GROOTE BEER: Hermann Goering’s Botter Jacht (Not)

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Groote Beer

My association with this vessel dates back to 1992, when I sailed across the Atlantic with Cliff and Ruth Ann Fremstad aboard their Alden schooner Constellation. After we unfortunately lost Constellation in a river in Spain that summer, I was a bit surprised when Cliff and Ruth Ann, who had been living aboard the schooner for several years, announced they would have to move back aboard their other boat. My surprise morphed into amazement when they described it to me and showed me some pix. It was a 52-foot Dutch botter jacht named Groote Beer (or “Great Bear”), which they claimed had been built for Hermann Goering (yes, that Hermann Goering) during World War II.

The boat, as you can see from the photos above and below, is rather ornate and is covered with all sorts of incredible ornamental wood carvings. The story was that since Goering had ordered this yacht built for his personal use, the guys in the yard figured they’d be safe and secure during the Nazi occupation as long as they were busy working on it. So they took their sweet time, added lots and lots of details, and made sure the boat was never finished until the war was over.

Groote Beer

Groote Beer

Groote Beer

Groote Beer

Groote Beer

I accepted all this as fact, and remembered the story again when I read Annie Proulx’s most excellent novel, The Shipping News, in which a fancy Dutch yacht, allegedly built for Hitler, plays a minor role. The boat in the book is named Tough Baby (ex-Das Knie), and her owner describes her thus:

Traditional Dutch barge yacht design, but marvelously luxurious with these incredible details. I think, the finest Botterjacht ever built. When we first saw her she was a total wreck.

And thus:

The absolutely marvelous carving. The carving is everywhere, these incredible master carvers worked on it for nine years. All the animals known. Zebras, moose, dinosaurs, aurochs, marine iguana, wolverines, we’ve had internationally known wildlife biologists on board here to identify all the incredible species. And the birds. Utterly, utterly bizarre. It was built for Hitler, as I suppose you know, but he never set foot on it. There were a thousand delays. Deliberate delays. The extraordinary Dutch Resistance.

I felt quite certain the fictional yacht in the story must be based on Cliff and Ruth Ann’s “other boat” Groote Beer and always wondered how Annie Proulx ever learned of it.

Groote Beer

Racing on San Francsico Bay in 1988, during Cliff and Ruth Ann’s tenure as owners

I heard from Cliff and Ruth Ann again after I published my blog post about Constellation, and they sent me links to material posted by a Dutch emigrant, Jack van Omman, who decided to get to the bottom of the Groote Beer myth after he figured out that it was his uncle who had supplied the spars and blocks for the boat at the end of the war.

Hermann Goering

Goering testifies at Nuremburg as to the yacht’s ownership

Groote Beer‘s true commissioning owner, it turns out, was Theodor Temmler, owner of a German pharmaceutical company, who ordered the boat built at a yard belonging to Janus Kok in 1940. By the end of the war it was still unfinished and was seized by the Dutch government and sold at auction to one Willem Greeve, who finished the boat and had all the custom woodwork installed in 1948.

Greeve in turn sold Groote Beer in 1953 to an American, Charles Donnelly, president of Feadship, who shipped her to New York and evidently wandered the East Coast aboard her telling fantastic stories of her origins. These were repeated in local newspapers (you can see examples here and here) and eventually made their way into Esquire magazine, and so was the Goering legend born and promulgated. This eventually included some pretty outrageous details–including an assertion that Goering had ordered a special Panzer unit to Africa just to acquire wood for the boat. (Click here to see more on the Afrika Korps and boatbuilding.)

No doubt it was this rich vein of fantasy that Proulx tapped into when she created her own fictional Nazi yacht in The Shipping News.

In 1955 Groote Beer was purchased by Robert Johnson (later owner of Ticonderoga and Windward Passage), who brought her to the West Coast through the Panama Canal and sailed her as an unofficial entrant in the 1957 Transpac. He sold her again in ’58, and she then passed through various hands, until Cliff and Ruth Ann bought her in 1982. They finally sold her in 2001 to Jan Willem de la Porte, the step-grandson of the Willem Greeve who originally bought the boat from the Dutch government, and he shipped her back to Holland, where she has since been restored to her former glory.

Even without the bit about Goering, it still makes for a nice bit of boatlore.

COINCIDENTALLY: I actually have some experience sailing boats like this. Way back in 1987 I was once asked to help deliver a Dutch-built lemsteraak called Antje from Long Island to Newport. This was a type of botter jacht (just 32 feet, as I recall) with a wide, flat, barge-like hull fitted with leeboards and a gaff rig set on a tabernacle. Just like Groote Beer, she was built of wood and finished bright and was absolutely gorgeous.

Unfortunately, we embarrassed ourselves terribly by sailing Antje right on to a beach on Block Island in the middle of the night. Built the way she was, however, she didn’t mind this at all, was easily dragged off, and no harm was done.

Amazingly, I saw Antje again, years later in a boatyard in Florida, not too long after I signed aboard Constellation as crew. I remember at the time thinking this might be an omen of sorts, and I wondered if Constellation would suffer the same fate as Antje.

Which she did (though, unlike Antje, she did not survive it).

Funny how these things work, isn’t it?

lemsteraak

(Working parts of a lemsteraak)

23 Responses
  1. Great story on Ruth and Cliff’s “Groote Beer” whose interior was also featured in Matthew Walker’s 1980 book “Down Below” (aboard the World’s Classic Yachts) by Chronicle Books. When I first step on board before a San Francisco Bay Master Mariners Regatta, I introduced myself to Ruth Ann, who replied, “I baby sat you In San Luis Obispo when I was a teenager. Yes, I recognized her last name–Witcosky.

  2. patricia

    I’m so happy to see Groote Beer has been restored and preserved! My family bought her in Portland Or. in 1962 and we lived aboard for 3 years. She’s a beautiful, albeit high maintenance gal. The photos for the Down Below story were provided by my father, the late Howard Luray.

    1. Jeffrey Lane

      Patricia, Jeffrey Lane here…I hope you remember me. I worked on and helped sail “Groote Beer”for your family, until my wife Jessica, my son Jonathan and I left for Europe to find the boat I still own, a heavy North Sea fisherman we have named “Gladhval”, or “Merry Whale” in Norwegian. If you read this, I hope you will reply…It would be good to hear from you. For now, I hope you are living the life you have hoped to live! Cheers, Jeff Lane

  3. Harry Brickman

    A couple of hours later,we tied up to a float in cozy York Harbor ME and spent the rest of that soggy day having drinks and munchies in the fireplace-heated teak-panelled cabin of “Groote Beer”, Herman Goering’s former 60-foot Dutch Botteryacht motorsailer tied up behind us. The storm and little pine-lined Maine harbor was a heart and bodily-warming reminder of the ready companionship of cruising sailors world-wide.What comes to mind is the West Indian black Nobelist poet Derek Walcott’s lovely metaphor of “the Amen of calm waters”. On that occasion, it was a matter of buckets of rain on deck and a little crackling fire framed by Dutch tiles below. It even tended to soften the jolting memories of its prior rapacious Nazi prince skipper, who undoubtedly seized that beautiful vessel from its rightful owner as a war prize.

  4. Phil Reifenrath

    When the Groote Beer was owned by Robt Johnson, he made it available to the Portland, Oregon Sea Scouts. I have many fond memories of sailing on the Columbia River. That is when I learned the basics of sailing and navigation. The story of Hermann Goering as related above was part of the legend at that time. The wood carvings were superb, such as the hand rails (dolphins) down to the main cabin. It was a special experience for many teenage Sea Scouts.

  5. Rob Hernan

    My Grandmother Laura was married to the ships Captain (2or3rd husband) in and around 1954. My Father was the First Mate during this time as well. His Name was Robert (Bob) Hernan. They all sailed from Maine to Texas showing off the yacht and sharing her storys and beauty in Every Port along the way..This is part of my Problem here..I know very little about this part of my Family’s History..I am trying to collect information and Pictures for Myself and my Children to share with them what their Grandpa and GreatGrandma did together those wild years of their lives..I also became a Sailor and I Am a Navy Vetran..This History is Important to me..So Please..If ANYONE HAS ANY INFO OR PICTURES that they can share with us it would mean so much..I can be reached at the following emails:: Rob.Hernan@ymail.com, flanative1973@gmail.com, floridanative1973.rh@gmail.com, also cell 352-362-6809..Thank you and God bless.

  6. Brian Davies

    This article is fascinating. I am curious personally as how similar (like hull design and the lee boards) the Botters are compared to Yacht Mary, for they seem very close.

  7. Paul Bannon

    Wasn’t the Groote Beer also known as the Grote Behr? Was she not given to the Sea Scouts up in Seattle and worked for awhile? Or was that my imagination?

  8. `

    As a liveaboard in the Kingston Marina, in Kingston, WA,, after my retirement from the U.S.Navy, I recall finding, one morning, at the end of our dock, a lovely old sailboat, large, ornate, and with the name Groot Biere(my memory). I had recently read of the vessel Hermann Goering had commissioned, and thought it the same. I never met the owners,

    To this day, I think I got the name from the transom, which the vessel in the pictures does not have. Everything else seems the same.

    She is certainly lovely; but, with her rig, I would (at the time) never have thought her safe for a transpac; SF Bay would have been, to me, a challenge, But she has been mostly around the world, so who am I?

    She is a beauty.

  9. Erik Larsen

    In early ’73, restaurateur Stewart Anderson in Seattle bought the Groote Beer. I was part of a crew of 7 who in June of 1973 attempted to sail her to Seattle from San Diego. With 20 -30 k winds and 10′-15′ swells from the NW, it took us 3 week to get to San Francisco. We left her there and a few weeks later the wind changed to the SW and another crew ran before the wind to Seattle in one week. She is quite a looker.

  10. Branca Mattenheim

    Just reading Proulx’s ”The Shopping News”…also wandering how did she get to this boat…by, the way the book is so expertly, knowingly written…I was just curious to see whether the ‘Though Baby’ (‘Das Knie’) really existed or exists…and what a beauty she is!!

  11. R. Lund

    I spent several years partying on this when it was in Newport Beach in the 60’s. It was owned by the Cooper family whose son, Jerry, was a good friend. It was a huge attraction at the Richardson Yacht Anchorage (now Bahia Corinthian YC).
    Most ornate yacht I have ever seen. Especially cool was the fireplace in the main salon with Delph tile above, a detail very seldom mentioned. Loads of rumors about her but the most famous was that Hitler was aboard at one time.
    R. Lund
    Lihue, Hawaii

  12. Capt. Jeff Becklund

    As an employee of Yarrow Bay Marina,Kirkland Wa. Approx 1972- 78 I worked part time restoring and sanding ,varnishing for about a year with Wes Hausman and assorted characters of the yacht circle then to restore the Groote Beer. I was 17 at the time. The reconditioning of all the bright work took over a year. Varnish was sprayed. Well over 20 coats. Vessel was demasted, lee boards removed. Lee boards weight, approx 1300 lbs each. I operated the fork lift to remove the lee boards and crane to remove the mast. What an incredible look at history on this project. The oranamental banisters leading into the saloon were hand carved serpents highly detailed, each scale of the serpents skin was remarkable. Fire place was a focal point in the Saloon. Stewart Anderson of steak house fame had purchased the vessel. The topping off party was incredible. For more recollection please look me up. Capt. Jeff Becklund, Maui, Hi.

  13. Carole

    My sister and I were part of an Explorer Scouts Post in Seattle during high school (that would have been about 1979-1981) that had care of the Groote Beer. We sailed her all over Puget Sound, and spent one magical summer cruising the southern coast of Canada. She had the prettiest Delft tile in the salon, and a motif of the great bear constellation with stars that were real gold. Her diesel cooking stove could be quite temperamental. An unforgettable experience. I was saddened to hear that she was damaged somehow in transport back to Europe, and when I came across this thread it was such a thrill to see her looking so spit and polished.

  14. Christine Burdine

    I sure wish one of you could post a photo or zillion of the interior delft etc. I was aboard her for less than half an hour when she sailed in to Dockton Wa (on Maury Island) before coming into Seattle. Gads, that had to have been 1973 or 74. Never forgot it.

  15. Craig Thompson

    I believe it was 1969 or 1970 when the new Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club in Corona Del Mar, Ca was under construction. My father and I were on the docks when we were offered a tour of the Groote Baer. The pristine varnished woodwork above and below decks was amazing. I remember an ornate chessboard in the main salon. The owner told us the whole Herman Goering story including the part where he sent troops into Africa to obtain the variety of woods that were used. We never had the opportunity to sail on her and I remember the owner saying that the Red canvas sails were a real pain to raise. He also mentioned that because of it’s weight and leeboard construction that it was a real chore to dock, even under power. Needless to say the boat left a lasting impression on both my father and I. I also have to say that I feel somewhat relieved to hear that the Nazi legacy was a hoax. It makes the memories of that beautiful ship much nicer.

  16. Jay Greer

    I am delighted to see “Groote Beer” is pristine, Bristol Fashon shape again! I briefly work skippered her in Newport Beach during the eighties when she was tied
    up on the Penninsula. She was then owned by a woman who wanted to sail her to
    Tahiti! Sorry, I don’t remember her name. I actually copied her main scuttle hatch for my own boat “Red Witch” when I restored her. Jay Greer

  17. Ron Orme

    Hello Out There, I would love to make contact with the current owner of the Groote Beer, the one built for her Herman Goering for his escape after the Second World War. My grade school and high school buddy was put in charge of the ship during the time when it was moored here on the Willamette River in Portland , Oregon. During that time we spent time on her and had a few good times swimming and having a party or two. My reason for wanting to make contact with the owners is that a couple of months ago I was given two small blocks (for rigging) that originally came of the Groote Beer. I was told that one of the people took these at one of these events and finally they have made their way back to me. Who ever took them no doubt felt guilty after all these years. I would like to return these two blocks back to the current owner but can”t find where to have them sent. Please help me in this search. My name is Ron Orme, address 14443 SE Aldridge Rd., Happy Valley, Oregon 97086, phone 971-224-5343 . I have some other history to share. Many Thanks Ron

  18. Manfred Antar

    My Uncle Ed Richardson had this boat in his anchorage in Newport Beach in the 60’s early 70’s. He told me that one of the previous owners had painted over the wood carvings on the boat, then new owner hired a person to remove all the paint, took him about 6 months, using dental tools and such.The fireplace is something to see !!

  19. Chris Sharp

    Mr. Doane, if my memory serves… my father and I did some plumbing work for you in Riverside, California once. I have always remembered you telling this story to us when I was younger, and have looked for links and photos to this story for decades. As it turns out, I had been spelling the vessel’s name incorrectly the entire time. I no longer live in Dana Point, now located in Columbus, Ohio. Seeing beautiful seaworthy vessels is something I miss every day. Thanks for the story, and the ability to find it!

    1. Charles Doane

      @Chris Sharp: I’ve never lived in Riverside, so you must be thinking of someone else. So I’m wondering who it was told you about this boat! Another mystery wrapped around a great vessel. Cheers! charlie

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