LOSS OF THE FAMOUS PAMIR

This tragic loss occurred in 1957. Not directly related to Bank Line but many Bank Line ships were in port with her in the 1950’s and some officers paid a ship visit, including the author.

This is an account of the beautiful sailing ship ‘ Pamir ‘ and her sad  end in a hurricane in the North Atlantic in 1957.    She made history by being the last commercial windjammer to sail around Cape Horn in 1949.         The  young Queen Elizabeth in England had been onboard  back in 1947 when ‘ Pamir ‘ visited Shadwell Basin in London, and the author was aboard the Pamir  on a sunny day in Buenos Aires, Argentina,  when she was loading for the fateful voyage.

WORKING ALOFT

 A poignant moment today can be captured by visiting the St Jacob’s church in Lubeck, Germany, where the section of the damaged lifeboat recovered from the Atlantic is displayed.   A small shrine also has photos of the boys and crew, and information is displayed of the tragedy, together with pictures of the 6 lucky survivors.   It is a powerful reminder of the tragedy that overtook the Pamir in 1957 and the torment borne particularly by sailing ship seafarers and their families ashore throughout the sailing ship era.

Details of the ship are:  Built at the Blohm & Voss shipyards in Hamburg, and launched on 29 July 1905. She had a steel hull & tonnage of 3,020 GRT (2,777 net). Overall length was 114.5 m (375 ft), a beam of about 14 m (46 ft) and a draught of 7.25 m (23.5 ft). Three masts stood 51.2 m (168 ft) above the deck and the main yard was 28 m (92 ft) wide. She carried 3,800 m² (40,900 ft²) of sails and was a fast sailer, reaching 15 knots on occasions.   Her regular cruise speed was around 8-9 knots.

Pamir‘ was built the fifth of ten near-sister ships. She was commissioned on 18 October 1905 and used by the Laeisz company in the South American nitrate trade. By 1914 she had made eight voyages to Chile, sailing around the Horn, and taking between 64 and about 70 days for a one-way trip from Hamburg to Valparaíso or Iquique, the foremost Chilean nitrate ports at the time. During World War I she stayed in Santa Cruz de la Palma port in La Palma Island, Canary Islands between October 1914 until March 1920. Due to post war conditions she did not return to Hamburg until 17 March 1920. when she then became a  war reparation and was awarded to Italy which fought on the Allies side in WW1.  On 15 July 1920, she left Hamburg via Rotterdam to Naples towed by tugs. The Italian government however was unable to find an adequate deep-water sailing ship crew, so she was then laid up near Castellamare in the Gulf of Naples.

In 1924 the F. Laeisz Company bought her back for £7,000 and put her into service in the nitrate trade again. Laeisz sold her in 1931 to the Finnish shipping company of Gustaf Erikson, who sailed her in the Australian wheat trade.

Heavy weather

When World War II started, Pamir was seized as a prize of war by the New Zealand government on 3 August 1941 while in port at Wellington. Ten commercial voyages were then made under the New Zealand flag: five to San Francisco, three to Vancouver, one to Sydney and her last voyage was across the Tasman Sea from Sydney to Wellington carrying 2700 tons of cement and 400 tons of nail wire.  

She escaped the second world war without any damage despite a close call in 1943 when a Japanese submarine was spotted nearby.  Evidently as a fast-moving barque under a strong and fair wind, she did not interest the submarine’s commander.   After the war she made one voyage from Wellington via Cape Horn to London, then sailed from Antwerp to Auckland and Wellington in 1948.  A plaque in Wellington harbour commemorates her time under the New Zealand flag.

Pamir was then returned to the Erikson Line on 12 November 1948 at Wellington and sailed to Port Victoria in the Spencer Gulf to load Australian grain. On her 128-day journey to Falmouth she was the last windjammer carrying a commercial load around Cape Horn, on 11 July 1949, and as mentioned, entered the history books for this feat alone. 

Gustaf Erikson had died in 1947. His son Edgar eventually found he could no longer operate Pamir (or sister ship  Passat) at a profit, primarily due to changing regulations and union contracts governing employment aboard ships; the traditional 2-watch system on sailing ships was replaced by the 3-watch system in use on motor-ships, requiring more crew and rendering operations uneconomic.   A German shipowners foundation then took over the 98-metre high sailing ship and the younger and somewhat larger Passat in 1956 as freight-carrying training ships for trainee sailors.  It was a proud moment.

On 1st July 1957, when the barque left Hamburg harbour to embark on her sixth voyage heading for La Plata, this was no longer just a sailing ship voyage. The company had installed a 1000 HP motor, which back then was state-of-the-art.  In order to complete the journey faster than planned, Captain Johannes Diebitsch left the motor running during the 346-hour voyage to Buenos Aires. The journey lasted a total of 25 days. The trip to Argentina had run smoothly and between 26th July and 10th August, the ship was loaded with her Barley cargo.  

On August 10th,  the Pamir left Buenos Aires for her homeward bound voyage with a full cargo of 3708 tons of barley, mostly in bulk, with a few layers of sacks to top off.  However, barley is a load that moves around in the ships hold like water if it is not transported in sacks. It can not be held back even by separating boards or bulkheads once the ship is caught in heavy seas or capsizes. Captain Diebitsch may have underestimated  this danger. 

She was to become  a victim of hurricane Carrie of that year, and the events unfolded as follows:

On the 2nd September, the crew of a passenger aircraft watched the formation of a long air vortex to the South West of the Cape Verde Islands off the African coast. They broadcast their observations by radio. At this point in time, the  Pamir was around 500 nautical miles to the North-West.

  On 6th September, the air vortex over the Atlantic had developed into a hurricane, which was dubbed Hurricane Carrie by the Hurricane Centre in Washington, and it was the 21st September, when the Pamir radio operators received the first warning. Just an hour later, the ship was hit by the first hurricane gust and the sea grew to a height of ten to twelve metres.  The sails were shortened quickly – the last ones being cut free due to the urgency of the situation. 

Around 11.00 o’clock local time however, the ship suddenly started to increase her list to port. XXX Messages (Urgency message, any traffic over radio has to stop) were sent and shortly afterwards an SOS was radioed: “Here German fourmastbark Pamir at position 35.57 n, 40.20 w, all sails lost, lopside 35 degrees, still gaining water, ships in vicinity please communicate, master”. And then at 14.54 GMT “SOS, SOS, SOS from DKEF rush rush to us, German fourmast broken Pamir danger of sinking, Master”.     

Eighty-six crew members were on board in total, including 22 ships boys, 29 novices and an apprentice carpenter, so basically first-time employees.  

Several ships altered course towards the Pamir. However at 1.03 p.m. local time she capsized, and then sank 30 minutes later, in position 35°57′ N and 40°20′ W, 600 miles south south-west from the Azores Islands. The search, co-ordinated from the US Coast Guards cutter Absecon, lasted 9 days, and 50 ships and the planes from 13 countries participated. 

Out of the 86 men in the complement, including 52 cadets, only 6 survived (4 seamen and 2 cadets). Five men (K.-O. Dummer, K. Fredrichs, H.-G. Wirth, V. Anders, K.-H. Kraaz) were rescued by the Geiger on the 24 September.  Another seaman (G. Hasselbach) was rescued by the Absecon on September the 25th.   He had been miraculously discovered on the afternoon of 24th September by a cutter of the American coastguard.  He was the only survivor from 22 men who managed to get away in a lifeboat. His comrades died of debilitation, were washed overboard or were drowned after 3 days in rough seas.

Due to the heavy list of the Pamir, during the storm, the remaining lifeboats were unable to be launched. The ship capsized and for a few minutes then floated bottom up. It is likely that many crew-members were caught under the ship as it capsized.     It was a national tragedy, involving dozens of families, and the loss of eighty fine young men, who will still be mourned today. 

On the evening of 29th September 1957, five young men flew in an American plane and returned to Hamburg. They were five out of the six survivors , with Gunther Hasselbach to follow later.

The sinking of the Pamir  marked the end of the freight-carrying sail training ships. The maritime world will long remember the tragedy and the loss of these 80 men like many before them in a ship overwhelmed by the force of nature.  It was ironic that the insurance payout of 2.2m Deutschmarks for the loss ensured a profit on this last fateful voyage.  Her  sister ship, Passat, was also decommissioned after the tragedy, and today can be seen in Lubeck as a Museum ship.

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