The two lives of Willem Barensz


Leendert Griep, holding two whales teeth that he keeps as a memoir from his adventure on the Willem Barensz

By Anna Portella

On November 1963 the Willem Barensz sailed in its last whaling mission. With its 300 meters length and 48 meters width, it was the largest whaling factory ship of the time. Considered a symbol of the Dutch reconstruction after the World War II, the ship was named after the first Dutch navigator who tried to find the Northern Passage to Asia in the 16th century, the Age of Discovery. The 1963 voyage, however, was bound for the South Pole and Leendert Griep, a 25-year-old family man, was on it.

Leendert is a Groninger born in 1939. He was the third of four children in a socialist family. He comes from a time where the political context decided people’s fate – his father worked on the construction of the Atlantic Wall and he was one of the men that earned his stripes rebuilding a country devastated by World War II.

Nowadays, he is retired and he lives in the neighbourhood of Lewenborg, in a brick-built house. He has received me in his living room, sitting in an armchair. When he stood up to shake my hand, I could see he had grown up on Dutch soil – tall, robust, white-haired and smiley faced. The ticking wall-clock announced that we were about to sail in a journey through time.

The last time the Willem Barensz weighed its anchors under the Dutch flag, it departed from Amsterdam’s harbour. It first made port in Curaçao, to fill its tanks with oil provided by the Royal Dutch Shell. From there, it headed to Cape Town, where it anchored in the middle of the Atlantic while six vessels of its expedition harpooned whales and the other two collected the catch to bring it back to the mother ship.

The ship’s name honoured Willem Barensz, a navigator born in Terschelling, one of the Frisian Islands, in 1550. It was an age when Europeans, inspired by the discoveries in Africa, the Americas and the Pacific, started to explore the world by sea. Because of the Spanish-Portuguese monopoly of the Southern route to Asia, Willem Barensz commanded three expeditions to find a Polar route to reach China.

On board ship during the Leendert’s voyage, an international crew worked overtime to process the whales’ byproducts: The Norwegians were the harpooners; the Germans, the sailors; the Japanese were in charge of cutting the fish meat into pieces, and the dirty jobs were left to the black South Africans.

“There was only one funny person on board and it was me, so everybody wanted to work with me,” Leendert remembered. He worked in the engine room, cleaning the oil tanks that every 10 days supplied fuel to the hunting vessels. “Every day was the same. You could be grumpy but it didn’t help, that’s why I was laughing all the time,” he explained, mixing English and Dutch words that his older grandson, Jesper, translated.

“It was not my profession, I had always worked in the steel industry. I was there for the money, I could only think of the amount I would make once I was back in the Netherlands.” His will to make life more comfortable for his family drove him to the adventure. “Actually, you were crazy if you left your family for such a long time. My friend, who had four children, found that his wife had gone with another man by the time we went back,” he explained, while his wife, keeping a low profile and just showing up to serve coffee, roared with laughter from the kitchen.

Although it was considered a well-paid job in the winter, the bonuses the sailors received depended on the number of whales caught. The 1,296 of that season were not enough to achieve the whole commission. However, as they were lost in the middle of the ocean for many months with no chance to quench their thirst of alcohol, he managed to get extra money reselling his bottle of gin for tenfold its original price -“I married a Jewish woman,” he jokes.

The navigator Willem Barensz attempted for the third time to find the Northern Passage in 1596. He departed from Amsterdam in May and soon reached the Bear Island. After crossing the Barents Sea, which later was named after him, his ship was trapped by ice and the crew was forced to spend the winter in Nova Zembla. Frostbitten and exhausted, Barensz died on the way back to the Netherlands, in June 1597.

Conditions at sea were not as extreme for Leendert, fortunately. But it was ice, “Mountains of ice! And birds, and penguins!” which composed the landscape that sheltered him during his adventure. The amount of work depended on the daily haul, “One day you could catch only one whale, and the day after one hundred.” During the snowy weather, though, the activity stopped.

The crew used to spend its free time walking on the ship deck. “Everywhere was full of residual organs, so we could only walk 10 meters on one way and coming back.” He still keeps a penguin-shaped whale tooth he carved to kill the time. It stands on the living room’s table, as a memoir of an old travel awaiting for my visit.

The hunting season lasted seven months. Long beards grew during that time: “My colleagues and I shaved ourselves for the farewell party and when we looked at each other, we were shocked because we couldn’t recognise anyone’s faces,” he said.

They arrived at Rotterdam’s harbour, where his wife, his three-year-old daughter and his one-year-old son were waiting for him. “My son, who was 7 months when I had left, didn’t know me. He got used to seeing his grandfather as his father”, Leendert explained.

Willam Barensz did not make it to Asia through the North Pole, over Russia, but his legacy has last until our days. He discovered the island of Spitsbergen, which later became the centre of the Dutch whaling tradition. A tradition that lowered its sails in May 1964 when Leendert Griep, a welder from Groningen determined to improve his family’s position, arrived from the South Pole aboard the ship that bore the famous navigators’ name, Willam Barensz.

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