HARLINGEN – Greeted by relieved parents, pet dogs, flares and a cloud of orange smoke, a group of 25 Dutch high school students with very little sailing experience ended a trans-Atlantic voyage Sunday that was forced on them by coronavirus restrictions.
The children, ages 14 to 17, watched over by 12 experienced crew members and three teachers, were on an educational cruise of the Caribbean when the pandemic forced them to radically change their plans for returning home in March.
That gave one of the young sailors, 17-year-old Floor Hurkmans, one of the biggest lessons of her impromptu adventure.
“Being flexible, because everything is changing all the time,” she said as she set foot on dry land again. “The arrival time changed like 100 times. Being flexible is really important.”
Instead of flying back from Cuba as originally planned, the crew and students stocked up on supplies and warm clothes and set sail for the northern Dutch port of Harlingen, a five-week voyage of nearly 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles), on board the 60-meter (200-foot) top sail schooner Wylde Swan.
As they arrived home, the students hung up a self-made banner saying “Bucket List” with ticks in boxes for Atlantic Ocean crossing, mid-ocean swim and surviving the Bermuda triangle.
The teens hugged and chanted each other’s names as they walked off the ship and into the arms of their families, who drove their cars alongside the yacht one by one to adhere to social distancing rules imposed to rein in the spread of the virus that forced the students into their long trip home.
For Hurkmans, the impossibility of any kind of social distancing took some getting used to.
“At home you just have some moments for yourself, but here you have to be social all the time to everyone because you’re sleeping with them, you’re eating with them you’re just doing everything with them so you can’t really just relax,” she said.
Her mother, Renee Scholtemeijer, said she expects her daughter to miss life on the open sea once she encounters coronavirus containment measures in the Netherlands.
“I think that after two days she’ll want to go back on the boat, because life is very boring back at home,” she said. “There’s nothing to do, she can’t visit friends, so it’s very boring.”
The twin-masted Wylde Swan glided into Harlingen harbor late morning Sunday, its sails neatly stowed. Onlookers gathered on a sea wall to watch the arrival set off flares and a smoke grenade that sent an orange cloud drifting over the glassy water.
Masterskip, the company that organized the cruise, runs five educational voyages for about 150 students in all each year. Crossing the Atlantic is nothing new for the Wylde Swan, which has made the trip about 20 times.
The company’s director, Christophe Meijer, said the students were monitored for the coronavirus in March to ensure nobody was infected.
He said he was pleased the students had adapted to life on board and kept up their education on the long voyage.
“The children learned a lot about adaptivity, also about media attention, but also their normal school work,” he said. “So they are actually far ahead now of their Dutch school colleagues. They have made us very proud.”
Associated Press writer Mike Corder in The Hague contributed to this report.