Home From The Tropics

This is an article I just submitted to the Bonaire Reporter…

It was not too long ago that the VD 17 with its blood red sails was a familiar site cruising the leeward coast of Bonaire.  This large wooden vessel, called a kwak, is one of only four that still exist.  These stout workboats hail from the North Holland town of Volendam, thus the “VD” designation.

Volendam harbor

In its heyday, Volendam was a fishing capital hauling in enormous amounts of eel for the Dutch dinner table.  To accomplish that task, the Volendammer kwak was born.  These sail-powered fishing boats were built to withstand the rigors of the challenging Zuiderzee, now called the Ijsselmeer.  Fishermen hauled in a ton of eel at a time, storing the valuable catch in bins below deck until delivered ashore.  The crews were small, typically one or two sailors and perhaps a young boy on board as an apprentice.  The eel were brought in with a kwakkuil, a large net hung from two poles.  The net was dragged from the stern of the boat, and when filled with eel, pulled on board by hand.  It was arduous work.  The prowess of these hardy Dutch sailors assured the economic success of North Holland fishing villages like Volendam.

The VD 17, built in 1919, is one of 243 kwakken from this golden era.  The boat is immense.  It weighs 30 tons, has a beam of 17 feet and an overall length of 52 feet.  Two sails, a gaff-rigged main and a large jib, comprise over 450 square feet of sail.  The boat was used until 1958 when it, like the rest of the kwak fleet, could no longer compete with modern fishing boats.  This proud, powerful sailboat went through years of neglect until Fred Ros, currently a resident of Bonaire, found it rotting in a field. He and a number of volunteers began restoring the boat in Spakenburg, the Netherlands.

By 1999, the VD 17 returned to the water as a charter boat where it took tourists on day trips on the Ijsselmeer.  The money earned from this endeavor and other donations funded a total restoration of the kwak.  Once complete, Ros shipped the boat to Curacao in 2005 and then sailed it to Kralendijk.

For the next five years, the VD 17 graced the Bonaire coastline, working again as a day charter boat.  Early this year the Stichting Zuyderzee Cultuur Volendam purchased the boat. The SZCV is a non-profit, cultural organization dedicated to preserving the rich fishing heritage of Volendam.  The organization was offered a generous interest-free loan from a group of local business owners eager to return the VD 17 to its homeport.

The kwak now joins three others in the Volendam harbor– the VD5, VD 84 and VD172.  These floating monuments, all belonging to the SZCV, are sailed by the organization’s members on Wednesday nights. The boats are also used for charters, which helps pay for the fleet’s maintenance.

“I’ve already got an idea how much work it is to keep such a boat in sailing shape,” says Harry Miller, a kwak helmsman and SZCV member.  “Commercially speaking, it is virtually impossible. It requires so much maintenance. You ask yourself sometimes and wonder how the old fishermen were able to do it.”

While the VD 17 will be missed here on Bonaire, it is in need of further restoration after years in the harsh, tropical sun.  In addition, the SZCV is preparing for the construction and operation of a historic shipyard called the Krommer, comprising of two slipways and carpentry workshop.  It is fitting that the old kwak now returns home and joins its sister ships in Volendam for the next chapter in its long life.

VD 17's fore deck

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