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Replicating The Duyfken: an intersection of maritime and forestry history

The Duyfken replica, off the coast of Western Australia in 1999

This is a story with three diverse elements: a famous sailing ship and its replication, a Western Australian forester, and the oak forests of Latvia. The intertwining of these elements provides a fascinating glimpse into a unique chapter of maritime and forestry history.

The sailing ship is Duyfken, the forester is Karl Kelers, and the forests of Latvia were once, and still are today, some of the finest and most famous forests in Europe.

Let me say from the outset that I have only seen Duyfken from ashore, and have never been to Latvia. But Karl (or, as he was always known to his forestry mates, “Charlie”) has been a friend, and was once a close colleague for over fifty years. It was Charlie who first told me this story, and who pointed me in the right direction for my research.

First, the ship

The original Duyfken (which translates into English as “Little Dove”), was built in the Netherlands and launched in 1605. It was not one of the great cargo ships of the Dutch East Indies fleet, but was intended as a scout and a pathfinder, a support for the trading fleets exploiting the spice trade in the East Indies. She was small, only 110-tonne displacement, 20m in length (about the same length as a cricket pitch) and with a 6m beam. But she was three-masted, armed with several cannons and for a sailing vessel of the day, was fast and manoeuvrable. Stationed in Banda (today the Indonesian province of Maluku), Duyfken’s role was exploration, finding new resources of the valuable spices abounding in these multitudinous islands and surveying and charting the most profitable trading routes.

In March 1606, under the command of Willem Janszoon, Duyfken set off on a major voyage to explore unknown territory to the east and south for potential trade opportunities. Following the routes taken by Indonesian fishermen, the vessel eventually reached the northern-most point of the Australian continent. Landfall was made at the mouth of the Pennefather River in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Janszoon then sailed down and charted over 300km of the west coast of Cape York peninsula. He travelled south as far as Cape Keerweer, where he met up with (and managed to get into a fight with) the local Aboriginal people. Several of the crew were killed. Janszoon turned around at this point, and retraced his voyage back to Banda.

The 1606 voyage of the Duyfken. This illustration is taken from a delightful children’s book “The Trees that Went to Sea” by Mike Lefroy and Rick Martin

The sailors of Duyfken were the first Europeans to visit the Australian continent, the first to chart any of its coastline, and the first to make contact with the indigenous people of Australia. Janszoon’s ”discovery” of Australia took place 164 years before James Cook’s celebrated arrival at Botany Bay in 1770.

The exploits of Duyfken and the significance of its 1606 voyage was either unknown or forgotten over the succeeding 400 years (it was not mentioned at all when I was taught Australian history as a schoolboy). The vessel itself ended in obscurity. One account has it damaged beyond repair in a violent tropical storm and abandoned somewhere in Indonesia. But the story was not wholly forgotten; its rediscovery and promotion in the early 1990s by scholars at the WA Maritime Museum led to a remarkable project: the building of an authentic Duyfken replica in Fremantle, Western Australia.

There are three fascinating aspects of the building of the replica.

The first is that the actual architectural drawing of the original ship was found still to exist in the archives of the Dutch East Indies Company in the Netherlands. All of the specifications were there (written in Dutch – but that could be translated). Not only was there a blueprint, it was the perfect blueprint.

The second relates to marine archaeology and the history of ship-building technology. This is a great story, nowhere better-told than by Nick Burningham, the experienced naval architect for the Duyfken project [Endnote 1].

The detail is too technical to cover here, but basically there were two ways in which wooden sailing ships were built in the early days: either (i) from the inside, starting with constructing the skeleton and then adding the cladding; or (ii) starting with the outer shell, and later building-in the skeleton. The original Duyfken had been built the second way – from the outside-in. This approach was regarded as obsolete by most ship builders in the early 17th century, but was still favoured by the Dutch … and for a good reason. Their ocean-going sailing ship “freighters” were wonderfully strong and durable, the finest ships in the world for their time.

Thus, the builders of the Duyfken replica came up immediately against a massive challenge: they had to learn from scratch a long-lost art, i.e., the shaping, bending and joining of the great wooden planks that would become the outer shell of the vessel, and then the manufacture and fitting within the shell of the timber structures that would keep the whole thing rigid. There was not a single shipwright, carpenter or wooden-boat builder in Australia with that experience.

The final intriguing aspect of the replica project relates to the timber itself. The builders could easily have used Western Australian jarrah timber, one of the world’s finest shipbuilding timbers, and readily available at that time (jarrah was used some years later to build the replica of Cook’s vessel Endeavor). But the Duyfken Foundation was determined that the vessel would be truly authentic. This meant that it needed not only to be constructed in the same way as the original, but also out of the same timber. The Netherlands, of course, had never had forests of its own, and imported all of its ship-building timbers from the Baltic region, and that timber was oak. So here was a final challenge: finding, buying and importing oak timber from the Baltics.

The forester

Which brings us to the second major element of our story: Western Australian forester Karl Kelers. “Charlie” (as I will call him in this story), was a near-contemporary of mine at University and Forestry School, a colleague for many years in the Forests Department, and a friend.

Charlie Kelers in 1963, a newly appointed forest officer in Western Australia

Charlie was born in 1939 in Latvia. It was not a good time to be born in this particular part of the world. In 1939, Hitler and Stalin had agreed to an infamous peace pact, a secret clause of which allowed Russia, with impunity, to invade and annexe the Baltic countries of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Charlie’s father was a large-scale land-owner and successful farmer in the agricultural region just south of Riga, and his uncle was a forester (indeed, he was the Chief Forester of Latvia). But their lives, like those of all Latvians at the time were turned upside down by the war and its aftermath. The invasion by the Russians in 1941 was followed by invasion by the Nazis in 1942, and then the return invasion by the Russians in 1944. Charlie’s family was able to make a dramatic escape (I wish I had space to tell the story here), getting out just before the arrival of the Russian army and the re-annexing of Latvia by the USSR. Then, after many hair-raising adventures and five years in a refugee camp in Germany, they were accepted as migrants to Western Australia. On arrival in Perth in 1949 when Charlie was 10-years-old, none of the family could speak a word of English. Due to the upheavals of the war years, and what followed, Charlie had had virtually no formal schooling up until that time.

But being intelligent, tall and athletic, and well-motivated like so many children of migrants of the day, Charlie succeeded effortlessly in his new country. He did well at High School, earning university entrance, and graduated in 1962 with a degree in forestry. The significance of this achievement is underscored by the fact that all through his school and university days, English was only his second language [Endnote 2]. His interest in forestry, incidentally was influenced by his memories of his uncle in Latvia, who as Chief Forester had a wonderful uniform, was driven about in a smart chauffeur-driven car, and lived in a mansion on a forested estate. It was the sort of image which appealed to a young migrant looking for a new career. (The uncle’s story, regrettably, did not end happily. He lost his position under Russian occupation, and emigrated to Canada, where his qualifications were not accepted, and he ended up in a factory painting broom handles. Charlie’s father, with his agricultural experience, was able to get a job with Cooperative Bulk Handling, travelling widely throughout the WA wheatbelt).

During our careers in forestry, Charlie’s path and mine crossed many times. He became an experienced district forester, OIC of the Mundaring, Dwellingup and Busselton districts, and later a senior regional forester.

Forests Department district foresters in the early 1970s. Charlie Kelers is third from the right at the rear

Charlie and I worked well together, and eventually retired from the department on the same day in 1994. From there our lives diverged, and I lost touch with him until I heard about the amazing story of his involvement in the Duyfken replica project. I sought him out to hear the story, and subsequently our friendship has been renewed.

How did he become involved? It was one of those serendipitous meetings, where something arises from nothing. In Charlie’s words:

“In 1995, The Duyfken 1606 Foundation had been formed for the purposes of building a replica of the ship in Fremantle. The Foundation was chaired by the fishing magnate Michael Kailis, and the committee included James Henderson, a marine archaeologist and a key figure in WA’s Maritime Museum. At about this time, Dr Henderson was guest speaker at the Booragoon Rotary Club, of which I was a member. Tony Trilling, who ran an import-export business, was also a member. In his talk, Henderson had mentioned the challenge they faced in acquiring oak timber from the Baltic region for the project.

Later that evening, chatting with Tony, I mentioned casually that Latvia had magnificent oak forests, that I was Latvian, that I was fluent in the language, was a forester with experience with the timber industry, and had many contacts there. I had been back to Latvia three times in recent years, mainly to sort out the re-acquisition of my parent’ lands, taken from them and collectivised by the Russians during their occupation of Latvia (which I succeeded in doing), and I knew my way around. Tony’s eyes flashed, sensing a big business opportunity. “We can do it!” he cried. He jumped straight in, contacted the Foundation, made promises, signed a contract (with an appalling penalty clause of $48,000 if we failed to deliver), set me up as his partner, and sent me on my way. In hindsight, it was a rash and foolish decision”.

Charlie’s job was to travel to Latvia, and to organise and purchase oak planks and shipbuilding timbers (to precise specifications), and to organise their shipment to Western Australia, all within a tight time-frame. I’ll get back to this in a moment.

But first a word about Latvia and Latvian forests

The country of Latvia is about the size of Tasmania, bordered by the Baltic Sea to the west and the deeply-hated Russia to the east. (The attitude to Russians is exemplified by the old joke about the Latvian who always hoped that one day his country would be invaded by China – because to do so China would have had to destroy Russia on the way through).

Over 50% of Latvia (more than three and half million hectares) is covered by forest and woodland. In the north this is mainly pine and spruce. These grade into deciduous hardwoods, including oak, linden and birch, in the south. The oak (Quercus robur) and the linden (Tilia cordata) are jointly regarded as Latvia’s national trees.

According to an FAO report:

It can be said with ample certainty that Latvia is a land of forests and timber is the country’s green gold. Nearly every resident of Latvia is involved with the forest, forestry and forest products in one way or another. For some people, the forest is a major source of revenues, others see it as a place to spend free time, a place to go hunting or, on the contrary, a place that must be watched with full respect from the sidelines so as to see environmental processes in the woods. Some people pick mushrooms and berries in the forest, while others visit it to breathe in fresh air and to find new and creative ideas.

The coloured patches indicate the forests and woodlands of Latvia. Collectively they make up 52% of the country’s land area

Internationally, Latvia’s has two famous trees. The first is Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris), once the tree-of-choice for ship masts, and exported all over the world (including Australia) as timber for flooring and furniture, where it was known as Baltic Pine (although Norway spruce was also marketed as Baltic Pine).

The second was Baltic oak. This was the tree-of-choice for European shipbuilders in the days of wooden sailing vessels, especially the Dutch. All of the great fleets of the Dutch East India Company were built of Baltic oak, and most of this came from the forests of southern Latvia. (Incidentally the so-called English oak, used for the “wooden walls of England” is the same species).

Enjoying a walk through an oak forest in Latvia

So, the point has now been reached in our story where the forests of Latvia have been identified as the source of oak for the Duyfken replica, and Charlie Kelers is poised to sort it all out.

Forester Kelers sorts things out

The contract signed, and Charlie in it up to his ears, the real work began. He recalls:

“I was given only the roughest specifications. The shipbuilders specified planks, quarter-sawn [Endnote 3], 100 mm thick and defect-free. The length and the width of the planks did not seem to matter, but I knew that the wider and longer the better.

Latvia had obtained independence from the USSR in 1991. Things were shambolic as entrepreneurs took over previously State-owned assets and businesses, including sawmills, and things had not improved much by 1995. However, I had to start somewhere so I asked one of my friends in Latvia if he could get me a contact in the timber game, and a name was produced and a meeting arranged. My first trip to Latvia on Duyfken business was in late 1995, and I met up with the sawmiller my friend had found. He was a very dubious-looking fellow, a Russian speaker, and knew nothing about sawmilling or timber.

Charlie Kelers (left) and Tony Trilling on their first oak-buying trip to Latvia

The oak timber that he showed me was nowhere near specification and was of extremely poor quality. Indeed, it was worse than useless. Looking around I came across another timber yard, still Russian-owned, but with suitable oak planks of the right size and quality – not enough, but a good start. The Russian demanded $US10,000, in cash. The fax machine ran hot back and forth from Tony in a small town in Latvia to his bank in Fremantle in WA, and somehow or other, later that day, I found myself with $10,000 in US banknotes in a money belt around my waist, and payment due the following morning. This led to a traumatic night, in which I saw villainous-looking Russian gangsters on all sides, or at least this is what I took them for, all well-aware that I had a fortune in cash on me. Luckily, I survived, payment was made, and we were able to organise the first cargo of Latvian oak for shipment to Western Australia.

At this stage, Charlie had the good fortune to hear of another source of oak timber way over on the other side of Latvia, so he journeyed again from Perth (this time accompanied by naval architect Nick Burningham) to see what could be arranged. The timber merchant was located, the timber inspected and found to be just right, and a deal was made. “We shook hands, and drank a bottle of brandy” Charlie remembered, before returning home.

However, the Russian timber merchant had a card up his sleeve. When Charlie arrived back in Perth, the first thing he found was a fax from Latvia. The timber merchant said the price had gone up, and no shipment would be made until a further enormous payment was made. Charlie and Tony groaned with dismay, but they had no option, remembering the Penalty Clause in their contract.

Charlie made one further trip to the oak forests of Latvia in 1997, this time to acquire the special “internal” timbers, the knees and other oddly-shaped pieces that make up the ship’s internal skeleton. These had to be located out in the forest, and then cut from standing trees, wherever the right-shaped pieces could be found.

How did it end up? “About even, financially”, Charlie remembers, with the expense of travel and the cost of timber just about being equal to the price paid by the Foundation. But in terms of worry, frustration, anxiety and downright terror (The Night of the Money Belt), Charlie told me “I reckon sourcing the timber for the Duyfken took about ten years off my life”.

Overall, it was a triumph. The keel was laid in a special boatshed in Fremantle (by Crown Prince William of the Netherlands), and a team of brilliant carpenters and shipwrights successfully “learned” the technology, and completed a beautiful and perfect replica vessel. It was launched on 24 January 1999.

The Duyfken under full sail on the Swan River, the city of Perth in the background, Charlie’s oak planks performing outstandingly.

Duyfken sailed the high seas for some years, based in Fremantle, where I often would go and stand on the wharf and admire the beauty of her lines, the wonder of her construction and the magnificent oak planking of her hull. Today the replica is located at the Australian Maritime Museum in Sydney, and I understand it is being lovingly looked after.

So, the many elements of an intriguing story finally came together: a heritage ship, a Western Australian forester, skilled shipwrights, and the building of an authentic replica in Australia using timber from the oak forests of Latvia.

End Notes

1. Nick’ Burningham’s account of the technical aspects of the Duyfken’s replication can be found at It is a fascinating story within a story.

2. Ironically, Charlie Kelers and his wife Carlene spent a year in China in 2005/6 as volunteers, teaching university students conversational English. It often amuses me to think that today” Charlie told me, “there are several hundred Chinese going around speaking English with a Latvian accent”.

3. “Quarter sawn” refers to one of the two main ways a log can be sawn into planks or boards (the other is “back sawn”). In quarter sawn timber, the growth rings run at an angle across the end of the board, rather than being parallel with it, as is the case with back sawn timber. Quarter sawn timber is more stable, less likely to warp, and more water-proof than back sawn timber and also, usually, more expensive. .

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