By William Hryb

The Danser Van Gent shipping company is a very special group. You wouldn’t have known that when its 8,334-tonne MV Marietje Deborah anchored in Thunder Bay’s harbour just before midnight on June 27, 2012.

The following morning, with the sun casting its rays on the magnificent turquoise coloured hull, the MV Marietje Deborah had distinguished  written all over it. The ship’s owner, Captain Henk J. Danser, was at the helm, ready to supervise the loading of the vessel’s first ever grain cargo.

In an era when shipowners control their ships from afar through modern telecommunication technology, this particular voyage was all hands-on … a family affair you could say. Captain Danser joined his ship in Montreal in mid-June to assist his future son-in-law transiting through the St. Lawrence Seaway. The ocean-crossing was captained by Walter J. Schurr who is engaged to Captain Danser’s daughter, Deborah, who is sailing as the second engineer.

“With Henk’s vast experience with lock systems, it’s much easier with him on board, as we travel through unknown waters,” Walter Schurr said. “Captain’s Danser’s guidance and experience will prove invaluable to me in the future.” MV Marietje Deborah is a 1A ice class multi-purpose vessel that was delivered  to the Danser Van Gent family at its homeport of Delfzijl, the Netherlands, in July 2011. The Danser Van Gent/Wagenborg combination is the third of four vessels  built by the Barkmeijer, Stroobos shipyard  for the Danser family.

The name of this unique family business has evolved from two family names, Van Gent and Danser. Rita van Gent was born in Holland in 1958 and is part of a family with roots in the shipping industry. Henk J. Danser, born in 1948, is a tenth generation sailor with 52 years of active sailing under his belt. Their marriage  produced five children – three girls and two boys. The oldest is Hendrik born in 1979, Benita in 1981, Andrew in 1986, Maritijn in 1988 and Deborah in 1990. Hendrik, Benita and Andrew have completed their maritime academy, with Maritijn and Deborah currently enrolled.

Rita and Henk Danser’s youngest daughter is the namesake for MV Marietje Deborah, christened last summer. “Sailing is in my blood … I represent the 11th generation of sailors in my family,” Deborah  stated. “The only thing that I don’t like about sailing is bad weather … but that changes and its different every day.”

Captain Henk Danser’s six-decade career commenced at an early age when he started sailing with his parents in 1960 as a twelve-year-old boy. Six years later, Captain Danser became a tug-boat master sailing the interior waterways in Holland and on the Rhine River. By 1974, Danser spent about half his sailing time at sea, and it was not long before he realized that he should sail his own ship, resulting in Henk purchasing a 1,200-tonne vessel in 1981. Eleven years later, in 1992, Captain Danser and his wife Rita had their first ship built, and began trading throughout Europe.

Seven years ago, the family had two ships built specifically to navigate through the Finnish Saijmaa lake system. Comprised of a series of eight 13-metre-wide locks, vessels with a maximum beam of 12.6 metres were able to transit through the locks. “It left us with under a metre of manoeuvring room but we were comfortable with that.”

In 2008, Henk and Rita began constructing their current fleet of ships. “I was at the shipyard every day making sure all was going well,” said Danser. “These ships were built for the next generation with durability in mind and the heaviest ice class.” The MV Marietje Andrea went into service in 2009, MV Marietje Marsila in 2010 and MV Marietje Deborah last year.

MV Marietje Astrid is scheduled to be in service in 2014. “All of these vessels are named after our daughters and daughters-in-law”, Captain Danser proudly announced.  Henk Danser has every reason to be proud and doesn’t mince words describing his feelings. On his first-ever trip to North America this past March with his son Andrew, Capt. Danser paid tribute to his parents. “I wish they could be here so they could see their son, grandson and crew sailing to America and Canada after 52 years of sailing … I find it so momentous and special,” Capt. Danser said.

On that particular voyage, Captain Danser and his crew rescued 24 people who were disabled and adrift on a small, overloaded recreational boat located 26 nautical miles East of St. Lucia Inlet, Florida. The Florida Coast Guard had received a distress call and requested assistance from any nearby vessels. Without hesitation, Danser’s MV Marietje Marsila immediately changed course, reaching the overloaded and flooded vessel and was able to transfer all on board just before it capsized. Captain C.P. Scraba, Commander, U.S. Coast Guard Miami later commended Captain Danser and his crew, writing, “Your willingness to divert and delay your vessel and the humanitarian  actions of your crew are in the highest traditions of professional mariners. I am personally grateful to you and the entire crew. Well done!”

A very special mariner and shipowner indeed.