Warship Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017: Not just a figurehead
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off 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. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017: Not just a figurehead
Here we see the one-of-a-kind full-rigged sail training ship Joseph Conrad in her career as a U.S. Merchant Marine schoolship during World War II where she minted enough new bluejackets to man a veritable fleet. Like her namesake, she has been around the world and sailed the seven seas.
“There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the life at sea,” said Polish-born British author and longtime seaman Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) in the first paragraph of chapter two of his 1900 novel, Lord Jim, which revolves around the abandonment of a stricken ship in distress.
Our ship was crafted in 1882, four years after Conrad, born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, joined the British merchant marine. Our subject vessel, of course, wasn’t named for Conrad from the start– at the time he was but a lowly second-mate on the old barque Palestine— which he later immortalized as Judea in his short story “Youth.”
No, our vessel was built by Burmeister & Wain, København, Denmark, specifically for the Stiftelsen Georg Stages Minde foundation (which is still around) to be employed as a sailing schoolship. Founded the same year by wealthy shipowner Frederik Stage to train youth for a life at sea, the foundation and their flagship were named for their son, Georg, who had died from tuberculosis two years prior.
Some 100-feet long (111-oal) with a displacement of just 400-tons, Georg Stages was a small ship for high seas mercantile service to be sure, but she was very accommodating and perfect for use in training as many as 80 cadets at a time, stretching 10,000 sq. ft. of sail as she went.
She was generally a happy vessel and, from 1882 until 1934, a period which covered the Great War where Denmark walked a thin and often dangerous line of neutrality, Stages reportedly trained more than 4,000 young men in the art of working aloft, on deck and below while underway.
Sold in agreement with the Handelsradet (Danish Board of Trade) to one Capt. Alan Villiers and company, she was renamed Joseph Conrad and registered with Lloyds under a British flag.
Villers, an Australian-born author (of at least 44 published books) mariner (CDR in the RNVR during WWII after first going to sea on a merchantman at age 15), and overall adventurer, he gave the aging ship– which had been destined for the breakers– a quick refit and signed a 32-strong amateur crew of lads to sail her around the world on an epic voyage that took nearly two years and rounded both Cape Horn one way and the Cape of Good Hope the other.
Moving on to other adventures in Arabia, in 1936 a bankrupt Villiers sold the Joseph Conrad to George Huntington Hartford, the 25-year-old heir to the A&P supermarket fortune. Hartford converted the ship to an American-flagged yacht, added a diesel engine (“iron topsail”) and sailed her until the beginning of World War II.
Hartford, a different kind of patriot that what is afloat these days in the business world, promptly donated Conrad to the U.S. Maritime Commission for use as they saw fit, sought out a commission in the Coast Guard and later commanded a Mister Roberts-style Army supply ship— FS-179 — during the Pacific War.
Conrad would be used to train seamen for the merchant service. From the United States Maritime Commission Report to Congress for the Period Ended October 25, 1939:
There, at St. Petersburg’s Coast Guard wharf, USMSTS Joseph Conrad became the centerpiece of the brand new U.S. Maritime Service Training Station, arriving in November to later be joined by the old white-hulled training ship Tusitala (which maintained the school for cooks and bakers) the tugs Tickfaw and Morganza for training coal burning firemen; SS Vigil for enginemen, and American Sailor for advanced training.
Conrad held school in basic training and schools that lasted up to eight weeks in good old Division 01-style deck work.
In all, more than 25,000 merchant seamen learned their trade at St. Petersburg’s Bayboro Harbor between 1939 and 1945, with most of them at one point or another walking Conrad‘s decks. Today, the facility is incorporated into the University of South Florida.
For Conrad, VJ Day looked like the end was once more upon her. She had spent 52 years working for the Danes, sailed around the world with a scratch crew, was a young yachtsman’s pride and joy, and spent 6 more years working for Uncle Sam.
However, Mystic Seaport, one of the nation’s leading maritime museums, reached out to add the hard-used Conrad to their extensive collection. In July 1947, the 80th Congress agreed with the caveat that St. Petersburg get the ship back if they couldn’t handle her.
Today, Mystic Seaport still has both the old girl’s records and her, and, though she does not sail anymore, Conrad remains very much in use as a training ship for the Mystic Mariner Program, and the Museum’s educational programs.
According to the museum, since 1949, the Joseph Conrad Summer Sailing Camp has been the overnight summer camp of choice for more than 350 campers annually.
Mr. Conrad would likely be proud.
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