LINSCHOTEN, the Netherlands — Years ago, the story goes, Dutch farmers crossed the canals dividing their fields by vaulting over them with a pole, since bridges were few and far between. This apparently never translated into Olympic glory in the pole vault, but it did give rise to a sport here that has been gaining popularity in recent years — canal-vaulting.

It is one of several little-known Dutch sports that are enjoying a revival here. Canal-vaulters do not seek to go high, like pole-vaulters, but long. Hence they dig the point of their giant poles, a maximum of 43 feet, into the muddy bed of the canal near the bank. They then take a running start, leap onto the pole and climb up it before, if all goes well, throwing themselves to the other side of the canal. It is even harder than it sounds, and it sounds pretty hard.

When Erik Bos took his second of three tries in a recent competition in this rural Dutch village one recent evening, he suffered a common fate of canal-vaulters, gradually losing his grip on the pole and tumbling into the cold water below. Jaco de Groot, 26, jumped 67 feet, the farthest of anyone that evening, but only after plunging twice into the canal.

“Normally about 30 percent of the jumpers wind up in the water,” said Pieter Hielema, who was waiting his turn to jump.

The origins of the practice are lost in the misty past, but records of competitions go back to the mid-18th century. The competitions thrived for a while after World War II, then waned again until recent years.

“People understand now that it’s part of our culture,” said Mr. Hielema, 40, a project manager who has been vaulting since he was 12. Now his son Kenzo, 7, is taking part in children’s competitions. “Twenty years ago, there were very few competitions.”

Most participants, like Mr. Bos, who started vaulting canals when he was 6, bring extra changes of clothing because of the risk of landing in the canal, which is 46 feet wide. Vaulting was his father’s hobby, Mr. Bos said, adding that he vaulted from pasture to pasture as a boy. “I already did it between the cows,” he said. “So competition was a logical step for me.”

In 2008, he won his second national championship with a leap of 64 feet. “This is a cultural event as well as a sport,” said Mr. Bos, 37, a lighting consultant. “I’m very proud of the last 20 years; we saw a lot of growth.”

About an hour’s drive north of Linschoten in the village of Wormer, once an affluent whaling town but now a bedroom community of Amsterdam, a dozen men and women gathered on a recent afternoon, all enthusiasts of another venerable Dutch sport: kolf or kolven, which has elements similar to French pétanque and to golf. The idea is to use a kolf club to hit balls at two posts at either end of a court nearly 60 feet long and 16 feet wide. To get the highest possible score, 60, is as hard as throwing a no-hitter in baseball.

It is not a great spectator sport, unless one’s idea of entertainment runs to watching paint dry or grass grow. Yet, 300 years ago, kolf was everywhere, with 217 courts in Amsterdam alone. Today, there are none in Amsterdam, and in all of the Netherlands, just 14.

But the number may be on the rise.

When he joined his local kolf club last November, Mark Aberkrom said, “my aim was to press for 10 new courts in two years.”

Mr. Aberkrom, 48, a financial consultant, discovered kolf after he bought a former tavern and found the remains of a kolf court there. He has since developed a passion for the sport. In the 19th century, he said, “what killed kolf was the French game of billiards.” Five or six billiard tables could occupy the space of one kolf court, and tavernkeepers preferred the French novelty.

The club now has 48 members. “We are an example for other clubs that you can grow,” he said. In the old days, kolf was played in winter, on the frozen canals, often accompanied by shots of Dutch gin and bets of smoked eel. Now, it is mainly a game of older people, with the average age of players about 65.

As a teenager, Dirk Spijker loved billiards, yet he became fascinated with the kolf players at the far end of his local tavern.

“I wanted to try, I found a club, a rubber ball, I like to whack it,” he said, crouching to aim his ball. By last year, Mr. Spijker, now 58, did what was thought impossible, playing two perfect games for 60 points. No one remembers this ever being done before.

Neither canal-vaulting nor kolf has caught on outside the Netherlands, but one eccentric Dutch sport has found a home abroad. For the past 18 years Aruba, the Caribbean island that remains part of the kingdom of the Netherlands, has been holding a local championship for paalzitten, or pole sitting.

This sport arose from the habit of Dutch canal boat hands’ resting on the poles that lined the canals to moor barges. This year’s competition in Oranjestad, the capital of Aruba, involved four people who climbed onto poles to see who could sit the longest, toilet breaks every few hours being the only interruption allowed.

After 87 hours and 52 minutes, Liesbeth Cornes, 31, a cafe employee, climbed down victorious, sharing the honor with another islander, Shurman Milliard. The group of four settled atop their poles on a Thursday morning in May at 6:30 a.m., and the winners climbed down on Sunday night at 10:22. Hundreds of spectators came to see the four and danced to the tunes of a local band, Tsunami.

After this victory, Ms. Cornes decided to retire. “This is the last year for me,” she said by phone. “I don’t have to prove myself.”

by: John Tagliabue


Jaco de Groot
Jaco de Groot

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