Leaping to Stay Dry

In the Netherlands, pole vaulting gets an upgrade.

By / September 2012

If landscape determines leisure, it is little wonder that the sport of fierljeppen began in the Netherlands, a country bound up and shot through with frigid bodies of water. Literally translated “far leaping,” but commonly called canal jumping, the sport is a Dutch take on pole vaulting. Fierljeppen is similar to its Olympic cousin in that a long, slender stick is the gear used to fling competitors to their destination, but that is where the likeness ends.

Canal jumpers begin their conquest pole-less. Once deep breaths have been drawn, they dash down a narrow runway on a crash course with a 10-meter pole perched at the edge of a stream, pond, canal, you name it. Once snagged, the pole begins falling forward, lurching slowly at first out over the watery expanse but gathering speed with every inch it tumbles.

Because jumpers will land in the water unless they move up the pole, they scurry like chipmunks up live oaks in an attempt to reach as high as gravity, time, and dexterity will allow. Although the basic goal of the game is to vault so as to stay dry, some diehards charge up the pole in hopes of propelling themselves into the record books.

The current record holder for longest distance is a man by the name of Bart Helmholt. A native of Friesland, a fiercely independent province in northern Holland where the game is rumored to have originated, Helmholt last year hurled himself 21.51 meters to a sandy landing.

The national championships, which are held every August in different cities around the country, bring out dozens of competitors. During a jump in the tournament a few years back, one man lost his false teeth. Upon landing, he located the sand-caked dentures, picked them up, dusted them off, then casually slid them back into place. Apparently, the tourney was too important for such petty distractions. Ask any Dutchman, he’ll tell you the same.


Patric Brasher is the sports columnist for EthnoTraveler.