Have you ever known you would miss an experience that would change your life if you didn’t find a way to get to that place in that moment in time? William Stark felt that way in 1948. It was Christmas vacation and he was about to return to the University of Zurich as an exchange student when he had a chance conversation with a pair of British naval officers. His summers for the last five years had been spent working in steamships and he thought the grain races and tall ships that he had read about in his teens had all sailed into the pages of history.
The windjammer in the Thames that they told him about had sailed already for Australia, and the company spokesman for Clarkson’s, the London agent for Passat, was sympathetic, but he could provide no more than the information that the four-masted barque had a full crew and was outward bound to Australia. Stark threw away his scholarship, not just the year abroad, but his chance at a degree at Dartmouth, to follow the vessel. Getting there in time to meet the ship, and his eventual securing of a berth in Pamir is almost as exciting as his account of the voyage. His memoir The Last Trip Around Cape Horn is a first-person account of the realization of his dream.
These two vessels carried the last commercial grain cargoes from Australia to Falmouth, and though Passat won the contest, the other vessel, Pamir, gained the honor of being the last commercial sailing vessel to round Cape Horn. Passat is preserved today in Germany. Pamir lies at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, lost in 1957 in a tragic convergence of hurricane winds, shifting grain, and the loss of knowledge that went with the breakup of the great sailing fleets. How could this happen, a bare eight years after Pamir’s last successful rounding of Cape Horn?
At the close of the second world war, only two viable commercial sail carriers still existed: F. Laeisz’s Flying “P” Line of Germany, and the Erikson Line of Finland. By 1949, the last two Flying “P” vessels were both in the hands of Erikson and Laeisz had made the transition to steam. The 1949 voyages were not profitable, and no profitable cargoes could be found, so both ships were chartered out as stationary granaries, and then sold for scrap in 1951.
That should have been the end of the story, but both vessels were purchased by a German shipowner, Heinz Schliewen, who had a dream of creating a sail training fleet whose costs would be paid by the cargo they would carry. He proposed to raise profit margins by carrying the grain mostly in bulk, which would lower the costs of loading and unloading and allow more grain to be carried. A layer of sacked grain on top of the loose cargo and a series of watertight bulkheads and shifting boards would keep the cargo from moving under sail. Pamir and Passat were heavily modified, adding engines, extra lifeboats, ballast tanks--and the new cargo arrangement.
The venture failed, partly from the cost of modification to the first two vessels, and because Schliewen overextended himself in an attempt to build a fleet while Cape Horners could still be had. He purchased Moshulu and was in negotiations for the last Erikson ship, Pommern, when he ran out of money. His first two voyages from Buenos Aires to Europe failed to pay his costs. The romantic dream would not die, though. A nonprofit foundation was set up by a group of German shipowners and the German state of Schleswig-Holstein and Pamir and Passat were reprieved once again.
On August 10 of 1957 Pamir sailed from South America for Hamburg, carrying barley. Passat followed two weeks later. Forty days out from Buenos Aires, Pamir encountered a hurricane and was lost. Of 86 people aboard, six survived. The eyewitness accounts were few, and the tangled, tragic tale difficult to unravel, but it seems clear that the cargo shifted in the hurricane. Daniel S. Parrott, in his excellent book Tall Ships Down pieces together the probable sequence of events. Particularly compelling is his inclusion of crucial information about Passat's voyage soon after. She, too, ran into heavy weather and her cargo also shifted. The experienced Cape Horn captain in command had heard of the loss of Pamir. He flooded the ballast tank on the other side and managed to keep his vessel from capsizing. Passat was towed to Lisbon and after restowing the grain, sailed on to Hamburg.
Passat never sailed again, but the chain of luck, loss and love that had caused so many aging vessels to be saved gave us Pommern, in Mariehamn, Moshulu, in Philadelphia, and Passat, in Travemunde, among many others. Though there were other sail training vessels after that, none carried cargo again until the Picton Castle began her world-girdling voyages at the end of the twentieth century.
It is clear that many experienced Cape Horners advised against carrying grain in bulk, and that inexperience was a factor in the loss of Pamir. As Niels Jannasch, one of those experienced men, said in a letter written after he sailed in the modified Pamir in 1952, "The red line of tradition has been broken." His letter to the inquiry into the Pamir's loss details some of the differences in practice he saw, and is a valuable document in its own right simply because he puts in writing things that otherwise would be lost. I am absolutely unqualified to speak on the accident itself, but as an interpreter and former volunteer sailor, I am grateful whenever I run across such crumbs from the past that add to my limited understanding. Pamir seems to have had the bad luck to run into a situation that an experienced captain and crew would have needed luck and skill to survive. Had fortune favored them and allowed them to learn from their experience perhaps sail training in cargo would have survived. Parrott has taken this tragedy and turned it into a detailed lesson about the risks of altering an established system without fully understanding it. He has retrieved some information from the past that makes it clear just how skilled Cape Horn sailors were, and why our mission at San Francisco Maritime, to preserve what remains of the history and culture of the sea is so important.
In the next installment we'll trace the near death of the age of sail, the few sailing vessels that continued to operate in an ocean nearly emptied of their kind and the beginning of the replica vessels that are the sail training fleet of today. We will also explore the maritime museums that were founded in that crucial slice of time, when Cape Horners were white elephants, and the last of the sailors were still alive to tell their tales.
Want to Find Out More? Here are a couple of “Paper Ships” to carry you to adventure!
Daniel S. Parrott. Tall Ships Down: The Last Voyages of the Pamir, Albatross, Marques, Pride of Baltimore, and Maria Asumpta. New York: McGraw-Hill. 2003.
William Stark. The Last Time Around Cape Horn: The Historic 1949 Voyage of the Windjammer Pamir. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2003.
Passat (bark, 4m) in heavy seas, undated
U. S. National Park Service
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May 26, 2021
Last updated: May 26, 2021