Steam: Old-fashioned powered sailing around Dordrecht

A sensational experience for the young and the old ENGLISH VERSION Pieter Boele Dordrecht

Close to the entrance of the Wolwevershaven in Dordrecht she’s waiting, patiently and shining, for new passengers: the Pieter Boele. One of the few remaining steam powered Rhine tugboats still sailing. To those that just embarked after booking a trip through the VVV (the Dutch Tourist Information Office)  the power of the thumping camshafts, hidden in the deep of the engine room, will come as a surprise. Old-fashioned steam powered sailing: steam

As soon as this tug, built in 1893, passes the Damiatebrug, at the entrance of the port, enthusiasts descend the stairs to gaze at the technical miracle from the past: the steam engine. In the meantime on deck others are enjoying the peace and quiet as well as the vastness of the waters around Dordrecht.

Pieter Boele; Steam; Old-fashioned powered sailing around Dordrecht; Photography: Jan Wind; 


They experience the regularity of the rhythmical movement as pleasant and calming. In the deckhouse where once the captain and his family lived, you can quietly drink a coffee while seeing the river bank silently sliding by through the portholes.

In the past it was less relaxing. There was much and heavy work to be done. At any time the Pieter Boele would be sailing up the Rhine with a train of barges. Every barge was connected with a separate steel cable to the tug. This cable was called the strang. If there were six barges in tow, which sometimes happened, the last barge had a strang of 900 meters.


Pieter Boele; Steam Old-fashioned powered sailing around Dordrecht; Photography: Jan Wind;



Living in the 21st century one hardly realises what is needed to bring food, goods or fuel from A to B. In our daily life this kind of transport goes almost unnoticed, but imagine it had to be done without electricity and engines as we know them today. How would you make sure that people could buy enough food or would be able to heat their houses? Rowing like in the days of the Romans soon proved to be terribly hard. Sailing turned out to be a quicker and cheaper solution. You cleverly caught the wind in large sails and off you went.

 Pieter Boele; Steam Old-fashioned powered sailing around Dordrecht; Photography: Jan Wind;



Except on winding rivers where the wind was unpredictable, like the Rhine. There smart farmers let out their horses to tow the barges, but even horses couldn’t get everywhere.

Pieter Boele; Steam Old-fashioned powered sailing around Dordrecht; Photography: Jan Wind;

Steam power

Until someone discovered that water, coal, fire and air could be used in a completely new way. That water could be heated in boilers making steam to create pressure and that this pressure could be stored for optimal use. If you let the pressure out slowly you could make it turn shafts. Shafts turn around screws moving boats and ships.

 Pieter Boele; Steam Old-fashioned powered sailing around Dordrecht; Photography: Jan Wind;

What made Dordrecht a ‘steam city’?

In this way the Pieter Boele operated more than seventy years. Night and day. In the past it was named ‘Wacht am Rhein VIII’ and later: ‘Speculant’. She looks exactly like in her best years between 1900 and 1960. In those days Dordrecht was an important anchorage for shipping on the Rhine.

Dordrecht: a beautiful place surrounded by fresh water flowing without interruption from the mountains to the sea. Slim and manoeuvrable steam tugs like the Pieter Boele cooled their boilers with fresh water from the river. Salt water from the sea is damaging to the system. 

Larger, wider and stronger sea going tugs were able to use a closed cooling system. They did not need the seawater on which they sailed for cooling. That’s why even today the Pieter Boele is not allowed to sail beyond Schiedam.

Pieter Boele; Steam Old-fashioned powered sailing around Dordrecht; Photography: Jan Wind;


Dordrecht as flourishing port of change

Tugs and barges had to change at a spot with enough river space to anchor. Dordrecht provided that space and many shipping companies established themselves along the quays of the oldest city of Holland. A place where skippers unloaded and picked up cargoes. Countless tug owners hired out their boats and services. Trade flourished. Ship’s lanterns, oil, paints, coal, anchors, chains, dockyards, pilots and crews. You could buy or rent anything to do with sailing in Dordrecht.

Those having no time to go ashore or suddenly having to leave, would make use of the services of a ‘parlevinker’. A kind of sailing supermarket that would come alongside and accompany you as long as it took to buy provisions.

Pieter Boele; Steam Old-fashioned powered sailing around Dordrecht; Photography: Jan Wind;


From steam to diesel engine

In the course of the thirties more and more tugs were equipped with diesel engines. Also on shore diesel engines were used more often than steam engines. Schooling provided new knowledge and skills. Diesel engines were smaller, more powerful and boiler men weren’t needed any longer. 

Until the end of the fifties a rare steam tug still towed a rare barge without engine. After that the era of steam belonged to the past. Except for the Pieter Boele and other steam ships that gather every two years for a great party: ‘Dordt in Stoom,’ when during the weekend the Dordrecht of a hundred years ago revives. Rives, quays and various harbours are full of hissing, shaking, whistling, booming and thumping steam engines from home and abroad and everywhere enthusiasts are streaming past in amazement.

Pieter Boele; Steam Old-fashioned powered sailing around Dordrecht; Photography: Jan Wind; 

Can’t you wait?

Then book a charter on the Pieter Boele. Surprise your company with an unforgettable and authentic tour on the Dutch rivers. Combine your historical river trip with a visit to the famous windmills at Kinderdijk, ancient Loevestein castle, the internationally known national park De Biesbosch or the centre of Dordrecht with its museums and lots of monuments. 

Take a company outing on water together with your colleagues. Or with your family. Turn a party for young and old into a unique experience. The Dordrecht VVV will be happy to give you information about dates, times and prices. Do it! Below you can read how:

Information and Reservations:

VVV Zuid-Holland Zuid

Afdeling Groepsreserveringen

Spuiboulevard 99

3311 GN Dordrecht

Tel: 078-632 24 22 / 078-632 24 77

Fax: 078-613 17 83



Or Coördinator of SS Pieter Boele:

P.J.M.G. (Peter) Beekmans

Titanlaan 13

3318 ET, Dordrecht

Tel: 078-651 25 59 / 06-518 42 486



Jan Wind

Photographer and author of

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Translation: Kees Klok



If you want to know more about the Pieter Boele, steam ships, steam engines, steam festivals and steam societies?

Everything about the Pieter Boele:

Foundation Dordt in Stoom:

Harbour Museum Rotterdam:

Vereniging tot behoud van authentieke stoomschepen. Founded 20 januari 1977. De Vereniging Stoomvaart is an organization taking care of the affairs of steam ship owners which can be contacted for events where the presence of a steam ship or ships is desired:


Peter Beekmans; Coördinator Pieter Boele, Dordrecht.

Artikel: Dordrecht als centrum van Rijnsleepvaart in het stoomtijdperk, zoals gepubliceerd in het tijdschrift van de vereniging Oud Dordrecht. Auteur: Michel van Mourik Broekman.


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