Once a German freight ship, now the home of a student association

De Oude Buis celebrates its hundredth anniversary

De Oude Buis, Mees
Mees van der Minnen, a member of De Oude Buis committee. Photo: DUB

The hundredth anniversary of De Oude Buis really does feel like a birthday, says History student Mees van der Minnen. As a "Buis commissioner" in Histos, the Utrecht Student Sailing Association, he’s the person responsible for the maintenance of the boat.

“De Oude Buis truly has a special place in the hearts of Histos members. It’s such a unique experience to have drinks on your very own boat. De Buis brings people together, whether they’re interested in sailing or just drinking,” he explains.

That's why the boat's centenary will be celebrated in style. Every one hundred days, there’s an event related to De Oude Buis on the Histos calendar.

The history
When the boat was built, in 1923, at a wharf in Papenburg, Germany, very few shipbuilders would have predicted that their creation would become the clubhouse of a Utrecht-based student association someday. With its open bed, the barge was named "Dixmude" and transported bulk goods like sand and coal to the Netherlands, Belgium, and northern France. It did so for almost half a century, until 1969, when Dixmude was removed from the waters by the towing company Heuvelman.

Two years later, John Tomes, the study association of the dentistry programme in Utrecht, was looking for a clubhouse. As "poor students", they didn’t have a place to hang out and have a drink, says dentist Herman van Nouhuys. In 1971, he had been serving as the president of John Tomes for a year when his friend and fellow association member Bart Raue told him about his ideas of setting up a clubhouse. They took on the endeavour together.

A barge was a relatively cheap option as the glory days of inland shipping were long gone and plenty of boats were on offer. Even so, according to Van Nouhuys, it wasn’t easy to convince the members of the association to buy a boat for 30,000 guilders (the Dutch currency back then, Ed.). With some help from the dentistry wholesale store Dental Union, they managed to get themselves a bank guarantee and loan of 100.000 guilders, which allowed them to purchase Dixmude. The boat barely made it past the narrow turn at Vaartsche Rijn, so it ended up at Kruisvaart, which has been its home for the past 51 years – although the boat has been moved a little bit since then.

De Oude Buis

Professor Buisman
The name De Oude Buis was inspired by Professor Pieter Henri Buisman, who used to teach prosthetic dentistry and was an honorary member of John Tomes. But he wasn't the only member of the Buis family in the association: at the time the boat was bought, the honorary president was 85 years old and his children and grandchild were all John Tomes members too. That's why the Professor got the nickname de oude Buis ("the old Buis").

When the members of the association were invited to vote on the boat's name, the choice was easy. The name Raue Hermania was briefly considered but wasn’t chosen in the end because Bart Raue and Herman van Nouhuys thought the boat should be named after professor Buisman.

“The name 'De Oude Buis’ really gives me this sense of being on a ship. It sounds like the Dutch word kombuis, which means galley, and then there’s Buisman, the Professor, so it really had to be something with buis. Other names weren’t really an option anymore,” Van Nouhuys explains.

By 1973, the ship was ready to serve as a clubhouse – right on time for the John Tomes lustrum party. However, the boat didn’t even have windows yet, so the holes were covered in plastic.

The renovation work took a long time as the boat needed toilets, a bar, and a kitchen. Van Nouhuys even lived on De Oude Buis for a while, sleeping in the old deckhouse. He studied during the day and worked on the renovations at night.

In 1985, the dentistry programme in Utrecht was dissolved which also meant the end of the John Tomes association, although it was transformed into a reunion association instead. Mies Buisman, Old Buis' granddaughter, was the president of that association for years. She really appreciates the fact that the ship still wears her grandfather’s name. “He was always impressed by it, too,” she says.

Former John Tomes members still come together on De Oude Buis for annual reunions but a reunion association doesn't need a clubhouse of their own. De Oude Buis needed a new owner.

U.S. Histos and De Oude Buis
The sailing association U.S. Histos was looking for a place to carry out the maintenance of its fleet, which mainly consisted of small, wooden boats at the time. De Oude Buis was deemed an “acceptable solution”, which led them to acquire the boat from john Tomes.

“It was a steal,” says Buis commissioner Mees. The bar, once installed by ‘the dentists’, was kept after fierce discussion, even though the boat wasn’t actually meant for drinks and gatherings.

That turned out to be a wise decision. The bar is Mees’ favourite part of De Oude Buis. “It’s really the centre of our evenings, where everyone hangs out to chat,” he says. In the ‘90s, De Oude Buis slowly turned into the meeting spot it is now. The boats went elsewhere for maintenance and De Oude Buis was only used for meetings and drinks.

De Oude Buis

Keep floating
A lot of maintenance was required to use the boat for that purpose, however. The fuse box wasn’t made waterproof until the turn of the century, drywall was installed everywhere for fire safety, and the boat got a new kitchen.

Another important thing: De Oude Buis had to keep floating. To make that happen, the boat went to the wharf in 2007 for the last time. That isn’t possible anymore. As a result of the extension of the train tracks around Vaartsche Rijn, the boat is now a hundred metres away from its original position, stuck between two bridges – meaning it can’t go anywhere anymore.

“The boat's maintenance is a running battle,” Mees says. The last time the boat was given a major overhaul was in 2019. To ensure De Oude Buis won’t succumb to rust, the bottom was covered in liquid rubber – which should be enough to make it last another thirty to forty years.

“But you never know what will happen. Perhaps it will last much longer, perhaps things will go wrong much sooner. It can be stressful at times. It feels like you take the entire ship home with you at night,” the Buis commissioner sighs.

But, in his view, all the maintenance work is worth it. “We’ve discussed the idea of finding a new place at some point. After all, the chances of the boat lasting another hundred years are slim. But, for now, you couldn’t pay us to go elsewhere, I’d rather not think about it. There’s a reason most mentors take their UIT week groups to Histos. De Oude Buis has such a great appeal, it’s one of the things that attract new members.”

De Oude Buis

Full of stories
When Mees gives DUB a tour of the boat, it looks like every object on it has a story behind it. There’s a portrait of Professor Buisman, for example, a gift from Mies Buisman, who has also donated a number of almanacks.

“Histos has a new board every year so, slowly but surely, people are forgetting where all these things came from. But we have a good relationship with Histos. I’ve stopped by to tell them about the boat's history,” she says.

It is also evident that every Buis commissioner wants to put their own stamp on it. What does Mees want to change? “I’m the first Buis commissioner after the Covid crisis, so it’s the first year that people are able to visit it all year long. I want to ensure that the glory of the pre-Covid era makes a comeback and everyone feels welcome here again.”

But that’s not the only thing. Mees has other, more concrete plans as well. “Sometimes, people fall off the boat, especially after a few beers too many. No one’s ever gotten hurt, but I think it’s time for a fence or railing. The water isn’t exactly clean.” He points at the brown-coloured water in the Kruisvaart. Then, Mees is distracted by a picturesque sight next to the boat. “Look, a goose nest! You can’t find that at any other association, can you?”