After repeated visits to Bonaire, perhaps sailor Patrick Hulsker has finally found a way to remain on island.
Talk to Patrick Hulsker and you soon discover a recurrent thread during his 43 years—sailing. It started at an early age while growing up in the small polder village of Zaandijk in North Holland.
“When I was 6 years old, my father built me a Pirate. It’s like an Optimist (a small stubby boat used by the youth at the Bonaire Sailing Regatta) but with a sharp nose. I just hopped in and learned it the hard way in small canals, river style.”
Hulsker was hooked on the wind. By age eleven he became one of the first windsurfers in the Netherlands as that sport was introduced in the early 1980s. Later, he progressed to a Dragon, a deep-keeled, 9 meter, international-class race boat with a crew of three. “I ended up on the bow (the front of the boat) handling the spinnaker (a large, colorful fore sail used for downwind sailing). I was a young, light guy. It’s all about feeling, balance. When you are in the flow, it’s like a dance. It just goes. I love it.”
Family pressure interrupted the dance and Hulsker was encouraged to enroll in the University of Amsterdam to study law. That lasted about six months. “I was not happy. A friend came to me with a newspaper ad. They were looking for a charter boat captain in Aruba. I thought with my big mouth, I should give them a call. In three weeks, I was in Aruba sailing. We did day charters for tourists from the docks of the Harbor Village Casino downtown.”
Soon, Hulsker met a Dutch guy who hired him to be his private captain and cruise the Caribbean aboard a 38-foot steel sloop named Iltshi. Rob and Jeanette ter Borg (Sailors Who Never Left #7) had built the boat. It wasn’t long before Patrick sailed Iltshi to Bonaire and met the couple aboard their charter boat, Sea Witch. “That was a great time in 1992,” recalls Hulsker.
“Bonaire was really quiet in those days. We were docked at Harbour Village Marina, living aboard. When I wasn’t working on Iltshi, and I hung out at the Sunset Beach Hotel or would go to Playa by dingy or bicycle. Everybody knew each other back then. I still see some of those people on island.”
With the promised Caribbean cruise on hold, Hulsker’s attention moved elsewhere. He met a Dutch girl who he followed back to Holland in the summer of 1993. Patrick got a job working as a PR liaison for a brewery. The girlfriend returned to Bonaire by that winter. The following year, Hulsker returned to the sea. He helped a couple sail from the Panama Canal down the west coast of South America. “We sailed in schools of humpbacked whales. We were in small villages. Everyone was so friendly. It was an amazing voyage.”
By 1995, Hulsker was back in Holland and met his wife-to-be, Manon Cromheecke, who was studying medicine. Patrick also got serious about a career. “I worked in the financial sector during the ‘golden years’. I was as an investment consultant for development groups. I made a hell of a lot of money and put much of it into the stock market. Later, I bought property in Zaandam. I lived there and rented out the rest. That move made me financially independent so I could sail again.”
Hulsker joined the Dutch Commodores Cup team, sailing a Bashford Howison 41 Australian racer. From 2000 to 2005 he was crew on two of the top Dutch racing teams, sailing in World and European Championship competitions. One of his crews became Dutch champions in 2003. During this time Hulsker had the opportunity to teach to one of the Dutch princes the finer points of competitive sailing. But the demanding racing schedule did not stop Manon and him from making repeated trips back to Bonaire. “I followed my heart. I liked the laziness of the island and I mean that in a positive way. When I walked down the street, people said ‘hi’. In those days, there was really a friendly atmosphere between the original Bonairans and the people from the Netherlands.”
It was on one of those visits in 2002 that the couple wed. “I love boats so we married on Rob and Jeanette ter Borg’s boat, Sea Witch, while moored off No Name Beach. We married barefoot. My wife was in a bikini. I was in old pants. That’s the first time I ended up in the Bonaire Reporter. We made wedding rings to go around our necks from the silver and gold of old family jewelry because when you’re a captain and a surgeon, you can’t have rings on your fingers.”
Bonaire had such a hold on the couple that they named their two sons Cai (now 9) after Lac Cai and Tiko (age 5), a common Bonairan name. After repeated trips to the island, Manon secured a job in early 2010 as a surgeon in the hospital. These days Patrick does occasional boat work and takes care of the two boys. Unlike other sailors in this series who came to the island and never left, Hulsker has had a difficult time remaining. Is this return permanent?
“That’s a good question,” responds Patrick. “We might have to leave in the future due to the demands of Manon’s career. But we now have some property here. We bought some land. Bonaire is still in our hearts.”