Saved by the Ark

The houseboat we lived in when I was very young.

The houseboat we lived in when I was very young.

My mother recorded the events of my early childhood in a journal titled To My Daughter. It includes our brush with death in January 1963, when I was only one and a half years old.

Our family lived on a houseboat on a canal in Utrecht, in The Netherlands. My mother described our home as an ‘Ark’, not because we had three pets – a dog, a hamster and a lizard – but to distinguish our houseboat from the barge-style houseboats that also lined the canal. Our ‘ark’ had a keel and could navigate on the waterways.

During the winter of 1962-63, the temperatures in Holland dipped to -20 C. The waterways froze and comparisons were made to the deadly winters of 1929 and 1890. It was widely believed our canal was frozen solid to the bottom, but that was not the case. When the Waterways Authority opened a sluice downstream, the water drained away, leaving a gap.

At 10:30 in the morning my mother heard a sound like thunder, followed by an earsplitting crack. As the sound rose to a crescendo, my mother wondered if we were being bombed and her first instinct was to hide under the bed. She grabbed me, but it was too late, the ark tipped sideways, we fell to the floor and I slipped out of Mom’s grasp, leaving her holding nothing but my pants as I slid away across the bedroom. The sound of breaking glass and chaos in the kitchen drowned out the noise coming from outside, and then – just as quickly as it tipped – our houseboat returned to horizontal.

Mom knew I was okay because I screamed my head off, and crawled back to her under my own power. She picked me up and we climbed over the mess in the bedroom to check on our dog, Pito, who howled in the kitchen, where he was trapped in a tangle of chairs.

Most of the furniture on the ark was either built in, or secured to the floor. The hamster cage and lizard terrarium were askew, but upright, saved by ledges built onto the shelves. After checking on the pets, my mother looked outside. Huge chunks of ice, the size of cars, tilted against the banks of the canal. Our ark had shifted away from shore but thanks to its design, it floated upright in the small amount of muddy water that remained in the canal.

Others were not so lucky. Four people died that day. The barge-style houseboats with their flat bottoms did not fare well when the ice collapsed – many of them capsized – the death toll would have been higher, except that it was a weekday, and most homeowners were at work.

I do not remember the day the ice collapsed, but I am grateful my mother kept alive the story of how we survived the winter of 1963, all thanks to our ark.