When the talented Dutch artist G.W.C. Voorduin put paint to parchment in his 1842 work titled 'Bonaire', little did he know that the scene captured would resemble the harbor town of Kralendijk some 170 years later. Voorduin was also a naval commander, so it is fitting that the focus of this painting was a massive, brigantine sailing ship moored off the coast. That is what I encountered at the Kralendijk docks when I laid my eyes on Tres Hombres, a 25-ton, two-masted, mostly wooden wonder.
The brigantine had just completed a 30-day trans-Atlantic voyage and was loaded with goods. As I boarded the ship, I was reminded that this was no tourist boat, but a vessel made for transport. "This is a cargo ship," says young Canadian bosun Danielle Doggett, proudly. "That means that we have to have everything ship-shape and ready to handle any kind of weather we encounter to meet schedule."
On this trip, Tres Hombres was hauling Christmas gifts from Holland to Dutch relatives in Curaçao, relief aid for Haiti, and nonperishable wine and olive oil that is sold in ports along the way. "I like the Caribbean for cargo shipment," explains Captain Andreas Lackner. "There are good winds here and it's easy to pick up contracts while underway. It fits real well with our spontaneous schedule."
But Tres Hombres is more than just a cargo boat on a voyage. It is also on a mission. The ship's company, Netherlands-based Fairtransport, believes it can be competitive in an oil-driven maritime world by delivering cargo the old fashioned way, by wind and sail. Lackner subscribes to this 'green' shipping ideology. "We are putting a new concept on the market. Anybody can transport cargo, but it is not economical. Conventional ships are not paying for the ecological costs that they are now incurring. Our cargo prices may be a bit more expensive, but we take care of the environment when we sail. We don't use an engine. It takes us longer, but we are ecologically sustainable."
Tres Hombres was not always the graceful workhorse that she is today. The ship was built as a motorized minesweeper called Seeadler (Sea Eagle) in 1943 to support Hitler's war efforts. After World War Two, it served as a fishing vessel and a ferry in several European ports before being left for ruin, stranded on an Irish beach. In 1982, two Dutch students bought the decrepit vessel and returned it to the Netherlands. By this time, Seeadler was merely a deteriorating hull. It was purchased in 2007 by three hombres – Dutch seamen Jorne Langelaan and Arjen van der Veen, and Austrian-born Captain Andreas Lackner. Lackner, who served as the master shipbuilder during Tres Hombres two year restoration, found the hull irresistible. "The special thing about this ship is its lines. You can make a new ship like this easier, faster and cheaper than to restore it. But you cannot reproduce those lines. The form is unbelievably efficient in the water."
By 2009, the old minesweeper had been transformed into a classic brigantine. It is powered solely by the wind and assisted by an on-board motorized yawl that is deployed for harbor maneuvering.
The sailing freighter measures 32 meters overall and has a beam of six meters. With a keel weighing 15 tons, the ship is capable of carrying 35 tons of cargo. She weighs 128 tons when fully loaded.
Fairtransport is using Tres Hombres to prove the concept that sailing cargo ships can be competitive on the modern seas. Plus, they are presently working with the designer who developed the luxury sailing yacht, Maltese Falcon. This 80-meter speed machine can reach 22 knots thanks to the DynaRig, a modern version of a square-rigger that allows the sails to rotate to engage the wind. Fairtransport sees this stay-free, carbon fiber technology as the key for competitive sailing cargo ships they call 'ecoliners'.
As for Andreas Lackner, he is simply enjoying the moment as the skipper of Tres Hombres. "Sometimes I'm below reading a classic sailing book like Two Years Before the Mast. I go up on deck and watch the moonlight. The boat is flying over the water and I say, 'this is exactly the same as the old days, but I am the captain'!"
Patrick Holian can be found most days sailing his 14-foot catboat off the leeward coast of Bonaire. When not at the helm or in the hammock, he writes for publications in the United States and the Caribbean on the subjects of sailing, island culture and the environment.