24 March, 2009
Theodorus "Dorus" Rijkers was a famous Dutch lifeboat captain and folk hero, most famous for his sea rescues of 487 shipwrecked victims over a total of 38 rescue operations, and at least 25 before joining the lifeboat-service.
Dorus received his nickname Grandpa (Dutch: Opa) while still a young man. He had married Neeltje Huisman, a fisherman's widow who already had 6 children. Shortly after the marriage, the oldest of Neeltje's daughters had a child of her own, and so at only 23 years old Dorus became known as Opa in Den Helder where he lived. Although the nickname began as a joke, Dorus soon started acting and looking like a grandpa, and from that time on he became primarily known by his nickname.
Dorus gained most of his fame as a result of his service to the Noord- en zuid-Hollandsche Redding Maatschappij (NZHRM), one of the two main Dutch lifeboat-societies at the time. The NZHRM would later become the Koninklijke Nederlandse Redding Maatschappij (KNRM).
However his life-saving career began in 1872 before he joined the NZHRM, while acting as captain of his own boat. While at sea, he saved all 25 crew members of the barque Australia from drowning at sea. Because of this incident, Dorus gained a reputation as a rescuer, which preceded his joining the NZHRM as a volunteer. On the basis of his reputation, he was granted the position of coxswain upon joining the NZHRM without having to prove his qualifications. His rank of coxswain entitled him to immediately command his own boat and crew.
Although Dorus joined the NZHRM as a volunteer, he worked so many hours that it precluded him from taking on other paid work. Dorus and all of his crew members received a sum for each trial and each service.
During his nearly 30 years service with the NZHRM, Dorus saved hundreds of people from drowning at sea, becoming legendary long before his retirement. In the waters where he served, he saved such large number of people with such effectiveness that the survival statistics increased dramatically. At the end of his career, although he remained active, his role became more symbolic in nature.
In 1888, Dorus Rijkers met King William III of the Netherlands after rescuing sailors from the German barque Renown. The King gave Dorus a gold medal of honor and smoked a pipe with him.
A 1911 list showing Dorus most important between 1872-1911 rescues (including the Renown-rescue). Note that his full name, Theodorus, is used here.
In 1911, Dorus retired at age 64, after which he received only a very small pension. He struggled to make ends meet by eating simple food and living plainly.
During an October 1922 interview with Dr. L.A. Rademaker, editor of the Hague newspaper 'Het Vaderland', Dorus complained about his situation. He claimed that he had been forced to sell the gold medal of honour in order to buy himself a bicycle. The Helden der Zee Fonds 'Dorus Rijkers' (Dorus Rijkers Fund for the Heroes of the Sea) was created after Dorus' plight and that of other retired life-savers were chronicled in 'Het Vaderland'.
In April 1928, Dorus Rijkers died at the age of 81. He was given a funeral that was so grand that it resembled a state funeral in size and style. There was music, a big parade, thousands who came to pay their last respects including a large number of Marine Officers, also high ranking government officials, among them representatives of the Ministry of the Navy. The grandeur of his funeral showed the great public esteem in which Dorus was held at the time.