We had arrived back in Vancouver on Thursday evening, the 5th of July emotionally drained and grieving from having left Sequitur behind in St Augustine, Florida. She had for the past four years taken Edi and me safely, confidently and in grand comfort and style to some very remote and wild corners of the planet. We were still addicted to boating, and we were suffering from withdrawal symptoms. Realizing that we are approaching our best-before-dates for the type of cruising we had been doing, we have decided to look for a more sedate and gentle style of boating.
We rattled around in our loft in Vancouver, disoriented and restless. We spent a steadily increasing amount of time on the internet, searching, reading, researching and dreaming. By Monday we knew we needed to take action, so we booked flights, rented a car and reserved an apartment. Shortly after sunrise on Thursday we were rolling our carry-on bags toward the SkyTrain for a trip to the airport.
Both legs of the flight went flawlessly, the rental car pickup was seamless, the GPS unit took us easily in four and a half hours from the airport in Frankfurt to the apartment in an old farmhouse on the northern edge of Leeuwarden. It was Friday the 13th and we were in Friesland to begin in earnest our search for a new boat.
My fascination with canal boating began in 1966 when I was posted to France with the Royal Canadian Air Force. This fascination was reinforced in the 70s and 80s while on climbing trips to the Alps and wine explorations in the Champagne, Alsace, Rhone and Burgundy, and in 1984 I rented my first canal boat in France. Through the 80s and 90s I was in Europe a couple of times a year on wine buying trips or setting-up and conducting wine and food tours. While in France, I always took time to look at the canals and at the variety of boats using them. In 2000, I bought Lady Jane, a 14-metre Dutch cruiser and by the time I sold her in 2006 to go sailing again, I had explored more than 2500 kilometres of inland waterways in France.
Edi and I had initially begun thinking of another canal boat when we were stuck in Valdivia, Chile for months waiting for repairs to Sequitur. Then after we had rounded Cape Horn, it seems that whenever we had an internet connection, we spent hours online looking at various canal boat options. We started by dreaming of what we would do after we completed our circumnavigation. We thought of having an Aqualine replica Dutch barge built for us in Gdansk, Poland.
Then we thought of buying a new Dutch cruiser, such as a Linssen from Maasbracht, Netherlands. Somewhere along the way, while dealing with the increasingly adverse bureaucracies in Uruguay and Brazil, our desire to continue butting against Third World nonsense on our way around the world gave way to a more fast-track transition to the canals.
During the exploration process, our thinking slowly morphed toward buying a converted ex-commercial barge. We pored over the online listings of the many brokers in France, the Netherlands and Britain. We looked at listings of converted Aacs, Bolprams, Klippers, Luxemotors, Skutsjes, Steilstevens and Tjalks.
As we grew more familiar with the various barge types, we were increasingly drawn to the tjalk, the most typical of all the Dutch small ships. The name is from the old Dutch language and was first mentioned by Witsen in "Architectura Navalis" in 1690. Tjalken are flat-bottomed sailing cargo ships with shallow draught ideally suited to use in the shallow rivers and coastal waters of Friesland.
The shape of the ship, with its tumblehome gunwales and pleasing sheer, is reminiscent of the Dutch wooden shoe. Because of the tjalks' flat bottoms they were fitted with leeboards instead of deep keels, and they could easily dry-out on the beaches with the tides.
Most tjalken had easily lowering masts so they could pass under the low bridges. As they approached fixed bridges on the canals and rivers, they would quickly drop the fully rigged mast and sails as a unit, pass under the bridge, and easily re-erect the rig once clear. Tjalken were initially built of timber, but during the 1890s the builders gradually turned to using riveted iron instead of wood, and during the first decade of the 20th century, riveted steel replaced iron.
We arrived equipped with a complex spreadsheet of data from seventeen tjalken we had chosen to look at. Most of the ones we had selected were built in the 1890s or the first decade of the 20th century, and they ranged in length from 16 to 20 metres. Since there are much more rigorous licensing requirements for vessels over 20 metres in Europe, we wanted to stay under 20.
There was a well-equipped kitchen in our rental apartment, and there was a large supermarket a five minute walk away, so shortly after we arrived, we went shopping for groceries. We had appointments through their various brokers to view several barges on our list, and we were awaiting responses from four other brokers.
Our first appointment was in Leeuwarden on Saturday morning. After breakfast, our car's GPS took us to the canal alongside our first barge. She is a 19.98 by 4.60 metre tjalk built in 1907 and still has her complete sailing rig.
Her interior is well finished, and fully set-up for comfortable living. However, the systems and galley equipment are very dated and the interior layout is not to our liking. We would have to gut the entire interior and start over. Her high asking price reflects her condition and equipment, much of which we would have to throw away. Also, her generous headroom gives her a very high air draft at 3.5 metres. This makes her too high to fit under the lowest bridges on three of the finest canals in France; the Bourgogne, the Nivernais and the Midi.
On Saturday afternoon we drove to near Koudam on the shores of the Alde Karre, near the IJsselmeer for an appointment to see the next tjalk on our list, a 19.90 by 4.15 metre vessel built in 1910. From the outside she appears to have long since lost the love of her owner. This was strongly confirmed by a visit to her interior. The owner explained the wet bilges to be from a leak she had not yet tracked down, and the stains and rotting floorboards forward pointed to other leaks from above and below. It was quickly scratched off our list.
Making our trip worthwhile was the sight of a tjalk sailing past in a stiff breeze on the Alde Karre.
Our next appointment was in Lelystad to see a 19.80 by 3.80 metre tjalk from 1903. She has a full working rig in apparently good condition.
However, her interior is absolutely basic and is diminished further by carpentry of a very poor standard. The headroom is a bit less than 1.5 metres, and requires a constant stooping. Her interior is easier to gut than the first barge we looked at, but extensive steel work is required to heighten her house to livable dimensions. The decision to continue our search was easy.
With our day's appointments completed, we drove back by way of a stop in Harlingen. We walked along the canal in the centre of town, in awe of the beautiful old buildings and admiring the obvious pride of the home owners.
The canals were filled with boats moored along both sides. Some areas were mostly filled with new fiberglass sailboats, but among them were many of steel, including new reproductions of traditional tjalken and skutsjes.
Out near the waterfront of the Waddenzee is a basin filled with large charter sailing tjalken. We watched as one left its moorings with a full deck load of passengers and headed out toward the zee.
We had an early dinner back at the farm and went to bed early to continue working-off the jet-lag from our eight hour time change. On Sunday we had no appointments, so we went exploring, hoping to find a suitable tjalk with a Te Koop sign on it.
We also went looking for one of the listings on our spreadsheet, about which we had not received any response from the broker. This 19.98 by 4.49 metre tjalk was built in 1897. After some questioning, we finally tracked it down alongside a farmhouse outside of Kollum. We barged-in and met the owners on their patio and they gladly showed us their boat. We could find nothing positive to say about the vessel.
We then drove to Warten to look at boats in the marina at Boten en Meer. After sharing coffee with us, Auke van der Meer, the owner of the marina and its associated brokerage showed us around. He had nothing suitable onsite, but we were very taken by a beautiful little 5.4 by 2.2 metre boieir built of oak in 1941 for a Nazi general during the occupation.
Auke also is the listing broker for one of the tjalken on our spreadsheet. Its owner has moved the barge to a boatyard in Heeg to have it stripped-out to a bare hull in preparation for a new fit-out. It is a 19.66 by 4.22 metre pavjonentjalk built in 1898 and still with its full rig, but this had been removed for the work. The yard is closed on Sunday, so we made an appointment to meet Auke on Monday morning for a visit.
On Monday morning we liked what we saw. It was stripped-out, the engine and machinery were removed, the deckhouse had been cut away, the poured concrete ballast had been jackhammered out and work had begun with some bottom re-plating.
We talked in broad terms of various refit possibilities with Auke and the yard manager. The barge was still sufficiently original that it could be easily restored and accepted for listing as an historic vessel. This would allow moorage at museum harbours throughout the Netherlands. We looked at the leeboards and other bits and pieces of rigging that had been removed, and then we went back to Warten with Auke to talk details. One clog in the works was that, since he had begun work, the owner had rather steeply raised the asking price from what we had seen in the listing. Another detraction was the estimate of nearly a year to complete the fit-out. At least we had found a tjalk that we hadn't rejected.
On Tuesday morning we drove to across the Afsluitdijk to North Holland for an appointment with Peter Rood of Scheepsmalelaardij Enkhuizen. The GPS took us through the convoluted maze of central Enkhuizen to the canal front office, where we had coffee and a good conversation with Peter, giving him a better understanding of what we are looking for.
Peter had four of the listings on our spreadsheet, two of which we had already viewed through him on Saturday and Sunday. He had made appointments for the other two for us for later in the afternoon and our meeting with him was on our way south to see them. We also had an appointment to see a tjalk from another broker. We were illegally parked in front of the office, so we cut our meeting short before the parking police came by.
First on our list was a 19.80 by 4.20 metre live-aboard in Amsterdam. It was built in 1930 and we found it comfortably finished, but completely wrong for our tastes. We would have to gut it and start over, and because of its level of finish, the asking price is high and makes it unreasonable to consider.
The second barge on our day's list is in Aalsmeer, south of Amsterdam. It is a 1908 skutsje tjalk, and at 16.38 by 3.44 metres it is the second smallest on our spreadsheet.
It is a very pretty little barge, which was bought by her current owner in 1975. He converted the vessel and has lovingly maintained her for 37 years. Her sailing rig is ashore in a shed, where the owner was restoring it until he became too ill to continue.
The interior, while rather smaller than we had set out looking for, oozes charm and shows a distinct pride of ownership. We now have a second barge on our list to consider; how very different they are from each other.
The final barge of the day is in Loosdrecht, southeast of Amsterdam. It is a 19.14 by 4.10 vessel built in 1902, and is owned by a marine engineer and his wife, and he works in the boatyard where they are moored. The tjalk is fully fitted-out, rigged for sailing and is very well maintained, as can be expected from a professional boat maintenance person.
I was impressed with the engineering fit-out, by the completeness of the systems and equipment and by the orderliness and cleanliness of the barge. While the interior is not completely as we would like, its modernization refit would not be such a huge task.
All of a sudden, we found ourselves with three choices, each dramatically different from the others. During the 160 kilometre drive back to Leeuwarden we had much to discuss.
This post is also on our other blog: Zonder Zorg