People always assume I have always been a sailing person, or have long dreamed of a life afloat. Nothing could be further from the truth; here’s the story…
I love my old Dutch lady!
A little of how this beautiful relationship began.
I love my barge! I guess I have loved her since I first set eyes on her, lying moored on the edge of a Dutch river, nestling amongst the reeds and against a rotting, wooden pier. She appeared dark and somewhat neglected from my stand on the river bank, but what lay inside was a revelation. Drie Gebroeders ( meaning Three Brothers) has a big heart. Her interior construction is a little ‘Heath Robinson’, in a charming, cottage-style way, but she is welcoming and comfortable to be with, just like the ample old lady I think of her as. Her broad, flat-bottomed shape and curvy lines are beautiful in a buxom kind of way. Her history was a mystery at that time, apart from her birth date carved in her nameplate down each side. I knew we were meant for each other – my chosen ship had spoken to me as I’d been promised.
As is often in new relationships, getting to know her was a little awkward. There was a period of long distance love and uncertainty, but I soon learnt of her huge personality. The first night I slept aboard her, on the side of that dark river on a stormy, flooded night, her rudder thumped loudly on its metal housing posts, the clanging echoing through her riveted iron hull. Tying the tiller up in an attempt to silence this sent her into a rage and the banging grew much louder. I was soon to learn that she doesn’t like restrictions.
Once set free on the canals, on her passage through the Dutch waterways and across the sea to the Eastern coast of England, she behaved impeccably , seemingly happy to be on her way. The three ‘brothers’ entrusted with her delivery to my mooring in Essex lightly hopped ashore after a 23 hour journey, smiling widely and already under her spell.
In the months to follow, this tired old lady slowly found a new lease of life, enchanting all involved with her. Complete refurbishment, inside and out rivalled any television make-over and called for attention from many men who were to become her admirers. Painstakingly, her beauty treatment gave her a new energy and anyone who met her soon became her friend.
Yet still she remained a lady of mystery. 1898 is her birthdate, proudly emblazoned on her sides, but her story was to prove an elusive one to uncover. By chance her tonnage registration number emerged from under layers of old paint and acquaintances in the Netherlands were able to confirm her provenance through this. Dirk Pols, her original skipper had three sons and a daughter, and so his new boat was named “Three Brothers” a popular name for vessels of that time. The ship eventually passed to one of the sons, Hendrik Pols, who sadly was to lose her to the Dutch army at the onset of WWII; she and many others were requisitioned for the use of the Pontonniers in the maintaining of bridges.
One can only guess at what horrors she witnessed in those wartime years. We now know that she fell into German hands, and signs of alterations to her bow point to her having been adapted for use as an invasion barge. As I write, Dutch historians are trying to uncover her secret life since that time, but in such difficult times records were few and ownership uncertain. Perhaps she lay unused for years, or maybe worked in Belgium or France. The Dutch Kadastre only records her ownership from the year 2000, when she appears to have been saved as a historic hull by an enterprising man named Ger Hofman. Apparently it was he that was her saviour, pouring what I imagine were his life savings into her adaption to the current layout, retiring her to a pleasant life of holiday charter, visiting festivals and beauty spots around the waters of Northern Holland.
So now, she and I sit patiently, waiting at the side of another river for the delivery and fitting of a new mast, the last piece of our jigsaw.The restoration of her rigging will restore her dignity and her sails will billow proudly as she sails the local waters. Who knows what adventures she and I have ahead of us as we get to know each other. I am a novice sailor, a beach-side observer for most of my life, but I feel safe with my old Dutch lady, sure that she will take care of me as I learn the ropes. Together we will find the freedom we have both sought all our lives as we ride the waves we encounter, looked over by the Water Gods and guided by the moons and the tides.
(originally posted in Spring 2016)