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Moerdijk: A Childhood On Water

By Maarten van Swaay

In our second blog, resident Maarten van Swaay remembers life as a child in Holland. Enjoy!

Apparently the ditch was not deep enough for my parents to worry about me getting into trouble; by then I had passed my swimming test. The wheels came off Moerdijk; a small landing materialized, and the fun began.

It was my first boat; a gift from my maternal grandfather, who had it built to his liking by a boatbuilder in the ‘Zaanstreek’. The Zaan is a river, now canalised, North of Amsterdam. In earlier days the area was thick with lumber processing, ship-building, sailmaking and trade, especially the spice trade. Even today the area is a flourishing industrial region, though of course the type of industry has changed. During the Dutch Golden Century almost all the sail cloth used by Dutch ships was woven in the area along the Zaan.

It seems as if I had only barely learned to walk when the boat made its appearance; at that time it had wheels, and I played with it on the street in front of our row house in Scheveningen. Surprisingly, the boat survived the not-always-careful attentions of a slew of neighborhood kids.

Maarten (left with paddle) at the age of six with a friend on his beloved Moerdijk.

The boat got its name ‘Moerdijk’ from the village that named an important ferry service across the ‘Hollandsch Diep’; one of the major sea arms that penetrate the Netherlands for 40 miles or so. On the inland side that sea arm ends at a large wetlands area, the ‘Biesbosch‘ (reed forest) that was created by the St-Elisabeth flood in 1421. Another flood of comparable extent occurred in 1953, and triggered the construction of the Delta Works, which shortened the shore line of the Netherlands by several hundred miles. There is an interesting flavor of circularity here: the mats on which the Delta gates and dikes are built were assembled with reeds harvested from the Biesbosch.

The Moerdijk crossing is about a mile wide and 30 miles in. That ferry played a role in my life; we would take it to travel to my paternal grandmother. Just before WW2 the ferry was replaced by a bridge, and the Hollandsch Diep is now sheltered from the North Sea by the Delta works. Getting onto the ferry and crossing an impressive stretch of water always was a major event for me as a pre-schooler.

In 1936 we moved to another house in Scheveningen, in a much more exciting location: its back yard ended at the bank of a ditch maybe 15 feet wide. The other bank was part of a public park that sported two ponds that appeared fair-sized to a six-year-old, and the ditch behind our house was connected to those. Beyond the ponds one could reach a canal that ran into the town of The Hague; I remember times when I could skate to school, a bit more than 2 miles.

Apparently the ditch was not deep enough for my parents to worry about me getting into trouble; by then I had passed my swimming test. The wheels came off Moerdijk; a small landing materialized, and the fun began. Moerdijk was fitted with a keel and a sail, maybe all of 15 square feet, and I would sail it on the ponds that were part of the park.

But I did outgrow Moerdijk, and it did not take long. By the time WW2 reached the Netherlands in 1940 I had ‘helped’ build a canoe, and after that had learned to sail a 12-ft dinghy, not behind our house, but at the ‘Kaag‘; one of the many bodies of water that are scattered around the country. Early during the war I spent some gorgeous time on a boat of one of my older brothers, sailing on the rivers. Then the war forced us to focus on survival, until allied forces gave us back our freedom, and the urge and possibility to sail again. To my great regret, the turmoil of war, with its forced evacuations and deprivations, erased all trace of Moerdijk; it just vanished, except for the picture we rediscovered a few years ago. I was probably no older than six at the time; the kid with the paddle.

For several years after WW2 I had the privilege of sailing a temperamental but exhilarating racing machine known as a ‘U’; a 2 1/2 ton boat rigged with about 500 sqft close-hauled. It was a fresh-water boat, but Lake IJssel at the time was still mostly water, some 25 miles across, with fishing ports festooned along its shores. North of Lake IJssel is Friesland, criss-crossed with lakes and canals, famous for its sailing, and for its 120-mile skating race. Today, much of Lake IJssel has been reclaimed as land, but that happened after we came to the U.S. When I sailed there, the lake could still offer lots of challenge; that may be stuff for another story.