August 19th The making of a new family member and new friend in IJlst, Friesland.

Written by Jack van Ommen on August 22nd, 2023

I finally met a distant cousin today in IJlst Friesland. We have a Great-great-great Grandfather in common. Six generations removed. (In het Nederlands Oudovergrootvader) His name is Eeltsje Durk de Vries, one year younger than me.

It all started, over 75 years ago, with a paragraph in a letter from my maternal grandfather’s oldest sister, Gepke de Vries, where she wrote about Sybolt Ottes de Vries, born in 1769: “Hun huwelijk werd gezegend met tien kinderen, maar toen er vier geboren waren begon Napoleon een nieuwe oorlog en moest Sybolt Ottes de Vries tot aller spijt, ten strijde trekken, maar hij kwam, toen de strijd beëindigd was, behouden terug na veel doorstaan te hebben”. Translation: “Their marriage was blessed with ten children, but Napoleon started a new war after the fourth child was born,   to everyone’s regret Sybolt had to take up arms, but when this fight was over, he returned safely after having endured many hardships”.

I did not read this carefully and had always assumed that our forefather was fighting against Napoleon. I discovered my misinterpretation when I spent Holy Week on the island of St. Helena on my sail from Capetown to Brazil, in 2007. There was a complete library on Napoleon’s life and battles on the island and I discovered that Sybolt Ottes de Vries had been drafted in the disastrous expedition to Moscow in 1812.

Their fourth child, Poite, was born in 1811 and it is most likely that Sybolt Ottes de Vries was part of the 25,000 Dutch troops that were drafted to fight the Russians in the ill-fated expedition to Moscow in 1812. Only ten percent of Napoleon’s 600,000 soldiers returned from this battle. More than one million people died in total including those casualties of the “Grande Armée”. Most of these soldiers and civilians alike died not only in the fighting, but also from starvation, exhaustion, and the sub-freezing cold of the 1812-1813 Winter. Typhus killed more of Napoleon’s troops than those who died at the hands of Russian defenders.

In 2007 I did not write a blog yet, but I did post a report after each section of the voyage and this report on the crossing of the South Atlantic was read by the oldest son of Eeltsje (the report is still available on this website at: . We met for the first time in 2011 when I was in Europe on “Fleetwood”.

Sybolt Ottes was raised in Woudsend in a mastmaker’s family. He decided to move to the saltwater port of De Lemmer. A younger son of Sybolt Ottes, (brother of Jan Siebolts born in 1807 the great grandfather of my mother) started a mastmaker shop in IJlst. Besides mastmaking the IJst branch also made ice skates, for which IJlst became the Frisian center. There are records in the bookkeeping of the family where the de Lemmer store bought ice skates from their cousins in IJlst. Eventually the IJlst family became more involved in the sawn softwood lumber trade to the farmers and eventually most of the building contractors in the area bought their needs from Houthandel de Vries. When Eeltje joined the family firm he diversified from softwoods into hardwoods. He gained his experience by working for hardwood importers and one of them was Maatschappy de Fijnhouthandel in Amsterdam, where I was an apprentice in 1955/1956. He retired after selling a very successful large distribution company to Pont-Meyer in Heerenveen.

l.r. Carol de Vries 1942 full cousin, Eeltje de Vries 1938 my new cousin, Wiepke de Vries, son of Eeltje

Sawmill frm 1770 “The Rat” now a working museum


The waterway from Sneek to Stavoren, I used this in 2010 on Fleetwood





In background the museum “IJlst Houtstad” translates “Woodcity”, appropriate for both of us having made a living in the international wood business











A one minute video of the sawmill working.


Some of this may already be familiar because there is an anecdote connected to the IJlst de Vries branch of the family that I discovered through one of those one in a million coincidental meetings. This happened in San Diego a few days before the November 1st start of the 2016 BAJA-HA-HA sailboat rally to Cabo San Lucas. One of the boats was the “M” of John and Maggie Stienstra from the S.F. Bay area. Both his parents had emigrated from IJlst to California by way of Canada. His mothers parents, the Woudstras, had taken in a Jewish baby girl, Mia, born in 1940. Her parents were murdered in Sobibor. An aunt took her to Israel at war’s end. One day Mia contacted a t.v. program in Holland and showed an old picture of her foster family looking to re-establish contact. John’s uncles responded. The story can be seen at A newspaper article in Dutch 

Read more details in my October 29, 2016 post at:

I reported this meeting to the son of Eeltsje de Vries and then found out that Mia lived next door and was two classes below him in the same elementary school. This photo shows Mia Levy-Lakmaker around 1943 darting in the viewfinder of the camera recording the laying of the first stone for a new Lumber warehouse at the the buisiness of the de Vries family. Looks like she stole the show by the reactions of the crowd. Eeltsje, my new cousin, is the blond boy with his parents and grandfather behind them.

Mia around 1943

I made decent progress on the boat this week. The teak has been replaced on the deck and next will be caulking the seams and sanding it level with the old deck. A new skill learned, Never thought I’d be able to bend the curves.deck


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