Over the marshy land with the cranberries, the small lake, up over a dune top, out of sight for a while. Back between two peaks, a few quick wing beats and a glide over the water again. Rocking, wings in a shallow V, catching thermals and then sliding diagonally over a wedge of wind. For example, the marsh harrier uses the air currents seemingly effortlessly. He reads the landscape. For the spectators, a few walkers on the northern edge of Terschelling, the harrier makes its space visible for a moment. And so he also reads from the landscape.
It was supposed to be a sailing trip from Zeeland across the North Sea to the German Wadden, but with too much headwind it turned out differently. That’s why we’ve been windswept in the harbor of West Terschelling for a few days now. Lots of walking, nothing else is possible.
Looking at that harrier, I notice the parallel with sailing and the sea. Narrow margins determine your journey. Not too much wind, not too little, and from the right angle because you cannot sail against the wind. You prefer the current along the coast, which changes direction twice a day. Especially when crossing the traffic jam of container ships on the Nieuwe Waterweg, which you want to leave behind as quickly as possible. But that inevitably means against the flow at some other time. For example, the elements close many doors for the sailor and only open a few.
When you sail, the sea is not a seascape, but something you experience, all those salty forces that act on you – cooperate when it is good, or you feel how they work against you, of course. This is how a sailboat reads the landscape. Often without the heedless grace, the sprezzatura of the harrier. But it is satisfying to make yourself an instrument of wind and water.
As a sailor you – fortunately, by the way – cannot escape two dimensions; you stay on the thin membrane that stretches from the beach to the horizon. Sometimes a gannet breaks through the boundary between air and water like a harpoon. A seal watches you, not overly interested.
3D at sea, call it the aquatic view: fishermen have it, know from father to son between the gravel banks and sand ledges the best haul for plaice or sole.
The government also has an all-seeing eye. If you want to get an impression, you have to the North Sea Atlas save, which our most important ministry has been publishing for half a century. The Water Management includes not only the land behind the dikes, but also the Dutch part of the North Sea: one and a half times the land area. To the furthest point, northwest of Den Helder, it is three hundred kilometers, two or three days of sailing.
The empire misses nothing; his North Sea is made of glass. How does river water mix with the salty sea? Where is the most lead or cadmium in the water? Where do bristleworms and echinoderms live? Where are the deepwater routes? Where are oil and gas wells located? Where is fishing with a trawl prohibited? Where are historical wrecks, sand pits, and shooting areas for the navy and air force? And where are the last salty plots in those 57,800 square kilometers where in principle – which is something other than in principle – there is no human activity whatsoever?
Compare atlases from different years and you open up another dimension. Until 1969, industrial waste was discharged just below the coast. And until 1992, the Dutch North Sea was operated by special ships chemical waste burned, up to 100,000 tons annually. “There was [toen] little knowledge about the environmental effects,” the atlas of that year notes, somewhat too emphatically.
The North Sea was thus both an endless region – of fish, and of oil and gas, the exploitation of which was just beginning – and an enormous carpet to hold everything under. Storehouse and rubbish dump in one; that is only possible if you pretend that the sea is still untamed, empty and limitless, a salty wasteland.
“The North Sea is a nation without a capital, but it has a powerful identity,” says Danish writer Dorthe Nors in Along the coastline (2022), travel book and memoir in one. So big, just like “the largest landscapes in America,” that you knew nature had its own consciousness. Nature’s sense of time, place and direction had become detached from our own little world of ideas.”
But in the meantime the opposite has happened. ‘Our world of ideas’ has subjugated the North Sea, made it small.
On the maps in the latest North Sea Atlas – now online – no square meter seems to be left unused. The sea is now so full that users are getting in each other’s way, although the government insists that it will work if everyone agrees. The offshore polders were agreed in 2020 in the North Sea Agreement, which runs until 2030.
But ‘sea wind’ is a cuckoo’s cub. At least 2,500 turbines will be added by 2030. In 2050, if the ‘power target’ of 70 Gigawatt is achieved – now there is less than 5 Gigawatts – it also means a multitude of turbines. Other North Sea countries are working on similar projects. Belgium will be the first to build an artificial island in the sea as a ‘hub’ for cables and transformers. Something similar is also on the drawing board for the Dogger Bank.
Where there are mills, ships cannot sail or swerve in distress. Fishermen can no longer go there with trawl nets. Their sea, once as good as mare liberumis shrinking so rapidly that the survival of the fleet is at stake.
Good intentions enough. The government wants to “maintain a clear view of the horizon from the coast”, so no turbines within the twelve-mile zone. But because of wind turbines with ‘tip heights’ of two hundred meters and more, that clear view is virtually no longer available. The nailed-down horizon is never there not. Seen from the shore and anywhere at sea.
Coastal residents in South Holland were kept awake for nights last year by a bone-jarring sound that couldn’t be helped with fingers in your ears. It was Vattenfall that foundations for its turbines in the new Hollandse Kust Zuid heide park – twenty kilometers from the coast. They are there now. You only can’t see them when it’s misty.
“Our largest home water is changing beyond recognition,” wrote sea sailor Lars Bosma in the magazine last month To sail. “Is there anything I can do there as a water sports enthusiast?” That might be going too far. The North Sea itself has not suddenly become a swimming pool, nor with all those new wind turbines there will still be open water. But certainly in the southern North Sea it doesn’t get any more fun. For those who want to cross, say, from Vlissingen to Harwich, or back from Whitby to Den Helder, all new wind farms close many additional doors. Sailing becomes slaloming. And the night – perhaps the most beautiful moment to be at sea, alone with the stars, fluorescence in your wake – is now a thing of the past thanks to the red flashing horizon. Sailors are the final item anyway.
But the question Bosma asks rightly touches on what is known as shifting baseline syndrome. The term was coined in 1995 by a Canadian fisheries biologist to describe our blind spot in the depletion of the sea due to overfishing over a long period of time. Instead, we focus on small differences in catches over shorter periods of time and tell ourselves that ‘it won’t be too bad’. In this way the ‘baseline’ keeps shifting slightly and we settle for less and less. And that doesn’t just apply to the fish.
That is also what is irritating in the North Sea allotment: the idea that the distribution key – so much percent more for wind turbines and cables, so much less for shipping and fishermen, and so much more for nature – is satisfactory because it is only slightly less favorable or even slightly better than the previous benchmark. But that point has also been shifting for decades.
Undersea hill country
Secondly, the idea that the sea can be reduced to those figures is offensive. Take the Bruine Bank, an undersea hill country halfway between Katwijk and Lowestoft, the size of the province of Utrecht, with elongated sand dunes that can rise as much as twenty meters above the rest of the bottom. Herring and cod spawn there, and many porpoises live there. At the beginning of 2002 it was definitively designated as a Natura 2000 area. There will be no wind turbines, but bottom fishing is still allowed because the protection only applies to birds.
Which birds? Primary ‘A199’ and ‘A200’, but ‘A016’ and ‘A187’ also benefit. Because models show “that the maximum numbers present there per season, averaged over five years, are more than one percent of the estimated relevant biogeographical population,” they qualify for protection.
It is difficult to imagine what other language the government should speak in with this kind of fine-grained regulation. Anyway, the real A119 is the guillemot, of which you sometimes come across a black and white flotilla, floating together in a meeting. As soon as you get too close, they dive under at the same time, as if someone has blown a whistle. The coot, the razorbill, the gannet and the great skua pay little attention to spreadsheets.
In this way, good intentions further disenchant the North Sea. The Bruine Bank is also a place of imagination. These undersea dunes are the remains of a landscape of peat and sand where once, but not so long ago, people lived there who hunted boar and deer. Until the water rose. Their recovered arrowheads and tools, carved from animal bone, show it. The Bruine Bank holds up a mirror to us, allowing us to look at the sea with a longer perspective than the ‘structural visions’ of Rijkswaterstaat: our mainland is also relative.
It mainly distracts from the idea that the North Sea is also a source of a mineral other than fish, gas and wind, not quantifiable but no less real. It is, I think, what Dorthe Nors means by the sea’s ‘own consciousness’. Or as the American writer Annie Dillard calls it in her collection of essays Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982): “the old spectacle of nature, the circus that we chased out of the city.”
You can still extract that mineral by sailing, as long as it takes. Above the Bruine Bank and along the coast. Or at anchor on the mudflats at low tide, when you get the counterintuitive feeling that it is not the water that is sinking, but that you, your ship and the land are rising from the sea.
Photos: Merlin Daleman
Illustrations: Indra Bangaru
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