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Navigator Magazine | The Dutchman in the Promised Land

The Dutchman in the Promised Land

“Money is growing on trees here. All you have to do is shake the trees and it falls off!”

Stoffer Boertien might have been a tad enthusiastic in a letter to his younger brother Egbert (Bert) Boertien describing life on Prince Edward Island in 1949, but he wanted to make a strong point.

Back home in his native Holland, young Bert was working as a peat moss harvester when he received his brother’s letter. He was intrigued by Stoffer’s excitement for his new life after emigrating to Canada a couple years prior, so Bert started saving money to cross the Atlantic and join Stoffer in Kingsborro, P.E.I.

Bert was saving as much as he could, but instead of keeping his hard-earned savings secured at home, he kept the money in his wallet. One day he went for a swim in a canal and left his wallet along with his clothes on the riverbank. A little dog happened by, took an interest in Bert’s wallet and ran off with it.

By the time Bert could catch the playful little mutt, the pup had the wallet and all Bert’s money chewed to pieces. P.E.I. would have to wait.

A year later, the determined Bert Boertien had once again saved enough to pay for passage to the promised land where money reportedly grew on trees. And, by then, Bert was ready to shake a few of them.

When he arrived in Kingsborro, Bert’s English vocabulary consisted of little more than “yes, no and thank-you.” But a kindly woman in the community would drop by the house in the evenings and gave the new immigrant English lessons. Within a few weeks, Bert could carry on a limited conversation.

Bert couldn’t shake money from trees in Kingsborro, but he was soon earning cash working for a farmer and sawmill operator named Irvin Robertson.

The Boertien brothers bought an acre of land to grow their own vegetables and Mr. Robertson let Bert use his tractor and some other equipment to help get the brothers started in their own business. Bert said he would work all-day and evening and eventually would head for his girlfriend’s house on the tractor.

“All the neighbours knew my day was done when they would hear the roar of that old John Deere,” Bert laughs. He married Florence Stewart a couple of years later and acquired a small house.

Bert was constantly amazed at the generosity of the P.E.I. people.

Once, he wound up in hospital just before harvest time. Bert was weakened after the ordeal and worried about how he was going to harvest his crop that fall. But there was no need for concern. When Bert was discharged from hospital, he discovered that a group of friends from Kingsboro had already harvested his potatoes, had stored and graded them and had even sold the entire crop for him. All Bert had to do was pick up his cheque for $600.

Bert was overwhelmed and knew that even if money didn’t grow on trees Kingsboro, there was an endless supply of generosity, caring and a strong community spirit and that was worth more than money.

In 1953, Bert parked his tractor and went to sea.

A fisherman named MacDonald operated a lobster vessel and offered Bert a job as a crewman. Despite having never been on the ocean except for crossing the Atlantic to come to P.E.I, Bert didn’t hesitate and without a second thought, he was a crewman on a lobster boat.

A year later, Captain MacDonald became skipper of a dragger owned by Eastern Fisheries out of Souris. He must have liked Bert’s work because he immediately asked the young Dutchman to join him on the larger vessel. That was Bert’s first experience as a dragger fishermen and he liked it — so much in fact he stayed in that fishery for many years.

Because Souris was homeport to many vessels in the dragger fishery on the east end of P.E.I., Bert and Florence moved there to live.

By 1959, just 10 years after Bert began saving pennies to move to Canada, he had saved enough money to realize another big dream — the purchase of his own dragger. The MV North Bay was a 65-foot vessel and served Bert well for nearly a decade. Almost every fishing trip ended with full loads but Bert, a modest man, always claimed the he was just lucky.

Some luck perhaps, but Bert’s fishing expertise, his drive and strong work ethic was really the reason for his “luck.” In fact, Bert also operated a second vessel named Polarfish, at the time he owned the North Bay and soon began expanding his fleet.

He acquired the first steel stern trawler to ever fish out of Souris. The 92-foot vessel was built in 1964, but the North Bay was riddled with problems. After struggling, unsuccessfully, to iron out mechanical faults combined with design issues and more, Bert returned the dragger to the builders in New Brunswick.

In late 1969, Bert received a letter from his mother back home in Holland. Mrs. Boertien said she was ailing and that she would like to see her son again before she passed on. Bert wasted no time in preparing to grant his mother’s dying wish. He docked the North Bay in Sydney, N.S. where he had been winter fishing and within days, he and Florence were off to his homeland.

Returning from Holland, Bert went straight to Sydney to get the North Bay ready for fishing again. After the vessel’s month-long layup, he decided to leave the batteries on charge for two whole days. That proved to be a big mistake. Not long after getting back to the fishing grounds, the overcharged batteries exploded causing a fire that could not be contained. The North Bay burned for hours and eventually sank. There were no injuries in the incident.

Down, but not out, Captain Bert wasted no time getting back on his feet. He bought a new and bigger vessel in 1970.

He fished the Souris IV for a few years, but another opportunity came along and Bert decided to change his status. Usen Fisheries was the big fish company in Souris at the time and as a vertically integrated company, Usen owned its own fleet of draggers. Usen added the first mid-water trawler to their Souris fleet in 1973 and asked Bert if would be first mate on the MV Winchester. Bert liked the challenge of mid-distance trawling and accepted. Soon afterwards, he was a captain with the Usen fleet.

When Bert began fishing in the early 1950s, he was rarely away from home for more than a few days and then, generally on non-fishing business.

He fished primarily in summer months and returned home every night. As his career progressed to larger vessels and then mid-water trawling, he would often be away from home weeks or months at a time. He also worked year-round, often from ports in Nova Scotia and elsewhere. On one lengthy trip Bert grew a beard. When he returned to Souris, his children didn’t recognize him and were afraid to go near their dad. That was heartbreaking for the hard-working family man and he decided that he had to do something — something more than simply shaving his beard.

That’s when he decided to go back to the simpler, inshore fishery. Not one to procrastinate, Bert purchased the St. Charles II, a 52-foot dragger from which he could make shorter trips fishing from Souris Harbour and be with his family at the end of most days.

In 1990, Bert was on deck hauling fishing gear when he felt something snap in his back. The pain was intense and wouldn’t go away. It was late in the season so Bert decided that he’d give up fishing for the year and give his back a good rest in the winter. That way, he figured he’d be in shape to start the 1991 season fit as a fiddle.

In fact, Bert felt fine in the spring of 1991 and he joined his son, Berend and went back to work, but his back wasn’t as fit as he had thought. The pain soon returned and made it impossible for him to continue.

It wasn’t easy for a man who worked hard nearly 365 days a year to even imagine retirement at just 59 but, faced with the inevitable, Bert had no choice. He sold his fishing enterprises to Berend and started to adapt to a new life.

Throughout Bert’s journey as a fisherman and sea captain, there would be a few close calls. Join us next month for Part II of “The Dutchman in the Promised Land” when we tell you about those scary incidents that could have been serious or even disastrous.

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