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  • Writer's pictureSaar van Ommen

Sailing Race Proceeds Amidst Concerns Over Onboard Safety

The ship Zuid Holland © Toussaint Schroders

As captains prepare for an upcoming race of historic sailing vessels, the findings from a recently published report by the Dutch Safety Board (OVV) have raised concern over safety on board these ships.

The OVV conducted an investigation into onboard safety after a 12-year-old died on a historic ship in 2022. The girl was killed when the boom, a horizontal pole attached to the main mast, broke and fell onto the deck. In the report, the OVV concluded that there is a lack of a robust framework of standards. Due to the flexibility within the entire system, ship captains are not held accountable for safety adequately.

The Brown Fleet

On October the 14th, only weeks after the publication of the OVV report, dozens of historic ships are set to take part in the Clipper Race, a yearly event in which historic, flatbottomed ships race around the Ijselmeer.

Among them is the Willem Jacob, a 134-year-old ship. It has its mooring in Groningen but is set to sail to Enkhuizen to take part in the Clipper Race for the nineteenth time. “We think our equipment is in good condition, but after such an accident, you still take another look,” Tsjerk Hesling Hoekstra, the ship’s captain says.

The Willem Jacob was originally built to ship cargo up and down the river Rhine. It’s one of around 400 traditional cargo ships that make up the Brown Fleet. Today, the Brown Fleet has found a new purpose as commercial passenger ships which take people to explore the waterways and coastlines of the Netherlands.

"The Netherlands is unique in this regard. These historic ships are located in our cities and towns which are still part of our everyday life," Hoekstra says. For many captains, it is the historic ships and the traditional sailing that make the race so exciting.

The ship Willem Jacob © Willem Jacob

Extra risks

This year, the participants are having a renewed conversation about safety, Hoekstra notices. During a race, people often hoist extra sails to go faster,” he says. Adding more sails increases the load on the boat's rigging (mast, shrouds, and stays). If the rigging is not properly maintained or if it's already stressed, this could lead to failures or accidents. “There is now more debate about that,” Hoekstra says.

Some of Hoekstra’s colleagues recognize the concern about extra sails. “We never carry extra sails. I do that more for myself, I never feel very comfortable with them,” Toussaint Schroders skipper of Zuid Holland says. He is participating in the race, and his choice not to use extra sails means that there is a limit to the speed his ship can reach. “Winning isn’t really an option anyway.”

For Schroders the appeal of the race lies in seeing history come alive. “I'm interested in seeing all those people that sail the old school way and maximalise the potential of their ships."

While pushing the vessels to their limits means that some people take extra risks, Schroders isn’t worried at all. “Many people do set additional sails, but those are well tested. You can see that people don't add what they are not familiar with.”

Toussaint Schroders © Toussaint Schroders

Even a captain with confidence in the safety of their own ships, race conditions can be tense. A race remains exciting, and often more risks are taken. “I sometimes can't assess to what extent colleagues are taking risks,” says Jerke van As, who captains the 129-year-old Nil Desperandum.

The OVV report has influenced Van As’ sailing, but he does believe this will affect his race. "For me personally, I’m more conscious of my sailing behaviour, but we use the extra sails with the same limit, whether it is a competition or a normal journey."

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