Dangerous times before the mast

It’s 1914, the eve of World War I. You’ve come on deck early with your coffee to survey the harbor in the fading light before anchor watch. Off the port rail, you spot a square-rigged merchant vessel quietly getting underway, little changed in appearance from its 19th-century kin. Moments later you glance across the starboard rail to see a turbine-powered naval cruiser, billowing clouds of black smoke and bristling with the latest weaponry, entering the harbor in company with one of those new navy curiosities — a stealthy submarine.

Such visual ironies were common for sailors just prior to WWI. But the incongruity of unarmed, wind-powered vessels becoming the prey of “modern” high-speed naval ships would probably not be fully comprehended by observant sailors … until hostilities began.

In his book The Battle of the Falkland Islands: Before and After, Cmdr. H. Spencer-Cooper notes one such irony as hostilities commenced between British and German battle cruisers on Dec. 8, 1914: “A full-rigged sailing ship appeared on the port hand of our battle cruisers; she was painted white, and her sails were shining as if bleached in the bright sunlight — so close was she that the Admiral was forced to alter his course to pass a couple of miles clear of her, so that the enemy’s shell ricocheting should not hit her.”

Pirates aboard

The two vessels slammed hard together, starboard to starboard, and the three tall, gaunt men, clad in tattered T-shirts and long pants, no shoes, jumped aboard Saltaire. At least 20 women and children were visible over the low transom as the dhow pulled away at the hands of the helmsman, now the only male I could see remaining onboard. Somali dhows are known to transport illegal domestic workers and prostitutes into Yemen, generating a nice side income for corrupt Yemeni coast guard offici

The sailing ship that had wandered into the middle of this naval engagement was the Norwegian full-rigged ship Fairport, en route from Chile to Norway. Fairport managed to run the gauntlet none the worse for the blunder &mdash her crew probably unaware that war had begun during their passage round the Horn.

Another unidentified sailing vessel was spotted the same day not far from Fairport’s course line by George Hanks, a sick bay attendant on HMS Carnarvon. In his diary, Hanks recorded, “About 3 p.m. a big sailing ship appears on the horizon and no doubt but what those on board her had a magnificent view of the battle just as it was at its zenith.”

American vessels were initially spared naval harassment thanks to U.S. neutrality policy. But on Jan. 27, 1915, while sailing off the Brazilian coast, Capt. H.H. Kiehne of the 3,374-ton American steel-built barque William P. Frye (launched at Bath, Maine, 1901) was about to learn that neutrality didn’t count for much. Frye, en route from Seattle to England with a cargo of wheat, was quickly overhauled by the German armed cruiser Prinz Eitel Friedrich. Cmdr. Max Thietichens of Friedrich ordered Kiehne to stop and prepare to receive a boarding party. When the Germans found Frye carrying “contraband” wheat for England, Thietichens demanded that Kiehne commence dumping his cargo. However, unloading progressed too slowly for the impatient German. Thietichens ordered Kiehne and his crew to board Friedrich while a demolition team prepared the barque and her remaining cargo for destruction. Frye was sunk with a dynamite charge, gaining for the vessel the dubious honor of being the first American marine casualty of WWI.

Large vessels weren’t the only sail-powered victims of the war, however. On Aug. 30, 1918, the 136-ton Lunenburg fishing schooner Potentate was proceeding home from the Grand Banks. Capt. Fred Gerhardt (a descendant of 18th century German settlers at Lunenburg) was pleased with his catch &mdash 1,400 quintals (140,000 lbs) of cod. As Potentate left the Banks, fog engulfed the schooner, and all was quiet until an insistent voice boomed through the mist, “Heave your ship to, and lower your sails!”

When Gerhardt came topside to investigate, he found a surfaced German U-boat a short distance off. The Lunenburg captain was ordered to lower a dory and come aboard the submarine, where he and his two oarsmen were informed by the German commander that the schooner would be sunk because it was “helping to feed America.” After being held for two hours, Gerhardt heard a muffled explosion. Potentate was sent below with a charge of dynamite, but not before the remaining crew on the schooner had been allowed to lower their dories, filled with belongings, food and water.

The German commander offered Gerhardt and his men an apology in German for having destroyed their means of livelihood, before setting them free in their dory. The commander tossed Gerhardt a loaf of rye bread and a cask of water, and told them to row for the Newfoundland coast. Potentate’s captain and crew eventually arrived safely at St. John’s.

Between August and September 1918, U-boats dispatched nine fishing schooners near the Grand Banks &mdash unfortunate for their Canadian and American shareholders, given that hostilities with Germany would cease in November, just weeks later. The exact number of vintage sailing ships lost to hostile action during those dangerous years will likely never be known.

ls who, for a handful of rials, allow entry of the human contraband.

By Ocean Navigator