Here is your final instalment of the ukulele-bike-boat tour I did in 2019.

So far, our much photographed 3-masted barquentine has been motoring under engine power close to land. But now it’s time, under the guidance of Captain Eelke, to unfurl the sails and let the wind carry us to Texel Island.   

The job, for those of us that wanted it, was to pull on ropes and raise the canvas sails. This is a lot harder than it looks on the telly. I do enjoy getting physical but yanking those ropes was like having a tug o’ war with a rhinoceros. One of our group, (I think it was Kent), was already an experienced sailor and had the right knack of pulling out and down on the ropes making him about three times more useful than any of the rest of us.

I like the idea of boats but the experience never matches what I imagine. Kayaks, dinghies and motor boats all leave me cold, wet and windblown. Why do people bother? I don’t know. But, having said that, I do appreciate the art of sailing. Knowing how to catch and harness the wind so that it carries you far and wide, like a stone that never stops skimming, is a truly beautiful concept. Especially when watching it from the hot tub with a cool glass of Texel beer.

Back on dry land I was finding Dutch street signs that were quietly idiosyncratic. One saying Kiss and Ride outside a school was a sweet way to tell parents not to linger in their cars at the drop-off point. Later, in a park, a lawn sign of a cartoon dog squatting and straining, with a red line across it, was a comically clear reminder to dog owners to attend to their duties. Later still, while using a public toilet, I was unsuccessfully trying to shoot a fly out of the bottom of the urinal before realizing that the fly was a picture baked into the white enamel to get men to perfect their aim. What a clever idea!

We rode along the top of a dyke that made all our earlier dykes seem like sand hills. On our left the waves of the North Sea crashed while on our right, many metres below us, were houses and farmland. It looked a very precarious place to live. Like having a condo on a volcano.

But there comes a point in a holiday where the novelty curve starts to flatten and there’s less new stuff and more repetition of things we’d already seen. Four days into our week-long trip and we were becoming normalized to endless tulip fields, quaint brick houses, cobbled streets and good coffee everywhere. But tour guide Hugo tirelessly provided us with living histories which gave context and meaning to all we surveyed.

Some of us noticed that, instead of just showing us statues, dykes and coffee shops, Hugo never went past a social housing complex without getting us to peer at it through railings or leading us through a gate so we could wander aimlessly around in the forecourt. We discovered that, in the winter, when he’s not tour guiding, Hugo’s energies go towards the preservation of social housing in the Netherlands.

It can be hard to imagine what life is like for vital members of society who live without predictable income, pension, savings or other benefits. They are seasonal workers, artists, musicians, small businesses, the disabled and some who have just had bad luck and ill health… it’s an ever-increasing list of people finding ways to get by in a world that is changing beyond recognition.

Hugo explained how the social housing system began here:

With the monumental growth of The Dutch East India Company the Netherlands became the world’s top trading nation and home to a wealthy global elite. The people forced to work for these so-called ‘heroes’ of the Dutch empire had to get by on starvation pay, terrible sanitary conditions and no human rights.

In the town centre of Hoorn there is a statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, a Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies. In his time, (1587 to 1629) and a couple of centuries thereafter, he was considered a national hero – but he was a brutal man who stopped at nothing to build power and wealth for the Company, while destroying countless lives toward that end.

Hugo stood at the foot of Coen’s statue and told us of the killings that took place here. Anyone caught holding views that were not in line with those of the Company were publicly executed – staining red the cobbles with their blood. (At the time of writing statues are being torn down, here and abroad, for the well-intentioned idea that we shouldn’t honour the historical misdeeds of brutal leaders. However, Hugo’s lesson showed how beneficial these statues still are. Not for honouring their memory but for reminding us of what not to do.) From the writing on the statue’s plinth, I was able to Google Jan Pieterszoon Coen and found this quote of his:

Despair not, spare your enemies not, for God is with us.”

Dutch soldiers acting on Coen’s supposedly God-given orders perpetrated massacres and numerous acts of destruction in Indonesia purely to sustain artificially high prices and profits for the investors of the Company. I think it’s safe to say, he was not a very nice chap.

Even by the 1800s though, such violence and abusive behaviour fell out of favour and his legacy was already tainted. Change was a-coming. In one case, Hugo told us, the change was initiated by the wife of a merchant who noticed the poverty and despair caused by her husband’s industry and convinced him to improve the situation for his desperate workers by providing better housing.

On Texel island there is the Orphan’s Well containing iron-rich water which had the useful quality of staying drinkable on long voyages. Ship owners bought the water to fill their storage tanks and the money paid went specifically to feed orphans, many of whom had lost fathers on those same ships. Eventually, laws were drawn up to protect the rights of workers and to give them a humane standard of living as well as the ability to say the Company stinks without being publicly executed on the blood red cobbles of Hoorn town square.

These gains were a long time coming and the tradition of providing social housing continued. That is until recently. Care for profit over people is once again taking over and the social housing system is eroding. Wealthy developers are clawing the properties back into the hands of the new elite and, as in other countries, the Netherlands is in danger of returning to the miserable days of yore.

The flow of money is a powerful force. And if we don’t maintain the dam walls that stop the flood of monetary misuse and fiduciary foul-ups then we’ll all be in trouble. Like the Little Dutch Boy with his finger in the dyke, it’s good to know that Hugo, and others like him, are holding fast and working hard to plug the leaks until help arrives.

Back at the mainland, we dropped sail and motored on into Amsterdam enjoying the waterside architecture. The warm April sunshine helped us forget that our tour was coming to an end.

We’d had such good times. One night the crew had sung a Dutch sea-shanty, Robyn had danced a hula while I sang Blue Hawaii and, as I led the song about the little mouse with clogs on in a windmill in old Amsterdam, I was delighted to find that Hugo knew the Dutch lyrics. I asked him if it was originally a Dutch song. He replied, “The Dutch would never write a song like that.”

After a week of making sure everyone’s tour experience was a happy one Elaine was visibly relaxing and soaking up the sight of us all singing together like old friends. We paid our bar bills and gathered in the saloon for a final evening of music.

One of the best things about ukulele gatherings are the open mic sessions. I always imagine I’ll watch for “ten minutes or so” but find myself still there an hour later. The quality of musicianship varies a lot but the effort and artistry that so many put into their moment-in-the-limelight makes every act compelling.

The personalities of my companions truly shone when they performed. Some sang covers, like Kent & Nancy who sang Hit the Road Jack, Susanna did Joni Mitchell’s All I Want – as well as a rocking blues tune with our chef on guitar. Some, such as Caitlin and Debbie, had very sweet voices while others used slightly less-sweet voices to equally wonderful effect. There was even an avant-garde percussion piece where a rhythm was tapped out on a ukulele while voices spoke rhythmic Dutch words and phrases when conducted to do so, “By the Zaan, by the Zaan, sheep – Baaa, by the Zaan, Tulips! Baaa, by the Zaan, Tulips!” It was really cool.

Robyn sang in that sweet and tender way that only Hawaiians have. I reflected that every country has a unique personality – be it energetic, laid back, aggressive, polite or friendly. The Hawaiian way is a soul-soothing vibe which makes you relax and go Aaaah….

When my turn came up I played a song (in the clawhammer style and videoed by Kent) that I’d written about Susanna – whose main claim to fame now was her unchallenged ability to fall off a bike. View the video here.

Next morning, we scattered in all directions. Some had early flights and were gone before breakfast while others had booked extra time in Amsterdam. I only had about four hours to see the city before my flight but frankly that was enough. I soon tired of walking around in the sunshine carrying my raincoat and dragging my cabin luggage over the cobbles. I felt as if I were somehow cut loose and adrift. I missed having a ship to go back to.

I once read that sailors are not so much wild adventurers but more like the snails of the sea: travelling homebodies who have found a way to take their home with them wherever they go. It was nice, for a while, having a moving hotel follow me around as I pedalled over potholes and polders. And I truly hope that one day I will come back again. Maybe next time I’ll save room in my case for a pair of bright yellow clogs.

“…a study measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet… And, a human on a bicycle blew everything else away, completely off the top of the charts. And that’s what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.”

Steve Jobs