Old farmers in the Midwest tell tales of winter blizzards so fierce that a farmer had to tie a rope from the house to the barn to be able to get back home. The tied-off rope kept the farmer from getting lost in the blinding snow and freezing to death in the back forty. The rough braided strands sliding in their stiff, chore-gloved hands must have felt as intimate as a breathing tube for a person without air. This was not complicated. The rope was their lifeline.
Johan Roos was raised near the sea. His father would go down to the harbor in the small fishing village of Scheveningen, load his pushcart full of the fresh catch from the just-returning boats, then walk the neighborhoods of The Hague singing of the fish for sale. From this beginning, Johan fell in love with the tales from the fishermen returning home in the early morning hours. He began to hang around the harbor with his ear to the ground.
Years passed, as eventually did Johan’s father, and Johan grew to be a middle-aged man with his own life, his own concerns, his own joys. But he still loved Scheveningen and began a Dutch web site about the people and the village he loved (http://www.allesoverscheveningen.nl). During this time, a particular old fisherman, who’d taken a liking to Johan, would visit now and again on a Friday night, drink a little wine, and tell a few stories about the sea. One Friday night, the old fisherman leaned over to Johan and said he had a new tale to tell. So, over six weeks the story was told. The old man’s telling took many tangents, many circumlocutions, many digressions that began at point “A” on the way to point “B,” but ended deep in the weeds. Lost with no way back. But the next Friday, they actually did get back. And so the story fitfully unfolded.
The Arie van der Zwan was a ship 120 feet long and 23 feet wide. A “logger” they called it in those days. A short-covered bow and a cabined stern was all that offered protection from the elements for the sixteen crew members. It had a noisy engine and a hold to store fish and was an improvement on the flat-bottomed boats that had fished out of Scheveningen for over 100 years.
The old man told Johan they had been out on the North Sea for three weeks. The old man came from a long bloodline of fisherman: his father, his father’s father, his father’s father’s father. This is what the men did. But this December of 1960, when the old man was 19 years old, the catch in the North Sea was not good. And the Arie van der Zwan was heading home only partially full.
Scheveningen was protected by a harbor. Two thin arms reached out from the land with an embrace into the sea. The logger was making its way into those two arms.
“We were coming into the harbor and there was a terrible storm. She came in with low water. The boat beached into the sand. You can only come in with high water. The power of the low water pushed us down under. The end of the harbor was too short at that time. The boat broke on the rocks. I was on the ‘behind deck.’ I was preparing to come home so was getting my clothes on. I heard a noise and I fell onto the ground. I ran upstairs onto the deck. Only in my underwear.”
The Arie van der Zwan was hung up on one of the harbor arms. Caught sideways in the storm. A hole was letting water pour into the middle. The waves were crashing over the top of the entire vessel, and seven members of the crew were caught under the short-covered bow and the remainder of the crew were in the cabin at the stern. Their homes in sight, they might as well have been in the middle of the ocean.
The old man told Johan that he was quickly freezing to death in the bow.
“There was a hole formed in the hold by the pounding of the ship on the rocks of the jetty. Seconds seemed like hours, and hours seemed days, the engine we heard no more, as we have, I do not know how long seated together in terror, fighting for our lives. The waves breaking over us, counting our breath and our forces. The logger was beyond saving. The wooden deck hatches were washed away by the engulfing waves. From the holds flooded the empty barrels and skate networks. Anxiously we were seven people under the roof of the bow. It was pitch black and the only thing we could hear and see was the raging sea.”
Ah, but hours later, a rope was miraculously thrown from the stern to the bow. The fishermen pulled themselves across the watery middle, which was bucking from the waves and awash with debris, and made it safely to the cabin. From there, the families on shore created a human rope of people lashed together by their belts and pulled the fishermen from the cabin to the shore. It was now the next day after the accident. The old man had been in the cold and the water for hours. He couldn’t believe that he was alive.
Fifteen fisherman made it. But not Evert. Evert was sixteen years old. He was one of the seven caught in the bow. He was the youngest on board. Evert and the old man were the last to cross over from the front of the boat to the back, hand-over-hand on the rope. Their hands were numb, they were weak, the storm was relentless. The old man made it to the cabin. Evert did not.
As the human rope rescued the fishermen from the cabin, the captain of the Arie van der Zwan could not believe that Evert was not there. Even though the logger was breaking apart, the captain refused to leave. He believed that Evert had to still be under cover somewhere on the boat. The townspeople begged him to cross to safety. Finally, when all was lost, the captain relented and came to shore.
“Evert was washed off the boat. Found one week later on the beach at Hoek van Holland, near Rotterdam.” Johan told me.
And the old man?
“The old man loved the sea. So he went back. He didn’t like the sea, he was afraid, but he loved the sea. All of them sailed again.”
Later the old man fathered children who fished, and those children had children who fished. And now the old man is gone and a grandchild works the sea.
I went down to the harbor in Scheveningen and stood alone to watch the old man’s grandchild, an officer on a large fishing ship, sail out of the harbor.
His grandchild, high up on the deck, yelled my name and waved in greeting.
So, Johan, the rope saved the old man, didn’t it?
“Yes, the rope saved them . . . all but Evert.”
And then Johan added: “And, of course, . . . Evert was the Captain’s son.”