It was a TV documentary inspiring me to have a quick check on the internet and a call: A few days later I´m parking my car in Elsfleth, a small town situated at mighty River Weser just between the Cities of Bremen and Bremerhaven. I am excited to getting a chance to have a look onto a vision in being: From the parking lot outside the yard I can already see the masttops of both main and fore masts. Tension is rising.
I receive the yardworker´s helmet for safety and a visitor´s batch at the entrance. It´s a small local yard employed mostly in refitting and small repair works of tugs and fishing boats. Morred at one pier side I see the ship I drove two hours from Hamburg to have a visit to: SV AVONTUUR.
A very different Refit.
To put it short: AVONTUUR is owned by a Shipping Company belonging to a firm called Timbercoast. Timbercoast has been founded by Cornelius Bockermann, a seasoned Captain with more than 20 years experienced in commercial shipping. He was responsible as commanding officer for the fate of huge container ships, had seen the world and – above all – the impact of modern trading on both the worldwide ecosystems and human societies. To revive the old but sustainable way of transporting cargo under sail has been his vision since then. And the aim of Timbercoast with AVONTUUR as flagship. Upon arriving I am greeted by Ben Decosse, a sales marketing professional and the master of communications for Timbercoast. Meeting him inside the cramped bureau in a container where Cornelius is busy on the phone acquiring the first cargo for AVONTUUR´s maiden voyages he will be showing me around and explain the details of both ship, crew and concept of Timbercoast. “You see”, he says, “transporting 70 tons of coffee beans from, let´s say Papua New Guinea to Australia would take 3 days on a modern container ship but be worth the emission of some 700 kilograms of CO2. Doing the same with our sailing vessel is just down to some 30 kilograms. Our engine is only running when going in to a port.”
Sailing definitely is the cleaner way of transporting goods from A to C. “Well, of course it would take 13 days for the beans to arrive in Sydney”, Ben continues, “but let´s be honest: 3 days or 13 days, that´s a question of logistics.” When watching the TV documentary I remember Cornelius stating that the 15 biggest container ships of the world are emitting more CO2 than all the cars of the planet together. “It´s because we want our cheap Chinese goods, all the sneakers and flatscreens delivered ´on time´. That´s perverted.” AVONTUUR and Timbercoast cannot bring a change, they all know that, but, as Ben puts it: “We are restless and cannot wait for others to make a change.” This is why they are refitting AVONTUUR. This beautiful gaff rigged two masted schooner has been built in 1920 my Smidt yards in the Netherlands and has been shipping freight until 2005. She was considered one of the last true cargo-sailing vessels of the world until she was turned into a day passenger boat sailing in Dutch coastal waters and Zuider Zee.
As her pre-owner passed Cornelius took the chance to buy her and put her back to what she was originally built for: To sail. “Sailing is a proven technology. It works. Read a history book.” The proud ship with her rich past is now moored in Elsfleth and currently in refit for quite some time now. After her last owner transformed the ship (then without rig as motor coaster) back into a sailing vessel during a three-year period she has been in Trans-Atlantic service until 2005. Turned into a day passenger ship she remained in service until 2012 in the Netherlands until bought by Cornelius Bockermann. Since the purchase has been completed, Cornelius and his crew are retrofitting AVONTUUR to her true destiny: Being an oceangoing cargo ship under sail. This refit proved – as any refit I guess – to be paved by more or less unpleasant surprises: “When having her in dry dock last year and having her hull examined we learned that most of her steel plates below waterline have been too thin. We had to exchange them for we have now a completely new hull if you want”, says Ben pointing to her red painted underwater hull. “It´s difficult …” with a sigh. And I know exactly what he is talking about. We proceed on board.
Rigging & Woodworks of AVONTUUR
Putting my head in my back and having a look onto her masts, I admire her rigging. “The masts are brand new – built on contemporary construction plans. The booms are made by hand here in Elsfleth.” The master carpenter gives me a nod: He is taking some measurements for his work and disappears to the workshop on land. Standing rigging has been finished, the crew currently seems to put on the running rigging. “We utilize modern day Polypropylene fibers such as Splitex and Robline, as those were donated and have been partly on board. As soon as any of the new ropes are worn, we’ll replace them with manila.” How nice – no neon colors and perfectly blending in the whole picture of this proud ship. Suddenly I think back to the times when Jules Verne´s “20.000 Leagues Under the Ocean” takes place. Everything is done handmade here, AVONTUURs crew takes pride in their handcrafted work. And they should: Where it´s finished, it just looks awesome.
AVONTUUR will have two gaffsails with a topsail each on the two masts. On the long bowsprit no less than four sails can put to the wind. Flying Jib, outer and inner jib and a large staysail will complete the canvas to a maximum of 612 square meters sail area. The ship has a length over all of some 44 meters with a max beam of 5.87 comprising to a displacement of 130 GTons. “We will be able to carry up to 70 tons of cargo”, says Ben: “All will be done completely under sails.” And if there is no wind? “No wind – no progress”. Of course, the ship has an engine. But the John Deere Diesel will exclusively be used to landing and casting off and negotiating ports. It´s not a matter of propulsion.
“It was a bit tricky to find a sailmaker. A local sailmaker since we don´t want to ship sails from Asia to here”, Ben explains whilst we are taking a look onto the massive wooden booms. “We´ve finally found one in Hamburg and we got the sails a week ago. That was a day of celebrations.” Another part of this massive puzzle finally in place. But so much to do when looking around: As I roam the deck of AVONTUUR I can spot a hundred of things to be done prior sailing. Can they make it?
“You see, we cannot afford to pay for the whole refit”, Ben explains, “that’s why we´ve employed the system of volunteers. I am a volunteer too. Cornelius spent his whole fortune on this ship and refitting a vessel like this is a load of money to be spent. So we try to attract people with all their knowledge and craftsmanship to come to Elsfleth to help getting the job done.” Whilst board and lodging is free, Timbercoast can´t pay them a dime. The deal is as simple as this: “Every day working here is worth a day of sailing on AVONTUUR.”, says Ben. And it seems to pay off: There are plenty of volunteers around busy at work.
The Main Cargo Hold: 70 Tons
Leaning over the cargo coaming I gain a look into the main cargo hold of AVONTUUR. There´s plenty of space for carrying all kinds of goods, though Ben and Timbercoast do have a certain conception of the things they want to ship: “We want to connect manufacturers of organic and sustainable generated goods with people and markets where buyers do have a certain awareness and will to make a difference.” Coffee, Cacao and other consumable are a natural choice as well as for example FCE-certified timber or all other materials made with a small ecological footprint in mind: “Shipping up until now was the weakest link.”
AVONTUUR is a cargo vessel of the old breed. Loading and stowing will be done by hand: “We have a crane on board: We can use the schooner boom as a derrick. But that´s not a crane as one would expect it to be in the first place. When it comes to loading and unloading, we will try to stick to our philosophy: As little energy-intensive help as possible.” Speaking of energy, crew on board AVONTUUR will have electric lights, will they? “Oh, of course!”, Ben laughs: “We do have the wind as primary source of energy here and thus our ship will have two wind turbines generating up to 600 Watts of energy both.” A drag generator when the ship is making good progress will add another 800 Watts and there are solar panels generating up to 2.1 Kilowatts rounding up the energy concept of the ship. Of course, when everything should be dead, good old John Deere with a Mitsubishi generator could also produce up to 20 kVAmperes.
Do they have freight acquired yet, I ask. “Well, yes. We have. Plenty of. But you know, it´s not enough. We have some cargo for our maiden voyage in the Baltic Sea, North Sea as well and we are currently trying to add some more goods for our Transatlantic voyage.” AVONTUUR won´t stay in European waters. She is destined to sail to Australia. “Cornelius and Timbercoast are interested in the Australian fairtrade market.”, Ben explains. “There in Cairns is our home base. We want to ship goods from and to ports of the Australian east coast up to the Phillipines as well as take part in the Inter-Island Trade from the Solomon Islands to Nauru, Kiribati, Fiji and Samoa.” So, that´s not just a dream of getting AVONTUUR afloat and under sails again and make Timbercoast as her shipping agency a player in the transportation business, it´s also the classic dream of emigrating.
Crew´s Quarters below Deck
We proceed a deck down. It smells like work, an odor I am very familiar with since I do work on my own ship as well. Okay, it´s a smaller scale but I know quite exactly what it means not to be able to meet schedules, to explore three new items to be put on the list when one is to be crossed off, going over budget as well as at the same time to never lose faith, determination and at last, fun at work. This is what I experience here as well. A welder down under the floor boards sends a loud cheers upon seeing me, two other guys wave.
To be honest, it looks like complete chaos when I took a look into the engine room. John Deere under a tarp, cables, wires, pipes coming out of nowhere, seeking for a connection. No panels nor damping, just like a scene from “Das Boot” when they are grounded in a depth of 200 meters desperately trying to get the boat ready to surface. Same here, but different faces: Everyone is smiling, having a chat and apparently I cannot see fatigue or desperation. Hard work – fun on their faces. This is what makes me believe they will do it. They will sail away from Elsfleth. You can see it here, right down below deck in the engine room-in being.
Passing a bulkhead we enter an area of approximately 7 meters in length and 5 meters width: “The quarters.”, says Ben, though I must admit it needs a lot of imaginary power to envision walls, real doors and berths for the crew. “AVONTUUR will have a complement of 15 to 16 people. Of them 10 are trainees – 6 are permanent.” A Captain, of course, First Mate, Chief Engineer, Second Mate, Bosun and the Cook will complement the STCW certified professional bridge crew.
It will need another 10 or so to drive the ship. Trainees. “The trainees will receive a thorough merchant sail training here – previously unknown in the commercial seafaring world.” Conventional sail training ships do cost some 100 to 1.100 Dollars per day depending on the ship and program. AVONTUURs rates will come in at 150 to 200 Dollars a day – guaranteed without tourists and tourist program. Standing in front of a sign stating “Capt´ns cabin” I begin to dream … just as every of the volunteers roaming AVONTUURs bowles to get her sailing again.
Where real Work happens
We conclude our round tour and climb back on deck, leave the ship to walk a few meters to a big warehouse. The workshop. “This is where most of the work is done”, says Ben and opens the door. A wide hall over two levels with clearly pegged areas for the different crafts: The carpenters did occupy most of the space, ropework is done in a separated area as well as the different individual steps of woodworks. Above the heads under a window front I can count some 18 flags: “It started with one of our volunteers, now it´s a kind of tradition to bring the national flag.”, Ben explains: “It´s a symbol of the spirit of the team, of everyone who was and still is involved in the work here and the idea that is AVONTUUR.”
Taking a look into the timbershop two youngsters greet me, returning to their work immediately: One is planing a piece of wood, the beginning of turning this foursquared clumsy piece of timber into a beautifully crafted gaff. “You see, we receive so much help from the local community here, it´s absolutely marvelous”, Ben says: “There´s a woman who is preparing dinner for all of us almost every evening. We have locals providing food from their gardens or shops and sometimes they do offer rooms for volunteers to sleep. It´s fantastic.” Although Timbercoast is paying the yard, some of the work done is provided for free.
As all those volunteers keep coming to this remote area of Germany from all over the world to offer their craftsmanship and knowledge for the project, it shows how much power the whole idea of putting a real sailing ship into real merchant service again has. “There´s a strong belief and a will to change something amongst people – every age, every background. As well as here in Elsfleth as in all the other parts of the world. That´s just fantastic!” I begin to understand. I guess, it´s not primarily the idea of changing this world at once – AVONTUUR certainly won´t – it´s more the faith of the good in people and the power of a butterfly´s wingbeat that could be the start of a change. AVONTUUR certainly has touched some hundred souls until now and will go on to affect minds and hopefully acting of thousands more.
“As I have shown outside, we try to manufacture everything by ourselves here in the shop or in the yard.” I take a look on perfectly crafted pulley blocks, I can smell the varnish, imagine the ropes producing a creek and a scroop every now and then when tension gets stronger. Like all the stuff I could observe on board as well as here I get the impression that professionalism is at work here. “A lot of people think we are all amateurs clowning about having no clue about shipbuilding. But that´s not the case”, says Ben. With Cornelius Bockermann as boss it´s Klaus Kriening as Master Blacksmith and Supervisor brining extensive knowledge of shipbuilding and sailing to the team. “He is supervising the whole process and acts as mentor and teacher as well for the trainees.”
Though every volunteer willing to help is welcome, there is a selection process to motivate people to come to Elsfleth who already have skills and a wide variety of trades to play a part in the big scheme. “We have a lot of carpenters, electricians and people of other mechanical arts amongst our crew. It´s a wonderful mixture of different people, different cultures and techniques which is enriching everyone every day.” I am standing next to a hellish machine, a jury rigged steamer: Here they steam and heat timber to form the wooden mast hoops for the main sails. So exciting: Everywhere you look there´s a new thing to explore. I am sorry having this little time to spend here. I could sit down and look for hours. Oh wait, I could volunteer … if it wasn´t for family, kids and of course, my own refit waiting for me at home.
Casting Off for Clean Freight Transportation
I spent some two hours in Elsfleth roaming the AVONTUUR, getting to see the different spots where so much work is still to be finished and greeting those motivated, friendly young volunteers spending a time of their lives here to make a dream happen. “We need help”, says Ben, pointing to the fact that there are some shares in Avontuur Shipping Company Ltd.. Still available for investors who want to take part in getting AVONTUUR underway and running soon. “We also need volunteers of course, people come and go and it´s a constant strain to have them enthused to join us here in Elsfleth.” So, if you don´t have children to feed and want to take part in this venture … contact Ben.
My time is up. In Bremerhaven another ship is waiting for me. Unlike AVONTUUR it´s a pleasure craft, a Class 40 sailing yacht made for racing. As I´m saying goodbye I ask a last question: “When will this beautiful ship be finished?” Ben surprises me. Standing in front of this building lot in full bloom with people scrambling about busy to install a thousand things, he is so sure and steadfast as he is answering: “AVONTUUR is due to sail for her maiden voyage on May 29th.” I must have looked a bit puzzled, as he amends: “29th – this year.”
I am honest. I don´t know if they can make it. It just seems such a lot of work ahead. And just 3 weeks to casting off. I really don´t know if they can make it on time. But what I do know is, they will make it eventually. If not in May, then in June, July or even May next year. Why? Because it´s a damn noble and right thing they are doing. They all, past and future volunteers, Ben and Cornelius Bockermann deserve it.
Just, maybe, as our planet deserves it. To proof it can be done: Sailing cargo without burning creepy carcinogenic stuff polluting our precious earth.
I would just love to see her sailing.