We are obsessed. Hooked. My husband, Doug, and I bought a boat in the Netherlands in 2001, and we spend five months a year cruising the waterways of Europe. Our daughter asks, "Who are you people, and what have you done with my parents?"
I assure her that we are still here. We are the same people, but our lives have been enriched beyond measure by the people we've met, the places we've visited, and the trials and joys we've encountered in buying our dream boat overseas.
I have always felt the tug of wanderlust, but Doug, who used to travel for months at a time for work, has not. He has, however, always loved boating. Our past adventures were yearly trips with our daughter to Mexico or Hawaii for traditional hotel vacations or cruising the waters of Puget Sound in Washington State or the Canadian Gulf Islands.
In 1994, our 25th wedding anniversary was approaching, and I was lobbying heavily to go to Europe. It wasn't working. Then, one day, Doug was reading a local sailing magazine and spotted an ad that piqued his interest: a bare-boat charter through a canal in France. We attended the introductory meeting, signed up, and were on our way two months later, heading down the Canal du Loing in France. The thrill of that trip has never dimmed. It sold Doug on European travel.
When our daughter graduated from college in 2000, got a job, and became self-supporting, we sold our business, and I quit my job of 29 years. It was time to live our dream: to buy a bigger boat and go cruising. We sold our custom 37-foot Wahl fiberglass diesel cruiser, which was powered with a noisy 453 Detroit. We began our search for the ideal boat: one that was quiet under way, had long-range cruising capabilities, and could sleep four so that we could have friends and family join us.
After talking with a number of Canadian liveaboards, we were convinced we wanted a steel boat, for hull strength and to avoid the problems of mold and mildew.
We started our search in Seattle and nearby British Columbia. Having no luck, we expanded our Internet search. We visited yachtworld.com (with broker listings) and yachtclub.com (with private listings). Both websites led us to listings in the European Union. We began our search with brokers in the Netherlands, where steel boats are manufactured by highly skilled craftsmen.
One evening, Doug called me into the office and showed me a few boats that he said might be what we were looking for. One was in France, and the rest were in Holland. The big plus was that, with the strong dollar, the prices were much better in Europe. I was eager to travel to Europe and convinced Doug that we should go see the boats, since we hadn't had any luck finding one in the United States.
In May 2001, we left for Europe. First stop: Roanne, France. The boat we visited was beautiful but expensive, and the master stateroom had a bed that required one person to crawl over the other to get out, an awkward arrangement for long-term travel. Additionally, the boat was a twin screw, and Doug preferred the reduced maintenance of a single screw. We spent a pleasant few days touring the French countryside, and then moved on.
Our next stop was Amsterdam: the land of windmills, tulips, and thousands of boats.
A relaxing train trip from France to the Netherlands on the super-fast TGV put us in Amsterdam in the late afternoon. Forty minutes later, we arrived at the hotel, our arms vibrating from dragging our rolling suitcases over cobbled streets. The next morning we picked up a rental car and drove to the town of Aalsmeer to visit a yacht brokerage we had contacted through the Internet.
We found additional brokerages by talking to local boat owners and thumbing through local yacht sales magazines. The publications were in Dutch, but they provided the names and locations of brokerages. Fortunately, most brokers spoke English.
We looked at boats in marinas from Aalsmeer to Lemmer, Harlingen to Woudsend, and numerous places in between. Some of the larger brokerages even had enclosed floating "showrooms."
After a week of looking, the images blurred. I couldn't remember which boat had which feature. I needed to get away from boats for a while. We took two days off to see the local sights, including the delightful 80-acre Keukenhof gardens and the world's largest flower auction.
DESPERATELY SEEKING SELDSUM
It was a wonderful reprieve, but then it was back to business. This time our search took us to Friesland, in the northern part of Holland. After 10 days of searching, we fell in love with a boat in the small town of Sneek (pronounced "snake"). Seldsum, which means "rare" or "unusual" in Frisian, the language of the northern Dutch province of Friesland, was everything we wanted and more. She was a commercial-style trawler with a steel hull, large water tanks, an elegant cherry wood interior, two staterooms, a full-sized shower, two refrigerators, a large freezer, a washer/dryer, and long-distance fuel tanks holding 5,500 liters (1,450 gallons). The large tanks would allow us to fill up in countries where fuel is much cheaper, such as Tunisia, Montenegro, Belgium, and the Channel Islands, saving us thousands of dollars. (In 2004, fuel cost 34 euro cents per liter in Tunisia, compared to a1.05 per liter and higher in Italy.)
The boat was over our budget and, at 48.6 feet and 40 gross tons, bigger than what we'd had in mind. Doug worried about whether we could handle her. We spent hours on board discussing whether we could justify tying up that much money; we also mulled the complications of owning a boat in another country. Another hour of discussions continued the next day, and the salesman knew we were hooked.
After several sleepless nights, we made an offer. The broker refused to extend the offer to the seller, as it wasn't in the "range that the owner would consider." We left in a state of disbelief and frustration.
We looked at more boats, but nothing compared to Seldsum. We checked into the possibility of having a boat built, but we quickly discovered we could never get a similar boat without spending a great deal more money. The disappointment was immense.
We decided we would make a final offer, but, first, we would sleep on it. (That night, we did lots of tossing and turning, but not much sleeping.) In the morning Doug admitted that this was the boat he had always dreamed of owning. Why not live the dream? We extended a higher offer, the paperwork was drawn up, and we waited. We were tied up in knots as we considered the terrifying prospect of the offer being accepted.
When we arrived at the brokerage the next morning, the salesman asked if we would go any higher. "Absolutely not!" Doug said. "We didn't want to offer this much." We were incredulous that we were expected to bid against ourselves.
The salesman calmly responded, "In that case, the offer is accepted." We weren't sure whether to laugh or cry.
A short sea trial convinced Doug he could handle the boat. Though somewhat intimidated, I felt that, with practice, I could handle her as well, since she maneuvered easily with the "joy stick" hydraulic steering and bow thruster. As with many commercial vessels, there was no steering wheel. (We have since added an independent backup steering wheel in case the electric/hydraulic steering system fails.)
We signed a contract to purchase the boat of our dreams, subject to survey.
SEALING THE DEAL
Seldsum is a 48-foot, 40-ton, steel, Dutch-built Barkas that was built to take oil company engineers out on the Waddensee to research and locate commercially viable reservoirs of natural gas. When the gas-drilling plans were rejected by the Dutch government, the owners were left with a boat for which they had no commercial use, all to our good fortune.
Signing on the dotted line to purchase the boat was just the beginning of our anxiety. Two days later, we returned home on our scheduled flight. It was terrifying to leave the boat behind and immediately wire a deposit of 10 percent of the value of the boat to the yacht broker. The remaining funds were to be wired after the final survey report was issued.
A list of surveyors was offered by the yacht broker; unfortunately, we went with a surveyor recommended by another boat owner and were disappointed. We were unable to be present for the survey due to other obligations, and, later, we discovered inadequacies that should have been found by the surveyor. We learned the hard way that it is imperative to be present for a survey.
The broker set up a stichting account, which is something like an escrow account that is used by the broker to make purchases that we authorize. This worked well, since all of this had to be done while we were in the United States. We were able to order an outboard motor, dinghy, and other necessities. The broker was reliable, and we were not charged any exchange fees for the money that was converted from U.S. dollars to the Dutch guilder (now the euro). There was, however, a commission fee for all items purchased on our behalf. (We have since opened an account of our own with a European bank, which allows us to wire funds from our stock brokerage account without incurring fees and also gives us a much better exchange rate than using a debit card from a U.S. bank.)
Back in the United States, we worried about whether we would have a boat waiting for us when we returned three months later. Despite our misgivings, we began preparations for taking possession of a foreign-registered vessel. We were able to get insurance for the boat through the insurance division of the yacht brokerage.
We had to obtain a translated Dutch registration and Removal from Registration (taken care of by the broker), an application for U.S. Coast Guard documentation, and an FCC application for a VHF license. In Europe, additional licenses are not required to operate a boat that is less than 49.2 feet (15 meters) in length. (To operate a boat 49.2 feet or longer, you must take several courses and pass a battery of tests. For this reason, many European boats are built just under this length.)
Leaving home for three months presented a whole new set of concerns. We had to pay all of our bills in advance, make sure we had enough funds in our checking account to cover our cash withdrawals for three months, forward our mail to our daughter, get three months' worth of prescriptions, make arrangements for a house sitter, and hire someone to do the mowing and yard work.
In August, we left Seattle for the Netherlands, where the weather was still mild, the glut of summer tourists had vanished, and there was less traffic in the canals. It was time to take delivery of Seldsum.
We maxed out the baggage allowances. We were each permitted two pieces of check-in baggage that weighed no more than 70 lb. each and measured a total of 62 inches each. We packed a 9.5hp Evinrude engine (this would be impossible to do as a result of 9/11); fenders; rain gear and float coats; guidebooks for the Netherlands, Belgium, and France; maps for each country; and charts for the canals and rivers. (We later learned that charts are easy to obtain in Europe.) At last, everything was packed, and we were ready to go. Apprehensive, we got only a few hours of sleep the night before our departure, waking up well before the alarm.
UPS AND DOWNS
It was a smooth trip to Amsterdam, where we rented a car and drove the hour and a half to Sneek. We checked into the hotel next to the yacht brokerage, had lunch, and, as much as we wanted to see the boat, went to our room for a brief but much-needed nap. (We had been up for 29 hours.)
When we awoke, we discovered that our worries over the last three months had been unfounded. Seldsum sat next to the dock, freshly washed and gleaming in the sun. Though she was not yet in our name, we felt the pride of ownership.
Before we had gone home in May, we had obtained the name of a marine carpenter who spoke good English and came highly recommended from the yacht broker. After inspecting some of his projects, we felt we were in good hands; we left instructions for alterations to be completed before our return in August. The list included replacing non-opening windows in the steering station with opening ones, and putting portholes in the master cabin (which had none). The boat was not designed as a liveaboard, so she needed extra storage, cupboards in the head, and an expanded dining table. We were anxious to see how things looked.
What a disappointment. The master cabin had big holes through the walls where the portholes had been cut but not enclosed, and insulation could be seen in the gaps between the wall and the hull. It looked like we wouldn't be leaving the dock anytime soon. We would have to wait around to have the portholes completed, but the remaining carpentry work would unfortunately have to be put off until winter.
Disheartened, we had dinner at a local restaurant and made it back to the hotel by 8 o'clock. We immediately closed the windows that we'd left open during the day and were settling down to sleep when the attack began. For three hours we battled mosquitoes, using a wet washcloth as our weapon. Feeling sorry for ourselves, we decided it was the perfect ending to a disappointing day.
The next morning, the world looked brighter after a hearty Dutch breakfast. We were ready to face the day.
Seldsum was built and registered as a commercial vessel; therefore, the original owners were exempt from the 19 percent value-added tax (VAT) that is levied on all items purchased in the Netherlands. But now the boat was being sold as a pleasure craft, so the one-time VAT would have to be paid. Since we eventually hoped to bring the boat back to the United States (which would entail paying U.S. taxes), we wanted to avoid paying the VAT, and we did so by taking possession of her outside of the European Union on Helgoland, a German territorial island and tax haven.
The VAT varies from country to country within the European Union. Once we took ownership, the boat's status changed to that of a non-EU-registered private yacht. The law allows owners of non-EU-registered vessels to keep their vessel in the European Union for 18 months before requiring them to pay the VAT. At the end of that time period, the yacht owner must pay the tax or take the yacht to a non-EU country (e.g., Helgoland, the Channel Islands, Tunisia, Turkey, or Croatia). If the owner opts to leave the EU, the 18- month "clock" is reset and starts ticking anew when he or she brings the boat back to the EU.
In addition, boats can be put in bond in an EU stopping the clock. The clock starts again from the time point at which it left off (it is not "reset") when documentation is retrieved from the authorities and cruising resumes. Thus, 18 months can be stretched to several years (or an indefinite time period if the owner continually leaves and returns to the EU), depending on the number of months cruised each year. It should be noted that with previously owned EU-registered private yachts, in most cases, the initial owners have already paid the one-time VAT.
We cruised a day and a half to Helgoland with Willem, one of the owners, and Henk Jan, the salesman. We left Sneek at midnight, traveling with the tide through the canals to Delftsijk. Before getting under way, however, Seldsum was boarded by two customs officers who asked for our passports and boat documentation. Since Willem was still the legal owner of the boat, all questions were directed to him. Doug and I were totally in the dark because everything was discussed in Dutch, but we felt the tension and knew something was amiss.
After two hours of heated discussion, Willem explained that there was a problem because Seldsum carried red fuel in her tanks. Commercial fuel is dyed red to indicate that no tax has been paid on it. Non-dyed clear (or "white") fuel is used in private boats and is taxed. The officers took Willem out to their van, where they questioned him for another half hour as we waited on the boat, pondering our fate.
Finally, the customs officers signed our papers so that we could proceed to Helgoland. But they warned that they would be "watching us" and warned us that if they found red fuel in our tanks when we returned, we could be fined 10,000 gilder (U.S.$4,000). They added that they would discuss the issue with their superiors and determine later how to resolve the situation.
After the customs officers left, we secured Seldsum for our ocean passage, heading through the locks and out to sea. We ran through the night with Willem captaining and Henk Jan, Doug, and me as crew. It was a smooth, relaxing trip. The boat ran quietly and had wonderful visibility through the large windows. The state-of-the-art Simrad navigation system made the night passage safe and easy. By 2 a.m. I could stay awake no longer, so I went below to get some rest, lulled to sleep by the gentle hum of the engine. When I awoke, I learned that we had been stopped and boarded by Dutch navy officers who had again checked our passports, crew list, and boat documentation. Fortunately, the rest of the trip was uneventful.
We arrived on Helgoland 28 hours after leaving Sneek. On Aug. 21, 2001, we signed the ownership papers. Henk Jan went through the ceremony of removing the Dutch flag and replacing it with the American flag, and we drank a toast to our new part-time home. I felt the sting of tears as we watched Old Glory snap in the breeze. Seldsum was ours.
After enjoying a relaxing lunch, purchasing souvenir T-shirts, and taking a quick walk around town, we were under way again, arriving in Delftsijk, Netherlands, at 11 p.m. We were exhausted but wound up by the days' events, so we enjoyed a glass of wine before finally falling into bed at 1 a.m.
Early the next morning, Doug and Henk Jan took our passports and checked in at customs. The customs agents were still undecided as to how to handle the problem of the red fuel, but they allowed us to head back to the yacht brokerage in Sneek. We were told not to leave there until the fuel issue was resolved.
Customs officers had already pulled up in their car before we had the lines on the dock in Sneek nine hours later. We wondered if we had been followed, and we were greeted with some bad news.
Instead of allowing us to pay the difference in the cost of red and white fuel, as Willem had suggested, we were told we had to pump out the red fuel and replace it with white, which meant giving up more than 529 gallons. At the time, fuel cost U.S. $2.66 per gallon, amounting to a $1,408 loss. Doug was livid, but we had no choice. Adding insult to injury, we had to pay someone to pump the fuel and haul it away. Customs officials watched the entire procedure. It was a relief to finally have the issue resolved so we could get on with life, but it left a bad taste.
STOCKING UP AND MOVING ON
We spent the next five days provisioning and getting to know Seldsum. Food shopping was our first order of business. We learned that we needed to use a token to release a cart from the long train of them at the market, and we caused quite a stir as we rolled up to the checkout with three carts piled high with food. We had no idea that we were supposed to bring our own shopping bags, and after much scrambling and apologizing for holding up the line, we purchased bags for carrying our vast quantity of provisions back to the boat.
We made a list of what we needed to start cruising, and bicycles were at the very top. The Dutch have wonderful bikes, and we bought two very well-made used ones at a bike shop. Though the boat was surprisingly well stocked, we still needed small appliances: a hairdryer, toaster, vacuum, fan, and more. We quickly learned that we couldn't use our credit cards in the Netherlands. The big department stores had their own credit cards for locals. For us, it was cash only. We visited the ATM daily, withdrew the maximum amount, and continued with our provisioning. We had alerted our credit card companies that we would be traveling in Europe over the next few months, so we did not encounter the problem of having our cards blocked due to unusual usage.
A European prepaid cell phone was a must. We bought one that could be used in other European countries by simply buying a SIM card for each country. (A SIM card is a small chip that allows your phone to connect with a local wireless carrier in the country you are visiting.) This option was more economical than using a U.S. cell phone.
Our daughter, Heather, arrived to cruise with us for 10 days. Although we slept on board, we couldn't leave the dock while the window project was being completed, so we toured the region by bicycle and rental car. The Netherlands is beautiful, flat, and wonderful for biking. But, after four days of sightseeing, we decided to delay the window project so that we could give our daughter at least a small taste of cruising with the new boat, crossing the Ijsselmeer and visiting the towns of Enkhuizen and Hoorn. Among the joys of cruising Europe in our own boat was being able to sleep in our own beds and eat on board when we tired of restaurant fare.
When it was time for Heather to return to the States, we cruised to Amsterdam, putting her on a plane back to Seattle on Sept. 4, 2001. Doug and I spent the next week cruising through the canals and visiting towns filled with castles, windmills, and wonderfully friendly people.
When we called our daughter a week later, she was crying hysterically. It was Sept. 11, 2001. An hour earlier, two jets had been hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, killing thousands.
We spent the next two weeks in a state of shock and depression. We listened daily to the BBC and rode our bikes to the local library to read papers from Great Britain detailing the shocking events of 9/11. We felt isolated and alone. We wanted to be able to hold our loved ones and give thanks that we were alive. We wanted to be home, showing our support and mourning our fellow Americans.
The Dutch people, upon learning that we were Americans, offered tremendous support and sympathy. Our new friends comforted us as we watched the horrific news coverage on their televisions. Our daughter and my parents wanted us home for fear of other terrorist attacks, but we weren't scheduled to leave for another month. I wanted to go home, yet the thought of flying terrified me.
We didn't want to give in to the fears that could easily consume us. Though we knew things would never be the same after 9/11, we gradually began to take an interest in our travels again.
It has been a magnificent journey. Seldsum has taken us south through Belgium, France, and the Channel Islands, along the Coast of Brittany, up the Seine River to Paris, and down the RhÃ'ne River to the Mediterranean, Italy, Tunisia, Croatia, Albania, Greece, and Montenegro.
Each year we're excited to pack the new guidebooks, maps, and charts for our adventure. We can't imagine a better way to see the world. We cruise during the spring and summer, always returning home in time to enjoy the beautiful fall of the Pacific Northwest.
In 2006, we cruised through Greece, passed through Albania, and ended our year moored in beautiful Montenegro. Each trip has had its own delights and challenges. After five years, the cruising continues to keep us enthralled, as we discover history, meet new people, and relish every experience.]
We've had the expanded dining table built, additional storage added, and an overhang constructed over the cockpit to provide relief from the intense Mediterranean sun. We even added a hydraulic drum anchor winch (like those used on commercial fishing boats in the Pacific Northwest), which Doug brought over in three checked packages on the airplane. One of the most important lessons that we've learned-the hard way- is to be on hand when we hire someone to work on the boat.
Buying a boat in Europe has been a life-altering experience that we treasure. We continue our travels each year, making new friends in different countries and broadening our lives infinitely. Occasionally, we still feel the need to pinch ourselves.