Kieran Flatt cruises the Marker Wadden and finds nature is already thriving on the newest part of the Netherlands
God made the world, so the old saying goes, but the Dutch built their country themselves.
For more than a thousand years they’ve been changing, shaping and engineering the landscape and now – just 12 years after a Dutch prime minister famously declared that the Netherlands was finally finished – they’re at it again.
And that’s great news for sailors.
Marker Wadden is the newest part of the Netherlands.
What is Marker Wadden?
It’s an entirely artificial archipelago of five islands comprising some 2,500 acres in the north- east corner of the Markermeer, roughly 21 miles north- east of Amsterdam.
As the name suggests, it’s built to look like a freshwater version of the wild, inaccessible parts of the Waddenzee with a spectacular landscape of towering sand dunes sheltering tranquil lagoons, reed beds, mud flats and great swathes of wetland plants.
Fish spawn and shrimp thrive in the shallows.
More than 500 avocets, along with many other endangered birds, have already made the islands their home.
Unlike most conservation zones, Marker Wadden isn’t a no-go area for humans.
On the contrary, it’s been designed for people to visit and enjoy.
How to visit
The largest of the five islands is open to visitors, criss-crossed by eight miles of footpaths and boardwalks leading to secluded beaches, birdwatching hides and a watchtower that offers a spectacular panoramic view.
Only small numbers of people are allowed onto Haveneiland by ferry, a few times a week, but sailors with their own boats can visit at any time.
There’s a good-sized guest harbour with all-round shelter, plenty of depth, marina berths and boxes for at least a hundred yachts and stagings for larger vessels.
When my wife Rachel and I first cruised there in April 2019 aboard our Twister 28 Cleaver II, Marker Wadden was so new that it hadn’t been properly charted yet.
No soundings were given on Dutch ANWB charts, which still had it labelled as a no-entry zone.
Even Navionics’ crowd-sourced Sonar Charts were inaccurate back then, indicating barely a metre of water.
Approaching the entrance with only a hunch about the depths, we were reassured to see much larger vessels snugly moored inside.
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In fact there’s a maintained depth of 2.9m throughout most of the harbour including most of the yacht pontoons and 1.6m right up close to the beach.
Unlike the havens in the tidal Waddenzee, pilotage in and out of the Marker Wadden harbour is very easy indeed.
You just point your bow at the gap between the breakwaters and sail or motor in.
Berthing fees are moderate at €1.30 per metre per night, payable via the Blue Water mobile phone app, which allows you to reserve a berth in advance – a wise move if you visit in peak holiday season when the harbour is likely to be busy.
Volunteers act as rangers and wardens while local boat owners serve as harbourmasters, maintaining a presence on the island all year round.
Hans van Amstel, on duty during our first visit and living aboard his handsome Colin Archer-style yacht in Haveneiland marina, was a welcoming and enthusiastic host.
One thing you’re not allowed to do, he explained, is use your own anchor. Square-rigged sailing ships regularly visit the harbour and they need space to manoeuvre.
A re-wilding process
The big idea behind Marker Wadden is to create a self-sustaining ecosystem that will kick-start a ‘rewilding’ process across the entire Markermeer, a huge expanse of navigable water which, despite its charms as a cruising ground for sailing yachts, has deteriorated into a dead zone over the last 20 years.
This whole area used to teem with life. Its huge shoals of fish sustained many thousands of people living in villages, towns and cities around its perimeter.
White-tailed sea eagles and ospreys patrolled the skies, a multitude of black storks prowled the shallows and great flocks of pelicans shared the fishermen’s catch.
Its rich fishing grounds and bird life continued to thrive even after the Afsluitdijk dam and causeway was built in the 1920s and 30s, cutting off the old saltwater Zuiderzee from the North Sea to create the freshwater IJsselmeer.
Things began to change for the worse, though, after the construction of the Houtribdijk dam across the middle of the lake, which was completed in 1975, enclosing the 270 square mile Markermeer on its southern side.
The plan back then was to drain the whole area, farm it and build on it – as with the adjoining polders of Flevoland province – but the scheme was shelved and the huge lake behind the dyke remained, gradually stagnating as a thick, yoghurt-like layer of fine alluvial silt began to smother and kill the freshwater mussels that played a crucial role in filtering the water.
The churning action of wind-driven waves keeps so much silt suspended in the water that very little light finds its way into the murky depths, which are now worryingly bereft of fish, shellfish and water plants.
The good news is that the Markermeer’s future is now looking bright, thanks to the charity Natuurmonumenten whose team of campaigning ecologists have masterminded the remarkable Marker Wadden project and continue to lead it.
‘My colleague Roel Posthoorn had the original idea back in 2011,’ says the organisation’s spokeswoman Rita Oppenhuizen.
‘It was he who first suggested creating these islands in this corner of the lake and started the campaign to build them.
‘The problems with silt and biodiversity in the Markermeer were well known but for a long time the responsibility had been pushed back and forth between officials in various departments of regional and national government.
‘It took a lot of discussions with politicians to convince them to support our solution.’
Posthoorn also secured the first €15m of funding for the project, which came
from the Dutch national postcode lottery.
‘We had to work very quickly because the money came with one condition: we had to start building within a year or give it back,’ Oppenhuizen says.
‘And we convinced the national government to provide another €30m.’
Regional government bodies also contributed and Natuurmonumenten invested some of its own money, too.
‘When we had €50m, we knew we could start building.’
Boskalis – one of the companies involved in building the Houtribdijk back in the 1970s – won the contract to create Marker Wadden and started work in 2016, dredging up 30 million cubic metres of sand, clay and silt from the bottom of the lake to form the archipelago.
Working closely with Natuurmonumenten’s ecologists and the Dutch government agency Rijkswaterstaat, the firm’s hydraulic engineers have designed the islands to catch and contain the smothering silt, creating a natural water treatment system to make the turbid water clear again.
Much of the work that went into Boskalis’s cutting- edge design is invisible: an artificial reef protects Marker Wadden from the erosive wave action of the prevailing southwesterly winds and a large area of underwater pits and trenches surrounding the islands acts as a giant funnel, channelling silt into the shallows and keeping it there.
The archipelago of five islands is now nearly completed at an overall cost of around €76m but the project is just getting started.
‘This is just phase one,’ Oppenhuizen explains. ‘We have plans for many more islands.’
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Marker Wadden project is how quickly nature has moved in.
Haveneiland, which was opened to visitors in September 2018, already feels like it’s always been there.
The rewilding process is well under way, with remarkable speed and spectacular results.
Zooplankton, a crucial link in the chain of life that had been absent from the Markermeer for many years ‘appeared out of nowhere’, as one of the volunteer rangers puts it.
Shrimp, fish and huge flocks of birds – more than 60 species so far including spoonbills, avocets, pochards, goldeneyes, endangered godwits, ruffs and rare little terns – soon followed suit.
After just two years the islands’ interiors are carpeted with rare wetland plants.
A simple strategy
‘We are not actively reintroducing any bird or plant species,’ Oppenhuizen says, ‘other than planting a small area with reeds, which was necessary to hold the silt in place.’
Instead, the strategy is simply to build the islands and see what turns up.
‘We expect the sea eagles to return, as they are already breeding again in the Netherlands,’ she says, ‘and it’s possible that the pelicans will come back but we don’t know yet.’
Remarkable though it is, Marker Wadden is not the only ambitious new rewilding project under way in the Markermeer.
The western half of the Houtribdijk itself is now being transformed on both sides, using ten million cubic metres of sand, from a stark, unnatural and inhospitable rock-armoured dyke into a 10-kilometre long, 70m wide sandy beach stretching all the way to Enkhuizen, due for completion next year.
Topped with grassy dunes, this new beach will provide a further habitat for wildlife and a recreation area for people.
And on the Markermeer side of the Houtribdijk another brand new archipelago of nature reserve islands, called Trintelzand, is rapidly taking shape.
Natuurmonumenten is involved once again, this time in an advisory role, having persuaded the Dutch government to follow the example of Marker Wadden and repair the dyke by creating a natural barrier to absorb the power of the waves rather than just dropping more rocks into the lake.
And the old Trintelhaven harbour of refuge on the north side of the dyke, which used to be a rather bleak destination, will reopen as an improved yacht harbour once all the works are complete, giving sailors access to Trintelzand and another good reason to visit this wonderful and rapidly improving cruising ground.
Kieran Flatt is a freelance writer, senior partner of Mainstay Media and former YM editor.
He sails a 28ft Twister, and has cruised extensively in Biscay, the Irish Sea, English Channel, North Sea and Baltic.
He is writing a new pilot book for The Netherlands and Belgium, to be published by the Royal Cruising Club Pilotage Foundation and Imray.