The Art of Dredging

Dredging and shipping

About me

Marc Van de Velde, a mariner and ship's captain, with 25 years of experience at sea. Most of this experience was gathered on dredgers, some on kayaks. 


Read the whole story 


 16 23 N   119 54 E 

"There is no use for experience, if it is not shared with others. And there is no real excuse not to share it."


The early stages

Born on April, 15th 1964.

I followed elementary and high school in Sint-Greogorius, Ledeberg, (a suburb of Gent, Belgium) 

When high school ended, 18 years, i went to the Nautical College in Antwerp.

Chosing for a career at sea was a proces of elimination, looking for an adventurous occupation, a demanding non-office job. A quest for the "Last Frontier", at sea  ?

During the first year of college, we went to sea in support-ship "Zinnia", of the Belgian Navy.  We -first year students- supplemented the crew of this navy ship and went on a cruise to Greece (Crete, Piraeus) and Spain (Barcelona). The fun deal was that time was taken to visit these places. The downpart was that i was prone to seasickness.

But generally i liked to be onboard of this huge moving object, a small floating village, doing a share of the work onboard, enjoying the vistas at sea, dolphins racing in the bowwave, the sunrises and -sets, the whole idea of being a sea nomad, travel the world, seeing places.



In our first years in Nautical College, we made some short trips on the "Commandant Fourcault", a former pilot cutter, pre-W.W. II, built for Germany, it had a riveted (not a welded) hull. Sailing on this ship was quite an experience, rocking and rolling, crew quarters from an age long gone by. The whole thing was near antique.


"Commandant Fourcault"

Another tiny particle of hands-on experience was the opportunity given to us to make passages on the Oostende-Dover run, with the long-time-gone ferries of RMT, a state-run company. They had some real nice ships, the last one of them the "Prins Filips".

For RMT it was an uphill battle, ever since the tunnel under the English Channel opened, and eventually RMT went bankrupt, victim to economical realities.


 " Prins Filips" (top) with the white cliffs of Dover in the background, and "Reine  Astrid" (bottom) leaving the port of Ostend in gale conditions.


Three years in Nautical College, i studied spherical trigonemtry, regulations, the inner works of radars and gyrocompasses, theory of steam engines and ship's stability, medicines, meteo, psychology, and all that other stuff that is deemed to transform a young boy into a wise-ass officer. 

The real thing: merchant marine

Finally, I emerged as an apprentice officer, and joined the "Martha", a Panamax bulkcarrier, under captain Pierre Woinin, in Rotterdam. Captain Woinin left his trail in the shipping community as an intelligent and critical master.

I soon found out that I still had to learn a lot of things onboard, and school had left me greatly unprepared for that first realtime experience. 

Connecting scholarly theory and daily routine onboard can be real tough.

The ship took us to Canada, loading grain on the Sint-Lawrence river, bound for Karachi, Pakistan. We spent three weeks in Karachi, unloading, and it was my first contact with that strange Far-eastern world, the air hot and humid, smothering, the Afghan refugees (1986), chewing qat, the sound of the mujaheddin calling for prayers early in the morning, frantic downtown...



"Martha" was a tramper, couldn't get any more adventurous that time, and after Pakistan we sailed "waiting for orders", going towards the general direction of the South Pole.

Navigation was done by sextant and sextant alone. There is nothing wrong with celestial navigation, but you need to have clear weather; at least to see some stars or the moon or sun, just anything, and a small glimpse of the horizon. The basics of this technique haven't changed since the times of the great captain James Cook.

To master celestial navigation gives a very "handicraft" flavour to the job. Don't see that no more, nowadays, in the age of GPS and ECDIS, the internet-generation.

When we sailed southwards, weather was overcast for about one week, navigation was done on dead reckoning, guessing and gambling. We planned to pass Madagascar on our starboard side, but when we got our next starfix, we found out that we had this large island on port side of the ship, and were in the middle of Street Mozambique.

But we finally made it to Richard's Bay, South Africa, loaded coal for Antwerp    

(While ashore, I was scorned of a "blacks-only" bus, forced to take a more expensive taxi, still wondering what this brush with reverse apartheid learned me in life) and of we went, back to homeport, Antwerp. 

Arriving in Antwerp, I had my first 3 months of sea duty; my job satisfaction was maybe 6/10, but no doubt I was going to continue on the this path; it tasted like more.

My next two ships as junior officer were conbulkers, from the ill-fated "ABC-Containerlines". (This company went bankrupt a few years later.)

They took me on two round trips around the world, seeing the nicest cities, and only staying there a few hours each, since a containership makes real quickies in port.

Sydney always made for a great welcome, as the ship slid into Sydney Harbour, passed the Opera House, under Sydney Bridge, with hundreds of sailing yachts in the bay, in starch contrast with the hard passage we had in the Australian Bight. And Sydney always had that great advantage that the Unions were on strike; the ship spent a week to load or discharge a few hundreds of containers. Any port could handle that amount of containers in a few hours time. Not so in Sydney. We did not bother that much about their container loading rates.


"Deloris" would be my last ship in the merchant navy. I spent four months on a world roundtrip. During the last sea passage, from Halifax to Antwerp, the crewing department asked me to stay onboard for another 4 months, and they would promote me to thrid mate.

I refused and they kicked me out of the company.  Promotion or discharge; there were not to many nuances in between...

Gone Dredging  - junior level

In 1988 -after a year unemployment- I started the second part of my professional life with Jan De Nul, a -then- small Belgian dredging company.

On a sunday evening I joined the first dredger I've ever seen, the "Amerigo Vespucci", and was really happy it looked like a real ship (I did not know the first letter of dredging, and was not knowing what to expect).

That evening I sneaked into the wheelhouse and got really impressed with all 3 (three !) computer displays used for dredging. And my first week sailing and dredging -as a trainee- I made one enormous mistake after the other.

But hey, I saw from the very first day that this was a set of cool wacko characters running these ships, and that this whole dredging thing was much more active and dynamic than the merchant marine.

Little did i know that -six years later- I would be the captain of that cute little ship.

My first year in this dredging company was probably the toughest; I was transferred to the "James Ensor" and became second mate. 

  I had to learn how to handle that ship - and the dredging installation. 

The environment was unforgiving; the ship was continuously deployed on the Westerscheldt river, with swift and variable currents, loads of shipping traffic, with a changing bathymetry. It was a tough school.


They'd expected more or less me to handle the ship blindfolded, and to manoeuvre it more easy than I'd ride a bike, keeping navigational margins much smaller than anything in the merchant marine. They were all experts and i was a rookie.

After a year onboard, captain Cor Goedknegt, -with his superior look on things- made me first mate, in charge of a watch. He had this "Never-fade-nor-die" attitude written all over him. I had to survive with that ship on the Westerscheldt for 12 hours a day. He told me bluntly he gave me 50 % chance of succes. Perhaps that was his way to make me focus on the job of chief mate.

Gone dredging - level two

At age 28, 1992, I became a captain on "that cute little ship". (I became 29 two weeks later, but 29 is still awfully young to be a captain. Some weeks I was the youngest onboard, being the captain.)

My first night onboard "Amerigo Vespucci" I could not sleep, not a single minute. I realised what an enormous responsibility was thrown upon me.

Amerigo Vespucci was lying in a Rotterdam shipyard, only days before her departure to a demanding offshore job in the "Waddenzee", between the mainland of northern Germany and the offlying islands in the German Bight, for project "Zeepipe". I was thrown in the captain's chair, feeling no backup, having no on-the-job-training, no routine, no mentors, hardly knew anybody in the office.

Since it was a small dredger, and me being pretty hyper, we managed well along the road. The crew were mostly young, and the ship could cope with all the enthusiasm.

We went on with Amerigo Vespucci, handling jobs on the Westerscheldt river, Hamburg, Cuxhaven, Argentina, Saint-Malo, Dunkerque,... changing the face of the earth.

Eventually, that "cute little ship" became a love affair.

Gone dredging - the jumbo level

In 1999, people in my company got this funny idea of assigning me to Gerardus Mercator -at that time the largest hopperdredger in the world-, with an installed enginepower of 20 megaWatt. The crew consisted of five nationalities. 

Datasheet "Gerardus Mercator" (download pdf 460 kB)

It was the second ship of a wave of so-called "jumbo" dredgers, the vanguard of a new benchmark in the size of trailing suction hopper dredgers. 










Stepping up to this level was a shock to me; everything was shocking. It was like moving from a grocery store to a supermarket. I was no longer a captain, but a full time manager; managing crew, spares, repairs, orders, running the ship as a production plant. The ship was also heavily monitored by various departments from head office, an exposure i had to learn to deal with.

And time spent in Asian repair shipyards seemed like utter chaos - at first.                        

 As one chief engineer said of Gerardus Mercator: "A bunch of idiots up front, lots of misery at the back, and a load of sand in the middle."

The "Gerardus Mercator" never became a love affair.

It was, is, and will ever be a ship with the mood of a mustang, with the workload of a construction site, and a relentless need for attention she daily needs. It's a beehive. It's a battleship.

It's hell on wheels.  It's a job that's never done.

In the year 2005 we had some nasty groundings with the Gerardus Mercator. It made me remember i was not only to be a manager, but still had to be an experienced seaman, to keep an eye on all things nautical, and assess nautical risks.

Being a captain is an excercise in equilibrium, striking a balance between all demands upon ship and crew.

The real challenge is balance.

Gone dredging - nec plus ultra

"Leiv Eiriksson" is the name of the new game.

 It's the top of the industry (together with its identical sister; "Cristobal Colon".) 


The ship will hit the water somewhere in the year 2010.

July 2009 I bid farewell to Gerardus Mercator.

God have mercy on our souls.  


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