Best School Trip
“Imagine you are doing karate and make a noise when you breathe out and then pull.” Sandra demonstrated, pulling on the rope that would hoist the heavy foresail, and Valerie helped her. Valerie was nineteen, and tough as nails with one side of her head shaved. Sandra was as tough as nails too, but also gentle, jolly and unflappable. She had the tanned face and horizon-scanning eyes of a sailor. Three days later, when the students were grappling with the ropes in the wind and spray, they seemed less effective and I didn’t hear many karate noises. Although, for teenagers, they were impressively willing.
Somehow, as a parting shot to a job I was leaving, I had managed to arrange my perfect holiday as a work trip. I hadn’t intended this, but here we were in an old flat-bottomed sailing ship, on our way to Amsterdam in the mist and sun and sea. Even Scott was there to test out if Manc-skills included able seamanship (they did), and Werewolf (they didn’t). The exchange was eleven teenagers who are so great they give teenagers a good name.
We boarded at Enkhuizen, a picturesque town to the north of Amsterdam on Markmeer Lake, a kind of semi-inland sea. It had been the principal harbour-town of the Dutch East Indies Company during the 17th century. Apparently, it lost this standing due to silt. The harbour swelled with full-bellied traditional sailing ships with their strange wings in place of keels to cope with the shallow waters….again due to silt. It seems silt has a lot to answer for in the history of the Netherlands. I looked up ‘ ‘silt + Amsterdam’ on Google and the word was mysteriously crossed through underneath in most results. Maybe silt is not what the Dutch want to be known for. However, it has had an ongoing and changing impact in this area. If you are interested, read about the latest Markmeer Lake silt battles here.
Wholesome in Amsterdam?
Amsterdam to many visitors falls somewhere on a range between beer-and-sex-stag parties at one grubby end, and the seat of one of the great seafaring empires at the other. Despite the fact I was accompanying eleven teenagers, I hoped we were on this end. I let them sleep up on the deck one night when we were moored in the city. I told them not to take their shoes in the hope they would think twice about escaping to the red light district or a coffee shop. By morning only one hardy girl was still on deck…The others were all tucked up in their little wooden bunks as it had ‘got a bit dewy’ in the early morning.
I have been to Amsterdam many times, but I had never arrived by a hundred-year-old three-sailed ship with a group of young people before. My memories are clear-cut snapshots that all have similar themes. A friend’s hen party and getting stuck down the end of a row in a dodgy theatre, unable to escape and realising there were no other women. The crane hotel, another converted barge, Stan the entrepreneur with the wooden bikes who made friends with us then mysteriously dropped us. There was the trip where we drove from Brighton and then got lost driving around Amsterdam when Google maps was first a thing. We ended up at a campsite with buzzing blue lights in stainless steel prison glare bathrooms, our empty tent squeezed between other equally empty tents. The vague idea of accommodation was enough on some nights. This time our arrival felt wholesome and Amsterdam was in its rightful context; a city in its watery geographical place, linked to time and space.
Sailing with Sandra
Windbruid, meaning Wind Bride, was chunky and elegant and solid, like her neighbours. Between her and Sandra the Captain I was sure our students would be safe – and I was still sure two days later as I watched one of them bounce across the deck in pursuit of an airborne beanbag with no regard for the proximity of the rolling grey waves a metre below him. They had listened quietly to warnings of the death zones including the ‘widow-maker’ which got their attention. But the first day was clear and calm and the sailing slow as we inched our way across Markermeer Lake in a slight breeze, the students learning knots and lying around. I ruefully tried to identify the wind in my mind using the Beaufort descriptions and thought back to kayaking in Brandenburg and wondered whether calm day one or wild day three was more similar. In this case size really really matters. And being made of iron.
We moored that night in the small town of Muiden and student team 1 made incongruous and impressive summer rolls by hand. We ate well on this trip (top tip – make the students cook and call it a competition). The next day we were churning through the grey mist through enormous locks towards Amsterdam, with Sandra at the helm pointing out architectural sights. We passed the Faralda Crane Hotel and I deliberately didn’t think about fond but wild memories of my 47th birthday when six of us rented the entire place and sat in the hot tub with plastic champagne flutes in horizontal sleet at 3 a.m. The crane has a tiny two-person lift on the outside that creaks its way up and down. That’s how we knew that there was a 3 a.m. expedition to the hot tub.
Cranes are my favourite piece of machinery. In fact, they are the only type I have a view about. I started a facebook page many years ago in appreciation, with only three members, and today it has eight members but a huge following of people selling, discussing and honouring cranes.
Compared to sailing, Amsterdam was a throng of touristy chip-eating beer-drinking tourists. When we asked them if they wanted more Amsterdam or more sailing the next day, the students said more sailing, and my heart glowed. I remembered being seventeen when I had chosen to go sailing on a tall ship around the Hebrides, instead of sitting my Oxbridge exams. The experience was still somewhere in my sinews. The mist had cleared during the day and we sat on deck in the sun, as team 2 sliced and bubbled dinner, talking to Sandra. She was originally from East Germany but, unlike her classmates, had left. She had learned how to captain traditional sailing ships and bought Windbruid. I was fascinated by her life, by the movement and energy of what people do. By those who don’t settle. I told her I seemed to work to a five-year clock – the need to move recurring. She asked about how that worked with having friends. I said it was hard but I had a nomadic nature and always sacrificed roots for friends. Maybe I didn’t need to travel so far or make such big changes? Maybe I just needed to buy a boat again, to be tethered by the single rope. This time one with an engine that worked. Sandra had depth and lightness. She was a thinker but hardy and agile and fearless. I felt like a fake.
That evening we played Werewolf with the students. It was like watching aliens converse in a language so familiar to them and so unfamiliar to us, that I was quite unnerved. They were so good at this game that they never failed to find the werewolf.
“How can you all know this esoteric activity so deeply?” I asked.
“We’ve been playing since Year 1!”
Despite being a teacher, the first thought that came into my head was the Polanski film, ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’
In the morning our ship was boarded by the harbour police to be checked, so we took the students to NDSM wharf on the free ferry. It looked desolate. But as soon as you ventured into a shipping container or an old hangar-sized warehouse it was as hipster as you could wish for. Galleries and cafes, studios and designers, oddities in self-conscious primary colours.
That afternoon the wind picked up to ‘nearly dangerous’ (not Beaufort, Smith) and we sailed for several hours. Apart from the beanbag near-miss, the students had to haul rope in sideways winds, heave-ho ropes on their backs, roll reefs into the huge sails and generally work hard in non-school conditions. Apart from one, who hid under a beanbag out of sight. When they were not being yelled at to pull or tie or hold things, they sat in a motley anorak huddle like some lost migratory birds finding safe haven on deck. I knew I would miss them. Scott’s Manc-skills came in handy as he was the go-to sailor for Valerie, the mate. She kept yelling;
“Scott, I need you!” And he’d haul on a rope or hold something that didn’t want to be held. A surprising Manc-skill, as the nearest he’d come to sailing before was the Manchester Ship Canal. I leaned back in the wind and watched the juddering sail in the clearing summer sky. I knew I’d be back in Amsterdam, but probably not on a sailing ship with young people on the cusp of adulthood, seeing the city through uncynical eyes and lifting grey mist.
I later asked Sandra at what point she normally advises the crew to wear life jackets.
“Around 6 knots of wind.”
I asked her how many knots we had had that afternoon. She smiled and said sagely,
Note: If you would like to stay on Windbruid you can book through Air BNB.