The Belgian North Sea coast has four ports. After industrial Zeebrugge we pass Blankenberge – only about 4 miles away as the crow flies. No concrete breakwaters that reach far into the sea here, but a historic palisade. This shallow harbor entrance is notorious. Local sailmaker Ian Wittevrongel is reassuring.
This article was previously published in To sail edition 02/2022
Text: Klaas Wiersma & Joris Westerveld
We have known for a week that a depression will come through the Channel for the planned crossing from Zeebrugge to Blankenberge. We keep a close eye on the predictions: will it be a channel rat or not so bad? On the day of departure, the models seem to agree. It will continue to blow at around 20 knots, from a westerly direction. That can be done for our editorial boat Zoef of 6.28 meters.
Read part I of the Sailing Guide Belgian coast here
After leaving the Zeebrugge marina, you immediately enter the seaport. We report on channel 71 and are immediately in the middle of the hustle and bustle. A large tug, coming from the lock to Bruges, is steaming towards the sea, a fishing boat is just on its way home and further on a coaster is busy mooring. So it can be hectic here, but today everyone sails quietly past each other. When we have arrived in calmer waters, we hoist the sails. It is no less than 2.5 miles to the sea along concrete quays with high cranes of container terminals.
Inside, in the shelter of the harbor walls, nothing seems to be going on, but in the distance we see seas rolling by. A naval ship that leans dangerously at an angle passes us and starts to stomp hard at the mouth of the harbour. We’re going to sea, that’s for sure. To be on the safe side, we roll the jib a little further in, so that in combination with the double-reefed sail we do not have too much cloth up. We put the VHF on channel 69, Traffic Center Zeebrugge.
The journey to Blankenberge is not that long, about as far as from the Oranjesluizen to Pampus. It was low tide this morning at 9:52 am and 4.5 meters of water will be added in the coming hours. A considerable difference in tide, but we just happen to be sailing here at spring tide. Usually the difference between high and low is less here. The direction of the current does not reverse off the Belgian coast at the same time as high and low water. The turn of the current is only at half tide, so 3 hours after high or low tide. This means that after low tide there will be electricity from the northeast for another 3 hours. Today the current will not be encountered until around 13:00. By the way, the current strength here is a maximum of 2 knots.
Because the current is with us and we would rather have a little more than a little less current at our back, we decide, once outside the piers of Zeebrugge, to first make a blow out to sea and only then to sail south-west. The disadvantage of this plan is the wind against current situation, which causes higher and steeper waves.
Run up Blankenberge
We study the run-up to Blankenberge carefully. The harbor is known to be dangerous with a northwesterly from 6 Beaufort. It can be shallow in front of the harbor and in the harbor channel between the piers. It is difficult to estimate how deep or shallow the harbor channel is. The website Meetnet Vlaamse Banken, published by the Agency for Maritime and Coastal Services, does contain up-to-date data on the current wind force at the jetty and the tide in the port. But we can’t find a current depth of the harbor entrance anywhere.
The entrance is dredged every spring, but silts up again during the season. Especially after a strong southwesterly storm, a lot of sand remains behind in the harbor entrance. At low tide it will dry out, but the channel is easily navigable at high tide (when the water level is around 4 metres). However, things go wrong a few times a year and sailing yachts get stuck. Blankenberge therefore has its own rescue service. Even though there has not been a strong storm recently and we understand that the harbor channel is at a good depth during our visit, we do not take any risks and make sure that we arrive in front of the harbor a few hours after low tide. There will then be enough water, and it was allowed Zoef manage to find a bench, then the tide will soon lift her loose again.
Once you get outside the quay walls Zoef clap. Sometimes she completely separates from a wave, after which she ends up in the wave trough with a thump. Just as I marvel at the light fittings used to secure the mainsheet in the cockpit, a harp pops loose. We sting Zoef in the wind to put things back together. A little later she dives into another wave and a large bowl of North Sea water comes over us. This wave bends the mounting of the horseshoe lifebuoy on the back and washes the brand new contraption overboard. Shame.
Everything is under control, but I’m starting to understand why the Beneteau First 210 has a CE-C certificate for her seaworthiness. We regularly see 25 knots on the gauge. Wind force 6. According to the forecasts, the wind will not increase. That’s a good thing, because even more wind would make it difficult to cross.
Blankenberge comes into the picture soon after leaving Zeebrugge. We see the high-rise buildings that are so typical for the Belgian coastline from afar. Protruding from the beach on the northeast side of the entrance is the well-known wooden picket fence, the sturdy jetty built into the sea. On the southwest side is a newer, concrete version of the structure.
After one last altitude blow we set course for the harbor entrance. The wooden picket fence gets closer and closer and we fall off. Surfing on the waves we glide into Blankenberge.
During our visit to Blankenberge, the pier still consists of walking piers on both sides of the waterway. To prevent the harbor entrance from becoming silted up, a new construction will be built on the south side that should prevent silting up. A dam will be built for this purpose, which will protrude further into the sea than the current pier. This dam will be partly submerged and will require extra attention when approaching the port of Blankenberge from the south. At the end of 2021 there will be no sign of the construction, but there is a lot of discussion within the municipality about what the dam should look like.
Once a fishing village
Blankenberge was originally a fishing village, although that is hard to imagine nowadays. Yet there is still something to be found of the fishing past. There are two historic ships in the marina: Jacqueline-Denise, a beautifully restored wooden shrimp boat from just before the Second World War, and Sint-Pieter, a replica of the Blankenberge barge (see box on the opposite page). Frank Panesi, chairman of De Scute, an association that upholds the maritime heritage of Belgium and Blankenberge in particular, is happy to talk about it. Panesi: “Until just before the First World War, these barges were used for fishing off the coast. Because there used to be no harbor here at all, the flat-bottomed boats were sailed onto the beach at high tide.” The Scute built the replica and also sails it.
On the Breydelstraat, between the ten-storey flats, another fisherman’s house can be found, the Huisje van Majutte. Beams in the house are made of all kinds of combed wood: elm, oak and spruce. No one knows how old it is, but it is certain that it was inhabited by fishermen for many generations. Now there is a pub.
Sailmaker Ian Wittevrongel (54) was born and raised in Blankenberge. He is the third generation of Wittevrongels in the sailmaking industry. Before that, his family, like almost all Blankenbergers, was active in the fishing industry. His grandfather Achiel (1910) sailed as a fisherman on the B121 Nelly. In 1945 this Nelly ran on a war mine, the ship sank and the entire crew perished. By coincidence Achiel Wittevrongel was not on board. He was ill and had missed this trip. His grandson: “My grandfather was already active in making sails, those were the support sails for the cutters. After that accident, he decided to opt for the sailmaker and did not go to sea again.”
“Since then, the sailmaker has remained in the family. Today we make sails for sailing yachts. We make the sails here from scratch. The fabric is laser cut on our cutting table.” And as if by chance, the compressor, which pulls the tarpaulin firmly against the table with air pressure, starts to hum loudly. When the compressor is silent again, Wittevrongel explains how the port was expanded in the 1970s by converting the former sluice basin into a marina as well. As a result, Blankenberge now has more than seven hundred berths. Recently, a piece of marina has even been added.
Two rescue services are active off the Belgian coast. Blankenberge has a voluntary rescue service, the Voluntary Blankenbergse Zeereddingsdienst (VBZR). This service covers the northern part of the Belgian North Sea coast. On the southern part, the commercial Ship Support is active from Nieuwpoort (more about this in Zeilen 4/2022). The VBZR has three ships that can set sail at any time and a beach vehicle. The rescue service carries out an average of about two hundred rescues per year. Part of this consists of pulling stranded yachts loose in the harbor entrance at low tide during periods when it is heavily silted up. With the arrival of the new dam, that could soon be a thing of the past.
Medieval flat bottom
The Blankenberge barge was a flat-bottomed boat made of oak and elm, and had to be incredibly sturdy: when stranded they often arrived thumping. The four-sided sails were hung from a yardarm on the two masts. A very clumsy rig. Panesi: “Unlike the fishermen in Nieuwpoort and Ostend, who did have a port and maintained close contact with outside
Dutch fishermen, the Blankenbergers held on to their medieval vessel until the early 20th century.” But the ships did not have to go to windward; with the prevailing westerly winds the ships went out to sea, drifted along with the ebb current and then with the high tide, and then sailed onto the beach at Blankenberge.
Cover photo and photos: Klaas Wiersma
Text: Klaas Wiersma & Joris Westerveld
Tags: Blankenberge Last modified: May 17, 2023