Early on the morning of August 10, 1957, the Pamir, a four hundred-foot barque, the last commercial sailing ship to carry cargo around Cape Horn, had just cleared the harbor of Buenos Aires. With her subsidizing cargo of barley stowed below and all her square sails set, she was beginning her 7000 mile journey home to Hamburg, Germany.
The permanent crew of thirty-five professional seamen and fifty-one young teenage cadets, ages fourteen to seventeen, had not been home since July. Everyone was anxious.
Eighty-six souls on board—only six would ever see home again.
I had reported for duty on the Absecon in early September as a deck watch officer. It was great to see my old roommate, Ron McClellan, again. He helped me get my gear into the quarters we would share on the second deck. They had been used by the Navy for temporary aviators’ quarters when they operated the ship as a seaplane tender. We had a small gray metal desk with a fold down top and a few drawers crammed alongside a metal bunk. We were bombarded by the constant hum of the circulating air vents, and the dank smells that emanated from the Chief’s head across the passageway. As the most junior officers aboard, the Ensign Locker, as the rest of the ship called it, would have to do.
The ship was preparing to sail for Weather Patrol on Ocean Station Echo in the mid Atlantic, halfway between Bermuda and the Azores.
Long lines of crewmen moved nondescript containers hand over hand from trucks on the pier, up the gangway, through narrow passageways, to storage in the bowels of the ship. Engineers clustered on the fantail like children on Christmas morning, hovering over their prized shiny metal pieces carefully removed from straw packing. Huge white balloons and large tanks of helium, and other strange tools for weather observations had already been brought aboard.
On Friday, at the end of my first week aboard, the Absecon slipped cleanly from her berth to begin her five day journey. As we cleared Cape Henry, the Captain set our course to take the ship just past Bermuda and on to Station ECHO. Before satellites, the National Weather Bureau assigned four weathermen to each patrol vessel. Their weather observations on these patrols were the primary source of weather forecasting for the U.S.
I passed through the wardroom just as one of them was briefing our navigator, LT Jim Fleishell, “As of the eighth, that tropical storm is now Hurricane Carrie, a Category IV, packing winds of 155 MPH. She’s headed just south of Bermuda. Looks like a tough trip.” I watched the wardroom steward scamper back to the mess deck. I knew that in a matter of minutes even the engineer on watch in No. 2 engine room would have the scuttlebutt—the Absecon was headed directly into a hurricane!
By Tuesday we could read the telltale signs. Wind streaks danced like pinstripes on a gray ocean, keeping time with the 30-40 mph gusts. White caps formed, only to be blown flat, like truncated pyramids, spitting their frothy spray downwind to hang above the trough. The eerie music of the wind in the rigging got louder and changed tone with the wind’s speed.
Ocean swells mounted larger and longer. Agonizing human forms, ignoring the pelting rain and wind, bent over the lee rail praying for relief or death—a few not caring which.
As sixty foot waves towered and moved swiftly beneath us, the ship rose like an express elevator, then balanced on the crest, bow and stern sagging under their own weight, as though she were waiting for an unseen force to break her back like a giant snapping a twig over his knee. Screws thumped loudly as they flailed in the free air, the rudder, with no water, was useless. Then the wave slid quickly beneath us leaving the 2600 ton flat bottomed ship to plummet, released by the hand of God, to crash with a shuddering thud into the bottom of the next trough.
The ship quivered in a vibrating fit that seemed to last forever only to have the merciful moment of stillness interrupted by the following crest collapsing tons of angry green water, hammering the foredeck, nearly back to the bridge. The ship buried her nose into the next wave, courageously climbed the steep wall at an eerie angle, only to repeat the action over and over again. Carrie was my first hurricane—ooh, that she would be the last.
On the 16th of September, an upper level shear turned Carrie northeast. The unusual move would now spare Bermuda and the U.S. East coast, but it would take her directly into the northbound path of the Pamir. Even reduced to a Category I with winds just below a hundred miles an hour, she was too much for the Pamir.
“MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY. Four-masted barque Pamir
in severe hurricane–Position 35 degrees, 57 minutes North
and 40 degrees, 20 minutes West–All sails lost–
45 degree list–ship is taking water–danger of sinking.”
W did not get much sleep with the roar and vibrations of all four engines straining as our ship pounded into still heavy seas in an overnight dash to the Pamir’s position.
The Pamir sank 680 miles west-south west of the Azores. She descended to the Atlantic graveyard, 12,000 feet below the still churning surface, confirming her place in history as one of the greatest sea tragedies of all time.
The world was now eager to follow the fate of fifty-one young men, who on Friday were giddy in the romance of sailing a square-rigged Cape Horner. On Saturday, they were scared, cold, and alone in the storm-tossed sea, clinging to life itself, desperately wanting only to get home. The once proud hull of the last Cape Horner took men and boys with her, and released others to fend for themselves.
Merchant ships were reporting their on scene ETA’s and offering whatever assistance they could provide. The U.S. Air Force at Lajes in the Azores promised an air search as soon as weather permitted. Ron and I were taken off deck watch rotation to handle increased communications and direct all search activity. With seventy ships and twenty aircraft from fifteen different nations, over nine days, it was touted as the largest sea search in history, a record at the time.
The U.S. Merchant ship, Saxon, had recovered five survivors. Buoyed by her success, we rotated extra volunteer lookouts. Finally at sunset, an hour away from when we would have to secure for the night, our lookout spotted a badly damaged lifeboat three hundred yards off the starboard bow. A lone survivor slumped on the after thwart, arm weakly strung along the gunwale. The boat was badly broken, barely floating.
Gunter Hassalbach, a twenty-two year old Pamir crew member, was a pitiful sight sloshing in water up to his armpits. His face and lips were swollen. He’d had had neither water nor food for over three days and was exhausted from the sheer effort of staying alive. He said he was one of twenty-five men in the boat at first. There had been eight with him that morning.
The next day, we rendezvoused with the French Ocean Liner Antilles, and transferred Günter to her where he received treatment from her doctor. He was later flown home from Puerto Rico.The following year, the Absecon, sailed to Europe as part of the cadet practice squadron. We diverted independently to Hamburg where we were honored by the German Government for our effort in leading the Pamir search. They presented the Coast Guard with a large oil painting of the Pamir and the Absecon received a bronze plaque to mount on our ship.