The skûtsje is the classic barge of Friesland. Its design evolved from the larger tjalk in the mid-1800s to satisfy a need for sturdy, flat-bottomed boats that could sail the shallow waters of the Zuiderzee and also enable navigation inland through the narrow canals and bridge cuts to the Friesian towns, villages and farms.
Skûtsjes were initially built of wood; however, as early as 1889 skûtsjes began being built of riveted iron and during the first decade of the twentieth century, steel replaced iron as the preferred material. From about 1910 the skûtsje dominated the market for fast transportation and regular schedules. There were 870 iron and steel skûtsjes built over four decades.
Among their early uses was hauling peat from inland Friesland to markets across the Zuiderzee in North Holland. On their return trips, they dried-out on low tides and loaded sand to replace the harvested peat so that the areas would remain above sea level.
When navigating canals, the skipper of a skûtsje would need to drop and raise the mast frequently to pass under the many low bridges. To enable this, the mast is designed with a counterweight slightly heavier than that of the mast and rig above the pivot point. There is a slot in the foredeck, called the mastluik, which allows the bottom of the mast with its counterweight to swing up and down. When there was no wind, or when the wind was contrary, the barged was hauled along from the towpath.
The length of the classic skûtsje varies from about 12 to 20 metres, its beam is generally less than 4 metres, mostly 3.3 to 3.6 metres and its hold is 1 to 1.25 metres deep. Large fan-shaped leeboards are fitted and the skûtsje flies two sails, a gaff-rigged mainsail with a gracefully curved gaff, and filling the foretriangle, a self-tacking jib. The jib's clew travels on a luiwagen, a transverse sheet block rail, while its tack is attached to the outboard end of an iron loefijzer, a bowsprit about a metre long. The bows and sterns are low to allow easy passage under the bridges.
The barge was both a business and a home, with the family living in the small roef in the stern. The height was restricted to allow the lowered mast to cradle and leave clearance under fixed bridges. The length was limited to allow just sufficient clearance aft for the swing of the steering tiller, and forward, to give maximum space to the cargo hold.