Ayesha’s last cruise

In 1914, the German cruiser SMS Emden and Kapitanleutnant Helmuth Karl von Mucke found themselves in the South Pacific upholding the Imperial interests of Kaiser William. On Nov. 9, Emden disembarked 50 men, including von Mucke, at Direction Island in the Keeling group, to wreck its vital cable and radio station.

The landing party quickly vandalized the facility, and the British operators were made "prisoners," although no one was actually constrained or locked up. In fact, the interaction of the two groups was so cordial that von Mucke agreed to a British request that the station’s radio tower be felled in such a manner as to avoid disturbing the tennis court adjacent to the station, tennis being the only diversion the British had to combat the boredom of island life.

Unfortunately, while the landing party went about its selectively destructive chores, an Australian cruiser, HMAS Sydney, arrived and immediately began pounding Emden into little more than a pile of scrap metal.

With all hope of returning to Emden dashed, and capture imminent, von Mucke commandeered a rotting vessel discovered lying at anchor in the harbor. The three-masted Ayesha, square rigged on her fore mast and fore and aft rigged on her main and mizzen, was obviously well past her use-by date. Her condition would have made any marine surveyor cringe, but Von Mucke quickly decided to ready the hulk for sea in a bid to run for home.

Some of von Mucke’s men had had naval sail training while others were former fishermen. So, while less knowledgeable comrades scouted the island for provisions, those who had spent some time before the mast bent on mildewed sails and gingerly poked about Ayesha’s spongy timbers looking for potential structural problems. Eventually they stopped looking: every part of the ship was structurally unsound.

The British, priding themselves on being good sports, and showing gratitude for the sparing of their beloved tennis court, offered von Mucke assistance in locating provisions. They also helped prepare Ayesha for sea, and congregated on the beach to cheer the Germans off as they departed on what most thought a brave but foolhardy voyage back to "der Vaterland."

With the islands hardly out of sight, Ayesha’s shrouds began snapping like over-tightened violin strings, and the crew were constantly employed repairing and replacing sails and rigging. To make matters worse, a British cruiser could be expected to appear at any moment to blow the sickly vessel out of the water.

To make repairs, Von Mucke decided to shape a course for the neutral Dutch port of Padang, Sumatra, arriving there Nov. 24. During the cruise, von Mucke had ordered gun ports be cut to accommodate his four machine guns to convince Dutch authorities that "SMS" Ayesha was indeed a man-o’-war, and as such, could not be interned as a merchant vessel might be. On arrival, the Dutch reluctantly accepted his arguments, but insisted that Ayesha be out of their jurisdiction before nightfall to avoid British ire.

The short stay did not allow for proper repairs, but several German merchant vessels in port managed to send boats filled with cigarettes, novels, clothes and newspapers from home, which lifted the crew’s spirits considerably. Through the German consul they also received charts, sail cloth, water, toothbrushes and other personal items, and even 10 frisky little pigs. At eight bells (2000) Ayesha shipped her anchor with some difficulty, as the pigs kept sliding about and getting underfoot. Ayesha was again underway!

On Dec. 14, while Ayesha was lying to in a heavy sea south of the Maldives, the watch officer reported a steamer approaching through the rain. This turned out to be Choising, a German vessel that had been searching for Ayesha. The following morning, after the worst storm the crew had yet experienced, Ayesha was dead in the water in a calm sea. The steamer took the tired old schooner in tow, but von Mucke decided they should remain aboard Choising, and scuttle Ayesha there in the southern Maldives.

After voyaging 1,700 nautical miles, von Mucke and his crew fondly bid farewell to Ayesha as she slipped, with some new-found dignity, into the sea. The fate of the pigs is unknown, but they are believed to have perished as a result of consumption.

By Ocean Navigator