Captain Ton and his life on the high seas

Ton Brouwer is the captain of The Albatros in Wells. Picture: Ian Burt

Ton Brouwer is the captain of The Albatros in Wells. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: IAN BURT

The call of the sea saw Ton Brouwer eventually set sail for Wells, where he and his boat the Albatros are now a familiar sight.

DOUG FAULKNER caught up with him...

It has become a familiar part of the postcard view of Wells harbour, but the Albatros and its captain, Ton Brouwer, knew many ports and travelled many seas before they settled on the north Norfolk coast.

Hailing from a polder near Gouda in Holland, Mr Brouwer started off his career as an academic at the age of just 20.

He lectured in German literature in Amsterdam before the call of the sea lured him away.

He said: “I thought to myself: ‘I do not want to be trapped between four walls for the rest of my life’.

“I had always restored old things, cars and boats in my spare time. I wanted to do something with my hands.”

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Mr Brouwer left the academic world and travelled to Denmark, where he bought the Victorian Dutch clipper ship the Albatros.

After sailing her to Amsterdam, he then restored her over four years.

The Albatros was once again commissioned as a sailing cargo vessel and the ship and her crew travelled all over Europe and the North Sea.

Mr Brouwer said: “I had a special dream of reviving the cargo sailing times.

“People said you couldn’t do it but we did.

“There were a couple of years where we didn’t stop. As soon as we made on delivery we were off to the next port to pick up our next cargo.”

Mr Brouwer decided to help give young offenders from his homeland a fresh start and hired them as his crew.

He said: “I took young offenders as a crew to give them a fresh start in life and that was quite a good thing.

“There are lots of young people who have gone on to have good lives after the Albatros.”

It was during this busy time that the boat first came into Wells.

“From the first moment I felt at home in Wells,” said Mr Brouwer. “I still don’t really know why, I think it was a combination of things.

“It is a lot like where I come from in Holland. There was a lot of reclaimed marshland there and there is around Wells as well.

“The people were very open and very friendly to us. I think it is because they have always been open to visitors from the sea.”

That was 25 years ago.

Now the Albatros will be familiar to any tourist who has strolled along the quayside.

Since 2005, the clipper has become a floating cafe and bar as well as a live music venue.

It serves a selection of Dutch pancakes as well as tea, coffee and ale to locals and tourists alike.

Like most seafarers, Mr Brouwer has many stories of his adventures and the places he has seen.

After the Iron Curtain fell, the Albatros was the first ship to take a cargo from a new port in Szczecin, Poland.

The ship also carried the alcohol for the day-long party to celebrate the opening as supplies were still scarce.

“There is something special about the seafaring way of life,” said Mr Brouwer. “You are in a new place each day seeing new faces.

“You can wake up off the coast of Scotland with dolphins following the boat.

“There have been times when you are in a storm that I have thought ‘if something comes apart now we are lost’.

“When you come on board you know that you are responsible for everyone but you try not to think about it too much or else you would never leave the harbour.” Life on the sea does make it difficult to do some things. Birthdays, weddings and other events are almost impossible to attend.

Mr Brouwer, now 66, said: “When I was 55 I treated myself to a cycling trip in the Scottish Highlands.

“I remember sitting there looking out at this wonderful view and thinking that although I had helped many young people, I had no children of my own.

“But I thought if I were to do it all over I would do it the same again, so I put it out of my mind.”

Things changed however a couple of years later when, at a New Year’s Eve party, hit met his future wife.

He said: “I met the love of my life in Wells, my wife Kate, and now we have two boys, who are my greatest achievement.”

The family no longer live on the Albatros but still live nearby in Wells and the boys, Jake, seven, and Henry, five, attend the local school.

While family life means Mr Brouwer keeps his feet firmly on the ground, he is still as busy as ever.

“This year has been our busiest yet,” he said. “Even if I wanted to stop, there is just too much to do.”