Sunday, March 6, 2011

Holland (The Netherlands)

In early August 1956 I looked up my friend "PJ" (Paul) McDonough and his wife north of London.   He and I had worked together as engineers at Sondrestrom airbase (BW-8) in Greenland, and were amateur pilots.   Now he was upgrading airfields from which he had flown in the War, eventually having become an emaciated prisoner of the Germans.   We rented a little Auster and flew south over the River Thames and the huge prone white figures which the ancients had made by exposing shallow chalk near the White Cliffs of Dover.   Our crossing of the English Channel, to Le Touquet France, was twice the span first flown by Bleriot only 47 years earlier. Customs, Immigration, and difficulty in finding necessary maps shortened our trip.   We flew over the still vivid detritus of the recent War: miles of bomb craters, gun emplacements, V2 rocket sites, to Belgium.   The next day we returned to England.

In Holland I visited Len Punt, a local who was a subcontractor I knew in Greenland. Len confided that he was trying to ditch his girlfriend.   I discovered she was beautiful and intelligent, Len began to suspect he had made a mistake, and Monique and I avoided telling him that he was too late.   That's a Very Long Story.

The Dutch seem proud that their language is as difficult as Finnish, although the dialect in the province of Friesland is so close to English that I easily understood children and they me.   Len's local language ability and connections were essential in my finding and buying the small yacht Swalker from the Bakkers.   That couple had married in a Japanese prison camp in Borneo after their spouses had perished from the extreme conditions.   Recently they had found that their impaired health made it too difficult to handle the sloop they had had built 4 years earlier.   Len also bought for me from a retired windjammer captain an 1890s sextant, essential for navigating oceans before the advent of GPS.   I paid the equivalent of $9 for it, and the same amount to a government bureau to resilver the mirrors and calibrate the instrument.   Years later I had it appraised for $700, donated it to the Maine Maritime Museum, and received an undeserved tax deduction.

The Swalker, which means Wanderer, was 30 feet long, weighed 5 tons including 2 tons of lead in the keel, and had a steel hull.   Dutch builders specialize in steel yachts, perhaps because Holland has no trees to spare.   Steel or aluminum hulls can survive trauma that would sink other boats, a quality that later may have saved my life.   
From WaveTrain.net:
               It wasn't until the 1960s (except for some boats built in Holland, where steel has long 
               been a favored material) that metal was used to build sailboats of.. moderate size.  

My boat had the cleverly compact essentials of a home.   Starting at the bow there was a triangular storage area, then a toilet and hanging closet on opposite sides.   To the rear (aft) of the charcoal stove in the main cabin were settees on each side, convertible to bunks.   Aft of the settee-bunks, to port (on the left facing forward) was a tiny "kitchen" with a sink and a butane-fired stove on gimbals, in the middle were stairs over the diesel engine leading to the cockpit outside, and to starboard (right) were a chart table and pocket bunk.   The mast on most sailboats extends through the deck and cabin so it can be supported by the keel, but the strong steel deck allowed the Swalker's wooden mast to end there, where it was pivoted and could be lowered for maintenance or passage under bridges.   Power for propulsion and lighting was provided by an internal Coventry Victor 8 HP one-cylinder diesel engine.

So I now had a compact home propelled by wind or motor, with the nautical equivalents of bedroom,
bathroom, toilet, kitchen, and space heater. I prepared food as simply as possible, which meant using either the frying pan or pressure cooker. I had neither the interest, ability or time to make gourmet meals, so I did the minimum to keep me alive and healthy. In Holland and France I cooked vegetables and meat bought in little local stores. In Spain and its islands I usually ate in restaurants, because a complete meal cost the equivalent of about one USA dime.  

The Swalker lacked, nor did I buy, a life raft (because the hull was unsinkable -like the Titanic, but I would see no icebergs- unless tipped over by grounding close to shore), or dinghy (because I always was able to tie to a dock or commercial boat, or borrow a dinghy when attached to a mooring), or transmitter (because I didn't want to endanger others if my actions got me into trouble).

The very little I knew about sailing had been acquired at the MIT Sailing Club on the Charles River, where I had only been allowed to crew.   Part of the purchase deal was that Mr. Bakker would teach me how to sail on a 3 day cruise on the the Ijsselmeer, an inland sea half as big as Delaware, but each time I started to do something it was done imperfectly, so he would finish it.   So when he left I had learned very little.   Then I proceeded to teach myself, with countless errors in trials whose difficulties were to gradually increase in fortunate coincidence with the geography of my convoluted route to America.   By the time I started to cross the Atlantic I had become quite competent.

The Swalker and I began our life together at its berth at the Muiden Yacht Club, on a river near its exit into the Ijsselmeer.   The surrounding boats were elegant, especially the Piet Hein, the Queen's yacht. I carefully studied the situation before casting off for my first time, and too late realized I had not allowed for the river current.   The sounds of clashing hardware mixed with Dutch profanity nearby as I tangled with other watercraft.

Soon freed from that, I entered the Ijsselmeer and shut off the motor before raising the sails. However, I had not allowed for the brisk cross wind, nor the unseen shallow stone dikes flanking the river's outflow.   The motor's impetus was insufficient to free the boat from the consequent grounding, so I jumped in the cold water, pushed Swalker off the hidden rocks, climbed aboard, and set sail for Volendam.

The shallow Ijsselmeer stretched to the horizon. Until the 13th century it had been a lake, as it is now.   Then a great flood converted Lake Flevo into an arm of the ocean, the Zuider Zee of the classic Hans Brinker tale of my childhood.   From 1920 to 1932 a 19 mile dam was constructed to shut out the sea again: a gargantuan project for such a small economy.   Much of the resultant Ijsselmeer was gradually being converted to polders: farmland protected from inundation by dikes and pumps.   Thus a third of Holland is below sea level.   It's the only country that has expanded without taking land from others.

Nearing Volendam I made the wrong interpretation of a cryptic channel flag, and came to a stop on mud. Again the racing motor could not free the hull, so again I jumped overboard, held my breath under water, and walked the anchor out further than I could throw it.   By winching it in while racing the motor, and sheeting in the mainsail so the ship heeled, I resumed sailing. On arrival in the port of Volendam I was cursed anew for my poor boat handling, this time by a man dressed like Hans Brinker.   Most of the residents of Volendam still wore the town costume: a loose black jacket over a colorful shirt above long baggy black trousers for men, a colorful ankle-length dress for women.   Both wore klompen: cheap wooden shoes whose utility soon convinced me to wear them often.   I stayed there 3 days while a pair of twin jib sails were beautifully crafted for me, for $95.   They were to be used to "tow" the Swalker downwind in the Atlantic trade winds.   I was just in time for Karmas, a holiday of much dancing and drinking and costumes,  and a pretty French girl with an Alabama accent: a moderately Long Story.

Later Monique and I sailed from Muiden to Enkhuizen, its colorful buildings famously askew as if on melting permafrost, and Hoorn, for which Cape Horn in South America was named by Magellan.   The working costumes and accents of each port were distinctive.   On this trip my progress was evident, as I didn't run aground, and nobody swore at me.   In Enkhuizen I learned to cope with the anthropomorphic capriciousness of the ship when going backward.   There a company representative tested my diesel engine, and without charge pronounced it fit to travel.

Mr. Bakker and I went by trolley to Rotterdam, whose modern buildings rose above ruins created by German bombers 16 years earlier, dramatically contrasting with the medieval architecture of Amsterdam, which had been spared the carnage.   He helped me buy things needed for the voyage ahead: wool clothing, books, charts, a ship's log.   The log is a rotor which is towed sufficiently behind the boat's wake to accurately turn a mileage indicator mounted on the stern.   I was told that a shark might eat the shiny spinning rotor, so I bought a spare.   I found Lloyds of London would ensure the boat for the crossing, but the 15% premium was too much for me.   At least it was encouraging that apparently they thought my chances of success were at least 8 to 1 (100/15 + their profit).

Most of this account is from vivid memories, but the following is from a letter I wrote. 

"I sailed from Muiden back to Volendam alone in strong winds, with full sails heeling the boat and the lee gunwale awash.   Needed welding could not be done on Sunday, so I worked on making shelves.   Seven cute girls and boys under 10, dressed in the local costumes, hung around the boat all afternoon, laughing at my poor Dutch, eating my chocolate, and making my work go pleasantly slow.   Many friendly people came to take pictures of the Swalker in the warm sunshine". 
Those were wonderful days....



Rex the neon sign maker on the Swalker foredeck.  A big bridge opens for us.


Then we sailed in the dark thirty miles down the coast to the fishing port and resort of Scheveningen, near the Hague.


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