COLUMN - Westernschelde

“I once ran a boat aground."

Maybe this wasn’t the wisest confession, but during the coffee break it was all about tall tales regarding monstrous storms and tricky navigation situations – so, of course, I had to chip in as well.

The Old Man  slid off his chair, cursing, still holding a cup of coffee in his hand, and the rest of the crew just stared at me. The four pairs of eyes that were at least ten years younger looked thunderstruck by the revelation. It was the first time that I had seen fear in the eyes of the youngsters and I realised that as of then everything would be different. The crew would no longer be able to trust this old, seasoned sailor when wandering off to their bunks for some rest and happy dreams.

The heavily loaded coaster to which I was assigned about 25 years ago had just set course from the Dutch city of Terneuzen, heading up the misty Westerschelde river,  when the captain put me in charge of the wheel. He had pointed out the red buoy that I was to keep on the starboard side. Because of the fickle nature of the sea-lane, the Westerschelde is one of Europe’s most treacherous waterways. In the chaotic mix of gigantic container ships, inland ships, fishing boats and other small vessels, the slightest mistake or technical defect is enough to create an emergency. Back then, collisions and strandings were fairly common, and the salvage companies that had the Westerschelde as their working area competed with fanaticism.

Whether the object that the Old Man had pointed out had indeed been a red buoy will forever remain a matter of debate, but while I was concentrating on maintaining course, the lively conversation between the captain and the engineer ended abruptly when a mysterious vibration went through the ship. Before any of us could even say “we’re stranded”, five tugs and two small motorboats loomed up out of the fog as if by magic.  

“Have you got an axe?”, yelled the salvager, who was standing next to me on the quarterdeck, foaming at the mouth. By that time, it had already become painfully clear to me that the word ‘competing’ was far too kind when describing the work etiquette of those employed on the Westerschelde tugboats. As the foaming man looked like he wanted to settle with his competitors once and for all, I sure as hell did not plan to hand him anything resembling an axe.  

With the eyes of a maniac who had just shoved the yearly Colombian harvest into his nose, the salvager had stormed up to the bridge to persuade the Old Man to accept the help of his tugboats. Along the way he had no problem in delivering a well-aimed punch to a man from one of the other tug boats who had stormed aboard from another direction – whereupon our Old Man, totally flabbergasted by all that was happening, couldn’t do much but accept the wild man’s tug assistance. The wild man’s two tugboats had big, white Ms on their black chimneys, and a Dutch flag on top. The other three boats flew the Belgian tricolour, with no less pride, and belonged to the man that had received the fist. Apparently this had not dispirited the determined man, because while the wildman was establishing a tug connection to our quarterdeck, the Belgian, together with his hastily mobilised gang, had launched an attack on our quarterdeck. At the sight of the fighting salvagers, Angus, our mechanic, fled below deck in a blind panic to find comfort of his loyal bottle of Johnny Walker.

To keep abreast of the situation, our captain sent me to the quarterdeck to investigate. Once there, I found that only a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the East - West conflict had moved to our deck. On the starboard side the Dutch ruled, but despite their counter-offensive carried out with élan, the other side of the coaster remained in the hands of the enemy.

Thus, we were in a strange impasse; while the white M-tug was trying to pull us with full force off the bank, the Belgians seemed keen to avoid this at all costs by having their boat tug in the opposite direction with roaring engines. If they couldn’t get the loot themselves, then their archenemy wouldn’t be getting it either!

The scene of the three boats that had nothing to do with the actual towing was reminiscent of old naval battle paintings that can be admired in museums. With the frayed tricolour flying proudly above and Belgians clutching on both sides, the Dutch threw water cannons into the battle in order to repel the enemy that was entering the deck. In the surrealism of the moment it was quite possible to imagine the Dutch captain – in a final act of desperation – shouting, "We shall never surrender!"  , throwing his burning cigarette in a powder keg that was always on stand-by for these kind of calamities.

“Give me a bloody axe to cut the ropes of that Belgian wanker!"  Luckily, I didn’t have the time to take this frenzied request into consideration as the captain of the maniac’s tugboat surprised both friend and foe with an insane charge. Reckless as a tormented bull he abruptly drilled his barge into the flank of his rival and violently pushed him in the direction of the bank where we were stranded. The Belgian boat had to remove its ropes if it didn’t want to run aground itself. Like hyenas who unwillingly have to leave their pray for the lions, the Belgian army beat a hasty retreat. Without any hindrance, the madman and his crew were now in the position to speedily do the tug job.  

With mouths open in amazement, the crew listened to my story, and if the constant drone of the main engine had not been there, they could have heard a pin drop. “Ah, that's all a long time ago," says the captain, while aiming to reassure the others more than me.
Nonetheless, he's right of course: by improving navigation, strengthening laws, and especially by hammering out mutual agreements among salvagers, salvage operations on the Westerschelde are now done in a normal, orderly manner. Still, in a way, I am somewhat annoyed by the crew who in my opinion were too easily reassured by the words of the Old Man.

“I also sank a boat once."
With a strange, sadistic, but pleasant feeling, I see their confidence slowly ebb again. I note with satisfaction that tonight they will not be going to bed comfortably.

The fact that it had involved a canoe, will be discussed during the next coffee break.


1 “Old Man”: a nickname for captains, a bit dated now as modern captains are increasingly becoming younger.
2 The famous words of Churchill that were part of his speech to the UK House of Commons on 4 June 1940.