A Dutch live-cargo barge returns to London
It was an undoubtedly historic event: the first Dutch barge to sail up the River Thames to London with a cargo of eels for more than 80 years. The boat’s volunteer crew had worked for more than a year, raised more than €25,000 ($27,849), and sailed more than 250 miles to achieve their goal. Only one obstacle now lay between them and their final destination: the majestic Tower Bridge. But London’s iconic monument doesn’t open for just anyone, so Klaas Overzee decided to go straight to the top and write to the Queen.
“Dear Madam,” he wrote. “I would like to ask your advice and help if possible to allow for a replica of an eel barge the KORNELISKE YKES II to return to its original mooring in June this year. During Elizabeth I’s reign and beyond, these barges carrying 60 to 80 thousand live eels would come across from Friesland in Holland to provide the people of London with food.… Unfortunately, Tower Bridge has become an obstacle to this wish, and I wonder if Your Majesty is able to make any suggestions as to who to approach in order to achieve a fitting completion to this ship’s historic journey by letting it pass Tower Bridge.”
Six days later, the Queen (or rather, her deputy correspondence coordinator) replied: “The Queen was most interested to know of the history of the Dutch eel barges in providing food for the people of London since the reign of Elizabeth the First and that your direct ancestor captained one of these barges. I should tell you, however, that this is not a matter in which Her Majesty would personally intervene. Nevertheless, as a constitutional Sovereign, The Queen acts on the advice of her Ministers and I have, therefore, been instructed to send your letter to…the Secretary of State for the Department for Digital Culture, Media, and Sport so that your approach to Her Majesty and the points you raise may be considered.”
The letter seems to have had the desired effect and, on June 23, 2018, traffic in the City of London was brought to a standstill as Tower Bridge was opened and the 60′6″ wooden boat motored under the raised bascules into the Upper Pool of the Thames. The riverbank in this part of London has changed enormously in the past 80 years, as shipping has been moved downstream, and mooring off Billingsgate is no longer an option. But KORNELISKE YKES II managed to hover symbolically for a few moments where the Dutch Mooring used to be before carrying on up to London Bridge, where she turned around and headed back downriver again.
“Mission accomplished,” announced the project’s social media page.
The barge’s visit was a significant moment for her crew and maritime history buffs in general, but it also had contemporary relevance. For KORNELISKE YKES II’s visit was timed to coincide with the 10th annual conference of the Sustainable Eel Group (SEG), and her presence in London was used to highlight the plight of European eels—which, despite being placed on the critically endangered list, are now smuggled in their millions to Asia, where they are regarded as a delicacy. The eel-smuggling trade is said to be worth $3.41 billion a year, almost as much as drug smuggling, and is described by SEG as “the greatest wildlife crime on the planet.” The sight of KORNELISKE YKES II moored on the Thames was a timely (and scenic) reminder of this problem, and the boat was duly featured in several documentaries on the subject, from Reuters to the BBC.
It’s all a long way from the eel barge’s heyday. From the 17th century, eels were regarded as a staple food for many of London’s poorest inhabitants. As the city grew, they provided a cheap, nutritious, and readily available source of food for thousands of hungry mouths. Eels were originally caught in nets on the River Thames, and as demand increased they were sourced from farther afield, mainly from Holland. Unlike the Dutch, who usually ate them smoked or baked, the English liked their eels either jellied or in a soup.
The trade with Holland started in the 1600s with barges sailing from near Amsterdam, but from 1730 a special type of boat from Friesland evolved for the purpose. Unlike other relatively flat-bottomed boats that sailed inland waterways, the eel barges had to cross the North Sea to reach their destination. Based on the tjalk type, the palingaak type of eel boat (or plural palingaken) was therefore deeper and more heavily built that its home-based counterpart. The eel boats were also fitted with a large “wet hold” on the centerline of the hull, with holes drilled through the planking to ensure a flow of seawater, so the eels would still be alive when they reached London’s markets. Some 20,000 lbs of eels at a time were carried this way.
Although the palingaken were purely cargo boats and were never used to catch eels—that job was done by a variety of other, smaller craft—their owners had them classed as fishing boats. This was for the simple expedient of cost: a cargo ship, by law, had to be manned by at least five crew, whereas a fishing boat was allowed to sail with just three, making it considerably cheaper to run.
The transport of eels from Holland to London (and it was only ever London) went on for more than 200 years. At its peak, there were 16 barges sailing from Holland about six times a year, carrying an estimated 2 million lbs of eels. Once in London, they always berthed in the same spot: the so-called Dutch Moorings just upriver from Tower Bridge next to Billingsgate Market. It is thought the berth was granted to them by royal decree after Dutch sailors helped Londoners during either the fire of London, or the Plague, or both, in 1666. The only stipulation was that a boat (or possibly two) should be moored there at all times; if the berth was left empty, then the mooring rights would be revoked. The Dutch got around this problem by mooring a couple of old barges on the berth permanently and topped up their wet holds with fresh eels brought over from Holland.
The eel barges became a familiar sight in the City of London, regularly featuring in photos and films of the city’s waterways, including a 1931 Pathé documentary called The Eel Men (see bit.ly/WB272EELS). The celebrated artist W.L. Wyllie, too, drew the “Dutch eel schuits” (schuits being a generic name for Dutch barges) in an evocative etching of two barges, seemingly covered in seaweed, with Tower Bridge in the background.
By 1926, however, the visits from Holland were becoming less frequent, and a photo published that year was captioned: “When the partiality of the British Sovereign for eels, and especially the eels from Holland, obtained for the fishing boats of The Netherlands the right to moor here in the Thames, the condition was that this privilege should remain valid, so long as at least two vessels were always at their moorings. The boats seen above are practically floating tanks. At one time these were replenished by others of the Dutch eel fleet, but latterly it has been judged more expedient to ship the fish to Harwich and transport them to London by train.…”
And it wasn’t just modes of transport that were changing, or the strength of the British pound that was making the trade less profitable. Throughout the 19th century, the River Thames was becoming increasingly polluted, as more and more sewage from an ever-increasing population was discharged straight into the river. By the 1930s, the eels were dying in the wet holds, and those that did survive were contaminated with the city’s effluent. The problem was so bad that, in 1957, the Thames was declared “biologically dead,” prompting a major campaign to clean it up. But that came too late for the eel barges.
The last palingaak to make the pilgrimage to London was KORNELISKE YKES, built in 1872 and fitted with an engine in 1928. Owned by one of the biggest eel exporters in Friesland and named after the founder’s wife, KORNELISKE YKES had worked hard and provided a steady (if diminishing) income for half a century. But in winter 1932, she sailed with her last cargo of eels and returned to Holland for the final time in April 1933. It was the end of an era, but not the end of the story. By chance, one of the barge’s crew for the final few years of trading was a visionary young man named Jan Zetzema, who joined the boat in 1929 when he was just 19 years old. Realizing he was witnessing a dying tradition, Zetzema, who had a glass-plate camera, set about recording the voyages not only in photos but also in drawings and interviews with the boat’s crew.
KORNELISKE YKES survived the Second World War but was broken up in 1946, the last of her kind. Thirty years later, Zetzema published his definitive history of the type, De Friese Palingaken (The Frisian Eel Boats), with extensive photos and drawings, not just of KORNELISKE YKES but of other eel barges, too. Almost singlehandedly, he had managed to save an obscure but fascinating pocket of history for posterity.
One place that thrived on the eel trade was KORNELISKE YKES’s hometown of Heeg (current population 2,175), which is close to the Heegermeer Lake, an important breeding ground for European eels. Indeed, so important was the trade with London that primary school children in Heeg were all taught to speak English long before that became the norm across the rest of Holland. Not surprisingly, an eel is the main element of the town’s coat of arms.
Nowadays, Heeg is a bustling watersports center, with a marina full of production boats and all the associated workshops and businesses to service them. But the eel-boat heritage lives on in the shape of the Piersma family’s boatyard, which was founded 300 years ago and built many of the original palingaak. Since he was a child, the yard’s manager, Pier Piersma, had dreamed of building a replica of the area’s indigenous boats. Finally, in 1999, his vision started to gain traction. After several years of fundraising, the keel of KORNELISKE YKES II was finally laid on November 26, 2005. Her lines were closely based on the drawings published by Zetzema 30 years before, although modern safety requirements meant increasing freeboard amidships and flattening the sheer somewhat.
Launched in 2009, KORNELISKE YKES II soon became a major focus of community spirit, funded in part by taking paying customers for regular Thursday evening sails throughout the summer. In 2013, the boat was given a mooring in the center of the village, where she acted as a tangible reminder of the region’s history—and not just for the benefit of tourists.
“I came on board for a sail one evening, about a year after the ship was launched,” says 75-year-old Heeg resident Rinus Grondsma. “They told me I could come back to help, and since then I’ve never left. I’m always on board—maintaining the boat, fixing things. It’s wonderful to connect with the area’s old traditions. Sailing this ship is beautiful. I’ve sailed plastic boats before, but this is the real thing. Over the years, I have become a little in love with the ship.”
The ultimate goal of the project was always to re-create the voyage of the eel barges from Holland to London, but lack of funds thwarted the plan until a major new push was made in 2018. Freelance journalist Klaas Smit was brought to help with publicity while Jack van den Berg helped with fundraising and sponsorship, which was mainly focused on upgrading the vessel’s safety systems, including fitting an AIS system, EPIRB, chartplotter, and VHF radio with GMDSS (distress calling). The safety equipment alone came to €25,000 ($27,850). No doubt the original eel barge sailors would have laughed at such extravagance for what was to them a routine trip across the North Sea, but such are the requirements for taking members of the public to sea in the 21st century.
Two weeks before KORNELISKE YKES II set off on her symbolic voyage, she left the shelter of the IJsselmer for the first time for sea trials.
“It was quite emotional—the first time an eel barge had been to sea in 80 years,” says skipper Maarten Stuurman. “It felt so good. The boat responded really, really well. I have sailed with flat-bottomed boats in the estuary close to the sea, and they didn’t handle well; they lost pressure on the rudder, and in waves they were actually dangerous to steer. But this one is easy. It really handles like a sea ship. I’m used to sailing with yachts, in Norway and the Baltic, and this is really more like that.”
The barge’s weakest point of sail, in common with most flat-bottomed boats, is going to windward, when her lack of lateral resistance causes more leeway. But on KORNELISKE YKES II the problem seems to be exacerbated by her wet hold.
“The side of the boat is copper-plated with pin holes through the copper,” says Maarten. “Water actually flows through the ship, which makes lateral stability less. When you sail upwind, you can see water coming into the well and flowing out. It’s not good for lateral stability, and you move sideways. The leeboards pick up a little, but not everything.”
The position of the wet hold also means the mast has to be stepped farther forward than would be ideal, which in turn causes extra weather helm. In the old days, the boats carried several headsails on board to allow the crews to set the optimal sail for the prevailing conditions.
On June 15, 2019, after several sell-out theater shows gave her coffers a final boost, KORNELISKE YKES II set off on her historic voyage. With a steady southwesterly wind blowing virtually on the nose, Maarten and co-skipper Johannes Hobma soon realized it was pointless trying to beat upwind and instead took a 120-mile-long tack right across the North Sea to Great Yarmouth. From there, they played a game of cat-and-mouse with the tide; anchoring when the current was against them, and sailing when the current was in their favor.
“We were working the tides all the time,” says Maarten. “We found places where we could anchor safely, behind sand banks, which were sheltered and not too close to shore. In this situation, it’s very important to know what wind is going to do. We are used to sailing in these circumstances because we have the Waddenzee [the body of water between the Dutch mainland and the Frisian Islands], so we used that experience.”
The journey to Queenborough, at the mouth of the Thames, took 108 hours, most of it under sail, with the engine clocking up only about 12 hours. It was only later Maarten and Johannes realized they had replicated almost exactly a voyage described in the book, where an eel barge took a long tack and sheltered behind sand banks off the East Coast in the same way. “Except they had the engine on all the way, for 68 hours,” says Maarten, “and we had ours on for less than 15—so we were stronger!”
I joined KORNELISKE YKES II in Queenborough for the final leg of her voyage. It turned out the town has a strong connection with Holland, having been invaded by the Dutch in 1667, giving it the distinction of being the only English town to have been under a foreign flag. Indeed, the town celebrated its own Independence Day just a few days before KORNELISKE YKES II arrived—although the boat’s crew were welcomed with open arms at the Flying Dutchman pub later that night.
Wooden boats in Holland today are traditionally finished with plenty of varnish to celebrate their woodiness, and KORNELISKE YKES II is no exception. Virtually the entire boat is either varnished or oiled, from the oak topsides to the wooden spars and scrubbed pine deck. Down below, the massive timbers and monster hanging knees leave little space for her crew to walk around, never mind stand up. The result is a supremely cozy interior that looks like something straight out of a fairy tale. I was half expecting a hobbit to pop out of the woodwork but was relieved to see instead ship’s cook José Arbon juggling pots on the stove. I thought she might perhaps be cooking up an eel broth, but it turned out to be chili con carne.
We sailed out of Queenborough the following day and, despite a determined westerly wind, tacked gamely up the estuary for an hour or so before eventually starting the engine. The annual Thames Barge Match was taking place off Gravesend, and several Thames barges powered past us, heading for the starting line. Such meetings must have been commonplace in the past, and I couldn’t help feeling the local barges, most of them at least 100 years old, were nodding in recognition as they sailed past.
Halfway to London, the ship’s resident eel fisherman, Freerk Visserman, opened the wet hold to check the cargo, and I came face to face with the purpose of the whole project: live eels. Some of them were nearly 3′ long and didn’t look especially happy to be manhandled, so I declined to hold one. Some things are best left to the experts.
Three hours after leaving Queenborough, we reached the outskirts of the city proper: great glass towers jostle for space on either bank, seemingly oblivious to the historic river flowing beneath them. The shock of the city must have been at least as jarring to us (the Dutch crew coming from their peaceful corner of Holland and I coming from my peaceful corner of the U.K.) as it was to the crews making the same journey 100 years ago. As the barge was buffeted by the wash of ferries, rigid inflatable boats carrying thrill-seeking tourists, and tugs towing heavily laden barges, I felt a strong impulse to turn around and escape the bedlam. No doubt the peace-loving sailors from Heeg felt the same way, both now and then.
Luckily, a warm welcome awaited us at the Hermitage Community Moorings, just downriver from Tower Bridge, where KORNELISKE YKES II would be based for the next week. Two days later, she made her historic trip past Tower Bridge to the moorings of her ancestors, before hosting members of the Sustainable Eel Group as well as various members of the media. A week later, the ship motored back down the Thames and headed back to Holland to take part in the first Dutch Wooden Boat Festival, where she was one of the guests of honor. Finally, on July 10, Holland’s only palingaak arrived back at her hometown, where she was cheered by happy (and no doubt relieved) friends and relatives—just as she would have been 100 years ago. It was the perfect end to a momentous voyage that literally put this distinctive Dutch craft back on the map. The palingaken, and their special place in Anglo-Dutch history, will not be forgotten.
Nic Compton is a freelance writer and photographer based in Devon, England. He has written about boats and the sea for 24 years and has published 14 nautical books, including a biography of the designer Iain Oughtred (available at www.woodenboatstore.com). He currently sails a 14′ skiff designed by Nigel Irens and Ed Burnett and a 26′ Chuck Paine sloop.