The IJsselmeer is a large freshwater lake in the middle of the north of the Netherlands. It is closed off from the Wadden Sea by an artificial dam called the Afsluitdijk.
The IJsselmeer is not only very popular among ardent sailors. It is also world famous for its artificial peninsulas, polders and picturesque old harbour towns. We have listed the 10 nicest harbour cities around the IJsselmeer for you here.
The development of this natural lake did not happen by itself. Floods and a lot of political wrangling had to be overcome in order for this colourful area with diligent labour and professional water management to become what it is today.
The IJsselmeer in former times
In Roman times the IJsselmeer was a collection of many small lakes. She ended up calling this “Almaere” which can be freely translated as “all lakes”. As a result of the rise in sea level, the small lakes merged into one large inland sea that was in direct contact with the Wadden Sea.
This normally calm inland sea was home to many species of fish, including even seals, which quickly transformed fishing villages into harbour cities. You only had to go a small distance into the inland sea and your fishing net will be full of catch from a rich fish trade across the country.
In the Golden Age, the inland sea was a very protected entrance and exit to Amsterdam for the many VOC ships that plundered the world. That is why in every port city around the IJsselmeer & Markermeer you can still find many VOC trading houses from the 16th, where the collected merchandise was traded.
In the 19th century a lot changed in and around the inland sea, making the IJsselmeer what it is today. People had to deal with the North Sea Canal, there was not enough fish left to catch and there were more and bigger floods.
The construction of the North Sea Canal
By now Amsterdam had become the centre of the Netherlands. It was decided to make a passage from Amsterdam to the North Sea, so that not all merchant ships would have to sail around the head of North Holland. This made the port cities around the then still inland sea less relevant.
No more fish in the inland sea of the Netherlands
Due to the high demand for fish and the growth of the profitable port cities, more and more fish was caught. Eventually, this meant that almost no fish could be found in the inland sea of the Netherlands.
It also gave agriculture in the Netherlands a boost. The Dutch farmer suddenly became indispensable in the country. Maybe that is also the reason why we are not called the fish eaters, but the potato eaters. The famous Vincent van Gogh even made a painting called the same in those days.
More and more floods around the inland sea
The biggest problem that got worse and worse was the many floods around the inland sea. Already in the 16th century this was a problem and there were plans to do something about it, but these were never given priority.
Dutch knowledge about water management was already leading in the 19th century. That makes sense for a country surrounded by dikes that are 70% below sea level. They wanted to use that water management knowledge to completely contain the Zuiderzee with a large dike and to reclaim parts of it for agricultural land.
Famine broke out in 1916. The first world war made food trade with neighboring countries impossible and the need to become self-sufficient grew, and more agricultural land had to be created. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the dikes around the normally calm Zuiderzee broke through for the umpteenth time. This time even the cows had to be brought to Amsterdam 10 kilometers away to be safe from the rising water, the measure was full. A dike had to be built. The plan submitted by engineer Lely many years earlier was chosen: ‘The Zuiderzee Works’, this idea encompassing a set of projects that closed the Zuiderzee to the IJsselmeer and partially reclaimed it.
The Afsluitdijk and the IJsselmeer
The inland sea of the Netherlands would be closed off between the North Holland Den Oever and the Frisian town of Zurich. Despite the fact that these two cities are located in two provinces with a totally different culture and character, they still had to work together.
Fortunately, work at that time meant an income that was desperately needed so that the cultural differences could be bridged both literally and figuratively. After 6 years of shovelling and dragging with wheelbarrows, full of debris and mud, the Afsluitdijk was built. 30 Kilometer dike that would turn the inland sea into a lake forever.
“The sea once raged here, but that time will not come again. Zuiderzee is now called IJsselmeer. A tractor is going to dig ditches there. I see no more ships on the horizon”-The Zuiderzee ballad-
The consequences of the construction of the Afsluitdijk
The purpose of the Afsluitdijk was not only to tame the Zuiderzee, but above all to create more agricultural land for the explosively growing population of the Netherlands, after the First World War. This was done by constructing artificial polders and preventing flooding. As a side effect, the Netherlands was again in the news as the largest water management expert in the world. An inland sea of this size had never before been dammed. But it is unclear to this day whether the chosen solution has brought more benefits than disadvantages.
There has always been the question of whether the costs would outweigh the benefits. This would also have been the case with other solutions such as thoroughly reinforcing the dikes around the inland sea. What was insufficiently taken into account during the construction of the IJsselmeer & Markermeer, including the construction of the Afsluitdijk, are the fish and the fishermen.
Many fish are no longer found in the IJsselmeer
The salt water soon changed to brackish water and eventually became fresh water. An impossible habitat for many saltwater fish, as a result of which the herring, muscle, anchovy, flounder and all the shrimp disappeared from the IJsselmeer. Only the eel remained. But from the eel catch, it was impossible for all fishermen to make a living.
Fisherman around the IJsselmeer had no more jobs.
For centuries, fishermen had supplied fish generation after generation. Due to the combination of too many catches and the disappearance of so many fish species through the fresh water, they were suddenly out of work.
After many protests, ‘Zuiderzee Support’ was promised by the government. This was supposed to be sufficient state aid to compensate the fishermen who had suffered, but for the majority it was a drop in the ocean.
They were forced to move to the Zaan region, where there was still plenty of industry at the time. This first industrial area in Europe provided an income for many, but it provided little in the way of pleasure. Trade in the free fishing profession for a factory full of rules was not something that would make these artisans happy.
Looking outside through a small dusty window is slightly different than feeling the rough wind on the foredeck of a Botter against your face.
Sailing on the IJsselmeer or the Markermeer
Despite the fact that it is sad that a whole generation of fishermen almost went under because of the construction of the Afsluitdijk, there are also advantages. The IJsselmeer and Markermeer are one of the favourite places for sailors. Whether you want to sail with a group of friends, your family or alone, it’s all possible. Experience for yourself what it’s like to discover the most beautiful places around the IJsselmeer and the Markermeer on a classic Tjalk or Klipper.
The Netherlands still has a fleet of more than 300 traditional ships that used to be used on the inland sea and along the coast. These ships have been modernised and converted by sailing enthusiasts to take groups of people out sailing on the Wadden Sea, the IJsselmeer and the Markermeer. If you also want a trip along the harbour cities of the IJsselmeer, click here.