World’s largest historic and traditional fleet threatened?

“As bankruptcy looms for many skippers, an ‘irreplaceable’ part of the Netherlands’ maritime heritage is at risk”.

Alarming headlines in the national and international media, like this one in the Guardian of July 15, focus on the dramatic consequences of Covid-19 for Dutch maritime heritage. Over the past 50 years a fleet of a few thousand historic vessels has been preserved by private owners. About ten percent has been converted into charter vessels, sailing with groups in inland and coastal waters. About one third of this group is certified to sail the high seas. Roughly two dozen is working truly globally, from the NW passage to Antarctic waters.

Most of the historic ships are used as sailing houseboats, the smaller as yachts.

The direct threat of Covid-19 concerns the ten percent, the charter fleet. These vessels simply do not fit in to what has become as familiar as it is notorious in the past few months, the “one and a half metres society”. Until June vessels were not allowed to sail with passengers. The market collapsed. It is estimated that the fleet will miss 70 to 80 percent of its turnover in 2020. Nobody knows whether the specific sailing charter market will recover in 2021.

The short-term consequences for The short-term consequences for individual skipper-owners are dramatic. Already some of them are facing bankruptcy. But, in a wider perspective, the situation is even much more serious. With the establishment of the professional charter fleet in the past decades an associated infrastructure has been developed which is vital for the total heritage fleet. Now, not only the charter agencies or the specialised classification organizations are in crisis, but small scale businesses like shipyards, sailmakers, leeboard, mast and block makers are heavily dependent on the charter fleet. These professionally used ships are easily making ten to twenty times the number of sailing days the other historic vessels made.

The real problem is a matter of scale. If the number of professionally used sailing ships drops under a certain limit, the companies of the infrastructure will lose their economic base. That will not only affect the charter vessels, but the total Dutch heritage fleet.

Nobody knows yet what that limit is. Let us hope we never find out.

Frits Loomeijer