Sailing barges in Holland

We saw the magnificent barge above in Hasselt, Netherlands when we visited an historic ship festival. The image could well have been painted by a Dutch Master. The sail ripples in the breeze and drapes seductively like a chiffon scarf over the shoulder of a beautiful girl.

The boat is a klipper aak I believe, a magnificent example of Dutch waterways history. These flat-bottomed boats would ply their trade on the shallow waters of the Zuider Zee (now The Ijsselmeer), rivers and canals. One example of the trade they plied was the transport of shells from the Waddenzee in the very north of Holland to here in Hasselt where they would be burned over peat for several days. The resultant lime residue would be used in construction. Behind the boat in the photograph you can see the kilns. They are no longer used, apart from anything else the Dutch have very stringent pollution regulations.

The pear-drop-shape board you can see is called a leeboard. There is one on each side of the boat. These sailing barges have no fixed keel because many of the waterways are shallow in places. The leeboards are winched down into the water to prevent the boat slipping sideways.

Many of these boats were constructed from the 1860s and a few of the originals survive today. They were built with an iron hull (as opposed to steel which I believe became widely used from the 1920s). This period saw the advent of the motor-driven barge such as the Luxemotor. The insides of the hulls were smeared with grease or animal fat to prevent corrosion on the damp bilges.

These days old barges are home to a few and pricey playthings to a few more. Others are used as charter boats where adveturous travellers pay good money to haul ropes and defecate in a bucket for a week out on the meers. Whoever has custody of these lovely old ships we must thank them for preserving such magnificent examples of waterways history.

Below is a wonderful three-masted klipper on the slipway in Urk.

The klipper is roughly 40 metres long without bowsprit. It will have a big engine, proabably a 6-cylinder diesel like a Daf, but the main, fun way to handle this vessel is under sail. Goodness knows how they keep track of all the rigging. Great skills passed down the generations. In full sail they look magnificent out on the lakes. There is usually a breeze over the flatlands of central Holland so handling these boats in tight areas without bow-thrusters takes skill and nerve.

They will come out of the water every five or six years as a condition of their insurance to be inspected, cleaned and re-painted. They are old ladies, some over 150 years, and they need careful looking after.

Owning one of these boats is a privilege. I felt we were merely custodians, preserving a slice of history. Ironically many of them are owned by non-Dutch people. British, German, American, Antipodean and others all keep the heart of a wonderful tradition beating.

There are numerous types of barge raging from bulky sea-going vessels with a high freeboard (basically the distance between the water and deck) to those of three or four metres that act as little tugs in small ports. Many are designed for a particular purpose. For example we saw small, narrow ‘dumb’ (motorless) barges transporting reeds for thatch. They would be pulled by small tugs (or horses historically) and plied their trade on small waterways between fields, off-shoots of larger waterways.

The Dutch really embrace their festivals. It’s an important part of their way of life, the way they nurture their heritage. You can see a wide variety of different barges in the link below.

There are photos of the festival here.