Last Rounding of the “Priwall”

Captain Hans Peter Jürgens
[spanish version]

“I was born in Cuxhaven, a well known town situated at the mouth of the Elbe where the busy river to Hamburg meets the stormy North Sea.

This small town served since the beginning of the last century as the first port to disembark passengers of the big liners after crossing the Atlantic, and was the home port of a large fleet of trawlers of all sizes. Passing ships are even today a normal sight and it is no wonder that young and even older boys cultivate dreams of the sea and a world beyond the horizon. So did I ! No wonder with my father a sea-captain, I forced my way to go to sea. His connections made it possible to secure a berth for me on four mast bark “Priwall”, one of the two big “Cape Horners” still managed by the “Flying P-Line” Laeisz & Co.

When leaving Hamburg on the 16Th May, 1939 on the long voyage to the West Coast of South America, none of the young men of the crew imagined that this was the beginning of the ultimate stormy voyage round Cape Stiff the hard way, form east to west in the southern winter in a big merchant sailing ship and that the voyage would last for most men of the crew, seven years.

Leaving Hamburg as a boy of 15, I returned as a man of 22 who had endured strange and different experiences of all kinds for a very long time. But in the “Priwall” I had to learn a few things which I shall never forget. The start of the voyage seemed to me like the beginning of a big adventure. The whole surroundings were confusing. The height of the masts with the long steel yards seemed much too heavy to keep the ship upright and I wondered if the function of the many ropes shall remain a closed secret to me. But there were many loose ends on a sailing ship when the loading had been finished to keep a boy quite busy.

While the crew cleared the deck, the “Simson” towed the “Priwall” downstream and let go the tow-line on arrival in the German bight. The experienced crew members who had previously sailed on one or two voyages, set sails so that in a short time the ship proceeded with a favorable wind to start her long voyage.

According to and old ritual the first and second mates elected alternately the members of their watches. Therefore routine took over and the youngsters were told about our special jobs by the mate or the A.B.'s.

It took some time till I got used to the change of watches and to leave sleep behind, such rude hours like midnight to eight bells al four o’clock in the morning. But I remembered that it was my own will and forgot to be more tired than the other boys.

In due time we reached the channel and there was the usual fog with the normal calm waiting for us. Being a wind ship we had to anchor in a most unfavorable position near the narrows, a short distance off Dungeness with steamers passing all around. A Danish steamer avoided a collision just in time with good luck and hard maneuvers.

I shall never forget climbing the full length of the mast under the keen eyes of an A.B. The doubling was the worst part of it, but I got used to it without any special trouble and soon felt at home right on the top. The narrow body of the ship (it seemed to me) and the marvelous visibility around to a horizon more distant than normal, creates its own thrill which I remember as if it was yesterday in my old age. Besides that and the work with trimming the slap lines or the running gear you could watch the play of the dolphins for miles around in the bright sunshine.

The days were filled with the duties each ship requires as preservation of the running and standing gear never ends, the change of sails, ropes and splices as well as serving the ship needs, takes every seamen’s time during his watch. One day we caught a formidable shark, which had followed the ship for miles till it took the bait of more or less musty smelling old salt meat. It took its time to get that beast of almost 2.5 meters length on deck. When killed, which took some time, it served as a welcome addition to our scanty rations of preserved food. The same happened to a dolphin when caught, which was harpooned by the chief mate from the bow-sprit. We young boys were hungry all the time.

At last the big day came to cross the line. We youngsters of the first trip listened with mixed feelings the horrible tales of what might happen to us beginners. Not only that we would be cleaned of the dirt of the Northern Hemisphere but, much worse, the old hands would, in preparation to becoming a seaman, treat our black souls in a way we should not forget for the rest of our lives. To make it short, all to be baptized still lived to see another day, but it took quite a time to get rid of tar and paint from the whole body. Looking back, all this was a funny interruption of the monotonous working days of a long voyage.

In the same area we met, surely for the last time ever, a big old-fashioned sailing ship (that means without a motor) which turned out to be the Finnish four mast bark “Lawhill” on her way from Australia to a northern port with a full cargo of grain. After the many long days we took it as confirmation we were not alone on this glassy ocean, and to ensure this, the next day the big German liner “Cap Arkona” passed, with several rounds, the almost becalmed “Priwall” –quite show for her passengers.

Abreast of Argentina we encountered a “pampero” during the late afternoon which did no harm to us as we saw it coming and had the time to reduce our light sails in the time. It was heavy work to change our older and worn sails against heavy storm sails and to undertake all the necessary precautions as we neared the bad weather region of the Roaring Forties.

Much need in those latitudes for the safety of the men on a flooded deck were the manropes and nets rigged over the bulwark between the shrouds and certain dangerous points. On German ships those nets were called “Leichennetze”, or corpse-catchers. All possible precautions for the safety of the crew taken, and as the coming weeks showed, it was very necessary.

In the middle of July we passed 50 degrees south latitude. I remember to this day, the heavy rolling ship in the choppy sea and a strong northerly wind. The chief officer asked me if I could see the big cloud ahead and then answered to himself after a short moment, “That is Staten Island the door to Hell”. The Captain believed that God created Cape Horn and the whole area in his anger. Quite soon I learned that the opinion of both men was quite correct.

The Captain preferred to pass Staten Island to the east, and today I know that he was right with his decision. After a couple of hours severe westerly gales started, which only abated three weeks later. It seemed to me that Cape Horn showed its temper to the extreme to end a period of 300 years with the last west-bound voyage of a merchant sailing ship. In this southern winter all assumptions were given with winds, which took the breath out of the men when reducing sails on the yards, and a sea which flooded ship from fore to aft. The sore and bloodied chance to heal in the never ending work on the deck and in the rigging.

With the wind increasing up to hurricane force we rounded Cape Horn on 21st July, 1939. on the permanently flooded decks, under hail and snow showers, the tired men, wet to the bone, undertook the necessary work and lay for hours on the ice covered yards to furl the nearly frozen sails when it became necessary to ice covered yards to furl the nearly frozen sails when it became necessary to heave-to. Though both watches were in action many times, several sails were lost. After a short deep sleep the duty watch, and many times the men off watch, had to take up again the fight against sea and wind.

After three weeks of constant storm, wetness, cold and tiredness to exhaustion we had passed the stormy region. One of the hardest chapters in maritime history, which started in 1616 with Willem Schouten on his ship “Eendracht”, had found after 300 years the end by this last rounding of Cape Horn of a merchant sailing ship the hard way, from east to west, in the southern winter.

When wind and sea decreased we found the fore upper top yard party broken. This was replaced in the first port of call which was Corral in Chile, with the mizzen upper top yard. It appeared quite a piece of heavy work to transport the yard of nearly three tons weight from after over the bridge deck to the foremast. But we needed it there for safe maneuvering when going about or tacking.

When the “Priwall” arrived at Valparaiso on the 3rd of September 1939 to discharge the last of the cargo after the intermediate port of Talcahuano, the war had commenced and condemned ship and the younger members of the crew to a long stay in Valparaíso while the nucleus crew was transferred to different German Steamers which departed soon. The call for us came two years later when the old “Priwall” was given to the Chilean Navy to start a new life under the name “Lautaro”. She ended up by burning out with loss of life near the coast of Perú.

We, the last members of the crew, were distributed to two German coasters going to Japan and to German steamers trying to run the blockade to Germany. I found myself on board of the (at that time) most famous S.S. “Erlangen”, which at the beginning of the war had reached Chile with a Chinese crew, party sailing and also fired with self cut wood (on the Auckland islands). But that will be another story.

Thinking over the significance of sail training after a long life at sea and going through all the ranks, I came to the conclusion that it improves and increases a firm self-assertion which in other surroundings scarcely can be produced. You grow up to be a man when demands are put upon you to the limits of your capabilities and mental powers of resistance and you soon realize that with every new strain new strengths will arise. Later I became aware that those experiences I endured on board the “Priwall” showed their own worth, not to be learned elsewhere.

Concerning the “Priwall” is to say generally that she was a stout but not very fast ship, which needed a lot of wind. Her utmost speed was not much more than 14 knots when loaded. The ship was quite heavy and her behavior seemed always different to other sailing ships of the same size.

On the other side, she showed best sailing qualities when she did the voyage from Hamburg to Port Victoria in 1933/1934 in the marvelous time of 65 days (Captain Claus) – best clipper time and best time for a heavy four mast bark. Even as late as 1938 the “Priwall” rounded the Horn in the shortest time ever done – five days fourteen hours from 50 south in the Atlantic to 50 south in the Pacific under Captain Hauth.

The “Erlangen” was captured in the South Atlantic by a British cruiser Hans-Peter found himself a prisoner of war first in Sierra Leone, then in Scotland, and finally in Canada. He eventually returned to Germany after an absence of seven years. He took up his education again and rose to be Captain in the Hanse Shipping Company of Bremen. For almost 30 years beginning in 1960, Jürgens served as a pilot in Kiel, the Baltic seaport.

Hans Peter Jürgens is held to be Germany’s most important living marine painter. His interest in marine art was influenced in no small degree by his voyages in the “Priwall”, which was the last east to west rounding of Cape Horn by a commercial sailing ship. Here he gave us a brief description of that historic voyage…
Capitán Jürgens

Valparaíso, October 2007.