Northern Europe Cruise: The Best Places to Sail

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Miranda Delmar-Morgan recommends some of her favorite places to sail on a Northern Europe cruise between Atlantic France and the Kiel Canal

Cruising in Northern Europe exposes sailors to a multitude of magnificent ports, harbors and anchorages.

We’re taking a look at some favorite cruising areas to inspire you to make firm plans for the next season.

Northern Europe Cruise: Homewaters and Channel Coasts

Northern Brittany is packed with both charm and challenges for anyone looking to escape the UK’s south coast for a week or two, says Miranda Delmar-Morgan.

Miranda Delmar Morgan is the author of several books on pilots and references and has covered over 100,000 miles. She currently owns a Najad 390

Aber Wrac’h is the turning point for arrivals from the south up the Chenal du Four and for the bend to the east.

The Ile de Batz is a charming place from another world, with an alarming coastal passage strewn with obstacles but well marked.

To the east of the attractive Roscoff is Morlaix with an impressive 5m viaduct upstream of a canal marked by transits.

Any deviation could immediately run aground in deep, soft mud and exterior approaches require caution.

The Seven Islands is a bird sanctuary with a huge gannetry and two anchorages on the south side. Trébeurden is a useful stopover but Ploumanac’h is the jewel in the crown with large pink rocks on the Pink Granite Coast.

Lézardrieux on the Trieux river and Tréguier on the Tréguier river are both beautiful towns, and the areas around the islands of Bréhat and Paimpol are full of interest.

Northern Europe cruise

Sailors crisscrossing Northern Europe are spoiled for choice. Credit: Maxine Heath

An inland trip along the unexplored Trieux river takes you to the pretty little town of Pontrieux where you lock yourself in and lie on the wall. Tréguier and Lézardrieux are a common starting point for the crossing to the Channel Islands.

The west coast of the Cotentin peninsula, the Chausey Islands, the surroundings of St Malo to the Bréhat Islands allow a circular cruise.

A highlight of the Northern Europe cruise - market day in Tréguier.  Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

A highlight of the cruise in Northern Europe – market day in Tréguier. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

These are difficult waters with high tides. Granville for example has an ascent and descent of 12m.

The entire Brittany coast is a seafood lover’s paradise with street cafes and restaurants packed with shellfish, and their pancakes and galettes are a Breton specialty.

St Malo, with its magnificent Grand Aquarium and nearby Mont St Michel, and Granville, with its Christian Dior museum, are wonderful towns, and of course St Malo has excellent ferry connections to the Channel Islands.

Channel Islands

The Channel Islands offer cruising ground in themselves.

Alderney (whose residents were evacuated to Weymouth during World War II) has a wild atmosphere with much of German occupation history still in evidence with large forts.

It is bordered on both sides by the oscillating tides of the Alderney Race and the Swinge.

Corbett Rock is visible in the Swinge at a dead tide before the tide begins to rise steeply south and there is an interior passage of relatively calm water generally visible.

However, the Swinge and Alderney Race should not be taken lightly and early visits should be timed to coincide with dead tides.

Northern Europe cruise

Jersey has many beautiful beaches, such as Portlet Bay. Credit: Will Bruton

You can anchor in Burhou but not disembark, because it is an ornithological reserve. Sailors from Victoria Marina to St Peter Port can disembark directly in town, and the facilities are excellent.

The waiting pontoons outside are now also connected to the shore.

Cradle of Victor Hugo and duty-free shops, it is a popular destination and a useful port for crew changes.

Sark and Little Sark are a delight with anchorages off the Passage du Guillot and several anchorages, Herm has beautiful beaches and Jersey has the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (formerly Jersey Zoo).

The islands have a warm maritime climate and an interesting history.

Go up the canal

From Cherbourg to the east there are many nice stops.

No one should miss St Vaast La Hougue on the Cotentin peninsula, home to the famous Maison Gosselin delicatessen, and the magnificent Fort Vauban on the UNESCO-listed island of Tatihou.

Carentan is approached by a charming canal with pastoral scenes.

The Port Mulberry in Arromanches is a fascinating place and in Honfleur you are surrounded by a town which is an artist’s delight.

Fécamp has a good tidal marina

Fécamp has a good tidal marina

Fécamp is the homeland of the Benedictine monks and their delicious liqueur. Deauville / Trouville are trendy seaside resorts.

Boulogne, Dieppe, Calais and Dunkirk all have deep water entrances and old town centers.

In Belgium, Ostend is another privileged stopover with fantastic fish stalls at the quayside, on the way to Holland.

Zeebrugge gives you access to the magnificent Bruges 6.5m inland and Antwerp has a marina in the middle of a beautiful city.

The Netherlands

The inland waterways of the Netherlands provide a pleasant cruising ground with protected waters for novice crews.

Using the Standing Mast routes, you can travel the country and land in the center of beautiful towns on elegant streets too numerous to list.

The night convoy through Amsterdam, the Zaanse Shans museum with 18 windmills in Zaandam; the Westfries Museum (celebration of the golden age) in Hoorn; Rembrandt’s house in Amsterdam; and the cylindrical painting of 120m in circumference, the Panoramic message, in The Hague not to be missed.

The canal to Haarlem offers the surreal experience of your cockpit above the cows grazing beneath you.

The Markermeer and the IJsselmeer are shallow but you get used to sailing at only 3m, and the bottom is quite flat.

A passage through Amsterdam at night is a must.  Credit: Royal Netherlands Navy

A passage through Amsterdam at night is a must. Credit: Royal Netherlands Navy

The canals and pinch points are very well marked.

The Standing Mast booklet contains chartlets and opening times for bridges and locks that all work like clockwork.

The huge sea locks are intimidating at first, but the ships and yachts are separated and they are well protected and generally sheltered from the swells.

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There are several entry points to the canal system, with Vlissingen (Flushing) being one of the favorites.

Sailors in East Anglia commonly use Roompotsluis. There are several others.

An inner lock can accommodate 40 yachts in a single lock. In Dokkum, the lock keeper swings a shoe on a rod at you so you can pay the fee as you pass.

And who can visit Holland without acquiring a piece of Delft pottery?

Heading for the Baltic

If the weather is bad outside for passage to and from the Baltic, progression can be made from southwest to northeast via the canals using the upright mast routes.

Making the passage is slower, but better than being subjected to inclement weather in North Sea ports.

Harlingen gives access to the northern canal towards Lauwersoog or Delfzil on the Ems.

It is a slightly shallower canal, although the Dutch still ride fairly deep yachts (1.9 to 2.0 m draft) without batting an eyelid.

Droughts can affect depths and you should educate yourself before committing.

Northern Europe cruise: Norderney

The waters around Norderney are the territory of Riddle of the Sands. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

From Delfzil, the brave or the curious can take the Memmert Passage south of Juist, which featured in Erskine Childers’ The riddle of the sands, on the German island of Norderney.

The channel can silt up and Delfzil’s HM can provide up-to-date knowledge.

The Waddenzee is a flat inland sea with an ethereal feel.

Quicksand requires up-to-date maps and all of the Frisian Islands are said to be moving east at a rate of 0.5 to 1.0 m per year.

The tides are strong in the gats, which prevents the islands from merging.

Borkum and Norderney each have their own unique identities and are both worth a visit.

Helgoland is an extraordinary place with a great gannetry, and from there Cuxhaven and the entrance to the Elbe give access to the Kiel Canal and the Baltic beyond.

Cruise in Northern Europe: what you need to know

The Gouffre du Castel-Meuru, near Tréguier, stands between huge rocks of pink granite.  Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

The Gouffre du Castel-Meuru, near Tréguier, stands between huge rocks of pink granite. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Season

Much like in the UK, the weather is dominated by Atlantic weather systems, but a period of high mainland pressure can be glorious.

The prevailing southwesterly winds make sailing east along the coast easier than sailing west. June and July are more reliable for summer weather than August.

Cruise hubs

Saint Malo, Guernsey, Cherbourg, Boulogne-sur-Mer, Vlissingen, Amsterdam, Cuxhaven

Publications for cruising in Northern Europe

The pilot of the Shell chain

Buy the Reeds Nautical Almanac on Amazon UK

Buy the Reeds Nautical Almanac on Amazon US

Shop The Channel Islands, Cherbourg Peninsula & Northern Brittany by Peter Carnegie on Amazon UK

Shop the Channel Islands, Cherbourg Peninsula and North Brittany by Peter Carnegie on Amazon US

Buy Tom Cunliffe’s The Shell Channel Pilot on Amazon UK

Buy Brian Navin’s North Sea Passage Pilot on Amazon UK

Germany and Denmark

Buy The Netherlands Cruise Guide By Brian Navin On Amazon UK

Buy The Netherlands Cruise Guide By Brian Navin on Amazon US

Buy Brian Navin’s Germany & Denmark Cruise Guide on Amazon UK

Buy Brian Navin’s Germany & Denmark Cruise Guide on Amazon US

Note: We may earn a commission when you purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you. It does not affect our editorial independence.

Airports

Brest, Rennes, Caen, Lille, Brussels, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Amsterdam Schipol

Ferry Ports

Channel Islands, Cherbourg, Le Havre, Calais, Zeebrugge, Hook of Holland (Rotterdam), IJmuiden, Cuxhaven


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