Back when he had water rights on the Navesink, marine engineer Rik van Hemmen would paddle a homemade canoe to work in the summer, thus combining three of his many passions — engineering, wooden boats, and nature.

The two-mile commute, or should we say canoete, from Fair Haven to the Molly Pitcher’s dock took 45 minutes, during which van Hemmen enjoyed the stillness of the river in contrast to the background roar of air conditioners atop Riverview Hospital and trains passing through Red Bank. He also savored unexpected pleasures such as finding an osprey nest or fish sleeping on the river’s surface.

It only lasted four years, says the Dutch immigrant, but was “a huge high.”

Today van Hemmen combines his knowledge of boating with his love of problem-solving as vice president of the Navesink Maritime Heritage Association, a local non-profit group that promotes wooden boatbuilding skills to kids.

There’s a level of experimentation and risk involved in boatbuilding, he explains, that’s missing from classroom learning.

“It’s nothing to do with boats,” he says, “It’s the experience of creating something.”

In conversation, van Hemmen proves to be a firehose of ideas, easily shifting gears from the technical problems involved with boat building to changing educational trends, with detours into the intricacies of game theory and the genetics of autism. If you let him, he’ll take you through the evolution of his thinking on a particular topic. Clearly, he likes to master whatever interests him.

“Today’s kids learn more and more, but they do less and less,” he continues. “They’re just repeating” what they’re told in the classroom.

The marine environment, by contrast, is “a fantastic training ground” because of the lack of structure and the opportunity to fail. Failure is possible, he explains, because boats must float.

Learning, he says, “has to be a little stressful.”


When he hands kids a sheet of plywood and tells them to build a boat, most say “no way” can they do it, he notes. They end up being happily wrong.

Van Hemmen and his colleagues at the maritime association will demonstrate the art of boatbuilding Saturday at the Fair Haven Fire House on River Road, starting at 9a. Over two days, 10 families and nonprofit organizations will build canoes for launch Sunday at 2:30p at the Battin Road boat ramp.


And this fall, Red Bank Primary School students, with the help of NMHA volunteers, will get to work creating a dugout canoe, a boat popular with Native Americans. The source material: a 30-foot poplar log donated by a local resident. The process involves burning out the inside of the log, but that part will be handled by the adult volunteers.

Van Hemmen has lived his life near water, growing up near Rotterdam, Netherlands, and moving with his family to Newport, Rhode Island when he was 16. He landed in Fair Haven by way of Little Silver in the 1970s and became a naturalized American citizen two years ago. He’s married and has three children, including a son at the University of Pittsburgh who’s on a course to give the family its fourth generation of civil engineers.

Rik, now 47, started out in Newport as a 24-year-old chief engineer supplying information to the yacht designers for the Americas Cup, later moving to Martin, Ottaway, van Hemmen & Dolan, a maritime consulting firm in Manhattan that his father, Henk, had joined in 1980. The elder van Hemmen bought the firm in 1992 and moved it to Red Bank.

The firm deals with the operational, technical and financial issues of maritime disasters and problems. In 1994, for example, it was asked to calculate how much less crude oil would have been spilled had the Exxon Valdez been built with a double, rather than single, bottom; the single-hull option was still legal at the time, but ill-advised. The answer: about 50 percent less than the 11 million gallons spilled. “That number has stood the test of time,” van Hemmen says.

His testimony in a lawsuit helped win the state of Alaska interests $5 billion in punitive damages, although to date, he says, Exxon has not paid the money.

Although he says he likes metals, too, using wood for boat building makes the boat lighter, he explains in a 13-page, handwritten-on-graph-paper tract he wrote and titled “Zen and the Art of Boat Design.”

He adds, in an email, that he prefers wood harvested from “some specific place I have a relationship with.

“I have built many things out of wood for which I knew the actual tree,” he says.

Email this story