Sixty-four years ago, in 1951, Bonairean boat builder Etche Craane built the wooden cargo sloop Stormvogel. Today, a group of dedicated enthusiasts have launched Project Stormvogel aimed at restoring the last sailing freighter of the ABC islands and keeping this treasured cultural heritage alive.
Stormvogel was commissioned by Captain Martin Felida who, at the time, had secured finances by way of a lucrative contract to ferry propane tanks between Curaçao and Bonaire. The wooden sloop was built beneath a tamarind tree close to the Felida family home on Kralendijk’s waterfront.
Though Stormvogel’s role as an inter-island propane tank carrier didn’t last as long as Felida hoped, her cargo career was far from over. She was at the heart of sailing freight, carrying people, farm animals, and fish from one island to another.
The boat was at the center of the island’s cultural fabric, says Patrick Holian, secretary of the Stormvogel restoration project. “before commercial planes arrived on the island a boat like Stormvogel ensured connections between friends and family could survive. Most people on the island truly loved that boat.
“Felida was quite the pirate apparently. Buying cheap alcohol and cigarettes in Curaçao and running them to Venezuela. He even painted his hull black,” laughs Holian. “Goats, charcoal and salt, he’d ferry anything between the ABC islands.”
Bonaire was home to a handful of skilled boat builders and had a real panache for the trade. Three styles of boats were commonly built on Bonaire: large two-masted schooners, medium cargo boats and smaller fishing vessels. Stormvogel is the last of the sailing cargo sloops.
Holian explains: “I was contacted by Francois van der Hoeve in Curaçao who told me he had been pumping out an old Bonairean cargo ship for the past three years trying to save her. He is connected to the Curaçao Maritime Archeological Foundation and understood her historical worth like no other. He asked me if I could help him locate the Felida family to see if they’d give permission to restore her and transport her back ‘home’. Within five days I had written permission and the restoration project was launched.
“Right now, we have eleven volunteers stripping her down to her historical core in Curaçao and we are readying her for transportation. If all goes according to plan she should be here by the end of March. We’ll bring her to the local shipyard whose owner has graciously provided us with transport overland and a rent-free year at the yard. That is what we call Phase One.”
She will then be restored by local boat builders with the help and guidance of renowned wooden boat constructor Bruce Halabisky. This restoration process will see the start of a Junior Shipwright program with students from STINAPA’s Junior Rangers program as well as with students of Marine Ecology Research Station CIEE and the Bonairean secondary school SGB. These youth can enroll in a ten-hour program working side by side with old shipwrights and will be taught Stormvogel’s history by Boi Antion, Bonaire’s cultural heritage guardian.
Holian says that in Phase Two they will also launch a ‘Bandera Arriba’ (Flag Up) promotion with a three-metre long flag signaling to the Bonairean public that the restoration is underway and inviting them to see the goings-on of the ship’s restoration.
Phase Three will see this wooden freighter become a Bonaire Maritime Heritage Centre with a seaside location. She’ll be a museum with tours above and below deck, including presentation of videos of her restoration and interviews with former sailors and boat builders as well as displaying various maritime artifacts.
In Phase Four Stormvogel will go back to sea as a floating museum. She’ll function as a training vessel and focus on teaching seamanship, navigation, boat safety and maintenance to teenagers. Goodwill heritage tours will take place within the ABC islands to promote the link to their maritime cultural heritage.
“Stormvogel has a place in people’s hearts here on Bonaire,” says Holian. “We have had a tremendous outpouring of goodwill from the community since Project Stormvogel was launched. It’s heartwarming to see that everyone wants to help bring her back to her original glory.”
HOW YOU CAN HELP:
You can help Project Stormvogel by purchasing one of their T-Shirts, bottle insulators or bumper stickers available at various stores, bars and restaurants on Bonaire. Donations to Project Stormvogel can be made through Maduro & Curiel’s Bank-Bonaire Account # 409347.
Sanny Ensing is a Bonaire-based writer and reporter with an MA in Cultural Heritage Studies and a passion for Caribbean Heritage Preservation Efforts.