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The Brown Fleet skipper from the Netherlands

by Christiaan Jansen 2 Apr 06:37 UTC

Brown Fleet skippers set sail with passengers on traditional ships for recreational and/or educational purposes. The Brown Fleet is also known as charter fleet.

The skipper, together with the crew, watches over safety as they move from A to B in the most sustainable manner possible. This requires specific knowledge and skills about and around the ship, the navigation and meteorology. Besides nautical knowledge, they also have knowledge about nature, geography and the environment in a wider sense.

Passengers often actively participate with the crew. Under supervision, they set the sails, trim, climb the rigging, operate the leeboards or take their turns in the watches. Sometimes, they simply let themselves be transported and entertained.

Maintenance of the ship and technology on board are part of the job. When not sailing, usually in winter, the sails are checked and repaired, and smaller jobs are picked up, like rust chipping, painting, varnishing and cleaning. Skippers and crew also follow training and courses. Every skipper of the Brown Fleet is trained and qualified, but practice is the greatest teacher. Every skipper started out as a deckhand or 'mate' and so learned the trade on board: the jargon, sailing operations, mooring and docking, directing passengers and manoeuvring in ports.

The ships of the Brown Fleet are the living decor of many port cities. While sailing, the ships and skippers contribute to the cultural landscape. At international maritime events ('sails'), they attract an audience of millions.


A group of about 1,700 owner-skippers, 'zetschippers' (skippers who sail on someone else's ship) and mates/deckmen are affiliated to the BBZ, the trade association of skippers and professionals in the Brown Fleet, which took the lead in this nomination. About half of the ship owners in the sailing inland shipping industry are members of the BBZ, at sea the percentage is higher.

Skippers say they choose the profession for their love of sailing, traditional ships and because of the special combination of skills you need to master. Many describe it as more than a profession: it is a lifestyle. Some live on their ships. When the ships are not sailing, they are in a port and fellow skippers meet each other in a different port each time. This creates a bond and many skippers recognise their colleagues' ships from a long distance away.

Through maritime training institutes, museums, specialist craftsmen, historic ports and shipyards, the skippers of the Brown Fleet are closely linked to other parts of the Dutch sailing heritage, while at the same time forming the link with the modern maritime sector.


There was 'chartering' on a very small scale as early as the second half of the nineteenth century. Well-to-do citizens would sometimes get a cargo skipper to undertake a trip for a sum of money. In the 1960s and 1970s, economies of scale and innovation in inland navigation made old cargo vessels without engines and fishing vessels such as 'botters' less and less interesting. There was a scrapping scheme for unprofitable inland vessels and so many went to the scrap yard. Other ships were bought for a low price by a group of people, mostly 'hippies', with a love of old ships and a penchant for a simpler, more alternative existence.

Refurbishing and putting them back under sail was costly and intensive, but by living on the ships and sailing them - now with passengers instead of cargo - they were able to recoup the costs. Thus, a group of 'brown fleet skippers' created a new economic existence for these vessels. From 1978, the Enkhuizer Zeevaartschool started to offer training courses for the Brown Fleet and in 1979 the professional charter trade association was established to consult with governments and anticipate developments.

The 1980s and 1990s saw an increased focus on more comfort on board. Some ships were completely rebuilt and adapted to modern requirements, others remained virtually untouched or were restored on a small scale by the skipper. The Netherlands thus has a great diversity of ships within the Brown Fleet.


  • Maintain contacts with maritime museums so that the profession is recorded and collected and research is possible over time
  • Establish a foundation together with the Federatie Varend Erfgoed Nederland and the Enkhuizer Zeevaartschool
  • On behalf of this foundation, send out a newsletter from January 2024 to all affiliated Brown Fleet skippers
  • Investigate differentiation possibilities in trip destination, trip type, age and interest of target groups
  • Offer courses to skippers, for example in differentiation of their offerings, entrepreneurship, marketing and financial management
  • Combine knowledge of the trade and the sector with financial knowledge in a credit union of skippers (will be operational in mid-2024)
  • Employ coaches within the credit union to help entrepreneurial skippers weigh up risks and take steps
  • Stay in consultation with skippers and government bodies on safety standards, hold periodic inspections and talk about material knowledge
  • Be part of the 'safety task force' set up by the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management
  • Use a government subsidy obtained for a step-by-step plan or roadmap for skippers to realise sustainability actions that best suit their own company
  • Stimulate and monitor research into sustainable engines, technical modifications and earning models at external training institutes, e.g. at the Hogeschool Rotterdam and Delft University of Technology where studies are currently ongoing
  • Support innovative pilots such as the electrification of ships

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