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The Netherlands, FOR SAIL

Around Amsterdam, echoes of grand Dutch seafaring tradition in maritime museums and on mighty ships.

January 25, 1998|DALE M. BROWN | Brown, a former editor with Time-Life Books, lives in Alexandria, Va

AMSTERDAM — My wife, Liet, has a built-in compass. Blindfold her, twirl her, drive her in circles and she always knows where north, south, east and west are. Our daughters and I--who are directionless--tell her it's in her genes, as well it might be.

Liet is Dutch and the Dutch, among the greatest seafarers of all time, managed early in their history to find their way around the world in stout ships, establishing themselves in Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and South and North America, while most of the world's other people remained steadfastly at home. Indeed, Liet's ancestors on her father's side emigrated in the 17th century to the East Indies, today's Indonesia, where Liet was born when the archipelago was yet a colony of the Netherlands.

Last summer, Liet and I, on a visit to Holland, had occasion to discover how important this seafaring past continues to be to the Dutch. Not only have they established a large maritime museum, on Amsterdam's waterfront, tracing the country's nautical history from earliest times to the present, but they have built two authentic replicas of the types of wooden craft in which they traversed the globe. Both of these can be boarded and explored. One is moored beside the museum; the other floats in an inlet at Lelystad, in the eastern part of the country, near where a third vessel is being constructed in an adjacent shipyard.

Actually, we began our exploration of Holland's nautical past in the Rijksmuseum of Ship Archeology. We found it--after many inquiries--in a remote spot called Ketelhaven in the province of Flevoland, about an hour's drive east of Amsterdam. A cold wind blowing off an inlet made us glad to enter its barracks-like interior. There, as we payed for our admission tickets, we learned that the museum would soon be moved to a more accessible location in nearby Lelystad, with its reopening scheduled for June.

Despite an unprepossessing appearance, the museum turned out to be a fascinating place because it contains thousands of relics retrieved on dry land from shipwrecks. No, this is not a contradiction. After the Zuider Zee and other similar bodies of Dutch water were drained in land reclamation projects that pushed back the sea (the new city of Lelystad has risen on an exposed seabed), more than 400 wrecks--dating from the 14th century to recent times--turned up. Most were buried in the muck that now constitutes the soil upon which luxuriant dairy farm pastures thrive.

We were amazed to see how many items the cold seawater and oxygenless conditions of the mud had preserved. Among them were the hull of a 17th century, 99-foot-long merchantman, a box of 400-year-old eggs, cargoes of wheat, a stack of leather hides, pots, pans, jugs, mugs and bowls of all kinds and ages, long-stemmed clay pipes, children's toys, even full sets of clothing. We were touched to learn that 33 descendants of the owners of one small craft, De Zeehond (the Seal), which foundered and sank in 1886, caught up with their ancestors' personal possessions when the objects were brought to the museum for study and conservation. An 88-year-old woman was deeply stirred by the sight of her parents' and grandparents' belongings and actually got to hold a pair of boy's waterlogged leather shoes that had belonged to her brother, who had been dead for years.

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It was at the archeology museum that we learned of the Batavia, a reconstructed 17th century Indiaman ship, typical of the vessels that sailed the globe under the flag of the Dutch East India Co. In a mood to visit the ship, we took a 15-minute drive to Lelystad, where the archeology museum will be set up and the Batavia is moored. Begun in 1985 and launched in 1995, it is a near replica of the original Batavia that, on its maiden voyage, wrecked off the coast of Australia with 341 people on board, 38 of them women and children.

The three-masted, 186-foot-long ship makes a grand sight, with its growling lion figurehead and its carved and gilded stern rising high above the water like an elaborate windowed housefront of yore. Staggering to me was the fact that its modern builders had to proceed largely by trial and error, without benefit of original plans or historical documents of sufficient depth. (The 17th century shipwrights had relied on their store of practical knowledge and their eyes to guide them.) Only after innumerable experiments by the builders, who as much as possible used the methods and materials of the 17th century, did the contemporary Batavia take shape from the sturdy oak and pine logs stored in the shipyard.

To go below deck was to enter a massive and dim cave of wood. As one of the guides pointed out, an Indiaman such as the Batavia was "a warehouse, a fortress and a community." Some of the 32 cannons especially cast for the reconstruction, poked through gun ports. Such guns were necessary; the Dutch had rivals in the lucrative sea trade, the English chief among them, and ships had to be prepared for battle.

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