Netherlands – Lockdown is keeping ships in port – and as bankruptcy looms for many skippers, an ‘irreplaceable’ part of the Netherlands’ maritime heritage is at risk.
If it weren’t for Covid-19, Sven Timmann would be sailing the relatively calm inland waters of the Netherlands with groups of schoolchildren, businesspeople and families. Instead, his ship, the Ambiance – a 112-year-old clipper with three masts and six sails – has been docked since October, and there is a good chance it will never sail again.
A sturdy, bearded man with an anchor tattoo who bought the 39-metre Ambiance after moving to the Netherlands from Germany to attend nautical college, Timmann has already seen a 90% loss of revenue this season. He expects to be bankrupt by the end of the year. “The ship has sailed through wars and storms,” he says. “How can it be that a tiny virus now threatens the entire fleet?”
The Netherlands is home to the world’s largest historical sailing fleet. Traditionally used to transport goods, these century-old vessels are like something out of Pirates of the Caribbean, with sailors hanging from the rigging and climbing the mast to the crow’s nest to unfurl the sails. They are also a way of life: since 2007 Timmann has lived on his black ship, among the memories of countless hours of watchkeeping, navigating by the stars and hauling on ropes with blistered fingers.
In other countries, vessels such as these are museum pieces, sailing only on special occasions. In the Netherlands, however, they are working ships, linking past and present as a vital part of the maritime economy and giving students a hands-on lesson about their country’s history. Most of these sailing trips last a week long, while a small number of ships run day trips.
But coronavirus threatens to scupper the majority of the 400 vessels in the Netherlands. Because of pandemic-control measures, the ships cannot sail and no tourists may board. Sailing requires close teamwork that is simply impossible under the government-mandated distancing rules.
“We need five people pulling on one rope to hoist a sail,” Timmann says. “This cannot be done alone.” In the cabins below deck, it is also impossible to keep distance.
All planned trips – Timmann charges up to €300 (£279) a person per day, though much less for students – have been cancelled, and he must refund the money.
On 10 July, the government eased the rule requiring 1.5m distancing, but it applies only to day trips, which account for only 10% of sailing trips, says Paul van Ommen, director of the ship owner association BBZ. “This is nowhere near enough to save the fleet,” he says. For Timmann nothing has changed: “I run overnight trips, that is how my ship and business are built.” Having already lost 4 months of income, the overnight trips are even more important now.
“A day of sailing means two days of upkeep,” says Van Ommen. Half of a skipper’s annual income goes on maintenance. A damaged sail costs €5,000 to €8,000, and paint €3,000 a season. The longer the ships are idle, the more their value slides for lack of repairs and rust.