• Hans Faber

Racing the Wadden Sea with a mud sled

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

We wrote about it before, living on the endless flat land near the Wadden Sea takes an acquired taste. Especially the loads of free-time people of the north of Germany and of the Netherlands have. And the sports they practice are both eccentric and exotic. We recall their sports: searching for peewit eggs, leaping-far with wooden poles of four meters long and playing Frisian pelota (handbal). Read our blog post What’s hip and happening at the grasslands to refresh your memory.

And then there’s mud-sled racing too! The topic of this blog post. We bet you never heard of it, although you might have heard of the German band Yared Dibaba und die Schlickrutscher.

What is a mud sled?

A mud sled is as the word says, a sled to slide over the slick mudflats of the Wadden Sea. A sea that's UNESCO-listed and stretches from the northern Netherlands to northwest Germany all the way to the south-western tip of Denmark. Also in province Zuid Holland and province Zeeland in the Netherlands the mud sled was used in the tidal salt-marsh areas.

In Dutch language a mud sled is called a slikslee or a waddenstep and in German it is called a Wattschlitten or -indeed- a Schlickrutscher. In Low-Saxon it is called a kraaite or kraite (Grunnings) or a Kreier or Kreyer (Oostfreesk) and in Mid-Frisian (present-day province Friesland) it is called a slykslide. Like every 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 when you were a kid to get it in motion.

slikslee schlickrutscher kraaite kraite kreier kreyer mudsled

Other mud sleds are more advanced, especially in Germany along the coast of Land Wursten 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 on snow instead of mud did not stay unnoticed. Initiatives are being developed to train seals (in Mid-Frisian not without reason called a seehûn 'sea dog') to replace the ordinary dogs. However, training seals to pull mud sleds turned out to be more time consuming as was anticipated. But we promise, the day will come you will see mud sleds being pulled by seals. Having the additional bonus it does not matter whether it is ebb-tide or flood-tide.

Mud sleds were mainly used to move around at the mudflats by fishermen to go to their V-shaped harg/harge or visweer (in Dutch) or Buttschütte (in Platt/Oostfreesk) with at the point of the V the fishing pods. These fish traps were places in the gullies of the Wadden Sea. At ebb-tide they could roam the black, smelly mudflats with their sleds quicker, easier and safer. Safer, because at places the Wadden Sea can suck you into the mire till your waste and when the flood comes in -and trust us it will come- you’ll be lost. Read also our blog post Walking the Sea to understand this danger of the Wadden Sea. The technique of harge or Buttschütte is not unique for the Wadden Sea but these fish traps are/were practiced too in the province Zeeland in the southwest of the Netherlands. Actually it is a global technique. But the specific thing here are the huge mudflats.

In the Netherlands, near the city of Almere, three Buttschüttes next to each other have been found dating 2400 BC. They had a staggering length of 700 meters, (at least) 240 metres and again (at least) 240 meters and were made of wooden sticks. The wood used was mainly alder, and these were cut from trees at the end of autmn or the beginning of the winter. At the various V-shaped openings wickerwood fishing pods have been found too. These had a length of nearly 2 meters and were lomost a metre wide.

Besides these advantages a sled with boards that is almost 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. And mud sleds were used to move around when building the so-called rijs-dams to create new salt-marsh land (and again read the blog post Walking the Sea mentioned above). Last advantage of this vehicle is that it has a net zero carbon footprint.

Nevertheless, the mud sled lost its popularity halfway the twentieth century. Fishing became a real industry and together with the near disappearance of in particular the anchovies, small-scale fishing no longer offered viable means of income. Author of this blog post heard the stories first-hand of the last fisherman at the hamlet of Koehool in the north of the province Friesland. He also had a mud sled to reach his fishing pods and nets. An always nervous man when the weather changed. Then he would be standing on top of the dyke staring over the mudflats and the Wadden Sea. He stopped fishing in the late '70s (or when he stood on top of the dike at Koehool, was he actually waiting for King Radbod to reappear on horse from the Wadden Sea, as legend tell us he does with bad weather?) The last mud-sled fisherman in the Dollart estuary was Piet Kolthof also known as Pie Tidde. Pie Tidde stopped fishing not very long ago. Finally, read also the very beautiful document of one of the last mud fishermen in Germany, a blog post of Meerblog.

New developments and applications of the mud sled are taken place too. This summer the Royal Netherlands Rescue Squad (KNRM) of Hansweert in the province Zeeland introduced an inflatable mud sled.

Mud sled racing

Races are being held at the Dutch village of Paesens-Moddergat, at Lauwersoog, at the island Schiermonnikoog and at the town of Delfzijl. If you triumph in the race at the island Schiermonnikoog, with its elegant mud sleds, you receive a Golden Herring. Now, how nice is that? Races are being held in August. Do not forget to enjoy Europe's biggest beaches too while you're out there.

In Germany races take place at the villages and hamlets of Dangast, Dyksterhusen, Pilsum, Pogum and of course at Upleward-Greetsiel. Therefore, with the races of Delfzijl in mind, the Dollart bay and estuary of the river Ems seem to be the focus of world mud-sled action today. Especially the 'world championship' (buckle up to pronounce this one) Schlikschlittenrennen of Upleward- Greetsiel appear to be biggest in Germany and take place every year in the summer too. They have fancy colorful but sturdy sleds.

On the other side of the Dollart bay is the biggest race of the Netherlands, namely the mud sled race of Delfzijl. This race takes place during Pentecost on Sunday and already for 42 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 Delfzijl-people.

And the mud-sled fields at the Dollart bay are even a historic battle ‘ground’. It was the Roman poet and army officer Albinovanus Pedo who wrote about the Wadden Sea, particular the Dollart bay. His description is the oldest surviving text that describes the treacherous mire and cold sea, or land, depending on your perspective. His amazing account about the disastrous expedition of the Roman army in ca. AD 15 in the Dollart bay 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?"

So, ships stuck in the mudflats. 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. Around a century younger then Pedo's journey, the Roman Tacitus wrote about this same area about rumors that even pillars of Hercules existed here or that Hercules himself had been here. Yes, the Romans really thought they were at a mythical place at the very end of the world.

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 Frisia Coast Trail participated in the Delfzijl races of May 20, 2018 and thus violated a sacred sea and disturbed the gods too, although the whole experience was less spiritual as the Romans experienced it 2,000 years ago. Quite down to earth, or down to mud.

The game started at around 09:30h in the morning. That’s a bit unfortunate according to the organizing committee the De Drie Delfzijlen. But the moon is dictating the rhythm of the tide and thus the moon is dictating the time for the mud sled races to start. And the games must finish before the flood comes in. ‘Unfortunate’ in the sense that the night before many potentials contestants have been feasting and drinking in town till late in the morning and many of them are not able to appear at the start this early. Nevertheless, 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 of the Frisia Coast Trail finished without glory. Subdued by the wild whales and sea dogs, as described by the Roman Albinovanus Pedo mentioned above. Translated into today's 'beasts': the Frisian bastards lost against the local, more than two meter 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. If you don't believe it, check out the facts of our blog post Giants of Twilight Land.

And the Frisian bastards of the Frisia Coast Trail did all that without leaving something of a lasting impression in the miry flats. Below an impression of their efforts.

but it is an experience not to miss!

PS 1 We wait for the first Open European Championship Mud Sled Racing to be organized at the Wadden Sea.

PS 2 If you want to see authentic mud sleds, the Frisia Coast Trail you pass the Seeydkstertoer near Marrum, a former farmstead below the dike. Worth a visit. It has all sorts of things to offer: a 'museum' with old tools of mud workers including three old mud sleds. But also a 'museum' with stuff that washed ashore over the years. A playroom for children. Very nice too is a watchtower in a former grain silo giving a beautiful view over the salt marshes including the many dobbes (sweet water reservoirs constructed with a circular dyke) you have here. All this you have to pay 2,5 euro. But also food and drinks, excursions to the salt marshes and, yes, a campground and even a trekkers hut are available. Check out SeedyksterToer.nl.

Suggestions further reading:

Andel, van P., De slikslede (2014)

Essink, K., Visserman gered door grenspaal in de Dollard (2016)

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)