By Hans Steketee
On old navigation charts of the Netherlands it is called Creupel Sandt, marked with a single beacon. Creupel was one of many shoals and shifting gravel banks in the Zuyder Zee, a dangerous inland sea before it was closed-off from the North Sea a century ago. The Zuyder Zee has become a non-tidal freshwater lake since. But the Creupel sands are still there.
I arrived at Kreupel Island, as it is now called, at the end of a glorious sailing day, with a Force 4 wind and bottle-green water under skies painted by Ruysdael. Rijkswaterstaat, the government agency responsible for the Dutch waterways network, has been carrying out works here for years, sculpting clay and sand. On the 170 acre of Kreupel that are now dry land gulls, plovers and terns nest. With seven thousand pairs of Sterna hirundo Kreupel Island houses the largest colony of common terns in Europe.
‘Building a natural environment’ isn’t an oxymoron in the Netherlands, where since medieval times all policy is based on accommodating different interests and points of view. The Kreupel Island works are no exception. They have been providing employment for dredging companies, a rich habitat for birds, and a place that sailing enthusiasts have grown to love.
It wasn’t love at first sight, though. Kreupel is still an obstacle in the middle of the former Zuyder Zee, now called IJsselmeer. Yachts still run aground here by the dozens. Why not dredge the whole sea bed, the sailing community argued for years. That’s when Rijkswaterstaat understood it had to find a way to accommodate them too.
So behind a breakwater of boulders there’s now a little harbour at Kreupel. There’s room for twenty small yachts, or for a few of the big traditional, flat-bottomed, brown-sailed Dutch transport barges which nowadays cater for tourists. During the summer months Kreupel Island has one permanent inhabitant: the harbour master. He – he was a she when I arrived – lives in a wooden shed, and has plenty of time to read books.
There is no power to charge your batteries or mobile phone, there are no toilets on Kreupel, there is no fresh water. A mooring fee of twenty euros (about 25 US dollar) per night seems a bit hefty. Or you could look at it from another perspective. Because Kreupel is no ordinary marina. It's one of the quietest areas in this overcrowded country. It’s a piece of nature, untouched and unspoilt, not because it has been preserved through the ages, but precisely because it is newly constructed. There's an old saying here that ‘God created the earth, but the Dutch made their own country’. Kreupel Island is the most recent case in point.
There are few places in the Netherlands where you don’t hear any cars or trains. Where it can be completely dark at night, apart from the stars and a sprinkling of lights on the horizon. And where you don’t need an alarm clock because thousands of birds will wake you up at daybreak.
Being on Kreupel is unique for another reason. You are never on Kreupel. The mooring pontoons don’t connect to the island itself. So you can step off your boat and stretch your legs but you can’t walk on firm ground. Even the harbour master’s shed is surrounded by water. You can climb on top to look at the birds through your binoculars. That’s as close as you can get: you have arrived but not quite. You’re tied-up to a jetty, but your still at sea. It has a whiff of being quarantined because of a contagious disease. In sight of land but not allowed off your ship. Yes, Kreupel is synonymous with pure space under a vast sky. There’s probably nowhere in the Netherlands where you have a wider horizon. But it can also be slightly claustrophobic.
For a couple of hours we are the only visitors. We swim and sleep, and swim some more. In the evening more boats arrive. The first is a battered little sailboat with three youths. There must be at least five hundred yards of free pontoon space. But they choose to tie up directly behind us.
The next boat to arrive is a little motor cruiser with a middle-aged couple. They tie up just in front of us. Then there's a huge wooden pilot cutter that really shouldn’t be here but on tidal waters. And finally another tiny yacht, filled to the brim with young children and their parents. They all tie up on the same length of pontoon. Before long music and cooking smells drift through the air.
The experience of sailing on the Dutch lakes and waterways has always been sold as a dream of freedom. But is it possible that the Dutch are not fleeing their overcrowded cities because they long to be alone? And could it be that they do not mind this at all? Because in practice every day on the water seems to end with cosying up to fellow Dutchmen.
This is not exactly new. The Dutch have always been combining their sense of liberty with their tightknittedness, Sir William Temple, English ambassador in the Netherlands, noted in 1673. "Those in the Netherlands who can permit it” will spend “their times of leisure to any pleasures or diversions that offend no Laws, nor hurt others or themselves”. His witty sketches of the Dutch, their country and customs, which he had observed for a couple of years, are still surprisingly topical.
When Laura Dekker, a then fourteen-year-old Dutch girl in 2009 announced her plan to become the world's youngest single-hand navigator, a national debate sprang up. Shouldn’t she be at school? Wouldn’t this be a much too risky adventure for a young and relatively unexperienced girl? Where does parental responsibility end and where should the national children’s protection agency step in?
These were serious questions, but between the lines one could detect a strong whiff of irritation that she was breaking the mould: the Dutch propensity to hug his fellow Dutchman as close as possible. The real question being asked was: why does Laura want to be different? Why can’t she be doing what most girls her age do: go to a pony camp or summer sailing school and just be with other girls? (Laura Dekker started her trip in August 2010 and completed her circumnavigation in January 2012. She now lives in New Zealand.)
The sun has nearly set when I climb the stairs to the observation deck which is built on top of the harbour master’s shed. Flocks of birds are rising from the sands at the far end of Kreupel Island, then settle again. Their relentless ruckus fills the air.
Hans Steketee is a journalist at NRC Handelsblad, a daily newspaper in the Netherlands. He writes about maritime affairs and the sea, history and landscape. Until 2005 he and his family lived in London, while he was UK and Ireland correspondent. He has published a prize-winning book on Britain, Eiland tussen de oren ('Island between the ears', 2006) and, earlier, a collection of European travel stories. Hans is a sailing enthousiast and owns a 32 foot sloop of German design. He hates writing about himself in the third person.