The broader picture: Seahorses

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The Independent Culture
FOR 164 YEARS, sailors whose ships foundered off the islands on the Netherlands' treacherous North Sea coast owed their lives to horses. Although the paardsreddingsboot - the "horse-drawn lifeboat" - of Ameland, 8km from the mainland, was decommissioned in 1988, it continues to be launched several times yearly in a ritual whose purpose is to preserve tradition rather than life. The necessary skills are passed from father to son through the generations.

The strong tides and ever-shifting mud banks of Ameland meant that no vessel could weigh anchor there. The lifeboat therefore had to be launched from land. Workhorses from local farms would pull the boat from its station in Hollum, the most westerly of the island's four villages, on to the beach and into water deep enough for it to float.

On a blustery June evening the lifeboat-station siren moans into a damp sky. Twelve strong bay horses trot through the lanes in pairs, each pair pulling a farmer on a bicycle. When the group arrives at the station, some of the horses are attached by ropes to the 6-ton trailer which bears the lifeboat, the Abraham Foch; others are attached to the boat itself. The lifeboat men pull on their oilskins and seaboots. Theo Ynsen, the walbaas (ground commander), strides ahead towards the beach. "The fastest they ever launched the lifeboat for a rescue, from siren to sea-going, was 18 minutes," boasts Jop de Jong, director of the paardsreddingsboot.

With water up to his chest, the walbaas prods the ground with a pole, checking for sinks or channels. In a flurry of spume, straining at the ropes, the horses ease the lifeboat-laden trailer forward. The crew, half charioteers, half mariners, stand on the boat's bucking deck. The horses gallop into the waves, dragging the trailer between them. Suddenly the trailer's brakes are thrown; the lifeboat is dragged off it into the water. As the boat chugs out to sea, the horses return to land, streaming sweat lather and seawater.