From the S&S archives: More rugged than romantic: Learning the seafarers' ways

Young trainees pose for a photo.


By MARTY GERSHEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 2, 1961

THE DUTCH training ship Pollux is a dreamboat for kids, but the youngsters who sign aboard this sailing bark each year come to learn that the sea is not for dreamers.

For although the Pollux never weighs its anchor off Amsterdam, its 66 young trainees soon learn that the life of a seafarer is more rugged than romantic.

Purpose of the Pollux is to show Holland's 14- to 16-year-old would-be mariners how to be sailors. When they graduate at the end of a year they qualify as deck boys in The Netherlands' merchant marine.

Why send a boy to school just so he can become an ordinary unlicensed seaman?

Jacob Siebel, the 63-year-old ship's bos'n and retired Netherlands Navy man, has the answer:

"You've got to get a lad used to the atmosphere of the sea. He has to adjust psychologically to a ship and to shipboard life."

Agreeing that every youngster is starry-eyed when he goes to sea on his first voyage, the grizzled old salt noted, however, that, "if a boy goes straight to sea without a little indoctrination he is liable to run into bad food, rough weather or tough men. Then the romance will be gone.

"By training a lad first we prepare him for the good and the bad and we get a better professional seaman," he said.

To learn about the life they'll lead, the young seamen cadets live and eat aboard the bark and sleep in hammocks below decks.

Their day begins at seven each morning, when they have breakfast and stand inspection. Work consists of chipping, planting, cleaning and scraping. Then there are classes in seamanship, rope and cable splicing, knot-tying, navigation, mathematics and geography.

The youngsters are also given a textbook on all the world's ports. This includes city plans, a list of churches in the port, and the names of Dutch families living there.

The day ends at 5, but the homework then begins — and the kids had better do it. They all get Thursday afternoon off as well as Saturdays and Sundays. Except for youngsters who live in Amsterdam, the boys normally don't go into town. Instead, they play soccer on the docks or they might take in a nearby movie.

The reason? They all must be back aboard ship by 8:30 p.m. And since every student pays about $150 per year for the course (the government underwrites the rest) the lads have little or no extra spending money,

Skipper of the Pollux is Cmdr Jan F. Vietor, a seafarer for more than 30 years.

Vietor, who lives aboard ship with his wife, noted that "90 per cent of my boys don't go bad."

Commenting on the classic landsman's picture of a seaman as being a wild and woolly drunkard, Vietor exclaimed that "seamen are not any rougher or worse than landlubbers."

In an obvious reference to Amsterdam's wide-open Seadike area, Vietor said, "landlubbers here are worse than seamen."

The youngsters who "sail" the Pollux are normally assured of jobs upon graduation. According to their skipper, the kid cadets stand a better chance of being promoted to able seamen, boatswains or into the officer ranks than their contemporaries who run away to sea.

The Pollux was built in 1940, but there were six sailing ships which served as training vessels before it. Another ship similar to the Pollux is anchored off Rotterdam and used for the same purposes.

In addition to the national government, the two ships are blessed by the Seamen's Institute of the Royal Netherlands Rowing and Sailing Society, which includes among its members all of Holland's major shipping concerns.

And since that little country is one of the world's major maritime powers, its system of training boys for the sea rather than letting them run off to it must be worth its weight in gross tonnage.

Work on the included chipping, planting, cleaning and scraping.