In Rotterdam, the boatmen really know the ropes
For a successful voyage, proper cooperation with those on the quayside is at least as important as proper cooperation on board. So let’s take a look at a different profession. This time: the boatmen in the port of Rotterdam.
Boatman's diploma You can only work as a boatman if you have the boatman's diploma, for which you have take the three-year MBO (senior secondary vocational education) course at the Shipping and Transport College (STC) in Rotterdam. Ramon Crans (49) has been with the KRVE since he was nineteen. He explains: 'Students attend college one day a week and work four days a week at a work placement company, for example KRVE. At STC, they spend three years learning all the theory, for example about maritime regulations, first aid, navigation, and meteorology. We teach them the practical side. It's vital to be able to control and manoeuvre the mooring boat properly. We spend a lot of time on that during the training programme, starting right in the first week. And after a couple of weeks, we start mooring and unmooring vessels.'
The KRVE puts a lot of time and money into the programme. 'At our company school, colleagues work full-time to teach trainees the practical side of the job. As soon as trainees graduate, they become members of the KRVE, so we’re training our own staff. That means we can keep our services at the highest possible level.'
A special profession Erik de Neef (52) came to the KRVE aged sixteen. After 10 years out on the water, he switched to working ashore. Through the Operations and Finance departments, he rose to the post of chairman in 2015. But he still works as a boatman now and again. 'The profession of boatman is a special one, and the work always goes ahead. Even when it’s “wind force impossible” you have to make it possible. We do that in proper, close cooperation with pilots and with tugs. We exist to look after the sea-going vessels. A ship that breaks loose during a storm has to be secured, it has to be made safe.'
Practice and pension Ramon: 'I gradually became more and more involved with the training side. I became a permanent instructor in 2007 and I've been head of training since 2019. I'm still out on the water every week as a trainer myself. I've also been the chairman of our SPRH pension fund since 2020, which takes up quite a lot of my time. You’ve got a lot of options at KRVE: spend a lifetime as a boatman or progress in other fields and use that expertise to benefit the association.'
Between ship and shore The work of a boatman isn’t without danger. Erik: 'The biggest risk is a mooring line breaking – there can be more than 100 tonnes of tension on it. Besides, we work out on the water, which is also risky. And there’s the danger of falling from heights, because we work on high quays and jetties.' Ramon: 'In our mooring boat, we’re literally between ship and shore, not just metaphorically. That makes us vulnerable. Working close to the ship's propeller also poses risks. We cover all this in detail during the training programme of course, which enables us to reduce those risks and keep the likelihood of accidents low.'
ShoreTension Sea-going vessels are getting bigger all the time, presenting boatmen with constant new challenges. Erik: 'That increases the strain on mooring lines and bollards, not only due to the current from a passing ship and the swell but also from stormy weather. In 2007, a mooring line broke on a container ship here in the port during a storm. The ship was blown across to the other side, towards an oil terminal. It went right through the jetty, causing a huge environmental disaster. From then on, the question was what we could do to prevent that. In a joint venture, we developed the ShoreTension system. That's a mechanical hydraulic device that we install between two bollards. It acts like a damper, taking the motion out of a ship by braking and pulling back and controlling the tension on the mooring lines.' The ShoreTension has been hugely successful and besides in Rotterdam its now used worldwide in other ports. 'We're very proud of it, because it really was the boatmen who developed it.'
Communication For the boatmen, communicating with the crew on board the seagoing vessels is extremely important. Ramon: 'We can often communicate directly with the deck crew, but sometimes we can’t. The captain may not allow them to follow the instructions of the boatmen – it varies from ship to ship. In that case, we communicate through the pilot, who always trusts us completely. If we say the ship can move forward 10 metres, he moves it, even if there's a ship ahead and there's not much room.'
In Rotterdam, the boatmen of the Royal Boatmen’s Association Eendracht (KRVE) handle mooring and unmooring of ocean-going vessels. The association dates from 1895 and has 280 members: boatmen who are self-employed members of the KRVE.