The seaweed harvest of Wieringen

Seaweed harvesting c.1925

Den Oever is the harbour of the Isle of Wieringen, an island dating back to the ice age, where debris from the glaciers of Finland and Sweden ended up in the Netherlands. The town probably originated in early medieval times when Wieringen was still part of the mainland. Only the eastern tip of present Wieringen was connected with open water, hence the name (‘Oever’ means coast).

The shallow area of the Zuiderzee around Wieringen was home to a lot of seaweed on the shallow banks and unique to Wieringen was harvesting this. Before the 19th century the free floating seaweed was fished up, spread out on the dykes to dry and then used for all sorts of purposes: building dykes, filling cushions and mattresses, insulation and even as medicine against rheumatism.

The cut seaweed had a better quality then the former floating material because it was tough yet flexible. The harvest took about six weeks from June till August when the seaweed reached its maximum size. At half to low tide the seaweed harvesting fleet needed to be at the shallows to drop anchor. Then standing nets were fastened to the ships and pools set in the seabed. The men put on their ‘boot trousers’ and took their scythes, stepping overboard and wading through the waist-deep water to start cutting.

They would walk against the current with their backs to the ship in order to collect the floating seaweed in nets tied to their boats. It was drawn into the hold and piled up high. The work was extremely tough. First of all they had to wade through the waist-deep water where the long strands could wrap around their legs and trip them up. Then they had to use the scythe underwater and when the seaweed was lifted, soaking wet and heavy, the ships had to be baled constantly.

Fully loaded vessels had to be unloaded quickly in order to dry the grass as it would rot quickly. The final part of the process was rinsing with fresh water from the ditches. The seaweed was processed, stored and sold mostly to Belgium and France.

first published in the OGA NL Cross Country Tourguide