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Historic barges off to the annual skutsjes race in Friesland

Intense competition for the championship

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

GROU - The annual traditional skūtsje (canal barge sailing) competition on the lakes and waterways of the northern Dutch province of Friesland has many sailing enthusiasts in the Netherlands and beyond look on in amazement at the intensity in which the skippers and their crews battle for being first and the best. There are no other sailing competitions in the country that generate as much attention as do the skūtsje races.

Flat-bottomed sailing barges built for transporting freight in the shallow inland waters of the Netherlands in an era long past, the skūtsjes earned high marks for their key role in the history of Frisian transportation, specifically in an era in which nearly everything of substance was transported by boat. By the 1930s most of the operators of the flat-bottomed barges, between 12 and 20 metres long, had traded their sails in for an engine.

In use throughout the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, they were rendered obsolete when road transport became more economical, made possible by an improved highway system following WWII. For the operators of the barges who lived on board in cramped quarters, transportation by boat was more than a livelihood, it was also a way of life. This is perhaps one of the reasons why events involving skūtsjes remained popular.

A part of the fleet was rebuilt for charter sailing vacations on the large IJsselmeer and Waddenzee. That included some skūtsjes, but due to their limited height and size these usually offer room for 8 to 12 passengers, while larger sized barges and clippers accommodate up to 40 passengers.


The Frisians found another use for skūtsjes: the traditional Frisian sailing championship in two leagues. The IFKS is an open competition, SKS strictly Frisian. Groups in a number of towns acquired their own skūtsje, which they then entered into the competition, mainly for sportsmanship, honour and prestige or as part of a family tradition.

In order to compete, all participating barges must have the traditional design, and have been built on a wharf in Friesland.

Weather permitting, the competition lasts two weeks. During this time, fourteen skūtsjes will compete in eleven stages with over an expected 150,000 spectators watching from the lakeshores and untold others via television and the Internet.