Dutch island is beachcomber's paradise

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

Terschelling, off the north Dutch coast, is a beachcomber's paradise. The island with its long stretches of north-facing beaches is the perfect landing spot for items lost from ships or drifting in the ocean.
A combination of favourable currents, strong north-westerly winds and nearby shipping routes means that Terschelling benefits from a healthy crop of flotsam and jetsam - approximately two tons a day.

Recent years have seen around half-a-million shoes appear on the beach, along with thousands of bananas, fire extinguishers, whisky and children’s toys. More photos below.

Earth Beat's Louise Stoddard went to Terschelling to meet the island's jutters - or beachcombers - who patrol the beaches in search of washed-up treasure.

"I knew that something was wrong on the beach that day because the birds were flying upside down!" An explosion of laughter and giggles from the four other men at the table confirms that Floris Haan is pulling my leg.

"In all honesty Floris did find one million guilders' worth of real Dutch hash" says Hille van Dieren sat next to me with a cup of coffee in his hand.

"The birds didn’t try it, but neither did we. Floris didn’t realise how valuable it was and burned it in the stove." They all look at each other and crease up in laughter again whilst Floris grins and nods his head.

I'm sat in the office of the Terschelling's Behouden Huys shipwreck museum, with five of the island's famous jutters - or beachcombers. As a plate of biscuits is passed around, museum head Frans Schot hands me a thick file bursting with photographs and newspaper cuttings of beachcomber activity on the island.

The sudden appearance of multiple items including half-a-million shoes, piggy banks, fire extinguishers, and whisky barrels has seeded a particular strain of resourcefulness and creativity in the island community, which is home to over 500 Land Rovers and Jeeps, the preferred mode of transport for the modern day beachcomber.

When a consignment of green bananas came ashore, the islanders hit on a way of making them palatable: they placed the bananas in a plastic bag with an apple which ripened them overnight.

We leaf through the photos and stop for stories at each page, the photos scan back over years showing the men in their youth, wading out to sea to collect floating timber, pulling industrial-sized rolls of paper along the beach or loading bags with bananas and shoes. 

Receiver of wrecks

Legally, all goods that wash up on the beach have to be reported to the mayor who is the official receiver of wrecks. However the realities of this are quite different and Hille van Dieren recalls one insurance company that tried to reclaim timber.

"They went to the mayor to ask where all the timber had gone that had washed up on the beach" he says, "and so the major gave them 45 different addresses across the island. They never did collect the timber in the end."

As the onset of winter signals the start of another beachcombing year the jutters of Terschelling are glued to the weather forecasts hoping for favorable northerly winds. I ask them what they are hoping will arrive out of the blue this year.

"The one thing I hope is that it’s not gold" says Hille "I have seen other islands have problems with this. Gold really does make people crazy."

Taken from the latest edition of Earth Beat - Out of Nowhere.

Related - The great rubber duck hunt.