The last of these rugged cargo boats built on Bonaire was Stormvogel. In 1951, Captain Martinus Ramon Felida had secured a lucrative contract to haul propane tanks between Curacao and Bonaire. Martin’s father, Jan Efteban Felida, financed the build of the boat and local shipwright Etche Craane crafted it on the shores of Playa Pabou, just north of the capital town of Kralendijk. Much of the wood used was gathered locally in Bonaire’s wild outback called the mondi. “We searched for hardwood in the hills,” recalls Jan Felida, a relative of Martin who worked on Stormvogel. “We would choose special shaped branches that would fit the curved form of the hull. Some wood came from government land, but we harvested most of it from a private family plot.”

etche craane
Etche Craane
Jan Felida
Jan Felida

 

The shipwrights built Stormvogel seaside under the shade of a tamarind tree. Once complete, her hull was painted black to resemble the dark-hued plumage of the bird for which she is named, the storm petrel. The mainsail was sprit-rigged and a 2-meter long bowsprit accommodated two foresails, making Stormvogel a speedy cutter. Ismael Soliano, now 86 years old, tells about the ship’s sailing prowess on his first return voyage into the wind from Aruba to Bonaire. Soliano served as captain on and off, accumulating four years behind her helm. “When we left Aruba, we followed the Venezuelan coast for over a day. At the right time, we made one tack north. That route took is directly to Kralendijk. We completed the voyage in just two days. Fast boat!”

Ismael Soliano
Ismael Soliano

 

Several years after the launch, Martin Felida lost the contract to haul propane gas to a modern diesel-powered freighter five times the length of Stormvogel. It was time for the entrepreneurial skipper to improvise. He began sailing east to the Venezuelan islands of Margarita, Los Roques and Islas de las Aves, the islands of the birds. There, Felida purchased fresh fish, iced it down in his boat’s ample hold and raced back to Bonaire to sell the catch to eager customers. But seafood was not the only animal cargo shipped. Seventy-nine year old Lucio Soliano, a deckhand aboard Stormvogel during its sailing days, recalls hauling live goats. “We would load between 80-90 goats from Klein Bonaire (Bonaire’s uninhabited offshore islet) and deliver them to Curacao. We would put as many as we could below deck and tied the rest above deck. With a crew of five, it was pretty crowded.”

By the early 1960s, diesel engines were becoming commonplace in the ABC Islands. In an attempt to remain competitive, Felida moved Stormvogel to Curacao and installed a small motor. He also, for some mysterious reason, had the boat registered there under the name of Rosalinda with the official number of NC 992. Some say the skipper was honoring one of his daughters named Rosalinda. Others theorize the new name had amorous connections to one of Felida’s many lady friends.

Martins Felida
Martin Felida

 

As years went by and competition between cargo freighters increased, other mysteries about Stormvogel arose. Former crewmembers claim that Felida entered the smuggling trade. Runner boats would transfer tax-free liquor and cigarettes out to desolate Klein Curacao, a spit of an island ten kilometers east of Curacao. Reportedly, the contraband was loaded into Stormvogel and then delivered under the cloak of night to isolated coves along the coast of Venezuela. If true, the fast cutter must have served Felida well since he had no arrest record.

By the early 1990s, the captain did a major overhaul of the old cargo boat. He installed a massive 1.6 ton Kelvin diesel engine. The entire hull was wrapped in low-maintenance fiberglass and a huge deck cabin adorned with gingerbread trim covered the back portion of the boat. Also, Felida for some unexplained reason changed the name of NC 992 back to Stormvogel. Years later, the large boat proved too much for the aging captain. She was left to rot along a backwater dock. Soon after Martin Felida died, leaving ownership of the boat to his many children.

1993 Stormvogel Caracasbaai
Stormvogel at the docks in Caracasbaai, Curaçao, early 1990s

 

For years, Bonaire boat builder Johnny Craane and local historian Boi wanted to save the boat but the Felida family had other ideas. Then in 2012, François van der Hoeven, a sailor and maritime history fan, discovered Stormvogel slowly sinking in a Curaçao bay. Van der Hoeven understood the tremendous historical value of the boat and knew he had to do something fast. Every week for three years, François pumped out water from the old cutter while he tried to generate interest on Bonaire to save her. Finally in November 2014, several Bonaire residents formed Fundashon Patrimonio Marítimo Boneiru (Bonaire Maritime Heritage Foundation), contacted legal representatives from Martin Felida’s family, and secured ownership of Stormvogel. There was still the matter of getting her back home.

Francois enjoying the spacious cargo area
Francois van der Hoeven enjoying the spacious cargo area

 

Van der Hoeven wasted no time. He found a free spot at the boatyard, Curaçao Marine, and had the boat hauled out. Then he gathered a group of ten enthusiastic volunteers. Over four months, they stripped down Stormvogel to her historical core. The first task was to remove 1500 kilos of cement blocks that had been stored in the hold. Once Biofuel Curaçao pumped out 300 liters of gas oil and 12 liters of engine oil, the crew pulled out the two large fuel tanks. They finished by taking out foam insulation, rotten planks and a defunct steering mechanism. Then Van der Hoeven and three others cut free the ship’s massive, rusting diesel engine, which was then taken out of the hold by a crane. All tolled, the group removed three and a half tons of unwanted material. Stormvogel was ready to return home, but not without some regret. As volunteer Nicky Pietersz wrote, “With mixed feelings I'm writing this e-mail. Our Stormvogel has left Curaçao this early evening at 17:25 and will be arriving her birth home in Bonaire around 21:30. Hope you have as much fun restoring her as we had during the prep works for her transport."

Curacao crew at departure
Stormvogel with its Curaçao crew at departure

 

March 25, 2015 was a joyous day on Bonaire. The old cargo ship now strapped to a specialized lowboy trailer was pulled off the deck of the local freighter, Doña Luisa. People cheered while a police escort guided her to Navegante Boatyard. Owner Lele Davidsson had given the foundation permission to store the boat during restoration for one year rent-free.

Bonaire arrival crew
Stormvogel with its Bonaire crew at arrival