Racing the Wadden Sea with a mud 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 it is like ordering à la carte frutti di mare. Birds are nice, okay. The real meaning of mud is, however, when you go down and dirty, and take part in a mud-sled race. Each year, races take place at the mud flats 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 the palm game kaatsen, which is a kind of pelota. Read our blog posts Grassland conversations, and What’s hip and happening at the grasslands.

And, then there is mud-sled racing too! The exciting topic of this post. No, it is mud sled. Not mud slut! But we understand, you never heard of it. Although, you might have heard of the singer/band Yared Dibaba und die Schlickrutscher.

What is a mud sled?

A mud sled is, as the word gives away, a sled to slide over the soft and slick mud flats of the Wadden Sea. A sea that is UNESCO-listed, and stretches from northern Netherlands to northwest Germany, all the way to the southwestern-most tip of Denmark. Also, in provinces Zuid Holland and Zeeland in the Netherlands the mud sled was used at the tidal marshlands.

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 language it is called a kraaite or kraite (i.e. Grunnings) or a Creier or Kreier or Kreyer (i.e. Oostfreesk). In Mid-Frisian language it is called a slykslide. In Butjadingen or Butjadingerland it is called a Schusch.

mud sled to empty fishing pods

Like every 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 mud 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. In Mid-Frisian language, a seal is not without reason called a seehûn ‘sea-dog’. However, training seals to pull mud sleds turned out to be more time consuming as was anticipated. We promise, the day will come soon you will be able to see mud 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 harbor seal appears more promising than training grey seals.

Mud sleds were mainly used to move around at the mud flats by fishermen to go to their V-shaped harg(e) or visweer (in Dutch), or Buttschütte (in Oostfreesk or Platt), with at the V-angle the fishing pods. These fish traps were places in the many gullies of the Wadden Sea.

classic pod

At ebb-tide the fishermen could roam the black, smelly mud flats 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 will 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. These fish traps are/were practiced in province Zeeland too. Actually, it is a global technique. But, the specific thing here are the vast space of mud flats.

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 metres. The other two had a length of at least 240 metres. They were made of wooden sticks. The wood used was mainly alder. These were 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 metres, and were almost 1 metre wide.

Besides these advantages, 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. And, mud sleds were used to move around when building the so-called rijs-dams to create new salt-marsh land (again read the blog post Walking the Sea, mentioned above). Last advantage of this 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 mud sled lost its popularity halfway the twentieth century. Fishing became a large-scale 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 post heard the stories first-hand of the last fisherman at the hamlet of Koehool in the north of province Friesland. He also had a mud sled to reach his fishing pods and nets. An always nervous man when the weather changed bad. Then he would be standing on top of the dike staring over the mud flats and the Wadden Sea. He stopped fishing in the late ’70s. Or was it, when he stood on top of the dike at Koehool, he was actually waiting for King Radbod to reappear on his horse riding the marshlands of the Wadden Sea? This is what local legends tell us. Anyway, the fisherman of Koehool stopped fishing in the late ’70s. The last mud-sled fisherman in the Dollart estuary on Dutch side of the border was Piet Kolthof, also known as Pie Tidde. Pie Tidde stopped fishing not very long ago. Finally, read also the 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. In the summer of 2018, the Royal Netherlands Rescue Squad (KNRM) of Hansweert in province Zeeland introduced an inflatable mud sled.

Mud sled racing

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

To be absolutely clear: mud-sled racing 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 mud sled. Also the salty water is not good for your car paint. See below.

better not with cars

In Germany mud-sled 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 the River Ems estuary, 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 Europe, 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 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, Delfzijl-people.

The mud-sled fields at the Dollart Bay are even a historic ‘battle ground’. 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 that describes 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] 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 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 than Albinovanus’ journey, the Roman Tacitus wrote about this same area concerning rumors that even pillars of Hercules existed there, 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 ancient gods too. Although, the whole experience was less spiritual as 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 is 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. Hence many of them are not able to appear at the start this early. Their rythem is not dictated by the moon. It is dictated by hormones. Nevertheless, still around eighty persons participated that 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 aforementioned Albinovanus Pedo. If we project this description onto today’s ‘beasts’: the Frisian bastards lost against the local, more than two metres 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 do not believe it, check out the facts of our blog post Giants of Twilight Land. Knowing this, imagine a local rugby team from this area. Indeed, you do not stand a change.

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 efforts.

It is an experience not to miss!

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

Suggestions further reading:

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