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The history of flat-bottomed ships

Flat-bottomed ships have existed for several hundred years and form an important part of Dutch history. Today you can still admire more than 100 of these ships.

You can sail along on this historical heritage yourself during a holiday on the Wadden area or the IJsselmeer. But what exactly were they used for in the past and why do they have a flat bottom?

This type of ship is called a Stevenaak barge

Once upon a time, these ships were the fastest and most common form of transport in the Netherlands and even in Europe. In addition to sailing cargo ships, there are also many types of flat-bottomed boats that were built and used for fishing.

Over the centuries, dozens of different models and types of flat-bottomed ships have rolled off the shipyard in many places in the Netherlands.

What is a flat bottom

A flat bottom is a ship – the name says it all – with a flat bottom. Instead of having a keel under the boat for stability and manoeuvrability, these ships have side boards.

The side boards of this type of ship are the large wing like wooden plates. These are necessary in order to manoeuvre the ship.

These ships were specially built for the shallow Dutch rivers, moorlands, the ‘Zuiderzee’ and the North Sea. They benefited greatly from this because of the lack of depth. Without a keel they could reach very shallow places, sail with more cargo and sail with the tides.

A number of traditional flat-bottomed ships during a sailing regatta on the Wadden Sea

Flat-bottomed boats also had many advantages for fishermen in the Wadden area. They could fall dry on sandbanks at low tide and come loose again as soon as the water rises. Something that is impossible with a keel.

There are many different types of flat bottoms. But roughly speaking, you can distinguish them in flat-bottomed vessels made to carry cargo and passengers and vessels built and used for fishing. For a long time the ships were used everywhere in the Netherlands as the most common, manoeuvrable and fastest transport. Each region had its own models, types and ‘famous’ shipyards.

The history of the flat bottomed ships

The history of flat-bottomed ships and ships in general goes back a very long way.

The ancient knowledge of building ships

Evidence from Ancient Egypt shows that the Egyptians already knew how to turn wood planks into a watertight floating shell.

The ships at that time were about twenty-five metres long and had a single mast with a square sail. Similar ships were also built by the Greeks and Vikings.

Ships were built of wood until the 19th century. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that they began to build ships made of iron. Because of its favourable properties, iron was in turn quickly displaced by steel. Steel was more resistant to moving forces, for example.

The different types of flatbottomed boats

Over the centuries, various types of flat-bottomed boats were developed, each with its own unique sailing characteristics.

1. Workhorse the Tjalk

The Tjalk was the workhorse of the Netherlands in the 18th and 19th centuries. A kind of man-of-all-trades of transport on the water. Large models were also used for short sea shipping.

Traditional Groningen Tjalk barge

They therefore occurred not only in the Netherlands but in an area stretching from the Baltic Sea to northern France and England.

2. The cargo ship the Skutsje

A skûtsje (Frisian for ‘barge’) is a wooden or steel Frisian tjalk built for the transport of freight in Friesland. Depending on the season, they transported manure, soil, potatoes and other bulk goods. The skipper and his family lived aboard their skûtsje.

Traditional Frisian flat. bottomed, the Skûtsje

Most of the skûtsjes were no longer than 20 metres and the width was adjusted to the lock and bridge sizes in the area where it had to sail.

These ships were built for sailing and were therefore not equipped with an engine. It was only in the course of the last century that these ships were given an auxiliary engine and it was only after the Second World War that the sails were replaced by engines.

The skûtsjes disappeared completely from the water as cargo ships when the big motor ships came into fashion in inland navigation. They could carry many hundreds of tons of cargo and made the little graceful skûts no longer necessary.

3. The robust Baltic Sea Jalk

Where the Skûtsje was Frieslands proud, the Baltic Sea tjalk was built much more robustly in Groningen. Baltic tjalks like the Lotus also had dimensions up to 25 metres and often only one mast, but were much sturdier and heavier.

The Baltic tjalk, unlike the skûtsje, could also sail at sea. Close to the coast, they often carry people or specific cargo from coastal town to coastal town.

Baltic tjalks

A Baltic tjalk could take a beating. These authentic tjalken are higher, heavier and more seaworthy than the Frisian type. In addition to the Skûtsje and the Baltic tjalk, many other variants of Tjalken have been built, all with specific characteristics for the area in which they sailed and for the type of cargo they carried.

4. The fast Clippers

Of course clippers are also descended from the first ships, but unlike the Tjalk, the clipper is a much younger ship and built directly from steel. This ship has no wooden ancestor and was created because it was a faster, bigger and cheaper ship to build.

The model was copied from the fast tea clippers that transported tea, spices and food from the Far East to Europe at a record breaking pace.

Traditional flat-bottomed clipper Waterwolf
Klipper Waterwolf build in 1899

The best-known examples are the Thermopylae and the Cutty Sark. The Netherlands distinguished itself by building a flat-bottomed model based on the example of these big boys.

This started roughly at the end of the 19th century. Initially, they were built as sailing cargo ship, often with two masts. They were still competitive with the advent of steamboats. After all, wind was free and coal was expensive.

However, between the two world wars, many clippers were fitted with diesel engines and ”lost” their masts. The last clipper intended as a cargo ship rolled off the wharf in 1925.

The Zeeland and Frisian Clippers

Contrary to the dozens of tjalks, there are actually only two different main variants of the clipper. These are the Zeeland and Frisian clippers that were built in specific areas and with a clear purpose.

When you think of sailing and sailing ships, you soon think of Friesland, the Wadden area and the north of the Netherlands. But in the days when the tjalken and clippers were the most important means of transport in the Low lands, this applied to all parts of the Netherlands.

Authentic clippers during the annual clipper race in Enkhuizen
Clippers at the start of the annual Clipper race in Enkhuizen

1. The Zeeland clipper

The Zeeland clipper is of a completely different calibre. Built in the South to be able to go out to sea and transport people in particular. The Zeeland clipper is only seaworthy to a certain extent. That is why they usually only sail along the coast.

Only with an eastern wind and calm sea do they sail a little further away from the coast. This is usually only possible in the summer months. The hull of a flat-bottomed boat and the side boards are no match for rough water and strong storms.

2. Frisian clipper

Of course, progress continued and larger, faster cargo ships were built. A clipper was built in Friesland, which, partly due to the way it was built, may not have been seaworthy, but could indeed carry much more cargo than the aforementioned skutsjes.

The Frisian clipper was also a good ship for the so-called sailing ferry. This was a form of shipping in which passengers, freight and livestock were transported on a scheduled basis along a fixed route. It was the first public transport in the Netherlands.

In the 19th century more than 800 Frisian clippers departed weekly from Amsterdam to almost every wind direction in the Netherlands.

Nowadays, the sailing ferry ‘Beurtveer’ is still there in the form of a sailing race in which the old routes have to be completed as quickly as possible in a certain order, without the use of an engine and with actual passengers.

Sailing on antique ships in the Netherlands

Today you can still sail on the various types of flat-bottomed cargo and fishing vessels of yesteryear.

For example, the Lotus is a Baltic tjalk from 1889 with still details from that time everywhere on the ship.

The Waterwolf is a two-masted clipper built in 1899. It has served as a cargo ship, with and without masts, and has even been extended to 44 metres at one time. Today it sails in its original length, with guests over the IJsselmeer and the Wadden Sea.

The history of the Dutch traditional sailing shipss

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