When the Russian tsar Peter the Great came to the Zaanstreek to learn the art of building a ship, he was a little disappointed. He couldn’t find any drawings or books and there weren’t any classes. Ships were built by carpenters who learned the profession of their master. For example: the dockyard of Ludolf Bakhuyzen. There they didn’t use drawings but worked “by eye”. Shipwrights chose the trees for planks by themselves (which were already bent by the wind, so they were naturally formed).
The trees which were sawn at the shipyard came directly from Scandinavia. The strenuous work which was taken on by the sawmills in the Zaan. It took roughly eight months to finish a ship. Besides the carpenters, there were all kinds of craftsmen working like blacksmiths, mast makers, ropers and sail makers. To keep everyone evenly working there were ships made on an assembly line. There was a row of unfinished ships on the line: one had just got a keel, the second had just been finished with the wood boarding, the third was in the final stages, etc. That’s how people kept the craftsmen working.
The most successful of the VOC trading vessels were the Spiegelschepen. These cargo ships were given this name (Mirror Ships) because of the highly-decorated rear of the boat: de Spiegel (the mirror). Above the rear of the ship and slightly forward were the cabins and the dining room of the officers and passengers. The crew mainly slept in hammocks slung between shipping crates amongst the cargo. The cargo was the most important because they had to pack the most valuable stuff in there, protected against moisture and packed so sturdy that porcelain could not break. The room where the gunpowder was stored was reinforced and the kitchen had a stone floor and wall to prevent fire. The ship was equipped with a large amount of cannons in different sizes because at sea there was a constant danger of enemies and pirates. At the beginning of the VOC, ships had the power to destroy Spanish and Portuguese ships because the Netherlands was at war with them.
Apart from the afore-mentioned Spiegelschepen, the VOC also had yachts: smaller, faster ships which were able to send messages or could be used for discovery purposes. During one of the first trips De Duyfken yacht was dispatched to discover unknown lands. They accidently discovered the coast of Australia, however, were never traced again, hit by a storm at sea. That’s the reason people rebuilt De Duyfken to remember the tragic trip from the Netherlands to Australia.
The merchant Liorne from Hoorn dreamt up the Fluyt ship. It was a ship built with a rounded rear instead of the solid “mirrored” rears. It was really practical because the deck was small. The bigger the deck, the more money you would have to pay. The rigging is also kept as simple as possible. That was necessary because half of the crew of the VOC was foreign and never had been to sea. The cargo space was wide and the floor flat so they could get close to the shore and easily sail up rivers. When it was built for the first time, Liorne was laughed at by his colleagues. However, later on the ship was put into production because it was very practical.
The Ultimate Ship
A well-built and maintained VOC ship could last upto15 years. Then it would be sold to sail short distances in Asia or Europe, or it was demolished. Sometimes ships sunk in heavy storms because of being cast against cliffs or large rocks, but generally that didn’t affect more than 3% of all the ships. The biggest problem was that the wooden ships were oversized and had to be cumbersomely pulled into the dry dock and flame-cleaned. A well-built and clean ship could sail to Asia at an average speed of 5 kilometres an hour: the speed of a pedestrian. That means that if they were lucky they could sail from Amsterdam to Batavia in around seven months.
text: Ruud Spruit
translation: Tom Gelderblom, RSG Enkhuizen, tto-junior