Remembering Captain Uli


To the editor: Regarding David Berson’s recent Nav Problem pegged to an early voyage of the four-masted German barque Peking (“The barque Peking and the P-Line ships,” November/December 2012, Issue 206), it’s worth noting that the history of the old steel Cape Horn ships touches on the life of a spirited Hamburg-born ship’s captain whose name will be familiar to readers of Ocean Navigator and Professional Mariner.

The late Ulrich Pruesse — universally known as “Captain Uli” — was that rare breed of seafarer, master mariner in commercial sail. In the 1990s, when I first met and sailed with him, and wrote about his exploits for the two magazines, Uli commanded the 360-foot, four-masted passenger-carrying barquentine Star Clipper, a ship whose design and sea-keeping qualities had evolved from the sleek mid-19th century American clippers and the huge 19th- and 20th-century bulk carriers exemplified by Peking.

There is another coincidental link in the chain. Some years ago, Uli sent me as a Christmas greeting a photo taken in 1927 aboard Peking. It pictured his father, Wilhelm Pruesse, as a 22-year-old able seaman with his shipmates at the start of a voyage from their home port of Hamburg.

Courtesy Capt. Uli Pruesse

Pruesse’s father Wilhelm (far right, black cap) as a 22-year-old on Peking in 1927.

In addition to the 377-foot Peking (launched in Hamburg in 1911), the elder Pruesse had also shipped as matrose, or AB, in the four-masted barques Pamir (Hamburg, 1905) and Passat (Hamburg, 1911) as well as in Potosi (Geestemünde, 1895), one of only six five-masted barques ever constructed. All of these vessels had been built to the order of the shipping company F. Laeisz of Hamburg for the Chilean nitrate trade. According to Uli, it was in these windjammers that his father had “sailed the Horn about 15 times — he was built for Cape Horn!”

Pamir, near sister to Peking, was lost at sea in 1957. Peking survived until recently as a maritime museum at South Street Seaport, New York City. But as David Berson reports in his Nav Problem piece, the seaport complex, beset by “budgetary constraints,” recently decided to donate the square-rigger to the city of her birth.

It is a pity for the U.S. to lose this historic remnant of the age of sail. At the same time, it is entirely fitting to see the ship returned to the place where she was built and which, for most of her working life, she identified as her port of registry.

In the 1930s, Wilhelm Pruesse shipped out as a deck officer with the prestigious North German Lloyd Line. He later rose to become president of the Hamburg Maritime Academy, which his son would one day attend. Both father and son held unlimited master’s licenses in the German merchant service.

On a 1996 Caribbean voyage aboard Star Clipper with Capt. Uli, I recall standing with him in the pilothouse when he handed me a fax that resurrected his father’s old ship Pamir. Long after the elder Pruesse had left her, the barque was driven onto her side and lost with 80 men in a South Atlantic hurricane.

At the end of Star Clipper’s 1996 Caribbean cruise, the vessel’s sailing schedule called for a west-east Atlantic crossing, Barbados to Malaga. The ship’s track would touch where Pamir had gone down, 600 miles west of the Azores, 1,700 miles northeast of Barbados. The fax — from Star Clipper’s Miami office — said an unnamed gentleman wanted to book passage on the crossing for the sole purpose of dropping a memorial wreath near or at the spot.

The fax queried whether Uli would pass close enough to the position to permit the passenger to conduct the ceremony. I watched as my old friend penciled a small circle on the chart. It marked where Pamir’s bones lay, in 2,000 fathoms.

 “Ja,” he said quietly. “I think I can do that.”

Uli Pruesse died in 2004. He was 61.

—Alan Littell, a longtime contributor to Ocean Navigator, is a journalist, novelist and former merchant mariner. He is author of Courage: A Novel of the Sea, published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. He lives in Alfred, N.Y.

By Ocean Navigator