Scarlatti’s Mystery Sonata K.87


Like (almost) everywhere in this personal website, my posts on books and music are not meant to persuade anyone reading it to join my opinion or views. Neither will my choice of post topics attempt to provide a comprehensive representation of my tastes in books and music. Not only would that be impossible but who would be interested in that? I myself am not. Google’s (Youtube) algorithms will know best I suppose, but only after I have gone, because as long as I live I will keep adding data.

I must acknowledge that, in spite of all the darker sides of the internet, Youtube has made it so incredibly easy to compare and enjoy different interpretations of musical pieces. A great joy to do that at ease at home. In the past, one had just about time to listen to some parts of two or three different versions in a CD shop. Then we took one CD home and that was then the version with which we became most acquainted; and rarely looked further. Without the internet I could obviously never have written this post.

In my music posts I will not write about how much I enjoy the works of Monteverdi, Purcell, Dowland, J.S. Bach, Händel, Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Bruckner, Brahms, Schubert, Rachmaninov, Chopin, Mahler, Prokofiev, Sibelius, Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Vaughn Williams, Erik Satie, Steve Reich, John Cage, Arvo Pärt, Phillip Glass and so many more. Other people can do that much better and it is anyway better to listen to music than to write about it. I often combine it with writing, whatever the topic.

True, that list of composers already gave away my general preference: all what is broadly called ‘classical’ music. This has nothing to do with my age, I already loved classical music in my early youth. I also like some popular music but it has never affected me as deeply. Music associated with the Wiener ballrooms, such as Johann Strauss and Franz Lehar, as well as most kinds of Jazz, can very effectively be used to chase me far away.

So what will guide my choice of blog topics in books and music? There are no fixed rules but it will often depend on having discovered or experienced something that is perhaps not generally known. Or something that I found to be special that I like to study a bit deeper and share. Even if just to document it for myself, because writing is often a good way to think about and ‘research’ something.

This first post about music may illustrate this.

The first 5 bars of K.87 – the whole score is just 2 pages with 70 bars; each half is repeated once.

Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1757) is well-known for his sparkling keyboard Sonatas. I regularly like to listen to them, while comparing interpretations of different pianists. But the reason to write about this subject is because among the many Scarlatti sonatas there is one (Sonata in B minor, K.87 / L.33) that to my ears is different from all the others and in some mysterious way most completely resonates with my being.

I must relativate “all the others” because I have by far not yet heard all the 555(!) sonatas that Scarlatti has composed1 .

Other composers have certainly also created works that resonate with me as much, if not more. But I often wondered why this particular sonata for me transcends all the other most commonly played Scarlatti sonatas, while I have not yet heard or read anybody else noting anything special about K.87. It is not among the 15 most frequently played ones such as K.1, 8, 9, 11, 17, 27, 30, 39, 141, 146, 159, 380, 450, 466 and 531.

There is a range of famous and less well-known pianists with beautiful Scarlatti interpretations and I appreciate many of them. But, those who play Sonata No. K.87, usually play it too fast, and then it looses its special, favoured position for me. It is not a virtuoso piece- technically not difficult to play. Scarlatti did not indicate a tempo for this sonata – I think because its character self-evidently asks for it to be played slow, at most Adagio.

Mikhail Pletnev’s interpretation of K.87 thus far hits the bulls eye for me.

It takes Pletnev more than 7 minutes to play this while most others do it in around four minutes – even Horowitz. This translates into about 60 bpm (beats per minute). The other extreme can be found on a Wikipedia page, on a digital harpsichord, rushing it off in just over 2 minutes (200 bpm) – a Horror! 

I certainly do not contend that Scarlatti’s sonatas in general are played too fast. On the contrary, many of them cry out for speed and if a pianist is able to go fast with perfect accuracy it does not feel rushed (hear for instance Michelangeli, or even faster by the wonderful, rising piano star Yuja Wang:

Some pieces can be played in a range of tempi without detracting much from their pleasure. And pure musical pleasure is what characterizes most of Scarlatti’s sonatas. But K.87 is exceptionally serious, mournful even, some say. There is not a single tremolo or trill, which abound in almost all other sonatas. I find K.87 a ‘jewel’ – even though that is a bit strange to say because it is perhaps the least ‘sparkling’ among all the glittering Scarlatti sonatas.

But to my feeling it is not sad. More contemplative, like a ‘philosophy of life’. In spite of the deceptively simple score it has many layers. But to unveil and express those layers it must be played in a slow tempo.

Ivo Pogorelich (DG435 855-2)2  comes quite near with taking 6.15 minutes. As does one Spencer Myer (6.01). But neither is as good as Pletnev (7.05) in bringing out all layers of the piece.

While Scarlatti of course composed his sonatas for the in his time existing varieties of the harpsichord, many of them (imho) sound better on a modern grand piano. I tend to agree with Maarten ‘t Hart’s3  verdict of the harpsichord: “as if you drop a box of thumbtacks on the floor”.  Yet, while writing about this I just discovered that the harpsichordist Scott Ross was the first to record all 555 sonatas. The handful of harpsichord renditions from him that are available on internet are certainly enjoyable.

Pletnev plays other sonatas also in his own particular and exciting way – and certainly not slower than others – but he does not in all sonatas surpass the renditions of, for instance, András Schiff, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Horowitz, Clara Haskill, Martha Argerich, Glenn Gould and Ivo Pogorelic. Also found some pianists whom I had never heard of who play Scarlatti beautifully such as Dubravka Tomsic (who uses ‘Helena Schubert’ as her artist name) and Yevgeni Sudbin.

These interpreters cannot be linearly ranked by even one person’s taste I think.4  While some play some sonatas ‘best’, others can excel in others. Sometimes this judgement can vary according to one’s mood, time of the day or season. But so far Pletnev and Pogorelic give me the ‘best’ interpretation of K.87 (at all times).

There are many quite useless discussions about personal taste and whether one or another version would be more “as intended by the composer”. Nobody can verify this, but it may well be that Pletnev’s version of K.87 is not as it originally sounded. So what? The fact remains that this version happens to totally resonate with me. And I only have me to enjoy music with.

The latter is not said jokingly – I do believe that ‘resonance’ is the correct term to use because it implies a precise matching between a sender and a receiver. Each of our minds+bodies forms a unique instrument with its own spectrum of eigen-frequencies that will resonate more with certain music and less, or not at all, with other pieces. And that will be as far as I can come to explain why this piece has that effect on me.

Does liking ‘sad’ music mean that I am a sad person? Once I ‘confessed’ to a school mate that I liked classical music better than pop and he retorted: “Oh why, that’s so sad!” That was in the early heydays of the Beatles and Rolling Stones and made me wonder: how come that sad music makes me more happy, while some kinds of happy music make me sad?

I was lucky to have three boyfriends at college who also ‘openly’ liked classical music. Two of them played the violin and the third one, my best friend during secondary school, liked to play the guitar. Although the latter especially loved technical things like repairing cars. Once he bought two old, broken Renault 4’s cheaply and turned them into one working car that, after using it during our summer holiday, could be sold for a good price. However, what is relevant here is that at his parents home they had a special music room, completely in Louis XIV style, with a good sound installation, many records and a pianola with a beautiful sound  and many pianola rolls. There, after coming back from the workshop, we drank whisky on Saturday nights and, for instance, listened how Busoni may have played Liszt’s piano version of Paganini’s La Campanella5 – his ghost moving the pianola keys. But I digress.

The contrast between K.87 and many other Scarlatti sonatas is to some extent comparable to that between the slow middle movements and the faster opening and closing parts of Mozart’s piano concertos. The latter are often allegro to presto, jubilant, virtuoso and extravert, in stark contrast to the andante or adagio, melancholic, more introvert and more emotionally moving, middle part.

A striking example of how much the impact of certain music can be augmented by playing it much slower than usual was Reinbert de Leeuw’s version of Erik Satie’s ‘Gnossienes and Gymnopédies’. But that feat was applauded by many music lovers. I have thus far heard nobody else about Scarlatti’s K.87.

Where English and Dutch don’t Match and some Other Confusions

‘Sailor’ versus “Zeiler”

I had originally written in the first sentence of the home page that “I … am  a passionate sailor“. But that was problematic as that would be like a “Dutchism” (is there another term in English?). I cannot rightly call myself a sailor because that word applies to professional seamen, while for me it is an unpaid (on the contrary…) hobby. Even though that hobby started earlier, and is lasting longer, than most sailor jobs. In addition, sailors hardly work on sailing boats anymore.

In Dutch I would call myself a “zeiler”, which just means someone who sails, irrespective of whether it is a paid job (“zeil” = sail). ‘Sailor’ would best be translated into Dutch as “zeeman” (seaman). But how to translate “zeiler” into English? Not ‘sailer’ because that indicates a sailing vessel, or at any rate, never a person. Unless ‘Sailer’ is the person’s name of course which, as I learnt, does occur. Which I find rather strange because nobody in the Netherlands seems to have the name Sailing-boat or Ship. How to explain this?

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Another mismatch – ‘on starboard tack’ = “over bakboord”

One example that instantly comes to mind is something that often confuses Dutch sailors(sic) when starting to work in English and vice versa:

Being ‘on starboard tack’ means a direction of the boat whereby the wind is coming in from starboard (the right side of a ship). According to the internationally agreed rules (the “COLREGs”) a sailing ship over starboard has right of way over one on port tack. When two sailing boats closely meet on a crossing course, Dutch sailors (sic) on the boat that is on starboard tack would however claim that right by shouting: “Bakboord!” – which means: ‘Port side!’ (left side of ship).

This is because the Dutch, in naming the tack, refer to the side that the sails and boom are out – which is always the lee side – and thus opposite from where the wind is coming, which is what the English refer to.

It is of course futile to argue about which usage is ‘right’ or better. It is just a choice, such as on what side of the road we drive, and as long as everyone follows the convention, everything will be alright. But is it?

When making the mental switch to the English usage of starboard and port tack I found it quite illogical. When a sailboat is trying to reach a point directly to windward it will need to follow a zig-zag course as in this figure.

I find it more logical if ‘starboard tacks’ would move us to the starboard side of the destination and vice-versa. This is the case in Dutch usage. In English it is opposite.

Moreover, for ‘tacking to port’, we have to turn the bow to starboard!?

By the way (showing that I am not just being chauvinistic), driving on the left side of roads does make much more sense in combination with the general traffic rule that traffic coming from the right has right of way (which applies in both countries). That is why countries driving on the right had to create a special exception to the general rule for roundabouts: there the traffic coming from the left has right of way! In addition, when approaching a crossing with equally obstructed views to the left and right, from the left side of the road one has a much better view of what is coming from the right than on the European continent.

There are more confusing aspects between Dutch and English sailing terms, in spite of them probably  having interacted a lot. It is generally held that “Starboard” and the Dutch “Stuurboord” have the same origin, which is more clear in the Dutch version as “stuur” means ‘steering’. On very old ships the position of the side-mounted, oar-like rudder was on the right side of the ship’s stern. The story is further that the person operating that rudder would have his back turned to the other side, so the Dutch say “Bakboord” for the port side.  But… someone’s back is “rug” in Dutch, not bak! So the Dutch took “bak” from the English ‘back’? What a mess.

To be complete, ‘port’ is logically the side which those old boats were moored to when in port, in order not to damage the rudder.

The naming of wind and current directions

This is something that has been confusing to me even though in this case the English and Dutch (and more languages) are using the same convention. The wind is named after the direction from which it is coming while a current is named for the direction in which it is going. So, when a westerly wind is blowing over a westerly current, the forces are opposed to each other. I have not yet found an explanation for this anomaly and would be glad to hear if someone has a theory about that.

As an aside: “Wind against Tide”

By the way, it is quite scary for seafarers when the wind blows against a current. It makes the waves become dangerously high – much higher than when a wind blows over still-standing water with equal relative speed differences between the two media. With a constant wind the sea state can drastically, and within a very short time, change from perfectly smooth to very confused, even breaking, when a tide turns.

The reasons for this must be completely physically explainable but it took me a long time before I really understood it. I had been thinking: “how can the wind know whether the water is moving in respect to the ground or not? – only the relative difference in the speed between the water surface and the wind will determine the type of waves that this creates”.  But experience shows this to be very different.

The solution was not to think of the actual, present, wind but about the already created waves (even in the form of a ‘swell’ – generated by a wind somewhere far away). When these existing waves meet a countercurrent (such as happens when the tide changes), their frequency and energy must remain the same, but their wavelength shortens, which is compensated by a higher amplitude (wave height) and a strongly increased steepness (see e.g. this source).


Spirit’s beauty treatment

On the 2nd of May 2018 Spirit was hauled out of the water in Port Takola Marina near Krabi, Thailand. Her masts were taken off and a ‘shed’ was built over her because the rainy season was starting. The main purpose was to remove the old teak decks, leaking at several places, and replace it with epoxy and paint. Only the cockpit seats and deck over the rear cabin get new teak, to keep something of the original look and avoid a bath-tube like cockpit.

All the standing rigging, now at least 12 years old, will be renewed; the sheaves and tangs on the masts  inspected and where necessary repaired or renewed.


The work is in the careful hands of Popeye Marine Services Co., Ltd.



Spirit in the Kilim river, Langkawi

When I first saw the Spirit in November 2015, she was moored in the Kilim river in Langkawi and suffering from a termite infection. This can lead to the total loss of a yacht but the broker hired by the previous owner had discovered it timely and a pestcontrol company was already fighting it.

Termite control

They used the right method: baits mixed with an insect hormone that prevents moulting. This does not immediately kill them so the workers get time to spread it over the whole colony, even to their Queen, before dying.  A few months later she appeared cured of the termites.

However, when the carpenters of Popeye started to look at the plywood deck under the teak, they still found evidence of live termites. There was no choice but to remove all the rotten wood and renew it; especially along the starboard forward deck and in the bow section around the anchor chain locker.

Removal of the 38 year old teak deck
Renewing the main beams and multiplex deck along the starboard side by master carpenter Mr Phong (while mr. Ched checks and learns)

Several more places were found where the wood was rotten – explaining the manifold leaks when it was raining. So quite a lot of surgery was needed before beautification could start.

Wood rot had often started on the edges, via the screw holes that held the aluminium toe-rail; more so than directly under the teak planking.

The carpenters prepare for laying the new (beautifully fine-nerved and honey-coloured) teak decking on the rear cabin deck and the cockpit seats.

The sons of mr. Phong working on the teak deck (Tuey and Ton)

The caulking was brought in the seams after priming and then left at least two weeks for drying  before cutting/ equalizing- to prevent it shrinkage.


All wooden beams around the anchor chain locker had to be renewed, including the bulkhead separating the locker from the lazaret, providing a much stronger base for both the windlass and the cutter stay chain plate.

The wooden rubbing strake around the ship had to be renewed at many places.
Cutting glass fiber mats and roving…
Applying and rolling in the resin

.After the structural repairs came a seemingly never-ending phase of filling, fairing & sanding of the decks, then priming, filling and sanding again etc.

Weeks during which the Spirit looked more like a ghost:


Or as if in a surgery room: (spraying the primer coat)

When seeing this picture my grandson (7) exclaimed: “Oh, is that grand-dad’s friend and are they in space?”

At last, the first top coat (white) and marking of the anti-skid areas:


Jod pre-fitting the genoa tracks (before marking the non-skid areas)

This was the situation on the first of September ’18: all is prepared for the final spraying of the (sand-coloured) anti-skid areas. Hope this could be

“A” marking the non-skid areas

finished the next week. An amazing job – still wondering how it can be that laying a whole new teak deck would still have been more expensive than all this filling, fairing and painting …

Through circumstances it took a week longer but on Saturday 8 September the anti-skid paint (mixed with two grades of grid: coarse and fine) was applied to the whole deck. I chose a light sand/beige colour: a compromise between not too bright when the sun shines on it and not too dark to avoid the deck absorbing too much heat.

Adding harder to the paint (component B to A)
Adding the coarse and fine (4 : 1 in volume) anti-skid grids to the paint
Jod is the best and does all the paint spraying
Spraying non-skid to all the upper parts was finished in just over an hour!

The paint had to harden for three days.

On Tuesday 11 September the plastic coverings and tapes were removed:











Now the rebuilding stage can start: re-installing all the deck fittings: genoa and main sheet tracks, chain plates, stanchions of the guard rail, cleats, windlass, toe rail and water and fuel tank filling points. Now the deck looks so new, all the hardware looks so old! Anyway, as these are still strong, there is no need (nor budget) to renew them. However, some items still had to be renewed, like the chain plates. It was unforeseen that the deck at some places had become about 8 mm higher, so that the threaded bolts of the stainless steel chain plates did just not protrude downward enough anymore to put on the nuts.

On 18 September mr Wit and Lek helped to get out the, still very strong but heavily corroded, aluminium pins from the mast heads. These will be replaced by stainless steel pins. The aluminium sheaves were still good but will be provided with bronze bushings, replacing the hard plastic ones that had worn out.

Spirit starts to look like a sailing yacht again (4 Oct 2018). The reinforced stanchion bases still need to be screwed on the deck and the un-corroded parts of the old aluminium toe rail will be replaced in between them.


Regularly updated…

The Soul of Sailing

Even though composed of dead materials such as wood, steel or plastic, ropes, canvas, shackles and blocks, a sailing boat appears to me the nearest thing humans have come to construct an organic, living thing. A creature that lives on the boundary between water and sky, shaped like a fish below and like a bird above.

The way it moves through the water is a subtle, integrated, response to the forces of the wind and the water. The human person steering is not ‘driving’ her but only tuning some lines and the position of the rudder to find an optimal balance between those forces, often stronger than him/her.

This is most obvious when ‘close hauled’ – at the smallest angle to the direction of the wind. It is impossible to predetermine the position of the rudder and the sails to get ‘in the groove’, as sailors call it, because it varies with all the mentioned factors, the strength of the wind, the trim of the sails, and the waves. Only through actual practice we can develop the feeling for how to achieve it. A bit too high towards the wind and the boat slows down, a tad too low and the ‘velocity made good’ – its speed in the direction of the wind – becomes sub-optimal. One has to continuously ‘nudge’ the ship, as if asking her: “does this perhaps feel a bit better?”. But finally it becomes instinctive, creating a direct connection between the ship and one’s muscles, nerves and spine, while conscious thought can roam elsewhere.

Once we find the ‘groove’ for a given set of conditions, and the wind is stable, a good ship can often steer herself. Then we can sit back, relax and admire her own movements. I never learnt to drive a horse but could this not be comparable? If so, then a sailing ship is like a living thing. Sort of a Turing test for ships.

“Tri-Sisters” a Corsair 750 Sprint

Best is to learn sailing on small boats which give the most direct and sensitive feedback – ‘intimate’ so to speak. When describing the above I was thinking of an experience on my 24 ft Corsair trimaran in Vietnam. Once I sailed it for 30 miles alone from Whale Island in Ninh Van bay back to Nha Trang. You don’t want to steer all the time, you need to free your hands to do something else, like getting something to drink or eat. We were close on the wind and with an elastic cord wound on the tiller I experimented until I found the right tension. After that I could sit anywhere and enjoy the ride for more than 30 minutes without touching anything.

Even more remarkable was that at one point the wind stopped abruptly, the sails flapped and the boat was going nowhere. Then, after about two minutes or so, the wind came back – under the same angle from the course we had to go – but over the other bow! I only needed to release the jib and let the wind blow it to the other side and off she went again, towards the same goal. She had tacked to accommodate a wind change of 90 degrees and the rudder just needed a tiny correction.

When the wind increased and the waves became bigger we were suddenly surrounded by a swarm of flying fish, their wings glittering with dazzling iridescent colours in the sun. Perhaps they greeted a living soul similar to them: half swimming – half flying.

Each ship is different of course and it will take considerable time to learn how the Spirit behaves under all conditions. She, of course, does have an autopilot, and the steering is hydraulic which gives much less feedback about the pressure on the rudder. Yet, especially for an autopilot it is important to get the sails in the right balance, otherwise it has to work too hard, using a lot of electric energy and the course will be more ‘jerky’. I cannot wait to start with that learning curve.

The attraction of sailing is also to be close to nature’s reality, the feeling of the wind, the wetness of the sea, feeling hot or cold. It is a way to feel being a part of the Universe that I never experienced when in a house or walking in a city (except perhaps by listening to music with closed eyes). And it works strongest when sailing solo.

Robert M. Pirsig, in his book “Lila – An Inquiry Into Morals” describes it this way:

“An alternative — and better — definition of reality can be found by naming some of its components: air, sunlight, wind, water, the motion of waves, the patterns of clouds before a coming storm. These elements, unlike 20th-century office routines, have been here since before life appeared on this planet, and they will continue long after office routines are gone. They are understood by everyone, not just a small segment of a highly advanced society. When considered on purely logical grounds, they are more real than the extremely transitory lifestyles of the modern civilization the depressed ones want to return to. If this is so, then it follows that those who see sailing as an escape from reality have their understanding of sailing and reality backward. Sailing is not an escape, but a return to and a confrontation of a reality from which modern civilization is itself an escape.

Of course, the reality can also be harsh and utterly uncomfortable, especially during storms at sea which all sailors deeply fear. This quote from Joseph Conrad:

“For all that has been said of the love that certain natures (on shore) have professed for it, for all the celebrations it has been the object of in prose and song, the sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.”

echoed how my father (albeit less eloquently) reacted when I dared to show too much love for the sea. Like: “We don’t go to sea for our pleasure! The sea is unpredictable and can be cruel without mercy. The only good thing of my job is that I can retire early (he could, at 60). Then I will bind an anchor on my back and walk inland until people ask me “Sir, what is that thing you are carrying on your back?” That is where I will stay.” Yet, obviously both were still enchanted by their work.

Impressive evidence that sailors have since long felt this ambiguity can be found in Richard Henry Dana’s “Two Years Before The Mast – A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea”. This life was experienced around 1836, a time when very few sailing ships were made for pleasure and implied extremely hard work as well as suffering for the crew. Yet we find this description:

“One night, while we were in these tropics, I went out to the end of the flying-jib-boom, upon some duty, and, having finished it, turned round, and lay over the boom for a long time, admiring the beauty of the sight before me. Being so far out from the deck, I could look at the ship, as at a separate vessel;–and there rose up from the water, supported only by the small black hull, a pyramid of canvas, spreading out far beyond the hull, and towering up almost, as it seemed in the indistinct night air, to the clouds. The sea was as still as an inland lake; the light trade-wind was gently and steadily breathing from astern; the dark blue sky was studded with the tropical stars; there was no sound but the rippling of the water under the stem; and the sails were spread out, wide and high;–the two lower studding-sails stretching, on each side, far beyond the deck; the topmast studding-sails, like wings to the topsails; the top-gallant studding-sails spreading fearlessly out above them; still higher, the two royal studding-sails, looking like two kites flying from the same string; and, highest of all, the little skysail, the apex of the pyramid, seeming actually to touch the stars, and to be out of reach of human hand. So quiet, too, was the sea, and so steady the breeze, that if these sails had been sculptured marble, they could not have been more motionless. Not a ripple upon the surface of the canvas; not even a quivering of the extreme edges of the sail–so perfectly were they distended by the breeze. I was so lost in the sight, that I forgot the presence of the man who came out with me, until he said, (for he, too, rough old man-of-war’s-man as he was, had been gazing at the show,) half to himself, still looking at the marble sails–“How quietly they do their work!”

This is written in a book that was expressly not meant to glorify sailing but, oppositely, as a ‘report’ to protest against the terribly harsh working conditions that the common crews had to endure on such sailing ships. Dana, later becoming a lawyer, wrote in the Preface of his book: “My design is, and it is this which has induced me to publish the book, to present the life of a common sailor at sea as it really is,–the light and the dark together.”  He wanted to become the voice of the common sailors “Before the Mast”, also describing injustice and sufferings, instead of that life seen through the eyes of the higher ranked officers – as in most of the books about life at sea.

‘Before the mast’ is the ‘forecastle’ of the ship  where the lowest ranked crew were accommodated. It is usually pronounced, and often spelled by sea writers, as “foc’sl”. Maybe because ‘castle’ does not evoke the right association for this often squalid, very small and low-ceilinged, place where all their hammocks and scant belongings were hanging next to each other.

Yet, even though there is one blood-curdling description of the flogging of two men for almost nothing by a bad-humoured captain and several gripping accounts of how they had to work on the yards, swaying high above the deck and sea for hours to take away frozen sails with bare hands during severe gales when rounding Cape Horn on the way home, and one man sadly lost in that way, his writing mostly shows his fascination for how such ships were sailed, technically described in every detail. And even contains an honest measure of admiration for certain officers – when they deserved it.

Dana’s ‘protest’ has thus become classic sailing literature and has undoubtedly attracted, more than repulsed, young people to the world of big sailing ships.

I can not avoid to include John Masefield’s famous poem ‘Sea Fever’. This is less about the ship than about the environment in which it lives – the sea and the weather. Near the end it also touches on the sailors’ way of life at sea.

Sea Fever  (John Masefield)

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,                                 And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;                                                       And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,                     And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide                                Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;                                                  And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,                                              And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,                                         To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;      And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,                                      And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

This beautifully portrays the experience of the sea at the higher latitudes – where I was born and raised. In the tropics the wind is not like a ‘whetted knife’, nor do you hear ‘sea-gulls crying’. But tropical seas have their own charms and for that I will refer (in other posts) mostly to Joseph Conrad’s writings. He also offers us much about that ‘vagrant gypsy life’; the communality of sailors in spite of their nomadic living. At least as it was in his time.

Surely it will be true, as someone said, that “If you want to learn to pray, go to sea”. But there is also truth in this:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”

Hunter S. Thompson (The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967)

Sailing Roots in Youth

Hoek van Holland

Sailing has been my lifelong addiction. Not exactly sure when it started but very early. My childhood was in a coastal village in the Netherlands aptly named Hoek van Holland  (“Hoek” means corner, not hook)  because  it is for three quarters surrounded by water. Right in the corner where the North Sea Coast is cut at a right angle by the large canal (the ‘New Waterway’) that connects Rotterdam with the sea. Rotterdam was long known as the biggest port in the world.

My father, grandfather, his father and related family were all professional sailors. Not on sailing boats of course, except for my great-grandfather whose portrait hang in my grandparent’s house and that I now carry with me on the Spirit. We were told little about him, except that he had been a ship’s carpenter in the navy (in Den Helder) and had died at a rather young age, when my grandfather was only 5 years old (in 1893).

Pieter Jacobus Marchand, my great-grandfather

The man’s staring eyes in that portrait fascinated me and I privately fantasised that when he had been sailing in far away, tropical, seas had been killed by a crocodile. The truth, as I learned later from my brother’s lovely account of our family’s history, was rather more mundane – he died from a lung infection (probably Tuberculosis) in 1893 in Vlissingen. His wife, Catharina van der Hoff, who further raised her six children alone while running a laundry shop might more truly have been a hero. But that’s not how a young boy’s romantic imagination worked at the time.

Pieter Jacobus Marchand, my father as first mate.

At home, my father always forcefully impressed on his four children and wife that his job was not a hobby but ‘damn hard work’. Yet, when we saw him in uniform at work he radiated quite something different. So, as a young boy I just knew that I would become a sailor like him. Until I was thirteen years old and had to start wearing glasses. My father told me that with bad eyes I could not become ‘stuurman’ (mate). My first big disappointment in life. I could still work on a ship of course, he said,  but only, for instance, as an engineer, radio officer, steward or cook. But that did not sound like the real thing. I was fascinated to do the navigation – how to find your way to a small, far away, island when you cannot see any landmarks and wind and currents set you off.

Captain Dick Ouwehand (his son, my youth friend, has the same name)

Together with my best friend during primary school I built small wooden model boats that we tested in a pond. His father was a captain for the same shipping company where my father was first mate at that time, and I admired him much (even my father did, saying he was an excellent captain). He could tell fascinating stories but also was a great practical joker. Once, when he had American guests on board, he told them that the high towers they saw arising from far out at sea, when approaching the oil refineries at the outer harbours of Rotterdam, were “our space rockets”. This was at the time that the Americans were working hard to be the first country that brought humans to the moon, and they were genuinely shocked for some time.


ms Prinses Beatrix (1939 – 1968), the ship where my father was a first mate

One time, in secret, my friend and I built a big raft from drift wood and old ropes that we found under the large concrete jetty where our fathers’ big ship was moored in the New Waterway. It was exciting to sit on it and, while still attached to the piles with old but thick ropes, see the ebb current rushing under us. It was like we were moving fast!  It is lucky that, while tempting sometimes, we never dared to throw loose the lines. The current would have swept us unstoppably past the piers and out onto the North Sea. When we went there a next time, the ropes had broken and the raft was gone.

Light stand of the Noorderpier. This historic picture was taken from a ship that had stranded right at the tip of the pier, long before my time.

At the end of the old northern pier in Hook of Holland was a light stand. On afternoons after school I sometimes went there and even climbed it, though forbidden. It had a railing all around and by sitting on the west side, right next to the big mist horns, you were surrounded by water for almost 360 degrees. There it was easy to imagine being on a ship plying the seas. That’s also were I secretly lighted my first pipe, at 15. Never sat there when it was misty though.

Inland I still feel more ‘locked-in’ than along a coast. Although on land you are in principle free to take steps in all possible directions, especially in Holland you are soon blocked by a highway, a building or barbed wire.  The only inland places giving a similar feeling of freedom as at sea I later experienced in the wild spaces of the Serengeti planes in Tanzania, and far north in the mountains of Lapland.

I delved into all the study books from which my father had learned his trade at the Nautical School, on Seamanship, Navigation, Weather, etc. even before reading the classic adventure sailing  books.

When I was 16 (in 1967) Sir Francis Chichester became my hero after his solo around the world journey with just one stop (in Sidney), seeing his picture in the newspapers and later reading his books. He was wearing glasses! Thereafter I read any sailing book that I could lay my hands on. Those of Joshua Slocum and Bertrand Moitessier becoming all-time favorites.


Statue of Michiel de Ruyter in Vlissingen, a famous Dutch Admiral – but I chose this picture more because of the characteristic atmosphere of the city behind him.
During storms Admiral Michiel de Ruyter (on the left) seems dwarfed

Although no achievement from my side, I always felt  a bit proud to have been born in Vlissingen in the far southwest of the country. It is perhaps the most maritime-feeling city and in a province consisting of islands embraced by big sea arms, aptly named Zeeland (‘Sea-land’). Even though my family moved to Hoek van Holland when I was only three months, we often stayed with my grand-parents in Vlissingen during summer holidays.

Even more exposed to the prevalent south-westerly winds than Hoek van Holland, the sea always felt very near in Vlissingen. During storms huge waves broke over the ‘boulevard’. This was in my youth reinforced through all senses by the loud bangs of steel hammers on steel coming from the big ship wharf “De Schelde”, of which the high cranes dominated the skyline from any point in town, and the smell of fish and shrimp from the fish market next to the fishing harbour (since long now turned into a marina).

My father had one brother, who also was a sailor, a sea pilot. But the extended family of his parents in Vlissingen was far more numerous and all the men were sailors or pilots and the women mostly married to sailors. My Uncle Pierre Marchand was, as we were told, a much beloved teacher in Seamanship at the Nautical School in Vlissingen. A gentle man with great natural charisma and a deep bass voice.

The family meetings in Vlissingen during birthdays celebrations were impressive. My grandparents then opened the sliding doors between the front saloon and their bedroom and arranged a long series of tables in the middle with chairs around it.

Spuistraat 61 in Vlissingen. My grand parents lived on the ground floor and I was born in the room behind the right window. Behind the left window was the saloon or visitor’s room (‘nette kamer’) where family meetings took place. These buildings survived the ‘modernization’ of the city only because they were made in a rather rare (between Jugendstil and ‘Art-Deco’ ?), style that is much more common in Oostende, Belgium, where my grandmother’s family came from.

As a small boy aside I was listening with red ears to the yarns that those old sailors spun. It became ever more smoky, noisy and merry, fueled by the “borrels” of ‘Jenever’, Dutch gin. Many of the uncles had been working and sailing part of their life in the “Netherlands-Indies” – which only a decade before had become independent from the Netherlands as Indonesia. No doubt their stories also kindled a fascination for the tropics.

As an aside, I haste to add, I did not become an alcoholic. But smoking… alas still enjoy that addiction too much. But only the pipe, as my grandfather did, and my father during periods. Never cigarettes.

Manifold were of course the stories about “the War” – the second world war from 1940-45. But that’s a subject for other posts – I have all my life been an antimilitarist. Suffices to say here that I am happy none of my relatives, as far as I know, had been fighting as soldiers. One of the many uncles had served in the navy, but in an administrative function I believe.

My mother’s album with pictures taken while on  the ms “Nieuw Amsterdam”crossing the Atlantic. The page is noted by her with “After the Storm”

My mother’s family were all landlubbers. Nevertheless, my mother loved sea travel, even before she met my father. Immediately after the liberation from the German occupation in 1945 my mother, who was 23 by then, fled to freedom by taking her first paid job as a shop servant on the most beautiful Dutch passenger ship ever, the ms Nieuw Amsterdam.  She crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the USA, the Dutch Antilles in the Caribbean and Brazil. Hence, she completely understood my maritime interests. She also liked to read the sailing books that I devoured – while reminding me that she rather not see me go and do the same. However, she always supported her four children in whatever they wanted to do.

My mother and me. Must have been in 1951.
My mother in 2008, on the ferry from Ijmuiden to Newcastle to visit my daughter and her great-grand-children in Edinburgh.
Sailing by the wind

The above may for a good deal explain where the love for the sea, ships and the tropics came from. But it can not yet explain the love for sailing– in the sense of being propelled by wind using sails. Motorboats interested me much less. In fact, at the young and impressible age of about six I was very scared when for the first time being shown the engine room on my father’s ship the ms “Prinses Beatrix” (not his ship of course).

The engine room aboard ms Prinses Beatrix. Two 2-stroke Sulzer diesel engines (1938); in total 12,500 hp, good for a speed of 24.5 knots..

While I was fascinated to see engines as big as houses, the noise, smell and enclosedness (no windows there!) terrified me. That was on the first trip with my father from Hook of Holland to Harwich during which I also got seasick, which neither instills love for seafaring.

When young I was especially afraid of loud noise. When I first heard the loud blast of the horn of the ship (just after departure, when the ship was preparing to turn around in the New Waterway) I cried so much, my mother told. After that they warned me in advance, so that I could cover my ears with my hands or something else. Not that it did much to reduce the sound, but psychologically it helped.

However, these early scares on the big ship did not hinder my fascination for all the other aspects on later trips. Such as looking through the big binoculars to see the first land appear at the other side of the sea: England! To be on the bridge and allowed a look at the compass in front of the big wooden steering wheel, or the green radar screen. The silent concentration on the bridge, only broken by course commands from the mate such as “Steady as she goes”, or a number, which were then repeated by the man at the wheel.

Unless it was very bad weather, it was fun to walk the stairs inside the ship. When the ship’s nose went down, you felt very light and could race up the stairs without effort, until it lifted again and you felt very heavy.

The boat in which I first learned to sail (The “16 Kwadraat” – meaning having a sail area of 16 square meters)

I actually first learned to sail when I was 12 or 13 at a sailing school during one summer holiday week on the Kager Lakes near Leiden, on a “16 kwadraat BM”. That opened a whole new world. I had already learned from books the names of the sails, spars and lines, like sheets, halyards, shrouds and stays. But now it was for real! You pulled the main sheet in a bit and when the wind filled the sail the boat would start to move. With more wind, you felt the pull of the tiller in your hand increase, the boat would start to heel a bit, and go faster and faster. Especially magic was how, by repeatedly tacking, you could reach any point upwind – going against the force that drove the boat!

But hey, why should I try to explain the attractiveness of sliding effortless through the water, and over waves, just by making use of the forces of wind and water, the panta rhei– everything-flows-feeling that every sailing fan already fully understands, and which those who do not like it would then still not understand? I write not to convert the latter as there are plenty of the former. And it does not really matter to which group one belongs.

Still, I like to find the best ways to describe it. But for that I must cite writers who did that far better than I ever could. A start of that can be found here.



Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad is my dearest novel writer. “Nigger of the Narcissus” was the first book I read of him when I was about 18 years old and it hooked me. Over the years I read all his other books, many twice and some thrice. And, once my Spirit1  is floating again – exactly in the waters where many of his stories were set to play – I have promised myself to read them again; slowly sipping them like a good wine.

The first reading was often quick because the stories were too captivating to allow time for looking up the meaning of the many, new to me, English words. Especially adverbs and verbs – an incredible vocabulary for someone who was born in Poland, after that first learned French and only later in life English. There was more time for keeping the dictionary at hand when reading a book the second time, when already knowing how the plot would evolve.

Even though his novels can be as thrilling as a detective, the storyline can be held up by page-long descriptions of the surrounding scenery. These are often about a landscape and nature – including the weather, as is to be expected from a sailor- but they can also be descriptions of a human or other phenomena. Slowly cherishing those sections was the best part of second readings. Here an arbitrary example, taken from “Nostromo”, describing a day, from dawn to night, as could be seen from the deck of a ship for anchor in a bay somewhere in South America:

. Joseph Conrad in 1904

“On crossing the imaginary line drawn from Punta Mala to Azuera the ships from Europe bound to Sulaco lose at once the strong breezes of the ocean. They become the prey of capricious airs that play with them for thirty hours at a stretch sometimes. Before them the head of the calm gulf is filled on most days of the year by a great body of motionless and opaque clouds. On the rare clear mornings another shadow is cast upon the sweep of the gulf.


The dawn breaks high behind the towering and serrated wall of the Cordillera, a clear-cut vision of dark peaks rearing their steep slopes on a lofty pedestal of forest rising from the very edge of the shore. Amongst them the white head of Higuerota rises majestically upon the blue. Bare clusters of enormous rocks sprinkle with tiny black dots the smooth dome of snow.

Then, as the midday sun withdraws from the gulf the shadow of the mountains, the clouds begin to roll out of the lower valleys. They swathe in sombre tatters the naked crags of precipices above the wooded slopes, hide the peaks, smoke in stormy trails across the snows of Higuerota. The Cordillera is gone from you as if it had dissolved itself into great piles of grey and black vapours that travel out slowly to seaward and vanish into thin air all along the front before the blazing heat of the day. The wasting edge of the cloud-bank always strives for, but seldom wins, the middle of the gulf. The sun—as the sailors say—is eating it up. Unless perchance a sombre thunder-head breaks away from the main body to career all over the gulf till it escapes into the offing beyond Azuera, where it bursts suddenly into flame and crashes like a sinster pirate-ship of the air, hove-to above the horizon, engaging the sea.

At night the body of clouds advancing higher up the sky smothers the whole quiet gulf below with an impenetrable darkness, in which the sound of the falling showers can be heard beginning and ceasing abruptly—now here, now there. Indeed, these cloudy nights are proverbial with the seamen along the whole west coast of a great continent. Sky, land, and sea disappear together out of the world when the Placido—as the saying is—goes to sleep under its black poncho. The few stars left below the seaward frown of the vault shine feebly as into the mouth of a black cavern. In its vastness your ship floats unseen under your feet, her sails flutter invisible above your head. The eye of God Himself—they add with grim profanity—could not find out what work a man’s hand is doing in there; and you would be free to call the devil to your aid with impunity if even his malice were not defeated by such a blind darkness.”

I do not know how this works on other readers but I find it magically evocative. As if we stand next to him looking pensively from the deck of the ship. We compose the picture (or rather, a time-lapse video) in our own mind by reading his. Old-fashioned for some perhaps, timeless to me.

The relation with my life’s main themes will be obvious. But there is so much more to find in Conrad – a subject for future posts.