Skutsjesilen: centuries old, still hauling butt
LEMMER _ The 2013 Lemmer Ahoy in May was a rough start to a new season. Fierce winds. Lashing rains. Two boats tipped over. Several others reported damage. A rescue helicopter overhead. The racing of “skutsjes” (pronounced _‘skootshahs’) is not for weaklings. The sailing craft, up to 20m long, may date back to the 18th century, they are definitely not things of the past.
Each summer scores of those lumbering giants race each other on the lakes and canals of Friesland, the Netherlands’ watery northern province. The races _ held from May through September _ offer tens of thousands of spectators thrilling scenes of sailing. Skutsjes used to transport bulk cargo across Dutch lakes and rivers. They range in length from 12 to 20 m long and are, on average, 3.5 m wide so they fit through narrow bridges. In the 1920s and 1930s many were fitted with engines and, after World War II, often the sails were removed. Fortunately, that did not last and in recent decades, skutsjes have come back as sailing beauties of the north.
(Dutch filmmaker Bert Haanstra captured skutsjesilen perfectly in his 1966 film De Stem van het Water – The Water’s Voice. Go to 46.26 into his film at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SX77tcudkR0)
Today, there are 2 racing organizations: The SKS, founded in 1945, represents one boat each from 14 Frisian towns. It’s seen by some as something of a purist group. In more recent years, new skippers came on the scene. They were not descendants of traditional skipper families but called themselves “young skippers on old boats.” In 1981, they formed the rival IFKS federation. By now, it embraces at least 5 dozen skutsjes.
“There was some friction at first between the two groups,” says Age Veldboom, founder of the Skutsjes Museum in Eernewoude and, as he admits himself, mad about skutsjesilen. “But that has eased, frankly. The two federations organize side-by-side championships. But there are pre and post-season races open to skutsjes from both federations.”
Make no mistake. In Friesland, skutsjesilen is not a colorful pastime. It’s very serious business. FC Barcelona has Lionel Messi. But the town of Sneek has Douwe Visser. In 2012, he captured the SKS championship for a 7th time. He also won in 1995, 1996, 2002, 2003, 2007 and 2011. You do that in skutsjesilen and they’ll put you on a horse-drawn cart, rent a marching band and throw confetti at you. As if you are Lionel Messi.