THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Cutting corners on the canals

Amsterdam 'club' offers rare viewpoints, vintage barges

Email|Print| Text size + By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / January 11, 2004

AMSTERDAM -- There are no tickets for this canal ride. There are no tape-recorded tours in four languages. And if a plastic bag gets stuck in the boat's motor, your Aussie captain is going to stick her arm in the freezing water and pull the bag out.

This is the St. Nicolaas Boat Club, a nonprofit organization running a semi-illegal operation on the waterways of Amsterdam.

Unlike the other canal cruises that offer tedious taped commentary with fishbowl views, St. Nick's (as the captains call it) boasts three small open-air barges from the 1930s designed specifically for the canals.

The flat-bottomed boats, called ''Tuindersvlets" (''Tuin" for garden, ''vlet" for flat), were once used to ship flowers and cows around markets in the Netherlands. These days, they carry six to eight tourists and are navigated by English-speaking captains who double as guides.

The captains -- only one per boat -- are a motley crew hailing from around the world. Sarah, the Aussie, said she is encouraged by the club's founders to cut tight corners, creep under low bridges, and offer a perspective the other touring companies cannot provide.

The 6-foot-wide barges are low to the water and narrow enough to pass big boats under the bridges. Before the 90-minute trip began on the Lijnbaansgracht canal near Leidsplein, Sarah wiped down the seats with an already damp towel and raked some leaves overboard.

Pretty much anything goes on St. Nick's boats. Smoking is allowed, and on our tour, three Argentines passed around Heineken beers and sipped Shiraz while munching on fine cheeses and Pringles.

The captains will answer any questions about the distinct houseboats you pass, stop for pictures on demand, and dispense advice for the rest of your travels. They will take you by traditional sights, such as the Anne Frank House, but also to hidden treasures, like the very low bridge -- ducking required -- near the Maritime Museum.

St. Nick's captains share their club secrets and by the end of the trip, they feel like your friends. And that's what St. Nick's wants, since they don't actually have a license to give tours to strangers.

Peter Moskos, one of the club's founders, blames the somewhat illegal status on the big canal cruise companies, which he says have a monopoly. According to Moskos, these larger floating tour buses help dictate the city's water policy. Amsterdam officials have repeatedly refused to give St. Nick's a license because, they say, there are too many boats on the canals. Without a tour license, it's illegal for people to pay for rides. But Moskos has figured that it is legal to take friends on boats, and it is legal to give money to nonprofit boat clubs.

So, at the end of the St. Nick's ride, the captain passes a tin can and asks his new ''friends" to donate what they want. A 10-euro minimum is appreciated and captains, who work part time off the books, take kindly to tips.

''We've had numerous run-ins with the authorities, who are pretty sure we're doing something wrong but can't tell us what that is," said Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer and now a doctoral student in sociology at Harvard University.

''We, of course, think our boats should be encouraged by the city. But as it is now, we operate with a 'keep our boats under the radar' approach," Moskos added.

It's a bold move and it has made the logistics of operating a bit tricky over the past seven years. There are no booths at which to purchase tickets. In fact, there are no tickets.

Interested patrons must go to Boom Chicago in Leidslplein, a comedy club (founded by Moskos's brother) that also serves as the ''front" for the St. Nicolaas Boat Club. There, a bartender will put your name on a list, and tell you the schedule for that day.

Before Moskos helped launch his club, he knew nothing about boats. When he first piloted the club's flagship barge, Athena, she had an air-cooled, hand-cranked engine, and passengers sat on drink crates. Moskos said he bailed the boat with a plastic beer pitcher.

Methods have improved since then, but the trip is still a pretty rugged adventure.

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.

more stories like this

  • Email
  • Email
  • Print
  • Print
  • Single page
  • Single page
  • Reprints
  • Reprints
  • Share
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Comment
 
  • Share on DiggShare on Digg
  • Tag with Del.icio.us Save this article
  • powered by Del.icio.us
Your Name Your e-mail address (for return address purposes) E-mail address of recipients (separate multiple addresses with commas) Name and both e-mail fields are required.
Message (optional)
Disclaimer: Boston.com does not share this information or keep it permanently, as it is for the sole purpose of sending this one time e-mail.