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Seagrass of Den Oever

In 2014, a fleet of boats from the Netherlands and UK undertook a ‘Cross Country Tour’ to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Dutch OGA. They sailed to Den Oever towards the end of the cruise.

Den Oever is the harbour of the Isle of Wieringen, an island dating back to the ice age, where stones from the glaciers from 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).

Unique to Wieringen was the cutting of seagrass. The shallow area of the Zuiderzee around Wieringen was home to a lot of seagrass on the shallow banks. Before the 19th century the free floating grass was fished up and harvested. It was 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 grass 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 grass reached its maximum height. At half to low tide the fleet needed to be at the shallows and 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 and stepped overboard 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 grass in the nets tied to the boats. There 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 leaves of the grass could wrap around their legs and trip them while walking. Then they had to use the scythe under the water level against the resistance of the water. And when the grass was lifted into the boats it was soaking wet and heavy and the ships needed to be bailed constantly during the process.

The fully loaded vessels had to be unloaded quickly in order to dry the grass. If it was not dried instantly rot would quickly set in. The grass was finally rinsed with fresh water from the ditches. A lot of heavy work thus needed to be done before the grass could be processed, stored and sold (mostly to Belgium and France). The grass harvesting industry lasted from around 1830 till the Great War and finished forever when the Zuiderzee was closed in 1933. While the harvesting provided a good source of income, the grass in fact was only ever an extra for the fishermen as when there were a lot of fish to catch they would immediately take to their boats in search of better fortunes!