A Roatán Reunion
A year ago November, we entered the icy ICW at Norfolk and nervously negotiated our first set of bridges. As we approached the second or third bridge, we heard on the radio a boat a ways back, talking to the bridge tender, saying they were trying to make the opening of the bridge where we were waiting. Shivering in the cockpit, we rubbed our hands together trying to stay warm. The skippers voice had an accent, French Id thought at the time. The bridge tender, unflappably Southern and politely picturesque, urged him on: "Stick a quarter in it, and git on up here, capn. I caint be holdin this bridge awll day." We all waited, and watched our watches as the seconds ticked by toward the opening moment. Finally a dramatic black-hulled Colin Archer steamed around the bend at top speed, just as the bridge pivoted open, and we all funneled through right on time. The powerful 50-footer named Baerne, with its crew looking toasty and warm inside the pilothouse, hurried onward, leaving us in her wake.
Little did we know then, but wed cross paths with Baerne many times over the following year. Wed see her a day or so later, on Thanksgiving, tied to the free dock across from Ithaka at icy Great Bridge; wed see her anchored in a sleet storm a few days after that in the Neuse River; wed see her anchored in pretty Beaufort, North Carolina, as we all awaited a weather window that never opened; and then, a big surprise in the small-world department, we discovered her med-moored to a dock in the Río Dulce, her owners off traveling somewhere. This week, our jaws dropped when we arrived here in French Harbor, Roatán, tip-toed through the opening in the reef and into this protected cove, and found Baerne resting at anchor.
"Unbelievable!" said Douglas. "Its that black boat from Norfolk!" With such coincidental sightings of Baerne over the past year and a half along our cruising track, it was high time we met in person. Douglas ran into Pieter and Inge van Kampen ashore a day or so later, and invited them over to Ithaka to enjoy the sunset.
Well, first of all, I was wrong about their being French. The accent wed briefly heard on the radio that morning in Norfolk turned out to have been Dutch. Pieter and Inge have been cruising for eight years, had arrived in the United States, liked it enough to stay for two years working on the boat and exploring, before carrying on cruising again. As we got to know each other, we reminisced about where wed been over the past year and the places our paths had crossed. They didnt remember us at all, with our little white fiberglass sloop like so many others, and they acted suitably embarrassed about that. We, of course, couldnt miss them. You dont see many boats like Baerne.
In Old Dutch, Baerne means the birth of the world; its also the name of the town where Inge was born. This is one hell of a boat. Nine years ago the van Kampens had had her custom-built in steel in Holland, a project that took two years, and theres no detail that they overlooked. She has a 50-foot double hull; between the two steel skins are the water and fuel tanks, so if shes ever holed (unlikely, shes built like a tank), shell lose some of her fuel or water, but the inside hull will remain intact, preserving the integrity of the boat. "Weve hit the reefs a few times. Over eight years, the odds are that it happens," said Pieter. "Weve been very glad of the steel." They were particularly happy they had a steel boat a few years ago, when they were cruising Crete, off the coast of Greece. At 3 a.m. one morning, with Baerne tied stern to the quay, her bow anchored out, med-style, they heard a great rumbling noise. Inge was sleeping in the cockpit. She leaped up, and looked ashore. "People were running from their houses, screaming and crying, and falling to the ground. It was an earthquake. The sound was roaring. I could see the buildings shaking and swaying. I was petrified."
Pieter rushed up on deck. "Oh my God," he said, and when he realized what was happening, he added: "I hope we dont have a tsunami next." Often, these giant waves surge in after an earthquake. It would be worse than that. Within two minutes, as the earthquake rumbled on, Inge and Pieter watched, horrified, as all the water swept out of the harbor, and Baerne crash landed on the hard bottom. "She was held upright only by her lines tied to shore," said Pieter. "It was a miracle that we didnt sustain any damage. Other boats sank around us when their keels were driven up through the hull." Shortly afterward, the water began to flow back into the harbor, and Baerne floated safely amidst the chaos.
"It was quite a night," said Inge, putting her hands over her face. "I still shudder to think of it."
"Ya, quite a night," said Pieter. "I was glad to have a steel boat."
Baerne weighs 40 tons, carries 400 gallons of water and 400 more of diesel. Most impressive, she only has two thru hullsone for water in, one for water out. All water flow runs off these two hoses to inboard manifoldsa smart safety feature. And shes a magnificently stout beauty. Her foredeck is broad and clear; her bulwarks, well over a foot tall, give great security for working on deck. Her lifelines are stainless steel tubes. This is one hearty vessel, and below decks, her design, woodwork, and finish are first-class, reflecting the exacting personalities and taste of Pieter and Inge.
The van Kampens built up a successful printing business back in Holland, specializing in art printing and cards. "Now, Ive had it with working like we did back home," said Pieter, who was always a businessman, and who enjoyed teaching sailing skills at a local sailing school on the weekends. "We never could take holidays. There was so much pressure. Im much happier now. This life is much better. When we need to feel busy, we work on the boat, and we feel rewarded."
Inge feels the same way. Shed built her own business before she and Pieter had meta childrens fine-clothing shop, and she also made childrens clothes. She sold that business when she and Pieter began printing. Inge was also a physiotherapist, and top-ranked gymnast who remained competitive in her country until she was 33. Over the span of her athletic career, at different times she was the best in her country in all disciplines of gymnastics: balance beam, parallel bars, pummel horse, floor exercise, and rings; in addition, she was a childrens gymnastic coach. "Im disciplined, and I like to be very busy," she said. "When I was a coach, at one time I taught over 100 students. And when we had the print shop, it was always jumping, so that was great. But we never had time to relax or really travel together. When we built the boat, we thought at first wed take a five-year trip with her. But the time flew right by, and we discovered that we really like this life. Its been eight years now, the boat is so comfortable and stableshes a real home. We like it, so well keep going, until we find a place wed like to live."
Baerne sailed from Holland, throughout the Med and Aegean, to Spain and Portugal, then across the Atlantic to South America, up to Brazil and Venezuela, then through the San Blas and Panama. But, like most people who set out cruising, the adjustment to the cruising life wasnt always smooth. "I remember our first year out," said Pieter. "We were hit with a lot of bad weather everywhere we went, and I was so tired and overwhelmed with cruising and learning all about the systems. I was disheartened and wanted to quit. We looked around, realized we were in a pretty Portuguese harbor, and we decided to stop right there for a while. We stayed for several months, enjoyed living aboard and getting to know one place, and regrouped. It was the best thing we could have done. After that we were ready and excited to carry on."
"One of our favorite places was the San Blas," said Inge. "We loved it. The Kuna women showed me how to sew their molas, and I taught a group of them how to cross-stitch."
While weve been together with the van Kampens, weve admired Inges needlework. In addition to all the sail covers and awnings on Baerne, she makes elaborate decorative samplers with elaborate 17th and 18th century designs. Each one takes many months of work. "I think its important to have a hobby onboard. It gives you private time, and its fulfilling to be creative."
Over the past several days, weve gotten together with Inge and Pieter on Ithaka or on Baerne a few times, enjoyed learning about one another and the differences and similarities of our lives, lived until now in very different parts of the world. Weve looked at pictures of each others families and travels, told stories about our homelands, and shared recipes. Douglas and I have loved hearing about life in Holland, especially about the open markets, and the beauty of Amsterdams canals, and the magnificent winters, when everyone skates from place to place on the frozen lakes and rivers connecting the towns.
Inge has taught me how to make yogurt and cheese, and tonight, she and Pieter are coming over for a spicy curry dinner on Ithaka. This is one of my favorite aspects of cruising: meeting new people from around the world, getting to know one another, offering each other new perspectives on old ideas, crossing paths and meeting up again when its least expected. Such encounters make the world seem smaller, more a whole than a puzzle of disparate parts.
By the time Ithaka arrived in French Harbor, Inge and Pieter, who are great swimmers, had discovered where all the best diving was. Every day now, the four of us have headed out on our dinghies to the most beautiful coral beds Douglas and I have seen all year. Magnificent tunnels and walls of Staghorn, brain and lettuce coral in soft shades of green, gold, and pink; tall spires and lots of spongesall in crystal-clear water. We swim and play and follow one another from one beautiful formation to another. After a long hurricane season in the Río, its a thrill to be here, to be underwater, and to be free amongst the reefs again.