Rom was brought up in Heeg, at the heart of the Netherlands’ Frisian lake district, and there was a certain inevitability about his falling in love with sailing. Indeed, rumour has it, he was conceived under the jib of one of his father’s charter sailing yachts.
Dad ran a succession of small shipyards before becoming harbourmaster when Rom turned four years old. He therefore grew up in and around the marina and, as an only child, it was just him and a whole bunch of boats.
Rom picks up the autobiography: “I was gifted a Pirate sailing dinghy for my fifth birthday. The story goes that it had sunk, been recovered, and my father put it back in working order for me. I was allowed to choose the colour and, shunning the typical blue or white, opted for a bodacious shade of purple.
“I was not academic. If a subject captured my interest I’d study hard, but most things didn’t – windsurfing and sailing were way more appealing. As I started sliding towards the bottom of the class, I joined the coastal and canal merchant navy school – basically the only educational establishment that would take me. Then, seduced by the prospect of international travel and fat pay cheques, I went to dredging college. This is actually a thing in Holland. The Dutch are excellent at dredging, and it was our technology that created the likes of the artificial islands of Palm Jumeirah and The World in Dubai. I completed college, did a couple of deliveries on a tug, and was all set to join the merchant navy maritime academy when a girl derailed my plans. I dropped everything and travelled to Antibes to see the object of my desires. She gave me a tour of the International Yacht Club of Antibes and I clapped eyes on Maurizio Gucci’s 65-metre Creole, the largest wooden sailing yacht in the world at the time. I simply couldn’t believe that people got paid to work on schooners like her. Fate would have it that, within a year, I would be one of those people.
“Meanwhile, I sailed back to the UK with a friend, asked around the harbour if anyone needed crew, and got a ‘yes’ from a gaff rigged ketch. Working under a strict former Royal Navy captain, I landed my first deckie job earning a princely 100 pounds a week. At Cowes Week, I was introduced to Harry Spencer, a legend who’d rigged the likes of Adix, Altair and Creole. I asked him to let me know if any of these beautiful yachts were looking for crew. As this was the pre-mobile-phone era, I checked in with Harry on his landline every two weeks until, one day, he said I should call Niall Robinson about a job on Creole. Niall invited me to interview in Nice and offered me a month’s trial. I struggled through those four weeks but, thankfully, Captain John Bardon saw something in me, recognised the passion I had for old boats and, in 1989, handed me a permanent place in his 16-strong crew.
“Creole had been in quite a sad state, but with John’s old-school leadership, a fresh crew, and the support of the Gucci family, we got her into shape and went on to race in the classic regattas. The classic yacht scene was really active, and we were racing alongside the likes of Aquarius and Fleurtje – fine company. It was quite hair-raising to race Creole, she had the biggest spinnaker in existence at 1,800 square metres, and we won pretty much everything we entered. After one such victory in Palma, Signor Gucci appeared with 16 Rolexes on a silver platter to express his gratitude to each of the crew. I was 22 years old and thought to myself, ‘I like this yachting business’.
“After a couple of magical years on Creole, I fell madly in love. She asked me to move to Jersey with her, and that’s exactly what I did. Finding work was a nightmare, I ended up painting houses, so was rather happy to hear from Steve Hammond, captain of 41-metre Fife schooner Altair. We moved to Palma where I joined the boat and my girlfriend got a job cooking at a burger joint in Portals.
“In the meantime, 28-metre Fife Tuiga was being painstakingly rebuilt by Fairlie Restorations. There was a suggestion I should go to Hamble and help things along. And then, age 24, I was asked if I’d like to be Tuiga’s skipper. ‘If you take on Tuiga we are finished!’, said my girlfriend. I accepted the job offer and you can guess what happened to the relationship. Sadly the same happened to my captaincy. The project hit financial difficulty and it was all over before it began.
“In 1992, I returned to Altair to help out as race crew – it was memorable, we beat Adix in Les Voiles. Altair also left me with a different kind of lasting memory. We were moored up in Cannes alongside other J-Classes: 1928-built Astra, head-turner Candida, and 1934 Endeavour, fresh from a five-year rebuild project. A big thunderstorm came in, so big that racks of clothing were hurtling down the shopping streets. Our yachts were in trouble, pushed against the dock so hard that fenders were about to pop, pulling the aluminium cleats off the harbourside as the lines strained. As designated diver, I went down to tie Altair’s lines securely onto the concrete mooring blocks. It was an eerie task. Above the water there was thunder, lightning, chaos, shouting, but below there was calm. I then swam across to Candida and Endeavour and put lines on them too, so they could pull back into position. In a bar later that evening, the captain of Endeavour asked how much he owed me. I replied my price was an Atlantic crossing. He chuckled and bought me a beer. Two weeks later, at the next event in Saint-Tropez, I felt a tap on my shoulder and he handed me another beer and said, ‘you’re on’. I joined Endeavour for that Atlantic crossing – and stayed six or eight months more.
“Back in the day, my father and I had made a pact. If he was able to buy 250-berth Eendracht marina from the Government of the Netherlands, I would come and help. The deal went through in 1993 and I kept my side of the bargain. I was his right-hand man for three years, acting as harbourmaster in the summer and a yacht painter in the winter.
“I re-entered yachting with a flourish, joining 34-metre Passe Partout on a passage round Cape Horn. In 1998, I took over as captain and, thanks to the owner’s ‘bucket list’ spirit and enthusiasm, we went on to cruise as much of the world as possible. From Cape Horn we ventured round the Cape of Good Hope, up past Namibia, across to Ascension Island, and on we went. A decade later, he wanted to be the first person to see the sun come up at the dawn of the new Millennium, so we went to New Zealand and watched Team New Zealand claim the America’s Cup in Auckland, having visited Tahiti and the Galapagos.
“The owner had a second, larger 42-metre Passe Partout in build, and the time came to let go of version one. Our last sail was not to be forgotten. We got thrashed in a gnarly Great Australian Bight, before crossing the Indian Ocean up to the Gulf of Aden and Djibouti. At the time, piracy was rife. I planned various combative strategies, from plain old full steam ahead to blacking out the yacht at night, plus some more wacky ones involving flares and Molotov cocktails. The Perini in front and the yacht behind both got shot at, but nobody came near us – thank god.
“Having had some input into the practical side of project management – she has a lot of technical upgrades, such as in-boom furling and a lifting keel – the new improved Passe Partout was delivered by Jongert in 2001. After agreeing not to cruise the Red Sea again, we set off globetrotting and covered 60,000 miles in two years. We did a lap of the Black Sea, as well as what I call the Eurovision countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which not many superyachts do, and returned to Auckland in 2003 to watch the Swiss defeat Team New Zealand on their home turf. The programme was so good, I just couldn’t contemplate leaving. It was therefore a sad day when my German gentleman owner passed away. His son took over the yacht, but didn’t have the same appetite as his father. He was happy to potter around the Mediterranean and much of the magic was lost. He was also a similar age to me, and the relationship didn’t click.
“Back in Mallorca, I had a fortuitous encounter with naval architect Andre Hoek – in Eroski supermarket of all places. He was working with renowned project manager Jens Cornelsen on a new J-Class and asked if I’d like to join the team – a dream come true. Having notched up 19 years with one Passe Partout or the other, I bade my farewells in summer 2014 and was with Holland Jachtbouw by October.
“Topaz launched in summer 2015, joining a fleet of highly competitive Js. Our first race was the St Barths Bucket and things started badly, we couldn’t beat anyone. But once we got our set up right, the victories started rolling in, including the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup in 2018 and The Superyacht Cup in 2019. The owners get a real buzz from the ambience and team spirit and they do things properly – which I found highly commendable.
“I had witnessed the resurgence of the J-Class fleet. There were seven of us on the line at the showcase regatta in Bermuda during the 35th America’s Cup – the largest J fleet to ever assemble in the history of the class – and I don’t think I’ll see that happen again. A true privilege. But deep down I was tiring of the classic circuit, and missed the planning, organisation and adventure of my early Passe Partout years.
“In January, I took a chance phone call from crew recruitment guru Erica Lay, she had the perfect job for me – 34-metre Nilaya from Baltic Yachts. At first glance I was overqualified, a step down, but she dangled the carrot, there was a 47-metre in build with a 10-metre beam and 62.5-metre Panamax mast. Three days after leaving the J-Class, I was at Nilaya’s owner’s house for interview. Weeks later we were in Antigua.
“Now this owner loves sailing, he’s passionate to the end. She’s a superfast boat and we were victorious in The Superyacht Cup this summer. I like where we’re going and I can’t wait to see how our journey unfolds, especially when the new yacht enters the water at the end of 2022 – the spec looks fantastic.
“When not working, I love hiking, SUP, and tinkering with my Land Rover Defender. Meanwhile, Dad isn’t enjoying the greatest of health, not that you’d know it if you spent time in his effervescent company, so I head back to Holland to see him as often as possible. In my absence, he looks after my three clear-varnish boats: a restored 1931 lake racer, a 1968 racing Dragon, and a wooden launch that I use to go shopping from my waterfront home. In return, my brothers and I take good care of him – even renting him a workshop.
“As long as I am physically fit, I will keep going – this is what I love. I have six crew and, probably thanks to John Bardon, like to captain in quite an old-school way. I have little patience for youngsters with intolerance and a social media addiction. I pick the good ones, the really fanatical sailors who are a joy to be around. The first time I went to the Caribbean, I pulled into English Harbour on Endeavour and went on to soak up the party atmosphere with an awesome bunch of people. I love watching the newbies get the same buzz from the Caribbean vibe.
“The yachting industry has become more serious, better education is available, and less accidents happen, but there is never a substitute for miles spent at sea. Do what you love, and love what you do – and do it properly.”
Sarah Forge, email@example.com