Like classic cars or listed buildings, historic vessels always have a tale to tell. I started my life afloat with the same quest as many around our over-crowded counties, hoping for a down-sized home, a more planet-friendly existence and an asset worth spending time, money and energy on. Internet forums are full of such hunters of the off-grid dream or watery escape.
Unlike those many dreamers and searchers, I took the plunge when I fell in head-over-heels for a 120-year-old Dutch sailing barge. Not the conventional houseboat for me! The fact that I knew little of sailing or anything more nautical than beach-combing couldn’t halt this love affair. My amour has an ample girth, no “pointy ends” and weighs in at over 20 tons. So, let me share the story of this “flat-bottomed girl”, so you too may appreciate how unbelievable her survival is.
A 52-foot working barge was not an unusual commission for the Van Duivendijk family of boat-builders in Krimpen a/d Ijssel in the nineteenth century. A young skipper named Dirk Pols, took proud possession of the new vessel “Drie Gebroeders” (Three Brothers) early in 1898. As this superb Dutch film clip shows, a barge had to be a home as well as a workplace. The living quarters had to be minimal in order to accommodate as much cargo as possible, so the family space was confined to the “paviljoen” under the after deck; a low-ceilinged space nowadays housing the engine, generator and electrical equipment.
This “paviljoentjalk” (a type of Dutch barge) like others of her time, relied on sail for propulsion and was designed to be handled by a man and a boy, with the help of some ingenious hand winches to assist the raising and lowering of the mast and leeboards. Together with his wife Christina, three sons for whom the barge was named, Dirk, Hendrik and Pieter and a daughter called Neeltje, they carried a cargo of farm produce and manure up and down the waterways south-east of Rotterdam. Hendrik, the middle son who was to take over later as skipper, was only 5 years old when his father took ownership of this splendid new investment in their future.
Around 1933, young Hendrik obviously wanted to move with the times and a tiny 6 horsepower Colo engine was installed. This necessitated the addition of what is now the galley area as the grand new family living space, complete with windows and pretty sliding shutters! As the Second World War took hold in Europe, the Dutch Pontonniers responsible for maintenance of the country’s many bridges and roads hired this and many other barges for haulage of their bulky materials.
Records show that as the Germans took control across Europe, they also paid to hire this barge for 26 guelders per week. But as plans for Operation Sealion ( the German invasion of Britain) took hold, the mass conversion of cargo holds to invasion craft sealed the fate for many such as Drie Gebroeders. As the RAF sought to sink as many of these potential invaders as possible, miraculously she survived, emerging with just the visible scars of cuts and welds made to her bow as proof of her war record.
In the aftermath of the war, many of these old ships were abandoned or changed ownership without official paperwork, so records do not show how this stout old girl ended up with the unlikely name of Hermes. By the 1990s she was the home of a woman named Monique who had found the barge in Zaandam, Northern Holland, in a very bad condition and loaded with old iron.
A husband and wife named Ger and Jet were next to take her on. Living aboard while single-handedly restoring her to her original sailing capabilities, they constructed the cosy, cottage-style living accommodation enjoyed to this day. I was fortunate to track down this lovely couple, thanks to the wonders of the world wide web and a Dutch historian. In our email correspondence Ger filled in the more recent gaps in DG’s story:
“In our time we sailed and lived on her the whole year round. In winter we were laying most of the time in Stavoren, its a little harbour on the west coast of Friesland. In summer we sailed often on the Waddensea north of Friesland between the islands Texel Vlieland and Terschelling. During low tide, we stood dry on the sandbanks of the Wadden. Once upon a time, we sailed to Belgium via the river de Schelde along Antwerpen to Gent. Either the sailing with such a heavy ship proves too heavy for my wife, she is less valid owing to chronic pain in her legs. Also, the mast and the mainsail became in a bad condition, it should be renewed in a short time, therefore we decided to sell the ship with a bloody heart. Willem, as you know, bought her and was very glad with the ship. That’s, in a nutshell, the story of our adventures. “
As mentioned above, our poor old lady was by now in need of some tender loving care. A young man, and soon his lady love, enjoyed her ownership for about 10 years, sailing around the naturally beautiful Biesbosch waterways. It was here I found her at the end of a long weekend of viewing unsuitable potential purchases.
Nestled in the reed beds at the side of the river, moored to a very dilapidated, rotten wooden quay, she seemed rather dark on the outside as an air of neglect enshrouded her. However, inside was to be a revelation, as this tardis revealed a bright and spacious interior. No danger of banged heads or cricked necks in this accommodating big girl. It was to be love at first sight.
And so, the rest is also now history. To date, our relationship has been one familiar to many. She has happily spent all the proceeds of my house sale and any savings I had hoped to squirrel away for a rainy day. She has, like many high maintenance lovers, had a complete facelift at my expense and I have exhausted myself and my purse attending to her needs. In return she has given me a safe place to rest my head, and accommodated many visitors – her beautiful curves have always attracted more attention than a lady of her age should!
Sadly, this passionate affair looks like it may have to end, as many do, long before expected. Having dreamed of years of joint adventures ahead, I am now faced with health and family issues that must take me ashore and across the sea to Ireland. My heart is torn and my waking hours are filled with “cunning plans” which could defer our parting.
As my water-bound dreams have been frustrated, I look now for her next custodians. I know, whilst I have served a purpose in her log book, I have disappointed her through my lack of a skipper’s skills. Her wandering gaze is now directed seaward, awaiting a salty sea-dog and friends who might allow her to unfurl her sails and dash for distant shores. With each tide, she strains her springs and shifts restlessly.
Despite her advanced years, her retirement is full of promise and she looks set to see her second centenary. I hope that I may witness at least a portion of those decades and she will live on in the caring hearts and minds of many in her golden years.
And finally, if you are considering buying your own Dutch lady, or maybe a share in one, take a look at her sale page: https://www.apolloduck.com/boat/barges-tjalk/560733