Last summer, my husband Aladino and I spent several months exploring the Netherlands on board our 28ft sailboat. We had just emerged from one of the biggest adventures we’ve ever undertaken on our boat: an inland journey all the way through Europe, from the Mediterranean to the North Sea via canals and rivers. We had emerged in the Netherlands, with plans to carry on to the Baltic Sea. However, we never made it that far.
The Netherlands is a small, flat, and wet country. It’s one of Europe’s most population dense nations. “Nature” in the expansive Canadian sense of the term doesn’t exist there. For sailors who like to explore remote and uninhabited bays, it didn’t seem like a place we really needed to see. Yet, we ended up spending the whole summer there, and loving every moment.
The Netherlands has a nautical history stretching back to its very inception. Many parts of the country only exist because of the Dutch ability to tame the sea — most of the Netherlands is actually below sea water, protected by dykes and a complex pumping system. From the Hanse leagues of the middle ages to the giant port at Rotterdam in present day, the Dutch owe their wealth to shipping. But their affinity to the sea stretches beyond the commercial and the practical. The Dutch just love to sail.
On a summer day, you can barely see the horizon as its covered by sails. Boats in the harbour often outnumber houses in the nearby towns. It’s the only place in the world where I’ve ever experienced a sailboat traffic jam. But instead of feeling crowded and hectic, it just feels fun. Grocery stores have tie ups in front, so you can hop off and grab some provisions before raising the sails again. Harbours have playgrounds, BBQs, soccer fields, swimming pools, and restaurants.
Every tiny town boasts at least one marina, but usually more. Even the boats themselves are beautiful — after sailing for a while amidst brand new plastic super yachts in the Mediterranean, the Dutch approach to sailing is refreshingly down to earth. There’s an eye for traditional designs, with elegant details like stained glass windows and tan bark sails.
Once I asked a Dutch sailor why the Dutch like to sail so much. He replied, “Well, the Netherlands is a very crowded country. But when you go out on the water, you can finally get some space.” As I cast my eye over the horizon crowded with boats, I had to laugh. I guess everything is relative.
One thing the Dutch are especially well known for is canals. These canals meander through cow fields, or pass through major cities, or connect small towns in the countryside. It’s a unique experience to sail downwind along a canal, surrounded on both sides by fields. The silent sails combined with the pastoral scenery is an odd combination — not something that I’ve experienced anywhere else. It’s even stranger to be biking along a road, seemingly well inland, and then just see a boat float by with full sails up in the middle of a cow field. The Dutch will sail anywhere.
The Netherlands is a fantastic place to learn to sail. The water is protected, facilities are plentiful, and the boat market is affordable. It’s not a place for adventure sailing — you won’t find rugged coves and deserted islands. But you will find an excellent holiday, where you can relax and sail just for the joy of 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.”