DISCOVER Magazine #7

First ferry crosses the river Maas…again

Published in category: People

Dina Damen speaks about 1947

Along the banks of the Dutch river Maas, it seems like half of the Cuijk township has turned out on this crisp autumn day. It’s 17 October 2015 and hundreds of families, curious onlookers and local dignitaries are here to see the foot ferry Zeldenrust cross the river again. Rescued from the scrap heap, the 9-metre Damen boat from 1947 has been fully restored.

Do we need foot ferries anymore? The Maas is now criss-crossed by jam-packed commuter motorways and high-speed railway bridges. Dredged and widened, the river is an industrial thoroughfare for inland waterway tankers and bulk cargo ships.

It was a different story just after World War 2. The two youngest sons of the Mulders family, farmers on the river bank opposite Cuijk, rowed their boat back and forth, day and night, through ice and storms. Like hundreds of other boatmen around this ‘land of rivers’, the brothers Jan and Gerrit Mulders connected their local community and became a vital post-war lifeline for workers rebuilding the Dutch economy.

Precursor to Damen Finance
Progress, particularly for Jan who had lost his right arm in the war, was a motorised foot ferry. The small local shipyard run by the Damen brothers stepped up, helping to finance the new build. In many ways a first for Damen, explains Dina Damen, sister of Chairman Kommer Damen.

“In 1947, such a vessel was a considerable investment. The Mulder’s weren’t a big customer with a fleet of vessels, yet their foot ferry was an important contributor to the community and economy. The Zeldenrust was the first time Damen helped to finance construction, in effect becoming a precursor to today’s Damen Finance. It was also the first foot ferry that Damen built.”

Crossing the river
Day after day, one of the Mulders boatmen, usually Gerrit, steered the Zeldenrust back and forth over the Maas. For two decades, the ferry lived up to its name (meaning ‘seldom rest’), carrying townspeople, factory workers, farmers, priests, travellers, football teams, firemen – anybody who rang the large bell on the opposite bank to call for Mr Mulders. During floods, the Zeldenrust rescued families and even moved dairy cows. But in 1968, the Mulders stopped. Progress was building bridges for the age of the automobile.

The Zeldenrust disappeared, but it was not forgotten. In 2013 a group of volunteers started a project to restore the boat. Incredibly, they located not only the rusting hull stored at a depot, but also parts scattered across the country including the original engine and wheelhouse.

The Zeldenrust was not just Damen yard number 177. After delivery to the Mulders’, the foot ferry became much more than the sum of its steel and timber. It became a cherished community link.

Restoring a community link
By this time, progress had seen the small Damen yard grow into a multinational group with clients all over the world. But Damen has remained a family-owned company that has never lost sight of its maritime heritage. Dina, and Kommer Damen’s wife Josien, manage a wide range of cultural and community initiatives in areas where the company is active.

“When we found the Zeldenrust project, there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation,” comments Dina Damen on the company’s role in the restoration project. “The Zeldenrust was not just Damen yard number 177. After delivery to the Mulders’, the foot ferry became much more than the sum of its steel and timber. It became a cherished community link. That’s something that Damen is very proud of and it still drives us today. We want to build the very best passenger and vehicle vessels to link communities today and tomorrow.”

Training tomorrow’s shipbuilders
Damen invests in its future shipbuilders through a wide range of internships, training programmes and production apprenticeships. For example, for over 45 years, Damen Shipyards Gorinchem’s apprentice school has taught generations of shipbuilders. In fact, under the supervision of Kees aan de Wiel (a former Damen apprentice himself), it was four young Damen apprentices who restored the hull of the Zeldenrust.

“They did a fantastic job,” he reports. “It really became a labour of love for them, they were incredibly enthusiastic and driven. They spent six months working on the hull before it was handed back to the Cuijk volunteers for outfitting.”

In October 2015, the Damen apprentices joined the festivities in Cuijk as the bell rang and the Zeldenrust crossed the river again after nearly half a century. A credit to all who worked to restore her, she is now chartered for special occasions and once again treasured by the community.

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