After leaving Holland following the Second World War due to a lack of both opportunity and land, a retirement home resident in South Surrey keeps close to his Dutch background by recreating historical ships using only his two hands.
Kees ‘Case’ Koster has been living in White Rock-South Surrey for over 30 years. In his Chartwell Crescent Gardens home, Koster’s handmade ships are displayed, while he is busy building his third scale-model historical ship.
A former contractor, Koster’s grandest ship so far is the replica he made of Irene, formerly known as Grasshopper.
The British ship sailed in 1806 and was a vital tool for the nation – that was, until a fierce storm left it trapped, allowing for the Dutch navy to capture it in December 1811. The following year, Grasshopper was transferred to the French and renamed Irene.
However, in 1813, the Dutch were able to capture Irene once again and deploy it to active duty the following year.
Koster spent 30 years — on and off — building his version of Irene while following a handbook called Modeling The Brig of War ‘Irene’ by E.W. Petrejus.
“This was built from scratch, as they call it. I had to build every piece,” he explained.
Every single piece in Koster’s creations are individually added. This differs immensely from building from a kit, which typically comes with a piece of plywood with marks on it to indicate individual pieces. With Koster’s work, there is no trickery.
The project began while Koster was living in Ontario with his wife and kids. He had part of the base built, but then, after the family moved to B.C., the incomplete boat sat in their basement for years.
“One of my sons looked at it one day and said, ‘Dad, when are you going to finish this?’” Koster laughed as he recalled the memory.
“Then I got at it.”
Koster came to Canada when he was just 18 years old after WWII, which left Dutch farmers in Holland desperate for land to farm, as it was scarce at the time.
He was the first of his family to make the journey in 1953 to Ontario, where he worked on a farm and began learning English, with his mother, two brothers and two sisters joining him a year later.
His love for building model ships began in 1947, when he was just 12 years old, after seeing a model that his cousin had built.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this would be great. I would like to make something like that.’
“So I found out how he had done it, and all I had was an old saw and a chisel and file, and I just worked away,” Koster said.
Starting with a block of wood, Koster spent his days after school making the entire boat by himself, apart from the sails. Those, he got his mother to help him sew, as he was too young to do it on his own.
A key detail is included in every sail used in Koster’s boats. There is vertical stitching spaced out in the piece of cloth to add realism.
“In those days, you could only get sail cloth that was 24-inches wide, so they used to stitch it together,” Koster explained.
Many often ask Koster, “Where do you get the parts from?”
This always draws a laugh from him, as there is no store that carries all the pieces used in his grand ships.
Every rope, every board, every cloth, every piece – large and small – is handmade by Koster. The only pieces he does not make himself are the little human figures, which are made by one of Koster’s neighbours, and the gun barrels, which are 3-D printed by his son in Ontario.
What can be seen by peering inside are ladders, wooden ribbing, a steering rod and many other little pieces, with new ones to find each time you look.
Koster’s current project dates back to 1596 from the event of two Dutch explorers who set out on a journey “around the North” to find a Northeast passage from Europe to Asia, through Russia.
At the time,the only marine route to the continent was around the tip of South Africa.
Willem Barents, who is recognized as one of the most established early navigators, with Jacob Van Heemskerck, another explorer, joined forces on the trek. Barents attempted the voyage three separate times, being turned back the first two times by ice.
The pair’s journey, with a crew bringing the total to 17, was captured in a book called Het Schip Van Willem Barents that Koster bought when visiting Holland in 2009, which he reads and uses to guide him through the building process.
On their journey, the crew got stranded in ice yet again, in Novaya Zemlya, Russia and had to spend the winter there. As described in the book, five of the crew members did not make it long enough for them to return to Holland in the spring with the other 12.
Their third trip was yet again unsuccessful.
“The Dutch were very much into finding out what was in the world because they were trades people,” Koster explained.
The book has some instructions and reference photos in it to help aid Koster in building Willem Barents’ ship. Although he’s held onto the book since 2009, Koster did not begin work on the ship until August last year.
He expects that this model will be completed and displayed in the lobby of his residence in a month’s time.