Back in the 1990’s, I wrote what I assumed would be the final American story about the Groote Beer, the 52′ Dutch botterjacht that had spent many years on the west coast, especially on the Columbia River in the 1950s–when it had actually raced to Hawaii–and again in the 1990s–when it returned here and became a houseboat. The Groote Beer (“Great Bear”) was based on a traditional fishing vessel with a flat-bottom used on the shallow waters of the Zuiderzee until the 1930s. I called my story “Gone But Not Forgotten” because of the way this very foreign-looking vessel had been saved from an uncertain future, leaving behind a bizarre legend.
You could say it was a boat that had sailed out of the pages of a spy story, and indeed the tales about this unique craft seemed to have a life of their own–especially the well-worn yarn about the Groote Beer being built during world War II for Hermann Goering, the head of the Lufwaffe–Nazi Germany’s air force. That story had been re-told in every American port the Groote Beer ever visited–from New York to Hawaii–without even a shred of evidence being demanded or produced! It had even been incorporated into a popular novel “The Shipping News” by Annie Proulx, and later into the movie of the same name. Since this was fiction, Proulx upped the stakes by making the original owner no less than Adolf Hitler himself!
That should have raised a few red flags, but it failed to dampen writers and sailors’ enthusiasm for the Nazi legend. When they saw the boat with its amazing carvings and heard the story everyone suspended their disbelief–it was just too wonderful an opportunity to pass up. The story was finally shot down after some international detective work by Jack Van Ommen, a Dutch immigrant who had lived on Puget Sound for many years.
He had spotted the Groote Beer moored at the Seattle Yacht Club in 1982 where it was actively sailed by an Explorer Scout group and exhibited at wooden Boat events. (He finally sailed on the boat in 1984 in San Francisco Bay with the last American owner Clifford Fremstad.) He was curious, wrote to a relative, and discovered that he had a family connection with the boat’s construction.
Jack had taken some time during his annual trips to the Netherlands to research the Groote Beer and was finally able to visit the yard where it was built, meet a retired boatbuilder who had worked on it, and obtain written proof that it was built for an obscure German general. Nonetheless, with its leeboards, curved gaff, blunt ends, and abundance of carved wood trim, it remains the most memorable craft I have ever seen, and I reckon that must be true for many of the thousands who admired it during its American travels. Fittingly, a Dutchman had shipped it home to the Netherlands, where it was completely re-built from 2002 to 2004 until it was as good as new after its half century in American waters. But the plot thickens here: Jack had actually documented the truth in the early 1980s, but having become a friend of the Groote Beer’s owner, he held off publishing his findings for 20 years, in case this caused the boat’s value to drop.
It wasn’t until 2005 that I came across a short report about the boats restoration in Wooden Boat magazine. Of course, I wanted to meet Jack, trade yarns (true and false) about the Groote Beer, and include him in my story. But by 2006, he too had disappeared from his home in Gig Harbor, Washington, and in fact from American waters entirely! All I knew was that he had retired and taken off for the South Pacific with the goal of sailing around the world in plywood 30 footer he had built from a kit in the 1970s.
I eventually found his web site www.cometosea.us and occasionally checked on his progress. I learned that he was detouring from the normal tradewind route to visit SE Asia where he had served in the US army in the early 60s. He had then sailed his small boat across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope and back across the Atlantic to the US, arriving on the east coast in June 2007.
After visiting one of his daughters, he sailed down the Intracoastal Waterway to Florida to do a refit before cruising the Caribbean. He spent a winter in Florida before deciding there was no rush to complete the circumnavigation. First he wanted to sail to the Netherlands in his own boat! So like the Groote Beer, he too returned to his home waters: winter found him with a berth at the de Sehinkel Yacht Club near Amsterdam, where he had learned to sail as a boy!
Then, out of the blue, I received an e-mail from Jack telling me he would be in Portland early in December to visit his son. A couple of weeks later, I drove in from Astoria and we met at the Goose Hollow Tavern. Having seen how the Groote Beer occupied a place half in fact and half in fiction, I found myself imagining this meeting as Hollywood might have seen it: as the final scene in a b-movie where all the clues are explained and the mystery solved.
For a couple of hours I plied Jack with questions, about his life in the US, the Groote Beer, and his round-the-world adventure. (He in turn wanted to know how I had become so interested in a dutch traditional boats!) In two hours, I learned enough about him to fill quite a few pages, but the salient points were: he began working in the lumber business in the Netherlands straight out of high school, emigrated here in 1956 at the age of 19, was soon drafted into the military, and was already visiting saw mills in SE Asia whenever he had leave.
On his return, he worked for Weyerhauser selling softwood in Europe from 1965-70, then started his own business exporting plywood to Europe.He imported a total of four English kits for the Naja 29, but it was hard going to sell three of them. When he began to build his own kit in 1979, he found that it was definitely not a bargain in terms of time or money. He began sailing the Fleetwood in 1981, and raced in the Singlehanded Transpac in 1982. He sailed back from Hawaii with his daughter and one of her school friends as crew.
By the mid-90s, he was a millionaire on paper and was in his third marriage, he told me. But in 2000 he was bankrupted by “one bad deal.” He fell on hard times until 2002 when he turned 65 and started getting a monthly social security check for around $1,300–based on his income in his wealthy years. That provided enough to keep him and some spare to pay for supplies to re-fit his boat that had been out of the water for a decade. “I had always assumed I would buy a much bigger boat to go cruising,” he explained.
Although the Fleetwood was designed for performance sailing over a short course, it now looked just right for a long solo cruise, and has served him very well over 28,000 miles. “Smaller boats have fewer gadgets and less problems,” he assured me. His worst moment at sea was when he experienced a severe knockdown off South Africa that felt like the boat had been “dropped off a three-story building.” His main gear problem was with the ¾ rig’s runners, which he found too much hassle, and the extortionate amount he paid this year to rebuild the old model Renault diesel. Also, he developed an allergy to varnish and happily abandoned the clear finish!
Now aged 80, Jack doesn’t plan to stop traveling any time soon! At his moorage in the Netherlands, “The members treat me like visiting royalty,” he says. “Word has gotten around that the prodical son has come home, so long-lost family members and old girlfriends have brought out the fatted calf for me!” His plan this winter was to fly to Vietnam on a cheap ticket and spend more time there with more freedom to travel than he had on the boat. Next summer he will be showing his children his roots from the deck of the Fleetwood—and sailing the Dutch canals they will undoubtedly see many sister ships to the Groote Beer, as there are now fleets of these restored traditional boats. Then Jack will sail on (under power) down the Rhine and Danube to the Black Sea and more European adventures…..
The Groote Beer and the “Big Lie”
Well, that finally brings the true Groote Beer story full circle. But what about the legend? Looking back on it, I find myself appreciating that the first American owner, one Charles M. Donnelly, who found the boat in the Netherlands while he was setting up the Feadship group, created what must be the greatest nautical sales pitch of all time. After all, it still sounds enticing long after most details about the Nazis have been forgotten.
Like the fish that got away, his Goering claim was something no American could disprove. He correctly guessed that it made such a fantastic story that no reporter would ever question the truth. And as for actually trying to prove him w liar: who could find out what took place in a small boat yard in the depths of the German occupation? That was never going to happen in the 1950s.
Well, we all enjoyed the yarn, and Donnelly is long gone. With hindsight, the legend looks completely ludicrous. History tells us that Goering was a WW I pilot who became totally identified with the Nazis and Hitler’s lust for power. He loved pomp and ceremony and gave huge, elaborate parties. If he had indeed wanted a personal yacht, it would not have been a little wooden tub, Goering would have demanded something on the scale of the last Kaiser’s yachts: steel, very large, very fast, and designed and built by Germans!
Now it’s time for me to turn the tables on Mr Donnelly and have the last word. If there was ever a connection between the Groote Beer and the Nazi elite, it was that the legend was based on the work of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda. You may recall it was Goebbels who perfected the “Big Lie” technique, based on the principle that if a lie is audacious enough and repeated enough, it will be believed. It’s been successfully tried by many dictators and politicians, not to mention Wall Street bankers and used car salesmen, but it’s still a lie and never a good idea!
PS This story has continued to unfold and needs to be updated: the beautifully restored Groote Beer was dropped by a crane and written off, Jack’s yacht was wrecked and he found a sister ship and carried on cruising, and he wrote the full story of his research in the Netherlands for the Wooden Boat magazine. So I will have to do some more reading myself when I have the time…..
At Nieuwboer in Spakenburg, the top botter yard in Holland, the Bear has been completely restored to her original glory for the owner, Jan Willem de la Porte.
So after a half century in the New World, the Groote Beer has been welcomed back to its home waters and sits at her moorage in Volendam, ready to sail again in 2010.