‘My salvation was a skipper family’

“Parenthood was not a topic of conversation in my relationship. My wife and I were not worried about that at all. We lived together on a ship and went from cargo to cargo. Until we were in Rotterdam on our inland waterway vessel and suddenly an eighteen-year-old girl with a baby was on board. Her husband had sailed on while she was in hospital giving birth. Really terrible. We had a large habitable cabin, so sailing acquaintances asked if the two could stay with us temporarily.

“I had to cancel all trips to the skipper’s meeting. It really cost money. But of course we couldn’t send that kid away. While that girl was trying to arrange a house and benefits, we took care of her baby. Then something happened with my wife Sioe, because at one point she said she suddenly thought about children. Well, that was a bit of a thing. I had always enjoyed taking my nieces on the ship and playing a part in their upbringing, but my own children…

“I still thought I was too old for fatherhood; I was almost fifty. And I was scared. Terrified. I told Sioe to make sure I wouldn’t touch our children with a finger. Never. Never. I said if necessary get a knife to stop me if I lose my temper but make sure what happened to me doesn’t happen to my son and daughter.

“I was born in Arnhem just after the war in an attic room with my grandfather and grandmother. My parents lived there, because even then there was a housing shortage. And Arnhem was close to Amersfoort, the city where my father was stationed. I was number two. I have a brother above me, unfortunately he has already passed away, and a little sister. My parents are actually from Limburg. My father was born there and my mother of German origin grew up there. My father was hot-tempered and had loose hands. My mother suffered from war trauma. In her mind, a German could never be good. So we had to be the best at everything, and good was never good enough. Quite difficult for a dyslexic boy.

I worked with a Spanish boatman. That man taught me everything I needed to know about life and seafaring

‘My rescue was an inland skipper family that my parents had become friends with in Limburg. At the end of the war, the Germans wanted to sink the family ship, and my parents helped them prevent it. They developed a very strong bond. The skipper and his wife even became parents to my mother. After the war, she had no idea where her own parents were or if they were still alive. The skipper’s family then said ‘so we are your parents now’.

“For me, those people have always been my third grandfather and grandmother. And their daughter Jannie, who was almost my mother’s age, became a second mother. From the age of ten I was on that ship every holiday. The skipper taught me everything. Shared ship’s rope. Navigate. Everything. In school I wasn’t good at it, but on that ship I was appreciated. I loved it when we loaded concrete pavers in Groningen and brought them to Emden to load cement again for the construction of the new harbor entrance in Delfzijl. I could lose my soul and bliss in that voyage.

“It didn’t go well at home. We had moved to Utrecht because of my father’s job in the Ministry of Defence. My relationship with my mother continued to deteriorate because I was not doing well in school. And my father beat it regularly. I was often covered in bruises. Jannie is the only one my dad has ever confronted about this. She said, “You kill that kid again.” It eventually turned things around. When I was 15, he apologized for the violence. He never said sorry to my brother or sister. My brother was still upset even on his deathbed.

“The Limburg inland skipper really wanted me to take over his ship. But coastal shipping beckoned. I wanted adventure. When I was seventeen, I signed up as a midshipman on Tilly, one of the ships of the Zaan shipping company Tavenier. My first trip lasted one and a half years. I didn’t take leave. I always paid for that. I worked with a Spanish boatman. That man reeducated me. And taught me everything I needed to know about life and seafaring. I am still deeply grateful to him for that for.

“A few years later I sailed for Smit-Lloyd. I’ve seen the whole world. Singapore, South America, Dakar… I’ve been everywhere. On board, I often encountered boys who had just as bad a start as I did. He tried to help you a little. In the 1980s I had to deal with piracy and a lot of violence in Nigeria. Sioe stayed on my ship and didn’t take it. Therefore we bought an inland vessel together and started sailing in Europe. Until the kids came. I thought their arrival, like any parent, a miracle. The fears I had turned out to be unnecessary. I manage to suppress my aggression. I am especially proud. Be proud. They are two beautiful children.”

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