The name of the West Aleta Singers is indissolubly connected with the steamer West Aleta, which was wrecked on the dangerous banks off Terschelling. A fast rescue operation by the rescue boat Brandaris made it possible for all those on board to be saved. It was, however, the salvage of the cargo that made the beachcombers’ blood boil, and even more the enormous amount of spirits that, like a tsunami, flooded the island and which is still, to this very day, being talked about. At the time the choir was founded there there were still people alive who had been eye witnesses, and indeed every islander knows the story from hearsay.The following is based, with the author’s consent, on the book In storm and minefields, by Hille van Dieren.
On the 12th of February 1920 the ship West Aleta was wrecked on the North Banks off Terschelling. The ship, which was brand-new and had been built in San Francisco in 1919, was on its way from Seattle to Hamburg. It was fully loaded with 35.000 casks of red and white port, concentrated whisky and table wines. The rest of the cargo consisted of bales of rice and beans, crates of bacon, butter, soap, nutmeg, milk, meat, herring, caskets of talcum, methylated spirit, soya oil, wooden boards and rubber tubes. It is especially the cargo of spirits that lives on in the memories of the people of Terschelling.At 5.45 a.m. the coastguard of Terschelling received information that the West Aleta was in trouble. Acting on this information the rescueboat Brandaris, skippered by Jan Cupido (who was later, owing to his seamanship and courage on this occasion, to be awarded the honorary title of Giant of the Banks), put to sea and reached the ship, which had already been stranded, at 7 o’clock. Using every effort 46 passengers and crewmembers were saved. How hard it had been became clear when the Brandaris, heavily dented, her stern out of joint, her deck bent out of shape, entered the harbour of Terschelling. However, her flag was proudly flying at the masthead, for all on board had been saved.
Salvaging the cargo
A few hours after the ship had been stranded she broke in two and had to be considered lost. Not, however the valuable cargo. The master, captain Eward, acting for the owner, signed a contract with Salvation Company Dirkzwager from Maassluis to salvage the cargo on the basis of no cure, no pay, and the Terschelling firm of Doeksen was contracted for the necessary tugboat assistance.On the 14th of February warehouses were rented on the Isle of Terschelling and, “with a view to possible theft, especially of wine”, the customs-vessel Prins Hendrik was ordered to patrol the waters around Terschelling. Either the authorities had foresight, or they knew their beachcombers only too well.
At the beginning of the salvage many blazers ( a kind of fishing boat) guarded the wreck, but because of the high waves it was impossible to make a fast. Nevertheless, early in the morning two beachcombers tried to set foot on the wreck, but the presence of two tugboats upset their plans. Five blazers from the isle of Vlieland had also arrived on the scene, but their Terschelling colleagues threatened them into undoing their contracts.
On Monday the 16th of February a start was made with salvaging the cargo. On that first day hundreds of bales of rice, caskets of herring , a hundred casks of wine, a large amount of frozen meat and four of the ship’s lifeboats were brought ashore. It had not been easy, because everything was covered with oil fuel so that the workers were hard put to keep their feet. The next day a strike was called because the price of 250 guilders for every fully loaded blazer was considered too low. Their were even threats of murder if other ships would be hired. In practice this turned out to be impossible because fishermen from Urk, Enkhuizen and other villages and towns were threatened by the people of Terschelling if they were to load cargo under conditions other than those laid down by the Terschelling Union. The workers ashore also went on strike and the island was “in a bolshevik mood”, according to a report by the firm of Dirkzwager. The strikers’ demand was for 50% of the salvage money, 500 guilders for every fully loaded vessel. The salvors were afraid to go out in the streets and turned to the mayor for protection. In the end the firm of Dirkzwager “yielded to blackmail” and paid 450 guilders per blazer.
Wine on the beach
After a northwester storm on the 27th of February hundreds of casks of wine from the broken and slowly disappearing ship were washed ashore on the beaches of Terschelling and Vlieland. On the spot the beachcombers bored holes in them to examine the contents. The port wine was their favourite, the red table wine was found to have a rather sour taste and the soja oil was completely left alone.After many problems between salvage people and fishermen/beachcombers, with threats with knives, axes etc. and intervention by the public prosecutor, in the course of March calm was restored to the island. How they had enjoyed themselves, and how they had been boozing. When, in the evenings the wine fleet entered the harbour the whole population of West Terschelling was on the quay. Among loud and joyful singing the men were carried ashore and handpushed carts were ready to transport them home.
Wooden shoes and sardine-tins
Hundreds of casks of wine had been taken to the mayor/wreckmaster. But many a cask followed a different route. Women and children were lugging jugs and buckets of portwine. Probably never again will the island population drink so much and in such a way as in those days. They drank wine from wooden shoes and hats, even from empty sardine-tins. Some beachcombers bound a pair of boots round their necks, to carry them home, filled with wine. As they had some trouble walking steady, they fell down so often that the boots were empty long before they reached their homes.One of them remembered: “Even some very religious women told us to drink as much as possible, because it was Communion Wine!”. The wine was hidden in all kinds of places. Those who have seen Whiskey Galore may have some idea of what was happening on the island. Empty buckets or bottles were nowhere to be found.
Of course some houses were searched and some names were taken. It was only to be expected: some houses literally exuded the odour of spirits!
Translation: Wim Michon
Source: In Storm En Mijnenveld, de geschiedenis van de reddingboot Brandaris, by Hille van Dieren
Uitgeverij De Boer Maritiem, ISBN 90 228 1845 4