Cruising northern Europe: The best places to sail to

Miranda Delmar-Morgan recommends a few of her favourite places to sail when cruising northern Europe between Atlantic France and the Kiel Canal

Cruising northern Europe exposes sailors to a whole host of beautiful harbours, ports and anchorages.

We take a look at some favourite cruising areas to inspire you to make some firm plans for the next season.

Cruising northern Europe: Homewaters and Channel coasts

Northern Brittany is full of both charm and challenge for anyone looking to escape the UK south coast for a week or two, says Miranda Delmar-Morgan.

Miranda Delmar Morgan is an author of multiple pilot and reference books and has logged over 100,000 miles. She currently owns a Najad 390

Miranda Delmar Morgan is an author of multiple pilot and reference books and has logged over 100,000 miles. She currently owns a Najad 390

L’Aber Wrac’h is the turning point for arrivals from the south up the Chenal du Four and for turning east.

The Île de Batz is a charming otherworldly place, with an alarming inshore passage littered with hazards but well marked.

East of the attractive Roscoff lies Morlaix with an impressive viaduct 5M up a channel marked with transits.

Any deviation risks immediate grounding in deep soft mud and the outer approaches need care.

Les Sept Îles are a bird reserve with a huge gannetry, and two anchorages on the southern side. Trébeurden is a useful stop but Ploumanac’h is the jewel in the crown with large pink boulders on the Granite Rose coast.

Both Lézardrieux on the Trieux River and Tréguier on the Tréguier River are lovely towns, and the areas around Les Îles de Bréhat and Paimpol are full of interest.

Cruising Northern Europe

Sailors cruising northern Europe are spoilt for choice. Credit: Maxine Heath

An inward journey up the uncharted Trieux River takes you to the pretty little town of Pontrieux where you lock in and lie on the wall. Tréguier and Lézardrieux are a common departure point for crossing over to the Channel Islands.

The west coast of the Cotentin peninsula, Les Îles Chausey, the area around St Malo as far as Les Îles de Bréhat provide for a circular cruise.

A highlight of cruising Northern Europe - market day at Treguier. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

A highlight of cruising northern Europe – market day at Tréguier. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

They are challenging waters with big tides. Granville for instance has a 12m rise and fall.

The whole of the Brittany coast is a seafood lovers’ haven with streetside cafés and restaurants crammed with crustaceans, and their crêpes and gallettes are a Breton speciality.

Both St Malo, with its wonderful Grand Aquarium and Mont St Michel not far away, and Granville, with its Christian Dior Museum, are wonderful towns, and of course St Malo has excellent ferry connections with the Channel Islands.

Channel Islands

The Channel Islands provide a cruising ground within themselves.

Alderney (whose residents were evacuated to Weymouth in WW2) has a wild feel with much of the history of the German occupation still in evidence with large forts.

It is lined on both sides with swingeing tides in the Alderney Race and the Swinge.

The Corbett Rock is visible in the Swinge at slack tide before the tide starts running hard to the south and there is an inner passage of relatively calm water usually visible.

However, the Swinge and the Alderney Race are not to be trifled with and first visits should be timed to coincide with neap tides.

Cruising Northern Europe

Jersey has many beautiful beaches, like Portlet Bay. Credit: Will Bruton

You can anchor at Burhou but not go ashore, as it is a bird reserve. Sailors in Victoria Marina in St Peter Port can step ashore straight into the town, and facilities are excellent.

The waiting pontoons outside are also now shore linked.

Home to Victor Hugo, and duty free shops, it is a popular destination and a useful port for crew changes.

Sark and Little Sark are a delight with moorings off the Guillot passage and several anchorages, Herm has wonderful beaches and Jersey has the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (ex-Jersey Zoo).

The islands have a warm maritime climate and an interesting history.

Moving up Channel

From Cherbourg eastwards there are many nice stops.

Nobody should miss St Vaast La Hougue on the Cotentin peninsula, which has the renowned Maison Gosselin delicatessen, and the wonderful Vauban fort on the UNESCO listed Île de Tatihou.

Carentan is approached up a charming canal with pastoral scenes.

The Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches is a fascinating place and in Honfleur you are surrounded by a town which is an artist’s delight.

Fécamp has a good tidal yacht marina

Fécamp has a good tidal yacht marina

Fécamp is the home of the Benedictine monks and their delicious liqueur. Deauville/Trouville are fashionable holiday resorts.

Boulogne, Dieppe, Calais and Dunkirk all have deep water entrances and old town centres.

In Belgium, Ostend is another favoured stop with fantastic quayside fish stalls, on the way up to Holland.

Zeebrugge gives you access to the magnificent Bruges 6.5M inland and Antwerp has a marina in the middle of a beautiful town.

The Netherlands

The inland waterways of the Netherlands provide a delightful cruising ground with protected waters for novice crew.

Using the Standing Mast routes you can make your way up and down the country and step ashore in the centre of beautiful towns onto elegant streets too numerous to list.

The night convoy through Amsterdam, the Zaanse Shans museum with 18 windmills at Zaandam; the Westfries Museum (celebrating the Golden Age) at Hoorn; Rembrandt’s house in Amsterdam; and the 120m circumference cylindrical painting, the Panorama Mesdag, in the Hague should not be missed.

The canal to Haarlem provides the surreal experience of your cockpit being above the cows grazing beneath you.

The Markermeer and Ijsselmeer are shallow but you eventually get used to sailing in a mere 3m, and the bottom is fairly even.

A passage through Amsterdam by night is unmissable. Credit: Royal Netherlands Navy

A passage through Amsterdam by night is unmissable. Credit: Royal Netherlands Navy

Channels and pinch points are very well buoyed.

The Standing Mast booklet has chartlets, and bridge and lock opening times which all run like clockwork.

The huge sea locks are initially daunting but ships and yachts are separated and they are well protected and usually free from swell.

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There are several entry points to the canal system, Vlissingen (Flushing) being one of the favourites.

East Anglia sailors commonly use Roompotsluis. There are several others.

One inland lock can accommodate 40 yachts in one locking. At Dokkum the lock keeper swings a clog on a rod towards you for you to put in the fee as you pass through.

And who can visit Holland without acquiring a piece of Delft pottery?

Heading for the Baltic

If weather is bad outside for passage making to and from the Baltic then progress can be made south-west to north-east via the canals using the Standing Mast routes.

Passage making is slower, but better than being weatherbound in the North Sea ports.

Harlingen provides access to the northern canal to Lauwersoog or Delfzil on the Ems.

This is a slightly shallower canal though the Dutch still take quite deep (1.9-2.0m draught) yachts up it without batting an eyelid.

Droughts can affect the depths and you should enquire before committing.

Cruising northern Europe: Norderney

The waters around Norderney are Riddle of the Sands territory. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

From Delfzil the brave or curious can take the Memmert passage south of Juist, which featured in Erskine Childers’ Riddle of the Sands, to the German island of Norderney.

The channel may be silting up and the HM at Delfzil may provide up-to-date knowledge.

The Waddenzee is a flat inland sea with an ethereal feel.

The shifting sands demand up-to-date charts and all the Friesian islands are said to be shifting eastwards at a rate of 0.5m-1.0m per year.

The tides run hard in the gats which keeps the islands from merging with each other.

Borkum and Norderney each have their own distinctive identities and are both worth a visit.

Helgoland is an extraordinary place with a large gannetry, and from there, Cuxhaven and the entry to the Elbe give access to the Kiel Canal and the Baltic beyond.

Cruising northern Europe: What you need to know

Le Gouffre du Castel-Meuru, near Treguier, sits between huge granite rose rocks. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Le Gouffre du Castel-Meuru, near Tréguier, sits between huge granite rose rocks. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo


Much as with the UK, the weather is dominated by Atlantic weather systems, but a spell of continental high pressure can be glorious.

Prevailing winds from the south-west make heading east along the coast easier than sailing west. June and July are more reliable for summer weather than August.

Cruising hubs

Saint Malo, Guernsey, Cherbourg, Boulogne-sur-Mer, Vlissingen, Amsterdam, Cuxhaven

Publications for cruising northern Europe

The Shell Channel Pilot

Buy the Reeds Nautical Almanac at Amazon UK

Buy the Reeds Nautical Almanac at Amazon US

Buy Channel Islands, Cherbourg Peninsula and North Brittany by Peter Carnegie at Amazon UK

Buy Channel Islands, Cherbourg Peninsula and North Brittany by Peter Carnegie at Amazon US

Buy The Shell Channel Pilot by Tom Cunliffe at Amazon UK

Buy the North Sea Passage Pilot by Brian Navin at Amazon UK

Germany and Denmark

Buy the Cruising Guide to the Netherlands by Brian Navin at Amazon UK

Buy the Cruising Guide to the Netherlands by Brian Navin at Amazon US

Buy the Cruising Guide to Germany & Denmark by Brian Navin at Amazon UK

Buy the Cruising Guide to Germany & Denmark by Brian Navin at Amazon US

Note: We may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site, at no extra cost to you. This doesn’t affect our editorial independence.


Brest, Rennes, Caen, Lille, Brussels, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Amsterdam Schipol

Ferry ports

Channel Islands, Cherbourg, Le Havre, Calais, Zeebrugge, Hook of Holland (Rotterdam), IJmuiden, Cuxhaven

Source: Yachting Monthly

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