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Sailing to Germany: Low speed, but high excitement

Crossing the North Sea in a sailing boat is not without its challenges, discovers Hamish McRae

Tell your colleagues that you are off for a week sailing across the North Sea in a small boat and you are greeted with a certain disbelief: "I didn't know you did that sort of thing" or "Gosh, how big is the boat?" The response to the first was that I don't, and to the second, 38 feet – the boat was a Nautor Swan 38, large enough to cross the Atlantic but small enough to be handled by two people.

For yachting enthusiasts, crossing the North Sea is no huge deal, but for this novice it gave a fascinating vision of another world quite different from our usual one. Scary? A bit. Exhausting? Absolutely. Memorable? Utterly. And that last one is because sailing in a small boat is one of the few ways that we can escape from organised, hi-tech, high-speed travel, and move back into a world that travels at the same pace as human beings have been doing for millennia.

For all the modern technology it can carry, any sailing boat is limited by wind, tide and the laws of physics – just as sailing has been since human beings first figured out how to cross the seas. Our trip from Dover to the Kiel Canal, which links the North Sea to the Baltic, came about because my wife's cousins Nigel and Susan Williams wanted to bring Ellida (the 38-footer) to the Baltic for the summer, and a spare hand might be useful.

We set off on a Monday morning from the yacht basin at Dover. It was rather different from leaving the country in any other way: no booking, no screening, no passport check, no ticket, no little plastic bag for liquids. You just head off, though checking with the harbour master in case there is a ferry racing in.

But it is not quite utter freedom. The Channel has the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Yachts – and car ferries – have to go straight across to France by the shortest route and then hug the coast, rather than setting a more direct course to the ultimate destination. The reason is to take Channel-hoppers perpendicular to the huge super-tankers, container ships, bulk carriers and car transporters that at times seem almost nose-to-tail. A 38-footer is small, slow and unimportant alongside these monsters. You want to get out of the way as fast as you possibly can.

By late afternoon, we were safely across the nautical world's M1, and we headed against a darkening sky up the French, Belgian and Dutch coasts to the approaches for Rotterdam. By now, it was midnight. This is the world's third-busiest port (after Shanghai and Singapore), and there is a narrow passage that yachts have to follow when crossing the approaches.

It was hereabouts that the threatened thunderstorm broke out. I went below, while Nigel and Susan soldiered on, two hours on, two hours off, through the night. The sun was high by the time I emerged.

We slogged up the low Dutch coast and got into Den Helder by late Tuesday afternoon. Den Helder is a naval port some 40 miles north of Amsterdam, but yachts can use it, too; we found our way into the marina for showers and supper.

Then it was off first thing next day to try to get as far along the coast as possible. What followed was a good day's sailing, interrupted by being boarded by the Dutch coastguards. It was routine stuff, just ship's papers and our passports, and they were perfectly charming. Satisfied, they shot off, by accident leaving behind a rather useful pair of gloves. Then over the radio came a gale warning – and Nigel made the excellent decision to head for a port. (By now it was Wednesday evening, and you don't have many options for safe harbour on the Friesian coast.)

The only possible place was Borkum, the first German island along the coast. But the tide was against us and we struggled in as the gale rose, arriving not much before midnight. I suppose we could have gone on, but – for me at least – it was one of those nights when you really want to be tied up along a jetty rather than blasted around at sea.

Thursday was another long sail to Cuxhaven, the pretty port at the mouth of the Elbe. During one day, and I guess about 70 miles, we had traversed half Germany's North Sea coast. It makes you realise how lucky we are to have so much coastline, and why the Germans treasure the scraps they have got.

We were stuck there for the whole of Friday, unable to move the 15 or so miles up river to the Kiel Canal entrance, for the simple reason the tide was against us. So we spent the day cycling to the local garage with cans to get more diesel, sitting on top of the cabin with the laptop clearing emails, and having a good fish dinner at Cuxhaven's best restaurant, the Hus o'pn Diek.

A day's motoring up the canal (you have to have the engine on) brought us to Rendsburg, a border town fought over by the Danish and the Germans for hundreds of years. It is home to Europe's longest railway bridge – and not just a railway bridge, for it is a transporter bridge too, with a cable car for foot passengers and vehicles hanging under the tracks. When it was built, it was one of the engineering wonders of the world; now it is one of the few transporter bridges still in working order anywhere in the world.

Having a railway was useful. It was Sunday morning now and time to go home, leaving Ellida to head on along the Baltic. A 10-minute walk to the station, a train to Hamburg and another on to the airport and I was back in Oxford in time for dinner.

A journey that had taken six days one way was six hours the other. I was back in the modern world, moving at the pace we now accept as normal. But that normality is so recent in the history of our species. For thousands of years beforehand, human beings moved, at best, at the pace of a sailing boat – so to sail is to step back in time.

Travel essentials: The North Sea

Companies offering skippered yacht charters for North Sea crossings include:

*Nautor's Swan UK, Southampton (023 8045 4880; swanyachts.co.uk ). Charter starts at £661 per day.

*Elite Sailing, Medway (01634 890512; elitesailing.co.uk ). Charter starts at £440 per day.

*East Anglia School of Sailing, Suffolk Yacht Harbour (01473 659 992; eastanglianseaschool.com ). Charter starts at £550 per day.