Katy Stickland meets Fons Oerlemans who has sailed across the Atlantic by raft, truck and even in a giant bottle

“We had to fight across the Atlantic, 24 hours a day. In the beginning, we had an automatic steering system, but after a week or so, it stopped, so we had to use the wheel of the truck and we could be on the wheel only two hours at a time because it was so tiring. We had to work very hard to keep ourselves alive,” recalls Fons Oerlemans of his hardest Atlantic crossing in his vessel, Floating Truck.

As the name suggests, the “boat” was an 8-tonne Dodge truck with a 120hp Perkins engine on a raft constructed from two 8-metre long cylinder-shaped tanks. With his wife, Kee Arens, Fons took 58 days to cross from New York to Lisbon.

A truck being floating on a raft in teh middle of the ocean

Floating Truck motoring eastwards towards Flores. Credit: Fons Oerlemans and Kee Arens

As he is fond of saying, “Mission Impossible doesn’t exist”. The Belgium sailor has completed five Atlantic crossings, all in unconventional craft: raft, truck, steam boiler and a giant bottle.

When I met Fons Oerlemans, he had fallen from his bike two days before and had suffered broken ribs, but still cycled to the interview. 

“I was born an adventurer and still am as well as a technician. I am 85 now, most people stop at 70, but I am still thinking about what I am going to do in the future, building plans and machines.” It seems nothing can stop this octogenarian.

Fons Oerlemans: A wartime upbringing

World War II dominated Fons’s youth and has influenced his life. He grew up in constant danger from “flying grenades and bombers flying over us on their way to Germany” 

He began building rafts, learning from the capsizes and sinkings; this planted the seed of navigating an ocean by raft.

But he knew that if he was to pursue this dream, he would need the mechanical know-how. He enrolled at Antwerp’s technical school, attending classes that “seemed most relevant to my oceanic endeavours”.

Initially, his adventuring took place on land – a 3,000km journey from Belgium to Istanbul on a second-hand, gearless Cyclemaster. He sold the bike and then continued hitchhiking to Thailand, crossing the Iraqi and Arabian deserts with the Bedouin and the Khyber Pass under military escort.

When he returned to Belgium he settled down but still scratched his adventuring itch by building and flying balloons and gyrocopters

Fons Oerlemans and Kee Arens

Together, Fons Oerlemans and Kee Arens have completed four Atlantic crossings. Credit: Fons Oerlemans and Kee Arens

It wasn’t until 1973 that he attempted his first Atlantic crossing by raft.

Originally he planned to build the raft out of tree trunks but struggled to find a species in Western Europe buoyant enough.

Instead, he found a 4-metre Bombard Besto, used as liferafts by commercial shipping. It had no keel or rudder.

Fons built a multiplex wooden floor to provide stability and fashioned a small sail and shelter. He took canned and dried food along with water and a solar-powered desalination system.

With crew, Omar, a Belgium Olympic wrestler, Fons and his raft, christened Atlantis, were lowered from the cargo ship, Mobeka on 19 May 1974, southwest of El Hierro in the Atlantic; the ship’s crew thought they wouldn’t survive.

Omar struggled from day one of the voyage – even threatening to throw himself overboard, and eventually the pair were rescued after 21 days by a German bulk carrier, which they alerted to their plight with a flare.

As with all of his projects, Fons never expected to be rescued. “I didn’t want to ask for help. You bring other people in danger. I didn’t want to do that.”

Never give up

A year later, Fons was ready to try again. He has decided to build his own raft from 6-metre long, rusty dredging pipes he discovered in Antwerp’s port.

Four of the pipes were used to form the main base of the raft in a quadrimaran structure, joined together by cross beams; two v-shaped pipe sections formed the raft’s double prow. 

The raft, christened Last Generation, had an LOA of 8m and a beam of nearly 5m. A 4m square cabin was built in the middle, which served as a shelter.

With no fixed keel, steering was via 1.5m long leeboards on sliding rails so they could move up and down.

Three men on a raft out in the ocean

Last Generation was not antifouled before the voyage; the crew regularly had to remove barnacles to prevent the raft from slowing down. Credit: Fons Oerlemans and Kee Arens

The 38.5msq sail was made from the same material used to cover army trucks and communication was possible through a short-wave transceiver.

For this voyage, Fons decided to advertise for two crew. Raoul De Boel and Hassan Chrisbatou replied.

The three-tonne Last Generation left from Safi in Morocco and took 82 days to arrive in Trinidad; the raft was later shipped back to Antwerp.

A drawing of the vessel Seaview built by Fons Oerlemans

The plan of Seaview. Credit: Fons Oerlemans and Kee Arens

The success of the voyage increased Fons’s public profile, and he started giving talks back in his native Belgium. Many in the audience argued that crossing the Atlantic by raft was something a woman could never do. 

Fons decided to prove them wrong.

He was already working on a new submarine-style vessel, eventually called Seaview, to explore underwater and placed an advert for female crew in a Dutch newspaper. It was answered by 33-year-old Kee Arens.

Breaking new boundaries

While work progressed on the 15m T-shaped Seaview, which was built from a reclaimed 40-tonne steam boiler with an underwater observation chamber on the underside made from a 6m propane gas tank, a new project began to take shape; another Atlantic crossing on the Last Generation raft, this time from the Canary Islands to Barbados.

The crew would be Fons and Kee.

Fons and Kee aboard Last Generation raft, built from dredging pipes.

Fons and Kee aboard Last Generation, built from dredging pipes. Credit: Fons Oerlemans and Kee Arens

They endured storms and used lines to keep the raft’s rudder in place. In the middle of the Atlantic, the tiller started tearing away from the rudder. Fons had already pre-drilled holes in the rudder and attached lines to it as security, and despite not being able to swim, he tied a rope around his waist to dive to attach the rudder blade to both sides of the raft, using two lines. The tiller eventually broke but the lines were still in place, allowing them to continue steering.

When they arrived in Barbados after 67 days, Kee had become the first woman on record to cross the Atlantic by raft.

Although Fons loved the simplicity of the raft, “a raft and a sail, that was it”, Seaview was his favourite Atlantic vessel.

A man sailing a vessel made out of a steam boiler

Seaview under twin sails and a following wind in the Atlantic. Credit: Fons Oerlemans and Kee Arens

“The underwater part was new, and no ship like that ever crossed the Atlantic with an underwater chamber,” explained Fons. 

Powered by a 120hp truck engine and needing 7 tonnes of ballast, Seaview also had twin sails. Steering was heavy in storms and the vessel rocked heavily.

The voyage, from Antwerp to Barbados via Falmouth, Lisbon, the Canary Islands and the Cape Verdes was also the longest; it took six months. 

As Fons recalled: “It was a very safe machine, but the slowest ever built!”

Driving to Lisbon

By 1982, Fons was working as a truck mechanic. He casually remarked to a colleague that the trucks and their engines were so reliable that “you could drive one across the Atlantic”. “Why don’t you?” was his colleague’s response.

The Floating Truck project was born.

As with all his projects, Fons calculated the buoyant force of the vessel.

A floating structure using two large 8m long cylinder-shaped tanks – which had compartments to hold fuel, water and supplies – was built.

A diagram showing the workings of Floating Truck. Credit: Fons Oerlemans and Kee Arens

A diagram showing the workings of Floating Truck. Credit: Fons Oerlemans and Kee Arens

This would carry the 8-tonne Dodge truck with a 120hp Perkins engine, which would drive a propeller using the gearbox and driveshaft.

There was a square sail and it was steered with a tiller.

What about the risk of windage?

“I was convinced that my machines were so strongly built that they could survive heavy storms,” explained Fons.

A woman wearing a red cap washing up on board a raft

Kee washing-up on Floating Truck. Kee and Fons split all of the chores onboard. Credit: Fons Oerlemans and Kee Arens

“The raft can turn around [capsize] but I made the heavy part so low that in stormy weather she acted really well. People warned me that the truck’s sides were 15sqm, and in stormy weather, you couldn’t take the sides of the truck away like you could with sails, but all the heavy things were very low.”

Access to the engine involved tilting up the lorry’s cab, which was difficult in wind and waves.

Corrosion and electrolysis destroyed the electrics but Fons fitted new alternators to charge the batteries; the bearings of the propeller shaft had to be continually greased.

The engine filters had to be continually cleaned as they would clog with dirt.

Fons Oerlemans and Kee Arens on Floating Truck in Lisbon

Arrival in Lisbon. Credit: Fons Oerlemans and Kee Arens

“I would listen to the engine and could hear when something was not quite right. I would start work immediately to find the problem, rather than waiting until something went wrong. The alternators lasted only a few days because the humidity destroyed them. Luckily, the radiator was never damaged beyond repair,” said Fons.

Despite the hardships, they pushed on, although had to divert to Flores in The Azores to pick up a new fuel pump and filters.

After 58 days they reached Lisbon to be reunited with their son, Robin. Kee also discovered she was pregnant with the couple’s second son, Brendan.

From flight to sail

During the second Atlantic crossing on Last Generation, Fons threw a bottle into the sea and wondered what it would be like to sail a vessel of a similar shape.

Initially called Flying Bottle, the vessel was originally built as a hydrofoil to challenge for the Blue Riband.

Made from a 6m long cylindrical tank with a diameter of 2m, Flying Bottle had a 1,000hp engine and a 60cm propeller.

The hydrofoil Flying Bottle speeding along a lake

Flying Bottle was powered by a 1,000hp Detroit diesel and hydraulic equipment, and reached its design speed of 42 knots. Credit: Fons Oerlemans and Kee Arens

“I started in 1985 and worked for years on it; I was satisfied with the machine, but there was other competition for the Blue Riband which made finding further sponsoring difficult. The immense physical and mental effort in building it over the years meant I needed a break, so I removed the hydrofoils, legs and drive system and put the Flying Bottle away.”,” explained Fons.

But the desire to cross the Atlantic in a bottle remained, and 10 years later, Fons and Kee began work to convert the Flying Bottle into a sailing vessel.

Message in a Bottle needed stability fins, a rudder and a modest propulsion system. Flying Bottle‘s large machinery room and fuel tanks were converted into a small engine room, galley and toilet; a steering house was also installed.

Continues below…

Work was halted when Fons fell ill, needing quadruple bypass heart surgery.

Modifications to the bottle continued; a 5m long keel, French 85hp Nanni engine, autopilot and two masts were installed for the mainsail and square sail. 

“We used only the front mast with a square sail which made it possible to steer the bottle,” said Fons.

By 21 March 2006, Message in a Bottle and her crew were ready to leave Santa Cruz in Tenerife.

It took 81 days to get to Barbados via the Cape Verdes and Dakar; the early part of the voyage was far from easy, leaving the crew with aching muscles from having to brace against the bottle’s rolling motion. 

“The bottle rolled too much. It never turned around but the rolling was a little uncomfortable so in Dakar I welded two bilge keels to it and from then onwards the stability was much better. In stormy weather, the waves made it roll like any other vessel. I was very satisfied with the bottle,” said Fons.

Kee and Fons spent months in Barbados to write their book before the bottle was shipped back to Antwerp, where the couple continued to live aboard for the next 12 years.

Fons Oerlemans: the Godfather of Adventure

Koos Hogeweg and Lot Saldien run the adventure centre Stormkop out of an abandoned shipyard in Antwerp, offering creative programmes for children.

Intrigued by Fons and Kee’s adventures, they met the couple and, with Fons and Kee’s consent, took custody of Message in a Bottle for the next generation.

“The power of Fons is that he didn’t stop dreaming and that inspires us a lot,” explained Koos. 

Message in a Bottle being sailed in the Atlantic

Message in a Bottle under sail in a westerly wind to Barbados. Credit: Fons Oerlemans and Kee Arens

With Fons’s help, work is ongoing to make Message in a Bottle suitable as a sailing vessel for voyages with young people; the biggest hurdle is the bureaucracy.

Fons sees his work with Stormkop as his and Kee’s legacy.

“I tell all of the children about our lives and the things they need to do. I tell them not to start with building a raft to cross the Atlantic, but to get an education first. When they are young, they listen very carefully.”

He is still planning new projects including tracing the route taken by Hannibal when he crossed the Alps.

As Fons says: “Because you don’t get older until you stop chasing the storm. And we are forever adventurers, with storms yet to chase”

The Last Adventurer: Message in a Bottle by Fons Oerlemans and Kee Arens, is published by Medina Publishing, £20.

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To find out more about Stormkop and their work visit: stormkop.be

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