With the weather so good, we decide to push on to Hoorn before it turns. Our plan now is to leave Ruby Tuesday there for the winter. The marina manager at Volendam advises us to sail in a loop past two yellow sports buoys well out from the coast so that we avoid a large area of sea grass which is growing in the north-west corner of the Markermeer. It is possible to sail through it, but that runs the risk of getting it caught around the keel, and worse, the propeller. At this stage of the voyage, we just don’t want any complications.
The wind is still from the east, so we have a good sail up to Hoorn on an easy beam reach. By this stage, we are used to the shallow depths and think nothing of sailing along at 6-7 knots with just 50 cm under the keel. At least it is nice soft mud if we do go aground. We notice that many of the other sailing boats actually do go much closer to shore where the sea grass is supposed to be, but we tell ourselves that they are probably local and know the water much better. Plus they have much shorter keels than we do, no doubt.
Eventually we reach Hoorn. There is a series of green buoys in a line to guide us in. We join the queue of boats heading back in, feeling like we are in a procession.
A traditional fishing boat with a lee-board on the side passes us, heading out. These boats have no keel so that they can cope with the shallow depths of the Markermeer and IJsselmeer. Instead, they use leeboards hinged to the side, which are lifted up and down on the downwind side of the boat to provide some resistance to the water so they are not blown sideways.
We turn left into Grashaven Hoorn marina, and are given a box berth which is very tight – only a few centimetres on either side, but somehow we manage to squeeze in with the help of one of the neighbours.
“We’ve loved travelling through Holland”, the First Mate says to him once we have sorted ourselves out. “Every city we have seen is so beautiful. You can see that there has been wealth here in the past.”
“Yes, Holland did pretty well for itself during the Dutch Golden Age from 1581-1672”, he says. “After the Eighty Years War with Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium were formed, with the Protestants ending up mainly in the Netherlands, and the Catholics in Belgium. Holland in the 17th and 18th centuries became the wealthiest and most scientifically advanced country in the world, partly because of the Protestant work ethic, and partly due to the level of tolerance that attracted thinkers and scientists from other parts of Europe.
“I guess it was also ideally placed for trade, being halfway between the Baltic and Spain and a conduit for German produce coming down the Rhine?” I say, recalling something that I had read, and trying not to appear totally ignorant of Dutch history.
“Yes, that’s true”, he says. “And cheap energy from the windmills and peat also helped. Hoorn did particularly well, as it was a port for a number of Dutch trading companies, the most famous of which is the Dutch East India Company, or the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie as we say in Dutch, the VOC for short. The town also gave its name to Cape Horn at the bottom of South America. Even though it is not as important now, it is still a picturesque city with lots of beautiful old buildings remaining from that period. You should visit the Westfries museum if you want to know more about the Golden Age and the VOC.”
After a bite to eat, we unpack the bikes and set off to explore the town. Once again, people are remarkably relaxed about the coronavirus – very few are wearing masks, and only limited social distancing seems to be going on. We do our best to stay our distance, but it isn’t easy. At least we are outside, where transmission of the virus is supposed to be lower.
We come across a shop displaying the Scottish flag. It turns out to be selling whisky.
We are intrigued by one of the road signs prohibiting spiders from entering. The text translates as ‘except for local traffic’. We think it’s probably best not to tell Spencer in case he feels discriminated against.
We come across the picturesque main harbour near the town centre, where we could have stayed for a short time, but not for the whole winter.
The Hoofdtoren, or the Main Tower, was originally constructed in 1532 for defence, but in 1614 was converted into the headquarters for the Northern Company, which traded with the Baltic States and Poland for grain and timber which they stockpiled for security against bad harvests and for shipbuilding. Nowadays it is a restaurant overlooking the harbour.
Further on, two guns protect the entrance to the harbour.
In the evening, we sit in the cockpit on Ruby Tuesday and enjoy a glass of wine as the sun sets in the west.
“Have you noticed that there is lots of birdlife in the marina?”, says the First Mate.
She’s right. We can see coots, ducks, crested grebes, a heron, and crows. They seem to see the marina as some sort of bird sanctuary.
There are also two unusual birds which we haven’t seen before. According to the bird book we have, they are Egyptian geese. We decide to name them Ramses and Nefertari.
The next day we book a slot for the Westfries Museum in Roode Steen square. Only a limited number of people are allowed in an any one time and masks must be worn. The museum is housed in a former council chamber, and is basically a history of the Dutch Golden Age, and the Dutch East Indian Company in particular. I take one of the pamphlets to read.
The Dutch East India Company was established in 1602 by amalgamating a number of existing companies, it tells me. It started off by trading textiles and silk with India and spices with south-east Asian countries. Later, they diversified into shipbuilding and production of spices, coffee, sugar, wine. Their great innovation was in offering bonds and shares to the public to fund their trading ventures – this had been done before, but it had been on the basis of individual expeditions rather than for a whole company doing it. With its own logo and flag, it was the forerunner of the modern multinational company, although even more powerful – it was almost a state in its own right in that it could wage war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties, strike its own coins, and establish colonies.
We wander around the museum. Like Teyler’s Museum in Haarlem, the collection of weird and wonderful objects conveys the excitement that people must have felt as exotic artifacts and creatures they would never have seen before were brought back from far-off lands.
“The VOC was governed by the Heeren XVII, or the 17 Lords”, says one of the museum attendants, coming over.
I am looking at a giant painting of a group of self-made worthies sitting around a table, their artificial wigs tumbling to their shoulders and further.
“They were chosen from the six Chamber heads and shareholders of the company”, he continues. “They were responsible for determining general company policy and deciding where the ships should go to trade. This painting is of the six Chamber heads.”
We walk from room to room and between floors admiring the beautiful furniture and rich wall decorations in each. There is certainly a lot of wealth evident.
One room is the kitchen where the beer is kept.
Afterwards we find a café and order coffees.
“Did you hear the story about the Banda Islands and the nutmeg?”, says the First Mate. “One of the museum attendants was telling it.”
“No”, I say. “I think I was in front of you at that point. Tell me it.”
“Well it seems there was an island in Indonesia where there was nutmeg and mace growing”, she says. “The islanders signed a contract with the British to sell the spices to them, but this upset the Dutch, who had the monopoly of the lucrative trade in these spices.”
“So a chap called Jan Pieterszoon Coen, who was the VOC Governor General in Batavia, attacked the island and first chased off all the British, then set about massacring, drowning, and enslaving the islanders. In the end, the Dutch managed to regain control of the trade, making 600% profit when they brought it back to Holland. It was quite in demand at the time as both a spice and a medicine. There was an artistic display in the museum of ‘nutmeg flowers’ on a sandy beach being swept away into the sea to represent the lives of the islanders who were killed.”
“Wow! Not very fair on the islanders, but at least it explains all the nice houses in Hoorn”, I say.
I think back to the painting of the six bewigged Chamber leaders, grown fat on the wealth pillaged from other countries. Different times and different morals, I know, but did any of them have any qualms about the outcomes of their decisions – the cruelty to the islanders, and the loss of culture, languages and lands they caused? The slightly smug looks on their faces suggest that that side of things never crossed their minds; that it was only the vast profits to be made that concerned them. And yet, they weren’t the only ones – most of the other European nations at the time were also at it – pillaging the resources of other countries to build their own fortunes. And is it really any better today – agribusiness, mining, oil and gas companies, all multinational corporations managed by the rich western countries, are still making vast profits abroad, often displacing local people as they do so. With their political clout, they are almost as powerful as the VOC was, and can even sue governments if they try and stop profit-making.
“But that wasn’t the end of the story”, the First Mate continues. “The Dutch and British had been fighting in Europe as well, and when they signed their peace treaty, the island was supposed to have been returned to Britain. But the British said they didn’t really want it, and exchanged it for Manhattan Island in the USA, where they changed the name of the main city from New Amsterdam to New York. And then, to cap it all, they took some nutmeg and mace seeds to their own colonies, and started growing their own spices. The market crashed, and the Dutch never regained control of the spice trade. So the British had the last laugh!”
“They are probably planning to do something similar after Brexit”, I say.
“Anyway, let’s go”, she says, drinking up the last of her coffee. “I’m getting hungry. Let’s get back to the boat and get some dinner.”
We spend the rest of the week preparing Ruby Tuesday for winter. We motor over to the fuel barge and fill the tank up with fuel to minimise condensation that could cause problems if it found its way into the engine. We take down the sails, the cockpit tent and spray hood, and store them. I replace the oil and fuel filters, change the oil and coolant, and drain the water system. The First Mate stores all of the clothes and bed linen in vacuum packs and sucks the air out of them with the vacuum cleaner.
It is the last day. A taxi is coming in ten minutes to take us and our luggage to the train station. From there, there is a direct train to Schiphol Airport, where we will catch a flight back to the UK. We have each had to fill out a form promising to self-quarantine for 14 days after arriving back. We don’t mind that at all, as we have plenty of catching up to do after being away for nearly three months.
We check everything for the last time.
“Oh, look”, says the First Mate. “I have forgotten to put the mat back. I’ll just take it over to that tree before we go and shake it to get all the dust out. I’ll be careful not to drop it in the water as I get off.”
Moments later there is a splash and a plaintive call.
“Help, help! I’ve dropped the mat into the water”, shouts the First Mate.
Ramses and Nefertari take off in fright. I wonder briefly if they might be heading in the direction of Egypt.
I grab the boathook and try to reach the mat. It starts to go under just like the map did on Oosterscheldte. I manage to hook it from underneath and then try to manoeuvre it out, but it slips and starts to sink again. Luckily it is near the pontoon by this stage, so the First Mate lies down and manages to grab it just before it disappears into the depths.
“Phew, that’s lucky”, she says. “I think I was trying so hard not to drop it that it slipped somehow”.
“Quick, we have to go”, I say. “The taxi might be there.”
The taxi is not there. We wait for 15 minutes, but there is still no sign of it. We will miss our train. I ring the company but there is no answer. A woman in a car passes, and leans out of the window.
“Are you in a hurry to get somewhere?”, she asks.
We explain our predicament.
“Jump in”, she says. “I’ll take you there.”
We load our luggage into the boot and climb in. Just as we reach the end of the street, we see the taxi coming, 25 minutes late. We pretend not to notice it. Overhead I see Ramses and Nefertari returning to the peace and quiet we’ve left. See you both next year, I say to myself.