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Last call at Buenos Aires.

ON DECEMBER 14, 1928, THE KOBENHAVN, A GRAND FIVE-MAST DANISH BARQUE SAILED DOWN THE RIVER PLATE TO ITS NEXT PORT OF CALL--ETERNITY

THE SEASTRUCK ARGENTINE youth of fifteen stood at quayside on the Buenos Aires waterfront, gazing in unabashed awe at the great ship before him. He had met one of her cadets-in-training, a tow-headed sixteen-year-old lad from Arhus, Denmark, at a locally sponsored hospitality show. They became fast friends, as teenagers do, and agreed to correspond as pen-friends when the great ship sailed away.

And "sailed" it would as his friend's ship stood in stately, solitary splendor--a visage from another era. Her soaring masts, sweeping yards and multi-furled canvas bespoke a bygone time when iron men took their graceful windships beyond the sea-horizon--and sometimes the very reach of this world.

The next day, this ship--and his friend--would cast off to drift down the broad, shallow River Plate estuary on the outgoing tide toward the vast, forbidding Southern Ocean beyond. She would fade away into the sea-mist on the long, 45-day nonstop run to Melbourne Australia--4,670 miles beyond any sight of land.

The giant ship was Kobenhavn and when she stood out from Buenos Aires on December 14, 1928, little did those ashore know they were seeing the last of this great "cloud-ship" and her complement of 60 hands--this side of eternity. Indeed, little did those aboard Kobenhavn, gazing at the receding Uruguayan and Argentinean headlands, know they would never again see land in this life. Kobenhavn and her complement would pass into that mysterious realm of lost ships and sailors who disappeared without a trace beyond that final horizon of no return.

Kobenhavn was a Danish five-masted barque, a full-rigged beauty with perfect, graceful lines and classic, sweeping proportions that belied her impressive dimensions. She was the largest sailing ship in existence--a genuine "heartbreaker"--and, if you weren't ready, she took your breath away. When fully loaded and viewed from abeam Kobenhavn was slim-waisted as a debutante with a distinctive white sash-like band accenting her flanks, and "acres" of billowing sails above to complete the picture.

She first wet her keel on March 24, 1921 and was built to carry on the traditions of sail-training as a prerequisite for an officer's license in Det Ostasiatiske Kompagni, the Danish East Asiatic Company. As a matter of financial need, the company sought to combine cadet training with limited cargo carrying to help pay her way.

"The Big Dane", as she was affectionately called, measured 430 feet overall and grossed 3,965 tons while her steel masts towered nearly 20 stories above the water and carried 56,000 square feet of American canvas. Like most twentieth-century full-rigged ships, she had auxiliary diesel power and a powerful wireless transmitter for emergencies.

As a sail-training ship, Kobenhavn's complement included her master and officers, boatswains, sailmakers, carpenter, 26 able-bodied and ordinary seamen--plus 45 picked Danish boy cadets fiveteen to twenty years of age--many of whom from the best families in Denmark.

During the 1920s, Kobenhavn ranged far and wide, circumnavigating the world twice and visiting nearly every continent and sea. Baron Nils Juel-Brockdorff, who supervised her construction and was Kobenhavn's first captain, reported:

She steers well, carries her sail well, is easy to maneuver and showed herself a splendid sea-vessel under conditions of severe weather.

Wherever Kobenhavn went, word of her coming evoked heightened expectations of seeing a true glory of the sea. Such a vision had become a rarity and its memory fading fast.

Captain R. Peter Emdall, now 92, shipped in Kobenhavn as an able-bodied seaman during her second circumnavigation in the mid-1920s and had charge of the foremast on the port watch. He always considered her "the finest ship I ever sailed in--in a word--'great'!"

Kobenhavn left Norresundy in northern Jutland on her tenth and final voyage on September 21, 1928, her holds filled with bagged cement and chalk for Buenos Aires. Reaching down both Atlantics she made port on November 17--some 57 days later.

Hundreds of Argentines crowded at quayside that day to view Kobenhavn and her brave figurehead--the helmeted Bishop Absalon with armor, sword and shield. Little wonder local Danish emigrants and residents viewed "their" ship with misty-eyed emotion.

Kobenhavn stayed longer than expected since sail-ship cargoes were scarce in the late 1920s and Captain Hans Andersen wanted a paying consignment to carry Kobenhavn on to Melbourne. There a promised shipload of wheat awaited shipment to the European grain markets.

But when no cargo materialized at Buenos Aires, Captain Andersen finally opted to sail on to Australia in ballast. She would cast off on December 14, a Friday, when superstitious sailors never shipped out if it could be avoided. But these were hard times and Andersen had to put business practicality before traditional omens.

Preparations went ahead and 1,900 tons of ballast--including 700 of sand--were securely stowed below. The "Seamen's Padre" brought Christmas mail aboard while the pilot signed and declared the vessel in excellent shape and ready for sea. Kobenhavn had provisions aboard for 100 days at sea--more than double her projected passage-time.

With the ebbing tide calling her to sea, Kobenhavn cast off as a harbor tug nudged her into midstream. At quayside, the Argentine youth stood among the throng, waving to ins new friend whom he could not see. Was he aloft or out of sight below? Well, he'd know he was there. The lad remained at quayside after everyone else had left--physically wishing himself aboard Kobenhavn as she worked her way down the broad River Plate estuary into the waiting unknown.

A day or so out, Kobenhavn encountered the steamer S.S. Pearlmoor inbound to Buenos Aires. Retired British Captain Harry C. Fountain was Second Mate in Pearlmoor that day and recalls:

It was early morning |and~...we were approaching the River Plate, bound for Buenos Aires, when we passed her |Kobenhavn~ very close-to on the port hand. On behalf of our Master, Captain L. Arthur, I hailed her Master and mates through the megaphone and wished them 'Good Luck and Bon Voyage' and blew several blasts on the siren. Our crew lined up along the port rail, shouting the same to all of her crew. We also dropped our ensign to her as she did likewise.

Could we have been the very last vessel to contact her visibly? No other vessel was in sight at the time. We were still clear of the land in perfectly fine weather and smooth sea. She had all sails set. I watched her out of sight.

According to Captain Fountain, no one was aloft in Kobenhavn. Everyone was on deck watching the passing steamer.

On Pearlmoor's long approach to the River Plate and Buenos Aires Captain Fountain saw no sign of the dreaded pampero, the sudden, devastating squalls that occur off the east coast of Argentina. Near Tristan da Cunha, however, Pearlmoor had dodged drifting ice in the sea lanes.

Kobenhavn's extended course would take her southeast into the fearsome, turbulent Roaring Forties and then east with nary an island or ship to break the unending, empty sea-horizon.

To this day speculation prevails whether she was "taken" by a huge, random rogue wave looming up from astern without warning. Or was she driven under by a sudden shift in the ever-driving gale-force Westerlies? Or had she struck ice in fog on a moonless night in those pre-radar days?

Kobenhavn last spoke to the world on the evening of Saturday, December 22, 1928, when she exchanged wireless signals with the Norwegian steamer William Blumer and the City of Auckland. Pleasantries were exchanged and Kobenhavn reported all was well with her cadets preparing to celebrate Christmas on passing south of Africa's Cape of Good Hope.

No further word ever came from "the Big Dane," though William Blumer tried reaching her again that very night. Had Kobenhavn's wireless equipment malfunctioned? Had she already passed out of radio range? Or had the unspeakable already occurred?

Other messages filtered out of the vast and heaving Southern Ocean where lone, random ships sent in disquieting reports of fog and icebergs near Kobenhavn's track. The weeks passed and Kobenhavn's due date in Australia came and went with no word from the mighty ship. This was not unusual at first since Captain Andersen used his radio sparingly.

A month later, however, Lloyd's of London reported Kobenhavn as officially overdue and by April it was already autumn in the High South. East Asiatic finally approached British maritime interests and asked their ships "down there" to search the South Atlantic and South Indian Oceans and their scattered islands. Had Kobenhavn become dismasted in a storm to become a helpless drifting derelict--or had she been driven ashore?

Months later, after much anguished soul searching, Kobenhavn's owners finally called off the long search and sadly announced to the world that, after 266 days (on a normal 45-day passage), Kobenhavn, with her crew and 45 boy cadets, was presumed lost with all hands, cause and location undetermined. Ships of various nations had crisscrossed more than a million square miles of ocean time and again in a desperate search for the lost school-ship at a cost of 10 million kroner (about $2 million)--an unheard of sum in 1929.

Many theories of Kobenhavn's disappearance came forth. The most likely was collision with an iceberg in fog or darkness. Kobenhavn had no searchlights and radar was unknown at that time. As the late Alan Villiers tells us:

The power of an Antarctic 'berg is tremendous and frightening. Even a glancing blow from such an implacable opponent would rip |a~ ship apart in a matter of seconds.

Had this occurred, Kobenhavn would have gone down whole--literally in her stride--so swift would have been her end. Those below would scarcely know what had happened. Only a sickening lurch, an awful tearing roar and the sudden inrush of the sea would have heralded the end. The deck watch of two officers and 24 boys may have lasted minutes longer if flung into the sea. But no one survives long in the cold and violent Southern Ocean. Kobenhavn would leave no trace of her passing since she was superbly rigged and loaded. What's more, Captain Andersen had everything topside secured against the peristent rigors of the Roaring Forties.

Perhaps the most poignant "evidence" of Kobenhavn's disappearance appeared in The New York Times on September 16, 1934. A bottle message was reported found on desolate Bouvet Island, 1,600 miles southwest of the Cape of Good Hope and not far from Kobenhavn's track.

The message--a diary--began on January 20, 1929, or 23 days into the voyage. The anonymous author reported a "terrific gale" that lasted five days. On the 26th: "We have encountered icebergs all day." On February 1: "The ice mountains seems to multiply everywhere." By the 14th (St. Valentine's Day): Kobenhavn had been drifting to westward with the huge bergs for several days. A week later the startling news: "We have abandoned ship." On the 22nd, the tragic sequel: "We saw from the distance how the ship was crushed between two icebergs." Rather than running down a berg, could Kobenhavn have become trapped in a field of icebergs?

Another theory involves a sudden and fatal shift in the wind. Captain Emdall explains:

If she |Kobenhavn~ was hit suddenly by a heavy squall while carrying a full set of sails in addition to the heavier upper and lower topsails and lower courses, then it is quite possible that she could have capsized, not giving her crew any chance to launch the lifeboats.

Kobenhavn was in ballast and, according to Alan Villiers:

"...did not need to be unstable if she were caught badly by the lee in some violent, sudden shift in wind."

No one will know for sure what happened to Kobenhavn. Her name is logged with those of other missing ships whose memories haunt the far-ranging waves and our imaginations to become the stuff of legends.

The anonymous Danish lad--the Argentine's friend?--who may have penned his last diary while adrift in an open boat made his final entry on February 22, 1929:

Tonight in the wind and snow the Captain tried to encourage us. It is snowing and a gale blows. Tonight, while everyone is sleeping, I realize our frightful fate. Everything convinces me that this sea has taken us beyond the limits of this world.

Some months later, the forelorn Argentine youth again stood at quayside in Buenos Aires. It was sunny and mild for early winter and his only companions were the whispering salt wind and an occasional hungry seabird. The Argentine, too, had followed the lengthening mystery of Kobenhavn's disappearance and, on that lonely day, he again wondered whatever became of the great, lofty wind-ship that sailed away into oblivion--and his tow-headed friend who never saw his departing wave.

Michael J. Mooney is a professional writer/photographer in the metro New York area and has been active in nonfiction magazine work for adults and children since 1970.
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Title Annotation:disappearance of the Danish ship Kobenhavn
Author:Mooney, Michael J.
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Words:2166
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