The Foundation’s founder Peter van 't Wout has been a wheelchair user for 44 years. We spoke to him to find out more about what inspires the organisation’s work and the joy De Zeeland offers its passengers.

You set up the Foundation as a result of your own experiences. Can you tell us more?

In my twenties I worked as a deep-sea diver for a salvage company. I was working in the South China Sea, at a depth of 60 metres, and contracted decompression sickness. A risk of the trade, this condition is also called diver's disease and occurs when a person works under high pressure for a long time. It can cause permanent damage if not treated quickly enough and that was the case for me. I sustained permanent damage to my nervous system and became a wheelchair user as a result.

It was a huge struggle for me and adapting has taken many years. I had had a very active job, travelled the world, had the life of an adventurer... And suddenly I was at home and couldn't do anything. But I have never been idle - I was sitting around, but did not want to remain static.

How did you adapt?

I have always tried to do my bit. In the 1980s, I set up a business offering customised holiday accommodation, bungalows which were accessible to everyone. I was the first in the UK to do so and it was much needed. In those days, holiday facilities were rarely accessible and they were so poorly regulated.  

Nowadays, the situation is much better, with many more options and much more information available to disabled travellers. I’ve tried to support continued improvements, for example by advising hotel owners on simple ways to adapt their hotels,  and I have always been an advocate for greater accessibility. I try to remove the literal and financial barriers to travel and holidays.

In recent years, you have been doing this in a very special way. Can you tell us more about De Zeeland Foundation?

Through De Zeeland Foundation, we organise boat trips for people who would not normally have the opportunity to try this activity, for example those with additional accessibility needs, or families on low incomes. Several times a year we organise wonderful days on the water, financing this with donations and from the proceeds of the commercial events we organise on board De Zeeland, such as weddings and company parties.

We also work with other organisations. For example, we sail for De Zonnebloem, a foundation that offers trips and events for people with physical disabilities. Our sailing ship is perfectly suited for these events. The gangways are wide enough for wheelchairs, walkers and mobility scooters, and there is a lift to go down below deck. In addition, we have accessible bathroom facilities onboard and we have installed platform lifts at the back of the ship so that wheelchair users can board the deck and enjoy the experience of helping the captain steer.

The ship is now completely accessible for everyone. Was it always like that?

Not at all. When I found De Zeeland, seven years ago in Amsterdam, it was completely neglected and in bad shape. But I saw the potential in the ship, although there was a lot of work to be done. We spent a year and a half (working seven days a week) to restore and update it. Everything had to be taken out and replaced, from the wiring to the water pipes.

We are extremely happy with the result of our hard work. Today, De Zeeland is one of the most famous event venues in the Rijnmond area, complete with a beautiful salon, espresso bar and English pub. Is it a thing of beauty? Maybe not. But we have come to love it for the positive opportunities it creates.

What do you like most about your work?

When corona is not hindering us, we sail around seventy times a year. Sixty of these trips are commercial, the other ten are chartered specially for families in need. It is those trips that I look forward to the most. These are such special days, as we really make them into parties. There is music, entertainment for the children and we have nurses onboard who can offer relief care, giving parents a valued break.

It is great to see the things that happen on these trips.  Smiling faces, parents who slowly unwind and enjoy themselves, children who experience a memorable day... That is why we do it. Because everyone deserves a special day on the water.

Why did you choose Triodos Bank?

Corporate social responsibility is in our genes and the same goes for Triodos Bank. Our philosophies and missions fit well together. It feels like a warm blanket around us, and makes us very happy.

Who is Peter van 't Wout?

Peter van 't Wout is the man behind the sailing ship De Zeeland and co-founder of De Zeeland Foundation. This special ship is hired out for weddings, parties and other celebrations. About ten times a year, Van 't Wout and his colleagues organise a cruise for families in need. The Zeeland is fully equipped to meet their needs and is accessible to everyone.

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