The Netherlands is well-known for its rich maritime history spanning hundreds of years. The name Netherlands literally means ‘lower countries’ due to its remarkably low and flat geography, with around 50% of its land being at least one metre above sea level and much of it being claimed from the water over the centuries. Much of the country was formed by the estuaries of three large rivers: the Rhine, the Meuse and the Scheldt. Indeed, to this very day the south-west of the Netherlands is a river delta of those three rivers, forming the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta which provides very important shipping routes to Belgium, France and Germany.
The reclamation of land over the centuries has resulted in a vast 4400km long network of dikes, canals and pumps, on top of 451km of coastline. In addition to their low-lying watery geography, much of modern Dutch history is also built upon the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century, a time when the Dutch Empire grew to become one of the greatest seafaring and economic powers of the era through The Dutch East India Company and Dutch West India Company, which established colonies and trading routes throughout the world.
Sailing, a dutch way of life
As a result of this watery heritage, sailing has always been and remains a very important part of Dutch life. The Dutch remain keen boaters and sailors, with more than a half a million boats on the water; enough for one boat for every 32 or so people. As well as sailing on the North Sea and on the many meers, many Dutch also sail and boat inland, making use of around 600 marinas throughout the land to rest and refuel. This long history of nautical tradition coupled with the incredibly well-developed and liberal marine infrastructure mean that the Netherlands is a very accessible and rewarding country in which to sail.
The waterways of the Netherlands span the entire country, connecting the many large bodies of water of the Netherlands to each other and to the main rivers of the country. One of the best and most popular areas to sail in the Netherlands is the IJsselmeer in the north, a 1100km lake created from the Zuiderzee as a result of the construction of the IJsselmeer dyke.
Providing access to and from the North Sea, the shores of the IJsselmeer are home to some very beautiful and historic ports and fishing villages such as Enkhuizen, the home of the Dutch East India Company, the well-known fishing village of Voldendam, and Lemmer and Makkum on the east shore. The IJsselmeer also provides access to the Wadden Islands of Texel, Vlieland, Terschelling, Ameland and Schiermonnikoog, amongst many others. In the south, Zeeland provides ample opportunities for sailing, such as the Grevelingenmeer with its harbour towns of Brouwershaven and Den Osse, and the Ooosterschelde, the largest national park in the Netherlands with a large variety of sea life, which also allows for scuba diving and other activities.
The ANWB organisation provide guides (waterkaarten) to the waterways in the Netherlands on paper and also as a free mobile app, as well as providing opening times to the many bridges and locks, information about ports and general sailing guidelines and regulations. No licence is necessary to sail a boat which is less than 15m in length and not capable of speeds over 20kmph, and sailing on the North Sea doesn’t need a licence if the trip is not commercial.
Last but not least, the Netherlands is home to SAIL Amsterdam, a sailing event that takes place every five years, and its scale and domestic popularity is a testiment to the importance and value that Dutch people place on sailing and the nation’s maritime roots. Tall ships from all over the world sail to Amsterdam for this event, providing an excellent opportunity to both take part in the event as well as visit ships from different eras and countries. In the 2015 edition, around 130 tall ships sailed to Amsterdam and it received around 2.3 million visitors. The next edition will take place in 2020, a perfect excuse to visit Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and all of the sailing adventures that the country has to offer.