Wednesday, August 6th, 2008
It seemed a good idea to join all these other sailing ships in Korsor for a bit anyway. We had to get on to Copenhagen but we could spare a little time to do something as interesting as meeting up and joining a fleet of fine sailing ships and a great bunch of kindred mariners in a small Danish seaport, so we sailed for Korsor. The current pulled the bow of the Picton Castle off the quay in Svendborg and we rode the last of the fair tide to make our way out through the narrow fjord that is the northern approach to Svendborg and out into the Great Belt, the sound between Fyn and the next and bigger island to the east, Sjaelland (pronounced “Zealand”).
The day was overcast, spitting rain with fresh southerly winds. We are getting used to this sort of weather, it’s not so bad as long as the wind is usable and this is was. The chunks of land are so close to each other and seas so shallow that seas can not really build up properly to anything that would bother a ship like the Picton Castle.
All this sail setting and tacking in wet weather is also making a stronger crew of our gang, nothing wrong with that. The small grey seas that are a dominant feature of so many marine paintings of this area are with us much of the time. Most of the old Baltic Traders, as the ketches and schooners are collectively called, have water lines of 60 to 70 feet and they do okay in these conditions but tend to hobby-horse in head seas. With our 130 foot water line and sharp entry we barely feel these seas as we sail along in their waters. Big fish in a small pond.
Soon we were lined up on the range lights inbound for the port of Korsor taking sail and then tied up to a stone quay at a historic park that was once a naval base in the 19th century. We were the first ship in. This we did intentionally as I thought it might be interesting for us to watch the other ships sail in. We so rarely get to watch the Parade of Sail as we are usually in the thing. This turned out to be fun.
The next morning the ships started to sail in and soon the cobblestone quay was one long line of wooden sailing ships, some rafted up. Varnished and oiled wooden masts, topmasts and yards everywhere. Silhouetted against the clear skies all was a forest of masts and webs of rigging. Schooners, topsail schooners, galeases, ketches, three masted schooners, sloops, cutters and one bark. Former fishing vessels, ex cargo droughers, ex wet-well eel carriers, old packet boats, former custom/revenue cutters, converted herring fishermen and pilot vessels; these were the smaller work horses from the age of sail, all beautifully restored, maintained and sailed. It was a delight to be in their company.
It was not that long ago that most of the vessels were working at their original tasks. Cod, salt, timber general goods, rope, building supplies, you name it, any and all things could be found in their cargo manifests. Before bridges, before big trucks, before big centralized-consolidated shipping, before diesel engines burning cheap fuel these small ships were sailing all over the Baltic, North Sea and around Europe from Finland (and even Russia) to Spain and Portugal and out to Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland carrying small cargos and trading on a regular basis. The small Brigantine Romance under her original name, Grette, made the voyage to Greenland many a time – pretty far away is Greenland. Perhaps soon their practices will be renewed the way things are headed, and all for the good.
Of particular interest was the topsail schooner Lilla Dan and Pilot Schooner Elbe-5 ex-Wanderbird. The Lilla Dan is a wooden topsail schooner built as a sail training ship for young would-be officers of the Lauritsen Line and was the last ever sail training ship built by and for a steamship company. The Lilla Dan was designed and built after a typical Danish cargo trader of her size at the J.Ring Andersen Yard in Svendborg in 1951. She sails for her company yet and does summer charters. Her skipper is an old shipmate from my Danmark days – Jesper Johansen. He is one cracker-jack sailor and keeps that ship up to perfection with little apparent effort. You can eat off any part of that ship including the engine room. The Lilla sailed in, preformed a snappy manoeuvre and was quickly along side with only a few feet to spare under our jib-boom. No grand-standing, he is just good and knows his ship. Our crew were directed to check out the Lilla Dan to be reminded how clean and well painted a ship can and should be.
There were many fine vessels at our gathering but standing out one must point to the Schooner Elbe-5. This vessel holds a special place in the pantheon of the modern small ship sail training and sea experience movement. In the 1920’s the German Pilot Schooner Elbe-5 was bought by Captain Warwick Tompkins and his wife. As the Wanderbird she sailed for many years with young college students as crew making numerous deepwater passages across the North Atlantic and even around Cape Horn (resulting in that great chronicle of a voyage and ship “Fifty South To Fifty South”).
At one time Captain Tompkins’ mate was a young Irving Johnson, a recent graduate was a young Exy Johnson. These two got married and got a North Sea pilot schooner of their own, two in fact, in sequence. The first schooner rigged and the second converted to a brigantine. In these vessels, both named Yankee, the Johnsons made many voyages taking young people to sea including seven world circumnavigations. The idea to do this on a sustainable basis was born and nurtured aboard the Schooner Wanderbird. Sterling Hayden, who at one time sailed as mate in the Yankee, was also inspired by this exquisite schooner. Both the Wanderbird and the Yankees have been very influential in getting young people out to sea in traditional vessels under sail. And those vessels lead directly to the building of the Schooner Westward, the establishment of the Sea Education Association of Woods Hole and inspired any number of other operations.
The hull lines of the Picton Castle are very similar to Elbe-5 although quite a good deal larger and, of course, barque rigged. After her voyage around Cape Horn and WWII the schooner lay as a house-boat in San Francisco with masts cut off. An enterprising tug-boat skipper Harold Summer and his wife Annelise got a hold of her in the 1960’s, probably for a song, and set about restoring this remarkable schooner. Their restoration was perfection itself. Given her provenance it was logical that this example of 1883 German maritime heritage should one day find her way back to the Elbe River and Hamburg from whence she came. Now she is maintained top-notch and sailed actively by the museum association that owns her. It was fun for me to see her as I had spent some time aboard her in San Francisco years ago. Again, our crew were directed aboard to see what a truly fine schooner looks like. They were welcomed by the crew of Elbe-5. The Danes say she is very fast against their vessels.
While it is great good fun to mix it up with kindred spirits in kindred ships, the work goes on with any sailing ship. Topsides get painted, varnish and rig tarring is ongoing and we spied a nice piece of flat grass on which to lay out a new sail so David, Lynsey and Nadja rolled out bolts of canvas that will become a new jib, hand stitched, every inch. The Navy Association held a nice reception for the officers of the Picton Castle as she is an old navy ship herself. We held open-ship and had hundreds of guests from not only the other ships but from towns-folks and visitors to the assembled fleet. On a personal note I had a good number of shipmates, former cadets and officers both, from those days I sailed in the Danish Full-rigger Danmark as Bosun in 1978-82. Then it came time for us all to sail. We would all start the race together, the fleet would head west around Fyn and we would sail east over the north of Sjaelland towards Copenhagen.