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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

Racing the Wadden Sea with a Silt Sled

The mud flats of the Wadden Sea are endless. But what to do with it? How do you give meaning to mud? Yes, one cubic-meter mud flat contains millions of diatoms, thousands of small crabs, mussels, snails and worms. For birds all this frutti di mare is like ordering à la carte. Birds are nice, okay. However, the real meaning of mud is when you go down and dirty and take part in a silt-sled race. Each year, races take place at the mud flats of the Wadden Sea coast of Germany and of the Netherlands, and of 日本 (Japan) too.

We wrote about it before, living on the endless flat lands near the Wadden Sea takes an acquired taste. Especially, the loads of free-time people from the north of Germany and the Netherlands have. And, the sports they practice are both eccentric and exotic. We recall some of their sports: searching for peewit eggs, leaping-far with wooden poles of four meters long or longer, and playing the palm game kaatsen which is a kind of pelota. Read our post What's hip and happening at the grasslands to learn more.

And, then there is silt-sled racing too! The chill and exciting topic of this post. We understand, you never heard of it. Although, you might have heard of the German singer Yared Dibaba und die Schlickrutscher.

What is a silt sled?

A silt sled is, as the word gives away, a sled to slide over the soft, silty mud flats of the Wadden Sea. A shallow sea that is UNESCO-listed, and stretches from northern Netherlands to northwest Germany, all the way to the southwestern-most tip of Jutland. Also, in provinces Zuid Holland and Zeeland in the Netherlands silt sleds were used for getting around on the seabed at low tide.

In Dutch speech a silt sled is called a slikslee or a waddenstep, and in German it is called a Wattschlitten or, indeed, a Schlickrutscher. In Grunnings Low-Saxon speech it is called a kraaite or kraite. In Oostfreesk Low-Saxon speech it is called a Creier, Kreier or Kreyer. In Mid-Frisian speech it is called a slykslide. In Butjadingen it is called a Schusch. Finally, in Japan it is called a 潟スキー meaning 'lagoon skiing' and pronounced as kata sukī. In this post we will focus on the sleds used on the sweeping seabeds of the Wadden Sea.

slikslee schlickrutscher kraaite kraite kreier kreyer mudsled
silt sled to empty fishing pods

Like any regular sled, the sliding surface curls at the front. Specific of this sled type is, that it has low-standing boards all around to prevent it from sinking into the mud. Like a little boat. Furthermore, you use it like an ordinary step on wheels to get it into motion, like when you were a kid. Racing the sidewalk.

Other silt sleds are more advanced. Especially in Germany along the coast of Land Wursten and Butjadingen near the mouth of the River Weser at the German Bight. These posh and slick sleds are being pulled by dogs.

Of course, parallels with the Inuit sleds of Greenland on snow instead of mud, did not stay unnoticed. Initiatives are being developed to train seals to replace the ordinary dogs. Not without reason a seal is called a seehûn 'sea dog' in Mid-Frisian language. However, training seals to pull silt sleds turned out to be more time consuming as was anticipated. We promise, the day will come soon you will be able to see silt sleds being pulled by seals. Having the additional bonus, it does not matter whether it is ebb-tide or flood-tide. Of the two seal species in the Wadden Sea, training common seals appears more promising than training grey seals.

Silt sleds were mainly used to move around at the mud flats by fishermen to go to their V-shaped fish weirs and traps, called visweer or harge (in Dutch), or Buttschütte (in Oostfreesk), with at the V-angle the fishing pods. These weirs and traps were placed in gullies at the Wadden Sea.

At ebb-tide, fishermen could roam the blue-black, smelly mud flats with their sleds quicker, easier and safer. Safer, because at places the Wadden Sea can suck you into the mire up to your waste, and when the flood comes in -and trust us it will come- you will be lost. Read also our posts Walking the Sea, or A Wadden Sea Guide and His Twelve Disciples to understand this danger of the Wadden Sea. The technique of the harge or Buttschütte is not unique for the Wadden Sea. Similar fish traps were being practiced in province Zeeland too. Actually, it is a global technique. But, the specific thing here is the vast area of mud.

In the Netherlands, near the city of Almere, three Iron Age Buttschüttes next to each other have been found, dating 2400 BC. One had a staggering length of 700 meters. The other two had a length of at least 240 meters. They were made of wooden sticks. The wood used was mainly alder, and was cut from trees at the end of autumn or the beginning of the winter. At the various V-shaped openings, wicker-wood fishing pods have been found too. These had a length of nearly 2 meters, and were almost 1 meter wide.

Besides these advantages of moving around, a sled with boards that resembles a little boat makes it possible to carry your nets and the catch of the day back from the mire. Being that anchovies and other fish, mussels or crabs. It could also be your weekly catch of lugworms and sandworms for fishing bait you dug up with a pitchfork. Silt sleds were used also to move around while building the so-called rijsdams to create new salt-marsh land. Again, read our post Walking the Sea mentioned earlier, to learn how land was taken from the sea. Last advantage of this mud vehicle is that it has a net zero carbon footprint. Very important, if we are to be serious about Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Nevertheless, the silt sleds lost its popularity halfway the twentieth century. Fishing became a large-scale industry, and together with the near disappearance of in particular anchovies, small-scale fishing no longer offered viable means of income.

Author of this post heard the stories of the last fisherman at the hamlet of Koehool in the north of province Friesland. This fisherman had a silt sled to reach his fishing pods and nets. An always nervous man, by the way, when the weather turned bad. Then he would be standing on top of the dike staring over the marshlands, mud flats and the sea. He stopped fishing in the late '70s. Or was it, when he stood on top of the dike at Koehool, that he was waiting for king Radbod to reappear on his white horse riding the tidal marshlands? This is what local legends tell us. Anyway, the fisherman of Koehool stopped fishing in the late '70s. The last silt-sled fisherman in the Dollart estuary on Dutch side of the Dutch-German border was Piet Kolthof, also known as Pie Tidde. Pie Tidde stopped fishing not too long ago.

New developments and applications of the silt sleds are taken place too. In the summer of 2018, the Royal Netherlands Rescue Squad (KNRM) of Hansweert in province Zeeland introduced an inflatable silt sled.

Mud sledge racing

Races are being held near the village of Paesens-Moddergat at Lauwersoog, on the southern shores of the island Schiermonnikoog, and near the town of Delfzijl. All spots in the Netherlands. If you triumph in the race on island Schiermonnikoog, with its elegant silt sleds, you receive a Golden Herring. Now, how lovely is that? Races are being held in the month August. Do not forget to enjoy Europe's biggest beaches too, while you are out there.

To be absolutely clear: racing the mud plains with cars is not exactly recommended. It will not work, and it might even be dangerous. Most probably, you will have to be rescued with a silt sled. Also, the salty water is not good for your car paint and chassis. See below.

In Germany silt-sled races take place with villagers from Dangast, Dyksterhusen, Pilsum, Pogum at Upleward-Greetsiel. Therefore, with the races of Delfzijl in mind, the Dollart Bay and the River Ems estuary seem to be the focus of world silt-sled action today. Especially, the 'world championship' -buckle up to pronounce this one- Schlikschlittenrennen of Upleward- Greetsiel appear to be biggest in Europe and take place every year in the summer too. They have fancy colorful, sturdy sleds.

On the other side of the Dollart Bay, is the biggest race of the Netherlands, namely the silt-sled race of Delfzijl mentioned earlier. This race takes place during Pentecost on Sunday, and already for 43 years. Quite an achievement. And the time of year, namely Pentecost, might be more risky weather-wise compared to other races normally being held in the month August. Tough people, those Delfzijl-people.

The silt-sled tournament fields at the Dollart Bay are even a historic battle grounds. It was the Roman poet and army officer praefectus Albinovanus Pedo who wrote about the Wadden Sea, particular about the Dollart Bay area. That was during the military campaign under command of general Germanicus in AD 16, when his fleet of a thousand small ship was wrecked in a storm. His description is the oldest surviving text describing the treacherous mire and cold sea, or land, depending on your perspective. His amazing account about the disastrous expedition in the Dollart Bay and River Ems reads as follows:

Long since they had left the day and sunlight behind. For long they, exiles from the known part of the world who had dared to go through forbidden darkness, had been looking at to the boundaries of nature and the farthest coast of the earth.

From here they saw it, the sea, carrying huge monsters under slow rolling waves and from all sides wild whales and sea dogs rising up and grabbing their ships. The breaking itself increased their fear.

Already stuck in the mud the ships and the fleet were left behind after a rapid storm. Stuck they believed their unhappy fate was that the wild sea monsters would tear them apart. And high on the deck behind, someone with a fighting gaze fought against the blinding sky. The world had been snatched away. Nothing could be distinguished. The breath was taken from him [Albinovanus Pedo] and he exclaimed:

"Where do we end up? The day itself is on the run and nature seals the rest of the world with everlasting darkness. Do we look perhaps for tribes under new skies and for another world that has not yet been touched by war? The gods call us back. Forbid that mortal eyes see the end of everything. Why do we violate with oars a strange and sacred sea? Why do we disturb the quiet residences of the gods?"

Romans drowning at the River Ems estuary

So, ships stuck in the mud flats. In a world where nothing could be distinguished anymore. What was sea and what was land? Where ended the horizon, and where started the sky? A world that must be sacred and the domain of gods. And, about a century earlier than Albinovanus' journey, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote about this same area concerning that there were rumors even the pillars of Hercules existed there. Or that Hercules himself had been there. Yes, the Romans really thought they were at a mythical place at the very end of the world. If interested in more history of the Roman presence in this region, check our post Pagare il fio.

I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. Rescue me from the mire, do not let me sink.(Psalm 69: 2 and 14)

The 42nd Race

The bastards of the Frisia Coast Trail participated in the Delfzijl races of May 20, 2018, and thus violated a sacred sea and disturbed the ancient gods too. Although, the whole experience was less spiritual than the Romans experienced it 2,000 years ago. Quite down to earth, actually. Even better, down to mud.

The game started at around 09:30h in the morning. That was a bit unfortunate, according to the organizing committee De Drie Delfzijlen. But the moon simply dictates the rhythm of the tide, and thus the time for the silt-sled races to start. The games must finish before the flood comes in. ‘Unfortunate’ in the sense that the night before many potentials contestants had been feasting and drinking in town until early in the morning. Hence, many of them are not able to appear at the start this early. Their rhythm is not dictated by the moon but by hormones instead. Nevertheless, still around eighty persons participated this year. There were heats for children, for women and for men. Furthermore, an estafette, and a race for the most creative outfit.

The bastards finished without glory. Subdued by the wild whales and sea dogs of Delfzijl, as described by the aforementioned Albinovanus Pedo. If we project this description onto today's 'beasts': the Frisian bastards lost against the local, more than two meters tall rugby players who participated too. Know that the people of the Wadden Sea coast are actually the tallest people on our planet. They are even taller than the people of Tonga archipelago. If you do not believe it, check out the facts of our post Giants of Twilight Land. Knowing this, imagine a local rugby team from this area. Indeed, you do not stand a chance.

But the bastards did not back down. However, they did all this without leaving something of a lasting impression in the miry flats. Below an impression of their futile efforts.

but it is an experience not to miss!


Note - We wait for the first Open European Championship Silt Sled Racing to be organized at the Wadden Sea.

Further reading

Andel, van P., De slikslede (2014)

Hillenga, M., De kraaite, een snelle waddenstep. Levend Erfgoed Groningen

Hogestijn, WJ., De Tweeling in Almere Stichtsekant. Laat-neolitische visweren in een verdwenen meer (2019)

Looijenga, A. & Popkema, A. & Slofstra, B., Een meelijwekkend volk. Vreemden over Friezen van de oudheid tot de kerstening (2018)

Weiler, E., Der letzte Reusenfischer (2018)

Winsemius, P., Het Koningsvaandel. Reis door het verleden van Friesland (2014)

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