September 2011, Issue 196: The disappearance of Kobenhavn

Before the era of wireless radio (the 1920s), sailing ships carried no means of communicating with shore. Information about a ship’s progress was passed along by other ships they met along the way. It was assumed that all was well until a ship failed to arrive. Even then there was no panic on shore as sailing ships could have met with a storm, been dismasted and had to proceed under jury rig. It could be a month before the shipping company knew a ship had met with an accident.

Built in Scotland and launched in 1921, Kobenhavn was the largest sailing ship ever made in the U.K. The vessel was built for the Danish East Asiatic Company as both a school ship and a cargo-carrying vessel.  

Kobenhavn was the first of these large school sailing ships that had a diesel auxiliary. The engine could push Kobenhavn along at six knots and make docking the huge ship easier. The vessel also had a wireless operator. Unlike many other tall ships of the time, Kobenhavn was built with an eye toward safety. The vessel had watertight bulkheads throughout. This was a giant of a ship. Kobenhavn had an overall length of 430 feet with a 49-foot beam, drawing almost 29 feet when carrying cargo and spreading 50,000 square feet of canvas. Her lower yards were 90 feet long. She had five miles of standard rigging and 23 miles of running rigging.

The vessel’s first voyage was a circumnavigation which took more than a year. The crew of 60 included two boatswains, a sail maker, a carpenter, 16 able seamen, 10 ordinary seamen, as well as 20 company cadets. There were two officers and 24 men on each watch.

Over the next few years, Kobenhavn carried cargo all over the world. For her 10th voyage, Kobenhavn was turned over to Capt. Hans Ferdinand Andersen, who had come up through the ranks. He had great experience, as did the crew. Kobenhavn was to leave Buenos Aires bound for Australia to pick up grain for Europe from Australia. The ship left in ballast. The skipper meant to follow the west winds at around 43 degrees south.

A week out of Buenos Aires, Kobenhavn was in radio contact about 1,000 miles out. The skipper had taken a noon sight. His DR position on Dec. 21 was 43 degrees, 35 minutes south, by 16 degrees, 15 minutes west. Everything was well and he expected that he would arrive in Australia in no more than 50 days. When Kobenhavn didn’t show up, the East Asiatic Company sent out ships to search, but no wreckage was ever sighted. A Court of Inquiry in October of 1929 decided that collision with ice was the likely cause of the huge barque’s disappearance.

Let’s look in on Capt. Andersen’s navigation. On Dec. 21, he did a noon sight.

He took a lower limb shot of the sun. The Hs was 69° 42.0’. His height of eye was 25 feet. There is no Index Error and we are using the 2011 Nautical Almanac.

A. What is time of LAN in GMT at the DR?
B. What is the Ho?
C. What is the latitude?

A. 13 hours 3 minutes GMT
B. Ho is 69° 52.9’
C. Latitude is 43° 33.2’ S

By Ocean Navigator