Drowned Dutch sailor honoured by community he helped protect

Peter Van Beusekom who drowned when his tug capsized off Sea Palling in 1996. Picture; VAN BEUSEKOM

Peter Van Beusekom who drowned when his tug capsized off Sea Palling in 1996. Picture; VAN BEUSEKOM FAMILY - Credit: Archant

The tragic story of a Dutch skipper who drowned while working to protect a Norfolk community will be retold to mark the 20th anniversary of his death.

Jim Smerdon remembers sailor Peter Van Beusekom who drowned off the Sea Palling coast. Pictured with

Jim Smerdon remembers sailor Peter Van Beusekom who drowned off the Sea Palling coast. Pictured with the memorial plaque on the Sea Palling beach slipway.Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

Peter Van Beusekom, 35, was trapped beneath his capsized tug Bever on November 11 1996.

He had been helping to lay the rock reefs which have saved Sea Palling from erosion and the scale of flooding which claimed seven villagers’ lives in the disaster of January 1953.

The sound of knocking was reported from his overturned boat in the early stages of desperate, wide-ranging rescue bids, and there were hopes that Mr Van Beusekom had found an under-water air pocket.

But divers were unable to open the hatches because of the water pressure, and a last-ditch attempt to right the boat failed, causing it to sink to the sea bed.

Peter Van Beusekom's parents Peter and Nel with the plaque to his memory in Sea Palling. Picture; JI

Peter Van Beusekom's parents Peter and Nel with the plaque to his memory in Sea Palling. Picture; JIM SMERDON - Credit: Archant

The body of Mr Van Beusekom, from Velserbroek, in Holland, was never found. He left a widow, Ann, 33, and children Nick, six, and Tess, two.

Some 12 years ago details of the 1996 tragedy came to the attention of then local police chief Jim Smerdon who received a letter addressed to “Chief of police, North Norfolk,” from Mr Van Beusekom’s parents, Peter and Nel.

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“It said that their son had died helping the community of Sea Palling and asked if there was any way there could be some kind of memorial in the place he died,” said Mr Smerdon, 56.

“I thought: ‘What’s unreasonable about that?’ so I got in touch with North Norfolk District Council.”

Jim Smerdon remembers sailor Peter Van Beusekom who drowned off the Sea Palling coast. The memorial

Jim Smerdon remembers sailor Peter Van Beusekom who drowned off the Sea Palling coast. The memorial plaque on the Sea Palling beach slipway.Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

The result was the unveiling of a plaque, in May 2004, on the slipway wall in Sea Palling. It bears a short tribute to Mr Van Beusekom, and the date he died.

His parents have since become firm friends of retired superintendent Smerdon and his wife Gill. They and two Dutch friends stay at the Smerdons’ home in Trowse most years and always visit Sea Palling to pay their respects.

“They are the loveliest people,” he said. “We have become very close. It’s always an emotional time when they visit.”

Mr Smerdon plans to mark the 20th anniversary by placing an explanatory board near the plaque.

“When I’ve been in Sea Palling cleaning the plaque over the years people stop and ask me what it’s all about,” he said.

“When I tell them, the reaction is always: ‘Wow! We never realised that’. I decided it was time to tell the story.

“I think it would be fair to say that Sea Palling is probably saved by the work that went on back then.

“If it wasn’t for the bravery of people like Peter, working in extremely dangerous conditions, Sea Palling wouldn’t be in the really good state it’s now in.”