Summer Sails 2: On a Scandinavian Deck in Baltimore Harbor

July 3, 2013
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For the book Tall Ship Odysseys, about a few people from the great ships and their experiences across five decades, I met with Jarle Flatebø, captain of the Statsraad Lehmkuhl. This post is adapted from that visit. Later this week the ship sails across the Baltic from Denmark to Helsinki. Next month another Norwegian sailing ship, the Sorlandet, will be at Chicago’s Navy Pier as part of the Tall Ships America tour of the Great Lakes.

Rain falls in Baltimore as the Statsraad Lehmkuhl prepares to return across the Atlantic to her home of Bergen, Norway. At 18:00 that evening she will set out, led by a pilot for 16 hours down the Chesapeake Bay, then head out to the open sea. With a top speed of 18 knots and 2,000 square meters of sail, the ocean crossing takes exactly 3 weeks, under sail power for almost the whole voyage.
    The ship is a mighty three-masted barque, built as a German training ship and launched in Bremen in 1914, on the eve of World War I. Originally named Grossherzog Friedrich August, she trained German sailors throughout the war. On Germany’s defeat in 1918, a British ship took her as a prize of war and in 1921 she was bought by ship agents in Bergen and renamed for her new owner to immortalize his title of cabinet minister (“statsraad”). By the time I walked her deck with the captain, she had trained sailors from many generations and nations.
    After nearly a century the Statsraad Lehmkuhlplies the sea with a renewed mission as the sail-training vessel for Norway’s navy and merchant marine service. At over 321 feet long, she’s the largest three-masted barque on the sea today. When I saw her in Baltimore, she had 62 cadets on board. She can handle up to 150 with 18 professional crew members, most of them merchant mariners.
    Captain Jarle Flatebø started as a merchant navy cadet in 1972, and fell in love with tall ships. Standing on the deck, he says, he feels “an unbroken line back to the Viking ships.” He came from a sea-going family in the islands off Norway’s western coast. They moved to Oslo when he was a boy but he never adapted well to life in the city. Now he spends six to eight months a year at sea – four months on the Statsraad, and the winter months at the helm of ocean cruise ships down the African coast.
    Capt. Flatebø guides me through the ship: up the aft steps to the wheelroom, outfitted with laptops and flat screen monitors. A step to the deck, and I’m again in the 1800s. The rigging hangs in the damp breeze. The forward decks hold the galley and crew’s quarters: one per cabin in the foremost officers’ quarters, and a big dorm-like mess that doubles as sleeping quarters for cadets, with hooks in the white-painted I-beams from the ceiling for hammocks, and lockers for personal belongings. In the mess, crew members are taking their meal.
    For merchant navy sailors, practical seamanship is a major incentive for joining a sail ship. For the Norwegian navy, the motive is teambuilding, testing at sea, and skills practice in isolation. The Statsraadtakes first-year cadets in the fall and works them for three months until the return to Bergen.
    In heavy weather they use only three or four sails but drills continue, including man-overboard rescues, which they do day or night. The cadets set rubber rafts into the dark water and must within three minutes pull away from the ship, return, and employ CPR and other first-aid.
    The bosun, a handsome Dane with ponytail and a gold earring, says he lets the cadets fail as much as possible to better learn. In his opinion, the crew compresses three or four years of learning into three months. (The bosun also takes pride in having refitted much of the ship with PVC rigging, which looks exactly like hemp but is more resilient. With stronger materials, they can sail the ship with a leaner crew.)
    When I ask about competitiveness among the Norwegians, Danes and Swedes on the crew, the bosun insists there isn’t any. But he adds with a smile – outside earshot of the captain — that he and two other Danes say that the deck belongs to them.

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