Rear Admiral Roberto Benavente
I. Distress Signal
This account corresponds to an episode which occurred in 1929 beginning on the night of the 22nd of April when the wireless operator on the steamer ALFONSO, a small cargo ship, and passengers, from the Menéndez Behety Society, who were sailing in the Tamar Passage intercepted an S.O.S maritime distress signal. The terrible weather conditions and poor quality of the radio equipment of that age made reception of the distress signal difficult, but at least they managed to discern that the signal came from the German ship PINNAS, which was to be found facing a prolonged storm in the vicinity of the feared Cape Horn.
The Captain, Jorge E. Jensen Hansen, an experienced mariner of Danish origin who was naturalised as Chilean in 1910 and who married a Chilean woman, hurried the journey of the ALFONSO, arriving in Punta Arenas on the morning of the 23rd of April, and informed the local Maritime Governor, Captain Miguel Elizalde, and the Head of the Naval Station, Commander Alberto Paredes, of the distress signal receiving orders to fill up with fuel and provisions to set sail immediately towards Cape Horn in aid of the German ship.
If we imagine that the ships of the age scarcely used a magnetic compass, had neither radar nor echo sounder and minimal meteorological help, to which must be added the unreliable navigation charts and complete lack of maritime signals in that area, we better understand the daring and bravery of Captain Jensen, whose nautical spirit and singleness of purpose was capable of surpassing and overcoming these failings and the inclemency of nature to give timely and efficient aid to the 25 Germans that composed the crew of the PINNAS, a ship of 2500 registered tons, belonging to the well known "P" line of Ferdinand Laeisz, and under the command of Captain L. Lehmann.
In the interim, the Maritime Authority of Punta Arenas established contact with the German ship informing it of the imminent assistance of the ALFONSO, and managing to obtain the best position of the crippled ship as Lat. 56º20´S Long. 73º30´W., some 220 miles WSW of Cape Horn, the geographical position which was immediately transmitted to Captain Jensen.
At dusk on the 24th of April, sailing with a rough sea from the North West, the small ALFONSO caught sight of the PINNAS, attempting to reduce the distance to determine, among other things, the urgency with which help was required. As they approached the ship, the crew of the ALFONSO could confirm the disastrous state in which they found the German sailing ship. Witnesses present have stated that they had never imagined such a spectacle. The ship was dismantled. The fore and main masts, like their yards, sails, and both fixed and movable rigging were found on the deck and of the mizzen mast only the lower mast, the boom and a yard remained, upon which the Germans had mounted a radio antenna and improvised a sail to try to turn the prow of the ship into the rough sea and reduce the rolling, of up to 45º, which knocked the ship from one side to the other with obvious risk of capsizing.
A similar evaluation was made by the Captain of the English steamer Scottish Star which arrived in the vicinity of the sailing ship a little later with the intention of towing it to a safe port. However, due to the persistence of the poor weather conditions and considering that they found the ALFONSO already there, its Captain decided to continue the journey to his destination.
The need for urgent help was evident, but the wind and sea conditions corresponded to those of a force 11 storm on the Beaufort scale, over 110 Km/hour and very high seas , which impeded all approaching manoeuvres.
The ALFONSO remained in the vicinity of the PINNAS for almost 3 days in the hope of an improvement in weather conditions. On the morning of the 27th of April the rough sea reduced its intensity a little and Captain Lehmann of the PINNAS requested urgent help from Jensen, before the holds flooded and the imminent splitting up of the ship, having come to the conclusion that it would be impossible to tow the ship to a protected anchorage for later reparation in Punta Arenas, the only port in the austral area of America where the essential larger repairs could be made, which was mainly needed for the rigging of the ship.
It was then that the Captain of the ALFONSO had to make an important decision, trying to bring his ship alongside the PINNAS to save the endangered crew as soon as possible. However, the enormous rolling of the bark obliged him to give up this idea, and as a result he ordered a boat lowered that - at the command of the 2nd mate, Enrique Imhoff - set out from the ALFONSO with a clear task: "To save the crew of the PINNAS".
Rowing in the midst of immense waves the skipper of the boat approached the German ship, confirming that coming alongside any of the ship's sides would be an impossible manoeuvre running the risk of capsizing his own boat, which would incur the loss of his life and the lives of the five sailors that crewed the craft.
It was there - under such extreme circumstances - that the sailor spirit and the determination of our seamen emerged. The mate, Imhof, steered his craft towards the prow of the sailing ship, managing - with great professional skill - to board 10 crew members via a pilot ladder which hung from the boom of the bowsprit, returning to the ALFONSO with his precious cargo for boarding.
Meanwhile, Captain Jensen noted that the barometer was falling rapidly, a sure indication of a new cyclonic depression nearing the area, famous for the frequency and violence of storms. But no force of nature would be more powerful than his will and sailor's determination committed to the humanitarian rescue work of other comrades who, without doubt, would have done the same in similar circumstances. It is this which writers have defined as The Spirit of the Men of the Sea, which reaches incredible limits when circumstances demand it.
It was as such - considering the unfavourable forecast - that a second trip for the rest of the crew was ordered, who also boarded via the prow of the damaged ship. In accordance with tradition Captain Lehmann was, of course, the last to abandon his ship which had set sail from Hamburg in the middle of January with a load of cement, coke coal and general cargo towards Talcahuano, San Antonio and Valparaíso, expecting to later receive a load of saltpetre in Iquique destined for European ports.
The PINNAS without masts nor crew - was abandoned in the Drake Passage and nothing more was known of her, presumably the rough sea took charge of adding her to the long list of ships that have sunk in the proximity of Cape Horn.
IV.Recognition of Merit
Well, I responded.Due to the insular characteristics of Chile, our naval and maritime history is full of notable events which we Chilean sailors know and admire, since they demonstrate the professional quality and the spirit of its seamen who - as in all the world - are always ready to lend unconditional help to any endangered sailor, exposed to the inclemency of nature. In addition, sir, it is timely to remember that today is exactly 68 years since the rescue of the crew of the PINNAS, when the Chilean Merchant Navy wrote a beautiful page with which to enrich the maritime history of Chile."
God will that the related episode serves as an example to current and future generations.