1 December 2015 - From: Ohio State University Alumni Magazine
Ship’s restoration resurrects chapter of island history
It all started with a phone call from a stranger on the neighboring island of Curaçao. “I’ve been pumping out water once a week for three years from Stormvogel (Storm Bird). I was wondering if you could help me save this boat,” explained François van der Hoeven. (He had discovered me — a transplant on the southern Caribbean island of Bonaire for the past seven years — through an article I’d written for WoodenBoat Magazine.)
He continued, “I’ve been trying to get permission from the Felida family who lives on your island. I hope they will donate the ship to a foundation so it can be saved.”
“What is so special about Stormvogel?” I asked. “Why save it?” “Besides being a beautiful ship long ago, it is the last of the sailing cargo boats made in the ABC Islands. And it was built on Bonaire.” That was all I needed to begin the project of a lifetime, but my credentials were a bit lacking. A filmmaker and writer by trade and a sailor by choice, I had little boat-building experience. As a 10-year-old, I had crafted an 8-foot pram during a long, cold Cleveland winter with substantial help from my father. But that didn’t matter. I soon discovered that my island community deeply loved the vulnerable old boat in question, and perhaps more importantly, what the boat represented. Van der Hoeven and I established the Bonaire Maritime Heritage Foundation along with local historian Boi Antoin, boat builder Johnny Craane and Dutch accountant Eric van de Keuken. The Felida family sold Stormvogel to us for one symbolic dollar. Next, how to bring the ship back home? It was in dire condition. “Structurally, the boat was worth saving, but there was no way it could be towed the 45 miles to Bonaire,” Van der Hoeven said. “It would sink. We had to remove excess weight so Stormvogel could be transported. We took out a ton and a half of cement blocks stowed in the hold, a rusty 1.6-ton diesel engine that would never work again and another two tons of toxic fuel and trash. Ten of us volunteers did all that in just over three months.”
Upon our urging, Bonaire’s governor, Edison Rijna, phoned the commodore of the Royal Dutch Navy in Curaçao in hopes he would agree to transport the boat back home as a goodwill gesture. A month later, the Navy inexplicably denied our request. We had lost precious time. While waiting on the Navy’s decision, I had actively promoted Stormvogel on a Facebook page and wrote numerous articles in local newspapers about the grassroots project. Even so, the buzz I’d created soon started to fade. Locals are accustomed to hearing grand promises — a new hotel that will offer lots of jobs, a public beach developed specifically for islanders that are never delivered. Now people were starting to question Project Stormvogel: Where was the boat? Why was it not on the island? Was this just another broken promise? Plus, the owner of the Curaçao boatyard, where Stormvogel lay for free, told us the boat must be gone by April. We had to do something fast.
Friendships among islanders are powerful in close-knit communities defined by the sea. Johnny Craane, the head of the restoration, called in all of his favors. Within a week, the local shipper, Don Andres, donated free transport of our boat. Specialized trucks, trailers and cranes were scheduled on each island, and local police escorts were arranged. On March 25, 2015, Stormvogel finally came home.
Work for many hands
These days, I find myself involved in an abundance of activities surrounding the project, and rebuilding the boat is just one. We started a junior shipwright program to involve teenagers in the restoration. Students from a high school and local youth groups commit to nine hours of hands-on work learning from Bonaire’s best builders of wooden boats. They also listen to a one-hour lecture on the rich nautical history of Stormvogel and the ABC Islands. The local community response has been tremendous. People from all walks of life, including old sailors who sailed on Stormvogel a half century ago, have joined the effort. And then there is a fellow Ohio State alumnus, Jeff Campbell ’78, a part-time island resident who just retired from ER doctor duties in Portland, Oregon.
“There are so many charities to give to, but what I like about this is the passion for the project,” said Campbell, who is now trading his scalpel for a hammer and a chance to work on Stormvogel. “I want to do some of the woodwork. I want to bang some nails. And I’m looking forward to connecting with others, especially the old Bonarean boat builders. I want to hear their stories.”In addition to the boat work, Campbell made a substantial financial contribution to the project and even transported 100 restoration crew t-shirts to save us shipping costs. But all this philanthropy comes with some demands. “First, I’m not doing the ship doctor thing,” Campbell joked. “I’ll do any job as long as it has nothing to do with medicine. Second, I’m not working on the boat on Saturdays in the fall. I’m not going to miss any Buckeye football games.”
Fodder for a film
Campbell is not the only Ohio State grad contributing to the project. I recently began producing a short film on Stormvogel for use in fundraising. Since I had no budget, I called on friends. One such plea went to an LA-based buddy, Eddie Freeman, owner of Icarus Music and a 1987 graduate in audio recording technology. He scores films for National Geographic, The Discovery Channel and now project Stormvogel. “I’m always interested in anything water related, and I like applying my musical chops to that,” he said. “This is a fantastic opportunity to restore history and teach kids about their culture. I am glad I can contribute to that.”
The film can be viewed on booster.com when a new campaign launches there in November; proceeds from the sale of hats and shirts will go directly to the project. You also can support the project by adopting one of nearly 80 ribs needed in the restoration (and even have your name inscribed on the rib).
Beyond the fundraising film, I began interviewing aging deckhands, shipwrights and a skipper who worked on the old sloop. My aim was to preserve their maritime memories on video, and in the process, I learned much about Stormvogel’s spirited history. She was built in 1951 on the beach under the shade of a tamarind tree just a few blocks from my home. Her captain, Martinus Ramon Felida, had secured a lucrative contract to haul propane tanks between Curaçao and Bonaire and commissioned the build. Upon completion, Stormvogel was unceremoniously shoved into the sea to begin its life as an inter-island cargo ship.
Back in the day
Ismael Soliano, now 86 years old, told me about the ship’s sailing prowess on his first return voyage into the wind from Aruba to Bonaire. Soliano periodically served as captain, accumulating four years at her helm. “When we left Aruba, we followed the Venezuelan coast for over a day,” he said. “At the right time, we made one tack north. That route took us directly to Bonaire, completing the voyage in just two days. Fast boat!”
That speed probably served Martinus Felida well through the decades. There were rumors in later years that Stormvogel was used to smuggle liquor and cigarettes from Curaçao to Venezuela under the cloak of night. But mostly the swift cargo ship carried what was considered conventional freight, at least by island standards. Lucio Soliano, 79, was a deckhand aboard Stormvogel during its sailing days and recalls hauling live goats. “We would load 80 to 90 of them on Bonaire and deliver them to Curaçao,” he said. “We would stow as many as we could below deck and tied the rest above deck. With a crew of five, it was pretty crowded.”
Point of connection
Today, this island of 18,000 people and no traffic lights has enthusiastically embraced Stormvogel. The old boat has become a cultural touchstone, an opportunity for Bonaireans to reconnect with their rich maritime past. It also has connected three Ohio State alumni on an island far from Columbus.
“It’s kind of crazy to think that we all started our lives so way far away,” Campbell said. “We have different walks of life, different jobs. And why, at this point in time, have we all come together? I don’t know what this all means, but I don’t think this is a coincidence. There is a reason we’re doing this together, and that will all come clear as the project unfolds.”
Once complete, Stormvogel will become a maritime heritage center — eventually floating one — where school kids, residents and tourists will learn about the ABC Islands’ nautical history. Volunteer guides will give on-deck tours while, below deck, maritime artifacts and multimedia displays will offer glimpses into the past. Later, the boat will serve as a training vessel for young people to learn seamanship skills.
For me, this project has been a richly rewarding experience on several levels. As the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Stormvogel has allowed me to do both.
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