It was a rainy afternoon in August 2021. I had driven with an 84-year-old bird expert to the Maasvlakte, to a lookout in the dunes. Fork-tailed gulls had been sighted there, he’d said, migratory birds that rarely visited our coast.
A gust of wind tore open the car door, we climbed the dune. No black-tailed gull in sight. Well: a bright red whale washed ashore.
“Fuck,” I shouted and ran from the dunes to the sea. The raindrops dug into the sand, then a moment later strummed on the rubber of the red boat lying in the surf, belly up. Scattered around the dinghy were a dozen or so bright orange life jackets floating. A little further: a still full water bottle. A little further: a black sports shoe full of sand. I followed the trail of things, the images that came to me I pushed away.
But otherwise I only found a shopping bag from the French supermarket Carrefour. Boat refugees, here too?
I called the lifeguard about the find, we drove back to town. Later I spoke to the Seaport Police. The good news: the passengers were safe. The man whose black sneakers had belonged and the other passengers were most likely now in the British asylum procedure. The inflatable boat had indeed shipped refugees.
They probably made the crossing on August 12, I heard later; that night it had been beautiful calm summer weather in Calais, no fewer than 1,012 people had taken to the sea from the beach, most of them in inflatable dinghys of the type I had found. After the people on board had been disembarked, the British Coast Guard sometimes left the escape boats behind at sea, due to lack of space or time. The ships were then given an identification number. ‘M465’ was painted on the Rotterdam inflatable boat: number four hundred and sixty-five of that year.
An employee of the Ministry of the Interior emphasized that the journey was life-threatening and that the refugees were already in a safe country.
Dangerous, indeed. The Pas de Calais is the busiest sailing route in the world. Every day, an average of 550 seagoing vessels – including mammoth tankers and container giants – pass through the strait. A ship every two to three minutes. But one of the busiest escape routes in the world now ran straight across that stream. The route of the inflatable boats. An average of one hundred people per night ventured the crossing last year, a total of 35,382 people. And since then the numbers had increased. The refugees came from countries such as Syria and Afghanistan, but also from ‘safe’ countries such as Albania. And indeed they did not have to fear for their lives in France. Still, they took the chance, for example because they wanted to be with family; because they wanted to live in a country of which they spoke the language or because they thought it would be easier to find work in the UK.
Many were stopped by the French, 44 refugees drowned, but the vast majority, 28,000, made it to the white cliffs of Dover.
People smugglers bought the inflatable boats for prices between 500 and 2,000 euros. They were touted as a ‘refugee boat’ at the Chinese online store giant Alibaba, wrote The Guardian late December. Alibaba had since removed many of the pages, but not all of them. ‘Enjoy The Waves With A Wholesale immigrants boat’, I read. Or: ‘Inflatable boat for refugee’.
A year earlier I had bought an inflatable boat myself via the internet. Not a dinghy, but a bright orange canoe. Also to escape, but then from my boring existence: a boat to survive the pandemic. I was looking for stillness on the water and sometimes I was looking for an adrenaline rush.
Like that time when I sailed with a friend, an experienced sea kayaker, on the Nieuwe Maas, under the Erasmus Bridge. We had prepared the trip down to the last detail. Stream atlas, VHF on board. Crossing the channel was terrifying. What if such a water taxi didn’t see us? Three hundred meters of buttocks squeeze.
The Pas de Calais is over thirty kilometers wide, even at its narrowest part, between Cap Gris-Nez and Dover. And those England sailors sailed through the night, without navigation, without beacons, between megaships. How desperate did you have to be?
It seemed to me at first that two completely different streams crossed in the Pas de Calais: the container ships and the inflatable boats. On the one hand you had the people who risked their lives and on the other hand the people who could sail for a lifetime, relying on the sea giants who came to bring their gadgets. Haves and havenots.
But I’ve been doubting for a while whether that beautiful gap is correct.
Last summer I read a book at the campsite – in France, by the sea – that also started with a red boat that had washed ashore. A few hundred dollar canoe found off the coast of North Carolina.
The canoe turned out to be owned by one Dick Conant, a troubled American who had paddled single-handedly across the rivers of the United States for years, living on next to nothing. Denim dungarees, rusty beard, faded baseball cap. This man is still missing to this day, but journalist Ben McGrath wrote down his life story in the book The river. “The compelling and true story of a man who set out into the wilderness in his canoe,” reads the cover.
Probably one of those books about a man who paddles away his midlife crisis, I thought at first. But the main character turned out to be surprisingly outgoing. Conant the canoeist passed through derelict American river towns, those wash-ups of human wreckage, and he made contact everywhere he went: he struck up small talks, repaired roofs, shared supplies and provisions, told stories, started pen-friendships for years. Nothing into the wild, not a solo geek. This man approached his fellow human beings without regard for persons.
Hopeful story. As if by paddling he wanted to sew that torn, atomized land back together. You see that more often these days: the modern escapist is looking for connection, wants to escape the every-for-himself society. See the growing off-the-grid community: people who live self-sufficiently, but above all seek togetherness.
And at the same time, I found it a disturbing book. Because I recognized that broken country all too well. Not only from the US, where I had lived for a while, but now also from home, from my own torn Netherlands. The land of Ter Apel, Groningen Shell ground shocks, surcharge disasters, broken backs of suitcase throwers. The land of displaced persons and sleepers, where homelessness had doubled in ten years. Land of lack of beds, lack of sleep, lack of housing, shortage of everything. A gum society.
Recently I was standing in a fully stationary train staring at the upturned flags in the meadow and I thought: damn right. The country broke down. No, no, not America at all, we said. And indeed we are not America, I thought on that train: our country is indeed crumbling, but without that spirit of self-reliance that still characterizes Americans. We are more helpless, it seems to me: a country like a flat inflatable boat, people on board in denial: we can compensate, can’t we, stick stickers?
I bought my inflatable kayak to survive the pandemic. The pandemic was gone, only new storms had come. Escapism won’t save me anymore. Although lately I have been thinking more and more about running away. Half-joking, amusingly noncommittal, the way you shout at parties that you are looking for a house in Limburg aan Zee.
The red inflatable on the beach had warned me. As you could hear the sea in a shell, so I heard the rage of the whole world in that plastic ark.
It used to be simpler: you had the pathetic people who came here asking for asylum and our job was to squabble about exactly how many beds and soup we gave them. Lots of soup, one said. Little soup, said the other. It was never about ourselves.
Ter Apel is a slightly different story. A blot in itself, of course – our own Calais, our Moria – but also a symptom of a government that no longer has its affairs in order. And you see that government everywhere. See the farmers, see the benefit mothers. Ter Apel is also about our soup. Next winter, a million of our own citizens are in danger of being cut off from gas, I had read in de Volkskrant.
And we’ll get through this winter, grumbling, moisturizing, compensating. But further in the future lies a world so chaotic, so full of chain reactions – a ‘doom glacier’ melting just a little faster in Antarctica, a spark between China and Taiwan – that it has long ceased to seem inconceivable to me that I or my children might someday really will have to pack the rushes.
The only certainty seems to me that the world is becoming more uncertain, the question is who are best prepared for that, the answer: those who had already chopped with that axe. Like migrants, who end up in a completely different world from one day to the next. They can manage, they may not have a tent, but they are certainly not pathetic. Instead, they have been trained in the most important skill of the future: holding your own in a world upside down, a world of shrinkage and shortage.
The same goes for all those Dutch people who have had to live with less money in recent years, I thought on the train. The pocked and measles. You now read one harrowing message after another about starving school children and overflowing food banks. At least as interesting are the stories of all those people who have been living for years without a lot of money – and who know how to manage just fine. In my Rotterdam it is normal for 1 in 5 children to grow up in poverty. And yet their mothers – almost always mothers – have managed to fill their children’s lunch boxes in recent years. With ingenuity, a neighborly network, hustling, love. The untold story: the expertise of the people who have been hacking for years.
I am the least concerned about them. They already know that shop where you got a bag of currant buns for fifty cents, they know which neighbors helped them. Many first will be last, and vice versa, Jesus predicted.
But the rest? Should the really big storm ever come, it will hit a country full of spoiled and defenseless malcontents. Displeased about queues at Schiphol, angry about a late delivery of a package, a stationary train. Convenience addicts, unable to fix their own bicycle tire (because a Swap bike), unable to put food on the table (because home delivery), unable to get help from the neighbors (because Netflix hermits). What is to come cannot be fixed with money, but with love and courage.
I once heard of a brave man who paddled from Decathlon to England in an Itiwit inflatable kayak. His name was Masoud Mohammadajir, a 39-year-old Iranian. He had been in prison in Iran, suspected of espionage. His asylum applications in Romania and the Netherlands were rejected because he fled Iran with a false passport. He hated people smugglers. So he and a friend bought a 250 euro kayak. They only had money for one life jacket, Masoud gave it to his friend, who could not swim. The Pas de Calais was pitch dark, they navigated on the lights of the ferries, parried waves of more than two meters. “I would never try this again,” Masoud later told the dailymail, who verified the most important details. But they made it to the other side.
Many other paddlers would follow. So much so that last fall the Decathlon branches along the northern French coast stopped selling inflatable kayaks. That was also to no avail. Last month, on the night of Monday, August 22, a record 1,295 people attempted to sail to England. Including people who went by inflatable kayak. Not one from Decathlon, but an even cheaper model, the Hydro Force Lite Rapid, available online for less than 100 euros.
Recently I was back at the beach, I thought about the red boat, how it would go with the people on board. Inflatable boat refugees, escape artists: they had had the courage, they were already on the other side. And we? Laggards, ever, perhaps.