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Dutch students complete Atlantic crossing forced by virus

Aleksandar Furtula
The Associated Press

HARLINGEN, Netherlands — Greeted by relieved parents, pet dogs, flares and a cloud of orange smoke, a group of 25 Dutch high school students with very little sailing experience ended a trans-Atlantic voyage Sunday that was forced on them by coronavirus restrictions.

The children, ages 14 to 17, watched over by 12 experienced crew members and three teachers, were on an educational cruise of the Caribbean when the pandemic forced them to radically change their plans for returning home in March.

That gave one of the young sailors, 17-year-old Floor Hurkmans, one of the biggest lessons of her impromptu adventure.

“Being flexible, because everything is changing all the time,” she said as she set foot on dry land again.

Instead of flying back from Cuba as originally planned, the crew and students stocked up on supplies and warm clothes and set sail for the northern Dutch port of Harlingen, a five-week voyage of 4,350 miles on board the 200-foot top sail schooner Wylde Swan.

As they arrived home, the students hung up a self-made banner saying “Bucket List” with ticks in boxes for Atlantic Ocean crossing, mid-ocean swim and surviving the Bermuda triangle.

The teens hugged and chanted each other’s names as they walked off the ship and into the arms of their families, who drove their cars alongside the yacht one by one to adhere to social distancing rules.

Dutch teens cheer on their schooner Wylde Swan after sailing home from the Caribbean across the Atlantic when coronavirus lockdowns prevented them flying, in the port of Harlingen, northern Netherlands, Sunday, April 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Hurkmans’ mother, Renee Scholtemeijer, said she expects her daughter to miss life on the open sea once she encounters coronavirus containment measures in the Netherlands.

“I think that after two days she’ll want to go back on the boat, because life is very boring back at home,” she said. “There’s nothing to do, she can’t visit friends.”

Masterskip, the company that organized the cruise, runs five educational voyages for about 150 students in all each year. Crossing the Atlantic is nothing new for the twin-masted Wylde Swan, having made the trip about 20 times.

The company’s director, Christophe Meijer, said the students were monitored for the coronavirus in March to ensure nobody was infected.

He said he was pleased the students had adapted to life on board and kept up their education on the long voyage.

“The children learned a lot about adaptivity, also about media attention, but also their normal school work,” he said. “So they are actually far ahead now of their Dutch school colleagues. They have made us very proud.”