Jeanette and Rob ter Borg made landfall on Bonaire where they still remain today.
“Bonaire was so nice, so simple,” explains Jeanette. “There were no buildings along the coast. Hardly any cars or telephones, and Cultimara (a local super market) was here but it was very small.”
“Many people were barefoot, but not because they couldn’t afford shoes,” adds Rob. “It was just their choice. There was no need for shoes. So I went barefoot when I went into town too.”
These were the first impressions of the young Dutch sailors when they arrived on Bonaire over a quarter of a century ago. The ter Borg’s had left Haarlem, the Netherlands in 1982 after they had completed construction of Iltshi, a 38-foot steel sloop. The couple had bought the hull and Rob built the rest of the boat himself. He came from a family of sailors, generations of boat builders, so completing Iltshi (which means ‘wind’ in the American Indian language of Apache) was in his DNA. Jeanette had never sailed until she met Rob in her early 20s. She quit her secretary job ten years later. Their goal was to complete a world voyage in four to five years. By the time they sailed into Spain, their plans had drastically changed.
“I injured my back and had to have surgery and then a long recovery,” tells Jeanette. “We were in Spain for two years. Then the doctor told me I was not allowed to sail. I said, ‘Oh, no?’ and off we went.”
This was in the time before the advent of personal computers. The couple’s main contact with home was poste restante, or general delivery, a service where the post office holds mail until the recipient calls for it. “Every time we came to a port, we would rush to the post office,” laughs Jeanette. “Now and then we heard, ‘No, we sent your mail back two days ago because it was here too long.’ It was so different then. You can not imagine.”
Also, there was no GPS (Global Positioning System) in 1982. Rob, however, was a master at celestial navigation and the sextant was Iltshi’s guide. That was fortunate, for as Jeanette reveals, “Robert has his own way of navigation.”
“There are two points, A and B,” explains Rob with a smile. “But you don’t know B. So what you do is you start sailing and then you end up at B, wherever it is. Then you can draw this line back to A. It’s always good.”
It was good enough that when Iltshi’s crew finally left Spain, they had a smooth trans-Atlantic crossing from the Canaries to the Caribbean. They then sailed the islands throughout the chain. It was a simpler time of smaller yachts and what Jeanette refers to as ‘sea gypsies’, cruisers on limited budgets who sailed small boats as compared to today’s yachts that often exceed 40-feet.
“I think cruising now is not as nice anymore. When we were sailing around, in no time you would be invited to a beach party. Sailors were always gathering together. Now, everybody sits down below behind their computers. They are just not meeting each other like we used to.”
By the time the couple reached Curacao, they began doing charters for tourists as a way to financially extend their voyage. The unexpected, two-year delay in Spain had used up precious savings. Iltshi was first chartered in Curacao, followed by a few months in the Dominican Republic, and then Bonaire.
“We did one-week charters from Kralendijk,” confides Jeanette. “We sailed from Bonaire to the Venezuelan mainland and then to Las Aves and back to Bonaire. Then you have a nice trip. It was so pretty.”
“There are not many places where you can get away like the Aves,” adds Rob. “There is nothing there. No lights, no noise. That’s very special in today’s world
The venture turned into a life of chartering and living aboard for nearly two decades. Soon after starting, the couple had their daughter, Sabina, who grew up on the boat. She now is studying law in the Netherlands. “We sailed to Curacao to have the baby in the hospital there,” recalls her mother. “Sabina still loves to sail. As a child, she was never seasick and always slept well aboard.”
By 1993, Rob and Jeanette realized they needed more room, not only for the family, but to accommodate larger charter groups. They sold Iltshi in Bonaire and traveled to Miami to find a replacement. “We found a new boat in three minutes!” claims Rob. Sea Witch was a 56-foot ketch (two masts), two heads (bathrooms) and four cabins. Rob sailed her back to Bonaire where she was used as a charter boat and home until 2003. Sea Witch was then sold to a Dutch family who is currently cruising in Brazil under the name, Duty Free.
“We still have contact with some of our former passengers,” says Jeanette, “but it was difficult to make money in the sailing charter business. We were basically just breaking even after every season. That is why we stopped eight years ago.”
Jeanette got a steady job as manager for Tropical Travel, a tourist-service company based in the Plaza Resort. Rob bought another boat, Vida, a British schooner built in 1928. He tried over the years to build a new hull around the boat’s present form, but experienced a number of setbacks. Rob finally realized that by the time he completes Vida, he would be too old to sail. The schooner is now for sale.
The couple still dreams of continuing their world voyage that they started nearly thirty years ago. When asked how the transition was moving back to land, Rob says, “Like now, horrible.” “Strange,” concurs Jeanette. “I love living on a boat”. Their daughter, Sabina, also expressed her desire to join her parents after she completes law school. So the search for the family’s next boat continues. Until that yacht is found, the ter Borg’s will remain on Bonaire with the rest of the sailors who never left.