Warship Wednesday, July 3 The Kobenhavn Mystery
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take out every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week.
– Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, July 3
Here we see one of the Danish school ship København, one of the largest sailing ships ever built. She is also one of the most enduring mysteries of the sea. While not a naval vessel per-sae, she was a training vessel (Skoleskibet) for the EAC, the Danish East Asiatic Company, and as such many of her crew were on the Royal Danish Navy’s reserve list, her students often went into naval service, and the ship itself was liable to be taken up from trade for war service.
The East Asiatic Company (EAC) (Danish: Det Østasiatiske Kompagni or ØK) was in Copenhagen in 1897, and the København was the crown jewel of their fleet when she was built. The company’s bread and butter was both passenger and freight lines between the Danish capital, Bangkok and the far east.
The København was a five masted barque-rigged sailing ship. At 430-feet long and 4,000-tons, the size of an Oliver Hazard Perry class frigate of today, she was the world’s largest sailing ship at the time. She was laid down at Ramage & Fergusson, Leith, Scotland in 1913 as hull 242, but due to World War One, she was not finished until 1921. Between her five masts she carried 56,000 sq feet of canvas and had the figurehead of Danish Archbishop Absalon (Axel) gracing her bow.
She was an exemplary vessel, with her modern diesel 640 horsepower auxiliary engine conferring a distinct advantage over other barques that were purely sail-powered vessels. In the København’s eight-year history, it sailed nine voyages without incident, covering five continents. These voyages could last anything from 150 to 400 days each. She had sailed as much as 305 nautical miles under canvas in a single day– a speed under sail of over 12-knots. Her auxiliary diesel could plug the giant ship along at six knots.
While she could, and did carry cargo, her primary mission was to train merchant and naval cadets in a seagoing academy. As such youths from all walks of life walked her decks in nine successful long-term training cruises between 1921 and 1928, twice circling the globe.
Her final voyage carried 17 officers and 62 naval cadets. Its course was to be Denmark to Argentina to Australia and back. The first leg was successful, the ship leaving Buenos Ares on December 14, 1928. Eight days later, a final wireless message from her was received, stating that all was well.
On January 21, 1929 a British missionary school teacher, Philip Lindsay, assigned to the remote South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha saw a wrecked sailing ship. He described it as a ghostly ship, five-masted, a white band around painted around the black hull, and apparently unmanned. She was under single jib. foresail and lower topsails, her foremast broken.The vessel was three miles out past the breakers and adrift, heading for the reefs of Cave Point with her stern awash. He saw her grow within 400-yards offshore, then lost sight of her as she drifted to the east. A few days later the locals observed wreckage scattered on the reef including miscellaneous boxes and a 30-foot flat-bottomed boat that they were unable to salvage before it was carried back out to sea. No bodies were found. The island is the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world, lying 2,816 kilometers (1,750 mi) from the nearest land, South Africa, and 3,360 kilometers (2,088 mi) from South America.
For two years, at least two expeditions funded by the government and the EAC searched for the Kobenhavn across both the Southern Pacific and Southern Atlantic oceans, finding nothing. A smaller expedition, privately chartered by the families of the lost cadets aboard the Norwegian yacht Ho Ho continued the search until at least 1932– with the same results. It was theorized that the Tristan da Cunha sighting was incorrect, attributing it to a similar ship (the Fench four master Ponape) that passed the area that day. Popular speculation was that the big Dane had been victim of a fire at sea, rouge wave, or iceberg.
Sightings of darkened five-masted sailing ships were reported off Chile, Polynesia, and other Pacific islands for years.
In 1934 a Finnish ship captain stated firmly that he found wreckage of the Kobenhavn along the Blight of Australia, a story that, if proved, would have put the ship towards the end of her 9700 mile trip from Buenos Aires to Australia. The wreckage included a piece of stern bearing the name “København“.
The same year, a passing Norwegian fishing vessel stopped at Bouvet Island, an uninhabited glacier covered no-mans-land populated by penguins and found a diary, allegedly written by a trainee aboard the Kobenhavn, stating that the ship had been destroyed by icebergs.
In September 1935, a smashed lifeboat with seven bleached skeletons was found on a desolate beach about 400 miles north of Swakopmund South Africa. While it wasn’t definitive that the survivors were from the Kobenhaven, the skulls were ‘nordic’ and uniforms and boat wreckage were described as being of Scandinavian origin. As the marooned sailors who reached shore landed in an area with no source of clean water, they are presumed to have died of dehydration.
This, taken with the diary found on Bouvet, and the stern found in Australia, gave the Danish school ship the dubious distinction of having her wreckage ‘found’ on three different continents over 10,000 miles.
In 2012, the wreck of a large sailing ship was found by divers off Cave Point in of Tristan da Cunha, near where the Kobenhaven was reportedly seen in January 1929. While it hasn’t been proven to be the mysterious Danish school ship, there is hope her fate will be found, closing the book on one of the most captivating tales of the sea.
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