, and on the top of each impressive hill is a castle. Turn around at any point and you can usually see 5 castles at once. We spent nearly a week in a harbour there, exploring the castles and vineyards. But shortly after, the scenery transitioned back to industry.
The one real benefit of the Rhine is that it fast. Compared to our speed up the Rhone, it felt like we were flying, and The Netherlands was drawing nearer by the moment. In only a few more days we had crossed the border and could nearly smell the salt air. It was finally time to put our mast back up and become a sailboat again.
The North through the Continent journey was one of the most transformative and exciting voyages I think I’ve done. In all its different stages, in all its beautiful scenery, in its challenges and rewards, it gave me a view of Europe that is totally unique.
One day, I’m eager to go back. Retiring to a canal boat in France doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
Maya lives in Europe on a 28ft sailboat with her husband Aladino. Their goal is to sail around the world as slowly as possible. They publish weekly videos of their adventures on their YouTube channel, “Sailing Magic Carpet.”