Waves higher than a house. Lashing rain. Biting cold. Quite definitely 'stay-at-home weather'. But the lifeboats of the Dutch lifeboat service Koninklijke Nederlandse Redding Maatschappij (KNRM) are frequently called out in precisely such conditions to rescue people from ships that have failed to make it to the safety of the harbor. To be able to cope even better with such adversities, the lifeboat crew in IJmuiden near Amsterdam is currently testing a new vessel. The Nh 1816 is fitted out with MTU engines that keep running even if the ship overturns and re-rights itself. It is an application that is unique almost anywhere in the world.
Is this a dream job? Getting up from your warm bed or cozy couch when it is rough and cold outside, heading out into the storm to get on a boat and battle the waves on the open sea? It is difficult to imagine less comfortable working conditions. But that is precisely what Leendert Langbroek loves. He is a skipper with the Koninklijke Nederlandse Redding Maatschappij (KNRM), the Royal Netherlands Sea Rescue Institution. He has lost count of how many times the insistent 'beep' of his pager has woken him from his sleep to rescue people from the perils of the high seas. He has been a skipper for 20 years. 'His' boat is the Koos van Messel, an Arie-Visser class all-weather craft on which he and his crew save people in distress at sea. From the time the pager goes off, he has ten minutes to jump out of bed, get dressed, drive to the harbor and start up the ship's preheated engines. From the lifeboat station in IJmuiden, he and his five-man crew then set out into the open sea. They might be required to tow disabled sailing boats back to port, help sick people on freighters or other vessels, search for divers or rescue kite-surfers who are unable to get back to shore.
Turning head-over-heels and carrying on
Leendert Langbroek is actually retired. But there are no other skippers in the KNRM as experienced as he is. So the service called him back on board for a very special mission – he was to test a new lifeboat. The Nh 1816. If she proves her worth, she will replace the Koos van Messel and her Arie-Visser class sister ships in the KNRM. She is the first vessel of her type in the KNRM to be built by the Damen shipyard and powered by MTU engines. Two 8-cylinder Series 2000 diesel engines, each producing 895 kW of power, propel the 19-m vessel via twin waterjets at speeds up to 33 knots (61 km per hour). They are housed in two separate, watertight engine rooms. But the really clever trick is that they carry on running even if the boat capsizes and completes a full turn around its longitudinal axis. "That is something the engines in our other ships couldn't do," relates Leendert Langbroek. He had been on the previous vessel once when it capsized. The engines failed and the ship was left floundering helplessly at the mercy of the waves. And because the bridge was full of water, the computer systems stopped working too. The rescuers needed rescuing themselves, and the episode taught the KNRM a lesson. On the Nh 1816, all the computer systems are watertight.
"She certainly is a nice ship," observes Leendert Langbroek of the Nh 1816 without being over-effusive. That is just not his way. Whether Leendert Langbroek could ever be ruffled is impossible to say. "Calm and considered" is how his colleagues describe him. He is seeing them this evening because they meet up once a week for drill practice. This will be one of the first exercises on the new lifeboat. She has been stationed in IJmuiden for a couple of months, but so far she has been used almost exclusively for trial runs and not for exercises. "The Koos van Messel proved her qualities in high winds and heavy weather, so that is something the new ship first has to achieve," observes Jaap van der Laan. In his mid-50s, he is operational inspector at the KNRM station in IJmuiden and also a volunteer member of the lifeboat crew. He is the first to turn up for today's exercises and is now waiting for the others with Leendert Langbroek.
A trip out with the boys
There are 20 volunteer lifeboat crew members at the KNRM station in IJmuiden and a total of 1,300 in the country. Unlike full-time skipper Leendert Langbroek, they all have separate day jobs and the rescue missions with the KNRM are a sort of hobby for them. Before they are allowed to take part they have to complete three years of training covering first aid, radio operation, navigation, helmsmanship, knot-tying and rescue. The crew members also have to be part-time engineers so that they can get the ship going again in an emergency. In weekly exercises, they head out to sea to practice rescue drills. This week, Leendert Langbroek and Jaap van der Laan are joined by Richard van der Hammen, Ton Haasnoot, and Bas Tol. Their kit? Waterproofs, life jackets and plenty of positivity. The five seem to be looking forward to their trip out with the boys.
But before they have a chance to have much of a chat about the weekend's events, Lennerd Langbroek starts up the engines and goes to his station. Richard van der Hammen sits on the skipper's right and navigates. To the skipper's left is Ton Haasnoot. Today he is responsible for communication with the coastguard and other shipping. Jaap van der Laan and Bas Tol are not on the bridge. They are on the deck putting on their waterproofs and life jackets. Today, they are the main protagonists in the 'man overboard' exercise and have the privilege of jumping into the North Sea at a decidedly chilly 10°C. "But in these suits it's fun and not cold at all," says Bas Tol with a mischievous smile. He is the joker in the pack, and with his curly blond hair and broad grin would not be out of place in an episode of 'Baywatch'.
Heart attack on board
The five head slowly out of IJmuiden harbor with the evening sun still above the horizon and no sign of any waves. It looks like a straightforward exercise. Then skipper Leendert Langbroek suddenly opens the throttle. He has spotted a freighter in the distance. He gives the two MTU engines a good workout and heads towards the cargo vessel at 33 knots full speed. But it is by no means noisy on the bridge. "Even when I go flat out, it is 20 decibels quieter here on the Nh 1816 than on the Koos van Messel," recounts Leendert Langbroek. Ton Haasnoot, who is responsible for communication today, finds the name of the freighter – it is the Thorco Copenhagen. He radios the freighter captain to inform him what the crew of the Nh 1816 is planning. They draw up very close to the cargo vessel and sail slowly alongside her. A couple of centimeters is all that separates the Nh 1816 from the Thorco Copenhagen. "That's the skill of our skipper," says Ton Haasnoot before going on to explain what this exercise is about. "From this distance, our crew can board the freighter so as to provide first aid if necessary." That has happened on many occasions. He remembers an emergency call-out when a captain of a freighter had suddenly been struck down by severe chest pains. Skipper Leendert Langbroek and his crew arrived just in time to save him. He had suffered a serious heart attack and survived only thanks to the assistance of the KNRM.
The Nh 1816 continues on its way. When the shore is almost out of sight and the evening sun creates a spectacular reflection on the calm waters, it is time for the next drill. Jaap van der Laan and Bas Tol go out on deck ready to jump overboard. The excitement and anticipation are written all over their faces. Without hesitating, they jump into the ice-cold North Sea. They appear blissfully unbothered by the temperature thanks to their special suits. In fact, they start to wave cheerily as if enjoying a seaside swim. Skipper Leendert Langbroek pulls a couple of quick turns around the pair so that the waves disappear in the center of the circle. At the same time, Ton Haachoot pulls on his rescue suit. He has to save the pair but seems to be calmness personified. "More haste, less speed," he says calmly as he puts on his hat. Then it is time. With practiced skill, he lowers the stretcher over the bow of the ship and throws the two swimmers a line. Jaap van der Laan is the first to grab hold of it. He pulls himself up to the lifeboat and reaches out for Ton Haasnoot's hand. Now you can see the strain on his face after all. He pulls his colleague onto the stretcher and hauls it up slowly. Jaap van der Laan jumps up with a smile, shakes himself down briefly and then watches as his colleague pulls Bas Tol out of the water as well.
Capsized by crane
So what is next? Is the crew going to practice an overturn maneuver? "No", states skipper Leendert Langbroek, who has been standing at the helm in complete concentration throughout the exercise. To overturn the boat in such small seas, you would need a crane. They did it once, so that the crew would know what it felt like when the ship is upside-down. The engines did not keep running on that occasion because the ship turned over too slowly. They are switched off to protect them if the overturn maneuver takes longer than 30 seconds. But then they can be restarted straight afterward without any trouble. If it was really stormy out at sea and the waves were a lot higher than the lifeboat, the Nh 1816 would overturn and right itself in just a few seconds. So then the engines keep running the whole time. "We know that they can do that not just from our colleagues in the British lifeboat service, the RNLI, whose 10-cylinder MTU engines were also designed especially for overturn capability. We also saw it demonstrated on the test stand at MTU Benelux," recounts Jaap van der Laan with conviction.
The Nh 1816 is now on its way back to IJmuiden harbor. Richard van der Hammen is navigating, skipper Leendert Langbroek is at the helm and the others are getting out of their rescue suits. The Nh 1816 did the job, and that was good. But she is still a prototype, and the sight of the Koos van Messel was enough to start the crew singing the praises of their 'old' lifeboat. "We have been through so much with her, we trust her," explains Jaap van der Laan. The Nh 1816 will have to successfully complete quite a few more exercises before she attains that position. Over the coming weeks, ten more lifeboat stations in the Netherlands will be introduced to the new lifeboat. Once all of them have given their approval, the KNRM intends to order more of this type of craft.
Before then, Leendert Langbroek, Jaap van der Laan, Bas Tol, Richard van der Hammen and Ton Haachoot will be woken up many more times in the middle of the night by their pagers. When it is wild and windy outdoors they will pull on their clothes in a couple of seconds, drive to the lifeboat station in IJmuiden and jump aboard. But they do it happily and not only because they are helping others. "The KNRM is part of our lives," says Richard van der Hammen. And the others nod in agreement.
The content of the stories reflects the status as of the respective date of publication. They are not updated. Further developments are therefore not taken into account.