Water as far as the eye can see, the planks rising and falling under your feet, the wind in the sails above you, adventure, the romance of the sea - every day, right through the summer! The sort of apprenticeship that would make anyone's heart beat that much faster.
That's what 21-year old Aafke thinks, too. Aafke is from Alkmaar in the Netherlands and is a trainee skipper on a large two-mast sailing ship. After breaking off her apprenticeship as a joiner, a job that bored her because it was always the same 9 till 5 day in, day out, she took a job as a ship's mate. Freedom was the name of the game, being in contact with the elements and the excitement of the unexpected. Even as a child, Aafke had always felt an affinity for water and had also been a sea scout.
Aafke picked up her first professional calluses during a 7-month trip on board a schooner in the Baltic, on the high seas between Denmark and Sweden. After that, she was on a Dutch sailing ship on the inland waterways - until her skipper fired her, because he preferred a male mate. Why was that? "There are some skippers who prefer to have all-male crews," says Aafke, "because they feel they don't have to watch their language so much. He can shout at his mate in his usual gruff manner and there's bound to be the occasional swear word. With a woman on board, he didn't want to do that. At least not with me!" But this turned out to be a stroke of luck because this gave her the opportunity to take up a post aboard the "Mare Marieke", captained by Skipper Axe Zaal. The "Mare Marieke" is a real beauty: a historical two-masted clipper, 36 metres (about 100 feet) long, 6.60 m (around 20 feet) across the beams and with 420 m² of sail, making it quite capable of sailing at a considerable lick. Over a hundred years ago, the "Mare Marieke" sailed along the Dutch coast as a cargo ship. Today, she carries sailing tourists around the Ijsselmeer and the shallow wash between the mainland and the islands of Texel, Vlieland and Terschelling.
Old sailing ship - new cargo
One of the oldest seafaring nations, the Dutch have managed to maintain some of their traditions that are looked on with envy by many a keen sailor: a fleet of about 500 two- and three-masted sailing ships, most of them so-called "platbodemschepen" ("flat-bottomed boats") or simply sailing barges. As the name implies, these sailing boats have a flat bottom, i.e. they have no keel and require remarkably little depth of water to sail in. They lie low in the water, which means that, if the wind is blowing hard and the ship tilts to one side, waves often come over the decks. This produces either cries of excitement or of alarm from the passengers, depending on how they feel.
These are the passengers who have taken the place of the coal and wheat as the cargo. Refurbished and equipped with the latest in navigation hard- and software, these wonderful old barges are now in the service of school trips, company outings, group charter or individual tourists. Often privately owned by the skipper himself or herself, they sail under the flag of one of the companies that have specialised in charter trips, based in Harlingen, Hoorn or Enkhuisen. These days, the ships are also fitted with powerful engines to assist them in navigating the often crowded harbours and locks. And not forgetting that the passengers are usually office bound and have to appear ready for work at a certain time on a certain day, even after a romantic, exhilarating weekend on the water. If the wind drops to zero, it's comforting to know you have a powerful diesel engine as a backup./p>
The ups and downs of fee-paying passengers
Obviously, the passengers are expected to lend a hand. For many of them, this is one of the main features on such a charter trip. All joining in to hoist the sails, hauling in the sheets, neatly coiling the lines, or even taking the helm under the watchful eye of the captain. These activities, fun as they are, require the skipper and his or her crew to be forever at the ready since most of the passengers are inexperienced "landlubbers". After all, the captain is responsible for ensuring that nobody is injured and that both the people on board and the ship itself return home safe and sound.
Aafke has mixed feelings about passengers on board. She loves having lots to do with people, especially as they are usually on holiday and, as a result, in a good mood and laid back. What makes her really mad is when younger passengers - and normally it is the younger ones - show no respect for the ship and its fittings. "You get some who keep complaining because there's no disco, or because there aren't enough showers. It just makes me sad because they aren't able to enjoy the trip. And when they start cutting through the lines with their pocket knives I don't understand at all and get really annoyed".
Tough work and low wages, board and lodging is included
In order to become a fully qualified skipper, Aafke has to show that she has three years' experience on board a large-sailed ship. During this time, the day-to-day work is not that much different from that of a ship's mate. It is tough work and you certainly need physical strength and stamina. Aafke can see no reason why women shouldn't do the work just as well as men. "It's a question of technique. If someone shows me how to apply my strength most efficiently, everything's possible". The fact that nowadays around half of all sailing crews are female seems to support her theory.
The worst part about the job is the pay. Aafke earns around 20 to 35 Guilders (£6 - £10 or $9 - $15) a day, which is more like pocket money than a wage. But at least board and lodging is free. "Board", in this case, means that the crew is allowed to eat with the passengers for free. Not so exciting, of course, if they have a group of youngsters on board who only know how to cook spaghetti every day for a week! Lodging means that the crew lives on board all year round. Many sailors and even some skippers do not even have their own house or flat on land.
Quick reactions and a steady hand are essential
>Generally speaking, the ship must be kept "ship shape and Bristol fashion" all the time. Since the real "master" of the ship is the wind, the people on board are always kept busy. Blocks and tackle, shrouds all need checking, sails and rigging have to be carefully furled and coiled and stowed away, the sheets have to be untangled for the umpteenth time and neatly coiled up so that they run smoothly next time the ship changes tack and the sails swing across the deck. A knot would be fatal while going about. While the ship is under way, the captain's orders have to be followed. He / she decides the course, when to hoist or lower a certain sail. Each move has to be precisely carried out. The wind can suddenly change, the mizzen at the stern has to be reefed and then the jib at the bow. Just before the ship enters the harbour, the mainsail has to be lowered. At this moment, Aafke also has to keep an eye on the passengers, who are probably lazing on deck, enjoying a cup of tea or coffee, because the main boom is likely to swing across the deck from port to starboard and back again during this manoeuvre.
One has to be prepared for the completely unexpected, too. A sheet might break, for example, and leave the large jib flapping in the wind and making an ear-splitting cracking sound as well. This is when Aafke makes a daring leap into the net below the jib boom where she then tries, with her bare hands, to get the sail back under control, lying only a few feet above the hissing spray. At times like this, she is quite capable of giving orders and commanding passengers and crew alike up to the front to help.
Respect for the tremendous forces of nature
Is she ever frightened? Hesitantly, Aafke admits that some situations are frightening. "The better word is really 'respect'. I have the greatest respect for the forces of nature. Sometimes, though, I'm really afraid. But our guests mustn't be allowed to see that. If the wind is too strong, or something breaks, I'm afraid in case someone gets hurt. Or that I'll injure my hands. In this job, your hands are very prone to injury."
Apart from the practical aspects of the job, apprentices are also required to do plenty of theory, astronomy, reading charts, setting compass courses, calculating the tides and meteorology, physics and engine mechanics. The training course ends with a final written exam. Aafke really only has time to revise in the winter, when the sailing season has finished. If you were thinking that sailors have nothing to do in the winter, you were mistaken. Outside the season, since no money can be earned sailing, and that means the crew cannot be paid, most of them fill in with land-based jobs. They work in shipyards building or refitting ships or do something completely different. And the ship itself has to be cared for in the winter, repairs made, woodwork repainted, improvements made. Aafke's master, Skipper Axe, is a keen participant in regattas and has often won competitions with the "Mare Marieke". With this in mind, the winter is used for improving equipment, trying out new sails and also looking for sponsors. The massive spinnaker jib is the pride of Skipper Axe and his crew, because it produces enormous speeds in regattas.
Once the three years apprenticeship are over, Aafke will take her skipper's exams. Even if she passes, she will not start straight away as a skipper herself. "I'm too young - I haven't got enough experience and I haven't seen enough of the world, of real life yet. I couldn't take on that responsibility yet.". So she'll stay on the "Mare Marieke" or some other sailing ship on the Ijsselmeer or some other water somewhere in the World. "I'll go wherever the wind takes me".