The Pandemic Forced These Teens to Sail Home Across the Atlantic

“If you cross an ocean, you’re constantly together, and you just become a family.”

Wenjia Tang

Each installment of The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with four teens from the Netherlands who were aboard a schooner called the Wylde Swan for a study-at-sea program in March, when the coronavirus pandemic began shutting down travel. Unable to fly home from Cuba as they’d originally planned, the students (and crew) sailed across the Atlantic Ocean instead—all the way back to the Netherlands. They discuss how the experience bonded them—and some of the shenanigans they got into along the way.

The Friends:

Wouter Heeremans, 17, who lives in Havelte, the Netherlands
Blanche Krabbe, 16, who lives in Amersfoort, the Netherlands
Jona, 16, who lives in Amsterdam. (His parents requested he be identified by his first name only.)
Frederique Zandbergen, 16, who lives in Tilburg, the Netherlands

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Julie Beck: Let’s start with what was supposed to happen. Tell me about this sailing trip. It was a study-at-sea sort of thing?

Frederique Zandbergen: We would go first to islands [in the Caribbean] like Dominica and Jamaica, then eventually we would end on Cuba. But plans were changed and eventually we had to do the ocean crossing and sail back to the Netherlands, because of the coronavirus.

Wouter Heeremans: The plan was to fly back from Cuba, but all the islands went into lockdown. So we couldn’t go on land anywhere, and then we had to do the crossing, because otherwise we would never get home.

Beck: When did you board the ship?

Wouter: On the first of March.

Frederique: We would’ve been back on the sixth of April, if we took our flight home, but because of the coronavirus, we came back on the 26th of April.

Beck: When you first left on the ship, did you know about the pandemic, or were you expecting to have a normal study abroad at sea?

Wouter: It was already going on, but not like it is now. It was really small when we left.

Blanche Krabbe: It was like one person in the whole Netherlands who had the coronavirus.

Wouter: Like one week after we left, everyone else in the Netherlands said they didn’t have to go to school anymore. But on the ship, you don’t hear that much of it, and we expected to have a normal trip.

Jona: We didn’t expect it to come across the ocean so quick.

Beck: Before everything changed and you had to sail home, what was your daily life like on the ship?

Frederique: We had to get up at 7 a.m., and we had breakfast. At 8 a.m. we had to do self-study for our school, for four hours. You had teachers who could help you if you had problems. And after that, you had sailing training, or if we were on an island, you could see the island and visit it. And then in the evening, if you were sailing, you had to do two hours of sail watch and then you could go to bed. There was a real …

Blanche: Rhythm.

Wouter: It was the same every day. Also, after self-study, we’d have lunch, and from 1 to 2 p.m., we had happy hour, which was when we had to clean the whole ship. That was six days in a row—every day except lazy day.

Beck: That doesn’t sound like a happy hour!

Wouter: No. It really is not a nice, happy hour. Also they had really hard, loud music playing over the whole ship. For one hour, and then you could relax for a bit.

A photo of the friends on the boat.
Frederique (top left), Blanche (top right), Wouter (bottom left) and Jona (bottom right). (Courtesy of Blanche Krabbe)

Jona: The loud music was a pretty bad influence on your effective work time, because I would do pretty much nothing, and just dance around. And on the deck there would be water fights. Everyone would be wet, and nobody was being serious, but the job eventually always got done. So it was happy hour for me.

Beck: What would you do on the sail watches?

Frederique: You had to do deck check—on the hour you had to check that everything was still all right, and you have to do the engine-room checks. It was with a group of six, so you could talk a lot with each other, and get to know them better.

Blanche: [Daily life] was like six days the same, and then you had lazy day, where you were actually doing nothing. That was the best day, because they always had nice food.

Wouter: The trainees had free time, so they helped with cooking dinner, and you could suggest what you wanted to cook.

Jona: Usually the food wasn’t so good, because we were obviously in the ocean, and couldn’t have fresh things all the time, and we had some little insects eating our food. But Wouter, Blanche, and me stole apples at nighttime. We had the late watch from 12 to two in the morning, and everyone was sleeping, so we could just sneak in the kitchen and steal some food, then sneak to the toilet and eat it there. An apple a day keeps the doctor away. But eventually we got caught, and that wasn’t very nice.

Beck: What was the social environment like on the ship? Was it just like school, but on the ocean?

Frederique: For me, it didn’t feel like school at all. Self-study wasn’t, if I speak for myself, really hard for me to do. So I had a lot of free time during the day. It felt like, not really education, but just like a trip with my friends—with a lot of rules.

Jona: It was like one big family. You knew the teachers really well, and you knew everyone better than normal.

Blanche: We didn’t have any Wi-Fi on board. So nobody was on their phone anymore. That was nice.

Wouter: You could do fun stuff with each other because no one was distracted by phones. We organized all kinds of things. We had ocean Ping-Pong tournaments, and card-game tournaments.

Beck: How did you four become friends?

Frederique: It’s a funny story. I was sitting with Blanche on the couch and [Wouter and Jona] were making tea together. Blanche and I, we said to each other, “They are the two goofiest—”

Wouter: Legends, I think.

Blanche: Little boys.

Frederique: They had a little bit of an attitude. I thought they would cause some trouble. They were asking us, “Do you want a cup of tea?” And I said, I would love to. But I’m from the south, so I’ve got an accent. Jona laughed so hard. That was when we first got to talk to each other.

Wouter: Frederique and Blanche thought that Jona and I were the troublemakers on board. And yeah, Frederique said in her lovely accent that she wanted some tea, and then Jona and me couldn’t stop laughing. It was really random.

Jona: Every night we would just vibe until like two or three in the morning in the captain’s cabin.

Wouter: There was one spot on the boat where no one could really hear you; you could talk and laugh and do whatever you wanted. A lot of the time, we were there when we weren’t stealing apples.

Beck: Did you have any contact with the outside world?

Blanche: Once a week you could write a letter to your parents. And you got one per week from your parents.

Wouter: In the Caribbean, on islands, you could go to restaurants and you would have Wi-Fi. On the ocean, the letters were the only things you got from the outside.

Beck: So you were able to stop at some islands before the pandemic closed everything down?

Wouter: Yeah—Dominica, St. Lucia, Martinique. So three islands.

Beck: How did you learn that the pandemic had gotten really bad, and you weren’t going to be able to fly home like you planned?

Wouter: The captain updated us once in a while about the coronavirus, and wasn’t really sure what the plan was. Then one day after we had an excursion on St. Lucia, they told us we had to cross the Atlantic Ocean. No one saw it coming.

Beck: Did that change the vibe on the ship at all? Were you worried?

Wouter: At first it was quite a shock for some people. But the next day, everyone got really, really close. It was way more fun on the ship, actually, after we heard that we were going to cross the ocean.

The friends on the deck of the ship. (Courtesy of Blanche Krabbe)

Jona: When you are just going from island to island, doing excursions, it really doesn’t help make the group one. But if you cross an ocean, you’re constantly together, and you just become a family. And now for a trip, I would definitely choose the crossing and not just going from island to island, because it has such a big impact on the group. You’re like a family after a week or two.

Beck: How long did it take to sail back?

Frederique: It was like five weeks. Because we had really bad winds.

Wouter: The winds were going the wrong direction.

Beck: Did you have enough food and supplies and everything?

Jona: We stopped at the Azores, where there was a huge food supply. So after that it was like a food fest. We could [each] eat a chocolate egg for Easter. But people started to smell a lot, because of the high winds. There’s a filtration [system that] pumps in seawater and filtrates salt out, but [because of the winds], we could not make enough water, so we weren’t able to shower until the wind would stop. Everyone smelled so bad, and their socks—oh, it was a nightmare, to be honest.

Beck: What other things did you do to pass the time on your way back?

Frederique: In the officer’s mess, where we always chilled, there were a lot of instruments. There was a piano, which was broken midway through the trip.

Wouter: Because of you.

Blanche: You broke it.

Jona: Because you broke it.

Frederique: Well, there were a lot of instruments. In the first couple of days, we made a lot of music. But some people couldn’t enjoy it, because they wanted to sleep.

Jona: We were also making raps. Wouter, me, and the boyfriend of Frederique—

Frederique: No. He was not my boyfriend.

Jona: One day, we went on the beach. We weren’t allowed to, because there was a reef in the way. The three of us jumped off the boat and swam there with our scuba gear. And we didn’t ask, so they were mad.

Wouter: We had to make an excuse, otherwise we weren’t allowed to go on the next excursion. So the three of us made a rap to say sorry.

Beck: Do you feel like the friendship that you created going through this together is different from other friendships that you have at home?

Frederique: Yeah—you get to know someone in eight weeks so much better than the friends that I have at home. After week one, somehow everything grows really, really comfortable. When you are on a ship, being around someone 24 hours a day, you tell them everything. And that’s something that you don’t do when you are home with your friends, because you don’t spend the whole day with them most of the time.

Wouter: And you’re really tired most of the time, so you do crazy stuff, and no one thinks that’s weird, because everyone is on the same level. It’s really fun the whole time. And you see each other at your worst moments, and I think that’s what makes the friendships different and better.

Beck: Was it hard coming home and going into quarantine?

Wouter: It was really weird because after two months, you really want to see all your friends again, but it was not really possible.

Jona: When I came home, I was going to a vacation home. It’s in the forest, so you never see people there, so it was exactly the same as normal. After that, I went back to Amsterdam, and I don’t know if it’s maybe because the big-city people are—what’s the word?

Wouter: Stubborn.

Jona: Yeah—it looked like corona didn’t exist, because everyone was just in the park. It was more crowded than ever because the weather was nice.

Wouter: Jona lives in a really big city, and I don’t. Here everyone was really serious about it, and apparently in Amsterdam, they weren’t.

Jona: It’s maybe also because there’s so many people. In a really big city, maybe 10 percent is stubborn or stupid, but that’s still a lot of people.

Beck: Have you guys been keeping in touch since you got home?

Blanche: We can only have contact with our phones.

Jona: Wouter, we are going to see each other right? In a few weeks?

Wouter: Yeah.

Jona: I’m going to a cabin in the woods near where Wouter lives, with a friend of mine, so I’m hoping we will see each other again and maybe bring our St. Lucia vibes back.

Wouter: We all have school now, and we live quite far away from each other, so we can’t see each other that much. Frederique and Blanche saw each other for a couple of days.

Blanche: She came to my vacation house for like one week, and we did online school together, and went to the beach.

Beck: You guys aren’t tired of each other after all that time together on a boat?

Wouter: No. That’s something that surprised me, because after 56 days on board, I didn’t have that much irritation with other people.

Frederique: With some people, I had a little bit of irritation. You don’t have privacy at all. But you get used to it, and it’s just like a family.

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