Simple Courage: A True Story of Peril on the Sea

Simple Courage: A True Story of Peril on the Sea

by Frank Delaney


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–old folk prayer

In late December 1951, laden with passengers and nearly forty metric tons of cargo, the freighter S.S. Flying Enterprise steamed westward from Europe toward America. A few days into the voyage, she hit the eye of a ferocious storm. Force 12 winds tossed men about like playthings and turned drops of freezing Atlantic foam into icy missiles. When, in the space of twenty-eight hours, the ship was slammed by two rogue waves–solid walls of water more than sixty feet high–the impacts cracked the decks and hull almost down to the waterline, threw the vessel over on her side, and thrust all on board into terror.

Flying Enterprise’s captain, Kurt Carlsen, a seaman of rare ability and valor, mustered all hands to patch the cracks and then try to right the ship. When these efforts came to naught, he helped transfer, across waves forty feet high, the passengers and the entire crew to lifeboats sent from nearby ships. Then, for reasons both professional and intensely personal, and to the amazement of the world, Carlsen defied all requests and entreaties to abandon ship. Instead, for the next two weeks, he fought to bring Flying Enterprise and her cargo to port. His heroic endeavor became the world’s biggest news.

In a narrative as dramatic as the ocean’s fury, acclaimed bestselling author Frank Delaney tells, for the first time, the full story of this unmatched bravery and endurance at sea. We meet the devoted family whose well-being and safety impelled Carlsen to stay with his ship. And we read of Flying Enterprise’s buccaneering owner, the fearless and unorthodox Hans Isbrandtsen, who played a crucial role in Kurt Carlsen’s fate.
Drawing on historical documents and contemporary accounts and on exclusive interviews with Carlsen’s family, Delaney opens a window into the world of the merchant marine. With deep affection–and respect–for the weather and all that goes with it, he places us in the heart of the storm, a “biblical tempest” of unimaginable power. He illuminates the bravery and ingenuity of Carlsen and the extraordinary courage that the thirty-seven-year-old captain inspired in his stalwart crew. This is a gripping, absorbing narrative that highlights one man’s outstanding fortitude and heroic sense of duty.

“One of the great sea stories of the twentieth century… [a] surefire nautical crowd-pleaser.”
—Booklist é (starred review)

“Frank Delaney has written a completely absorbing, thrilling and inspirational account of a disaster at sea that occasioned heroism of the first order. In the hands of a gifted storyteller,
the ‘simple courage’ of the ship’s captain and the young radio man who risked their lives to bring a mortally wounded ship to port reveals the essence and power of all true courage–
a stubborn devotion to the things we love.”
–Senator John McCain

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812975956
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/09/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 318
Sales rank: 795,237
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Frank Delaney is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Ireland, as well as The Last Storyteller, The Matchmaker of Kenmare, Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show, Tipperary, Shannon, and Simple Courage: A True Story of Peril on the Sea. A former judge for the Man Booker Prize, Delaney enjoyed a prominent career in BBC broadcasting before becoming a full-time writer. Delaney died in 2017.


New York, New York, and Kent, Connecticut

Date of Birth:

October 24, 1941

Date of Death:

February 21, 2017

Place of Birth:

Tipperary, Republic of Ireland

Place of Death:

Danbury, Connecticut


Thomastown National School 1947-54; The Abbey School, Tipperary, 1954-60; Rosse College, Dublin, 1960

Read an Excerpt


In the national archives of the united states in washington, D.C., lies a dense report—several inches high of typed papers— on top of which rests a separate, summarizing document ten pages long. This is “the record of the Marine Board convened to investigate subject casualty, together with its Findings of Fact, Opinions and Recommendations.” Dated February 26, 1952, and signed by “P. A. Ovenden, Chief of the Merchant Vessel Inspection Division in the United States Coast Guard,” this official prose contains no hint of the magic energy that conceives a legend.

Mr. Ovenden’s conclusions, sent by the Coast Guard to the chief of Merchant Marine Safety, begin by observing that a welded freighter named S.S. Flying Enterprise “departed from Hamburg, Germany for New York on 21 December 1951, loaded, among other things, with 762.6 tons of pig iron in No. 2 lower hold and 508 tons of pig iron in No. 4 hold.”

Flying Enterprise, a freighter in the class known as “C1-B,” was built in the Wilmington yards at Los Angeles by the Consolidated Steel Corporation and released from the shipbuilder’s yard to the War Shipping Administration on March 18, 1944. (The man who stamped her brass registration plate made an error in the date, and his original “1943” is overstamped with “1944.”) She had the registration number 245133 and the combined signal and radio call sign KWFZ. After the war she went, in January 1946, to the U.S. Maritime Administration, where she was named Cape Kumukaki.

On April 25, 1947, Cape Kumukaki became one of twelve vessels in the Isbrandtsen Line, out of New York, owned by a buccaneering Scandinavian, Hans Isbrandtsen, who, to echo the old sailing clippers, used the prefix Flying for all his cargo ships. He had accumulated his fleet largely by purchasing, at bargain prices from the U.S. Navy, those ships no longer required for the transport of wartime supplies. For this, his competitors in the bare-knuckle freight shipping business disliked him—largely because he had stolen a march on them.

His son, Jakob Isbrandtsen, thinks today that Flying Enterprise “must have been one of the last of the C1-B class. They weren’t great freighters; they were too small and too slow.”

Yet they were not, in a landsman’s terms, insignificant ships. Here are Flying Enterprise’s vital statistics, which become crucial to her poignant history. She had three decks and two masts; her length, stem to stern, was 396 feet, her breadth 60 feet, her depth just short of 26 feet; she had 4,000 horsepower, weighed 6,711 tons, had a range of 15,000 miles without refueling, and had a cruising speed of 14 knots (equivalent on land to 16 miles per hour, a knot equaling 2,027 yards per hour).

You will not find anywhere in her papers the astounding fact that S.S. Flying Enterprise once became the most famous ship in the world—a renown that lingers, especially among career sailors. And among men who, inside themselves, can still be boys: for us, this cargo ship, longer than a football field and painted jet-black, became and remained part of our inner lives. In the typeface named Cheltenham, the white name isbrandtsen stood ten feet high along her sides, with flying enterprise inscribed smaller on her bows; for two weeks these thrilling words dominated the conversation of the planet.

She was that most romantic of sea creatures, a tramp steamer, and after departing New York on November 24, she called to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Norfolk, Virginia. Now, almost ready for the homebound leg of her twenty-seventh voyage, she sat patiently, being loaded in Hamburg on the shortest day of the year.

i was nine years old in December 1951; and, if a shade too shrewd for Santa Claus, I believed in everything else: miracles, the power of magnets, haunted houses, the truth of all stories, time travel. As do all wary children, I watched everything—my parents, my seven older siblings, the sky above my head. On good days I believed that every time I ran anywhere, the globe of the world spun faster under the pressure of my feet. On bad days I looked for ways of escape.

Soon, this American ship in a German harbor, and a sea captain whose name had a hero’s ring to it, would take and maintain a grip on my romantic but uneasy world. In the way of only the most inspiring stories, Flying Enterprise and Carlsen, her skipper, would, in effect, bear me to the eventual safety of great example. In the process, I developed a permanent near obsession with this man and his ship and the legend that grew up around them.

Although my family lived solidly inland, I already had a strong awareness of the sea’s wonder. Limerick, the city of my mother’s birth, has a port on the river Shannon, Ireland’s largest waterway, which runs on down to the Atlantic on the southwestern coast. The Shannon estuary favors big ships—or at least they seemed big to me when my grandfather first took me down to see them at Arthur’s Quay.

He was known to all in that small city—Stephen O’Sullivan, six feet four, benign as a sultan and with what he told me was “grass” growing under his nose, a bushy mustache. None of the menace that I already felt in life, and the daily fear that I already knew, came from him. This big, warmhearted man ate breakfasts that were world- famous in our family: steak and eggs, bacon, sausages, blood pudding, fried bread, fried potatoes, mushrooms if he could get them—his plate looked like a market food stall. He himself cooked this huge dawn feast, to the accompaniment of bawdy songs, which, to my mother’s consternation, I picked up.

Mischief clung to him. Steve Sullivan drove trains but refused to handle the honored carriages bearing Queen Victoria around our province of Munster. “Let her drive it herself—it’ll do her good,” he said. Of humble origins, he married a woman of substance, but all his life he refused her trappings—the furs, the cruises, the haughty friends. He smoked a pipe hour upon hour, with the most rancid tobacco ever rubbed—a cut plug that stank, as he said, “like a hoor’s boot.”

On our walk to Arthur’s Quay that day (I was about five years old), he told me to watch out for “a gent on a bollard.” This was an old sailor who pulled a stunt for passersby: he would pare his own plug of tobacco with a hunting knife and then slam the blade vertically into his thigh, halfway above the right knee. There it stood, the white bone handle projecting from the unbloodied blue of his canvas trousers.

That day we went down, the cork-legged sailor never showed. I went back many times on my own, but I never found him. Am I and my imagination the richer for not having seen him? In any case, my grandfather overturned my disappointment by leading me along the line of moored ships at the quay. I had never seen a ship before and we stopped at each and every one. Big, black, tawdry vessels they were, and the white paint had rusted on their housings, but I gazed up at them wide-eyed.

Each ship had a “load line,” better known as a “Plimsoll line”—a legal, Egyptian-looking hieroglyphic running down the side into the water; my grandfather told me that a freighter must carry this to indicate how heavily she was permitted to load. To the small boy’s inevitable “Why?” he told me that ship owners used to overload the holds with useless cargo so that the vessel would sink and they could claim the insurance, like people who had what he called “a good fire.” And he then explained the term “a good fire.” My mother, when I told her, grunted a knowing concern at my grandfather’s mischievous ethics.

after she left america, Flying Enterprise “discharged and loaded cargo” (according to the Coast Guard report) “at several north European ports”; this included five tons of carpets loaded at Antwerp on December 10. In Rotterdam five days later, she picked up her pig iron freight, plus 447 tons of rags, 486 tons of coffee, six tons of onions and gherkins in brine, and seventeen tons of animal hair, listed as “bristles.”

At the port of Bremen, she loaded thirty-nine tons of peat moss, a dozen Volkswagen cars, a few tons of birdcages—and a cargo of antiques, with eight early Chippendale chairs, a collection of Worcester china miniature pitchers, a gilded convex mirror decorated with the insignia of the British Order of the Garter, and a needleworked fireplace screen dated 1740.

These glorious pieces, in addition to Louis XIV furniture, a small orchestra’s worth of priceless antique musical instruments, a handful of Old Masters, and some rare Belgian porcelain, were being shipped, port by port, to New York antiques dealers on Third Avenue and East Forty-seventh Street. Not detailed item by item, they came aboard under catchall terms such as “general” or “special” cargo.

By the time she was ready to sail from Hamburg, Flying Enterprise had also taken on such oddities as several hundred typewriters, as well as zirconium or zirconite powder, one application of which included the making of fuel for the U.S. nuclear submarine program. She also loaded thirty tons of the volatile chemical naphthalene, which is a coal tar product smelling of mothballs, used in the making of plastics and dyes; they stowed it on deck so as not to contaminate the foodstuffs in the holds.

Far from fully loaded (always disappointing to a ship owner), she was due to reach New York on January 3.


That dockside walk with my grandfather in limer- ick stays in my mind like a song. Like a shell held to my ear, or any of the commonplace magic that adults weave for children, it gave me a flavor of ships and the sea as piquant as the first taste of coffee or coconut. Pointing out the great hairy ropes angled down to the quayside, he told me that rats ran up along these mooring lines and into the ships; in the tropics, he said, the monkeys climbed them. He showed me the anchor and told me the word meant a crooked angle, a hook that caught in things.

When I worried about the rust marks on the white trim, he said that all sailors had to swear an oath to paint their ships constantly and that on some vessels, such as the great ocean liners, no sooner had the men finished than they had to start all over again, because the salt of the sea grew rust so quickly.

“It’s how they learn patience,” he said. “That’s why they don’t mind long days at sea when nothing happens. Sailors are very patient men.”

He knew the Limerick stevedores—slightly confusing, given that everyone on the docks called him Steve. Then he told me, with huge authority, that they were all named after him, because he was the “Steve” who first showed them how to load the cargo down into the holds, and that he was famous because he could shove more cargo down a hatch faster than anybody else. I believed every word; I needed this whiff of adventure. The atmosphere of our household too often crackled with the bewildering terror of my father’s hair-trigger rage, and even at that age I had begun to grasp the hope of the horizon. These ships, my grandfather said, sailed the world. And he spun the names of glorious ports as though they were foreign coins: Tangier, Hyderabad, Marseilles, Famagusta, Montevideo, Valparaíso, Cairo, Casablanca, Venice.

Their holds contained bales of silk, barrels of port, casks of brandy and wine, carved elephants of ebony with tusks of real ivory, huge crates of chocolate ingots that would later be trimmed down into chocolate bars, slabs of gold for the priests to melt down and make into chalices, bales of tobacco from which his own plug was cut personally, dancing shoes for men, corsets for, he said, “comfortable ladies,” boxes of sheet music for the piano players of Ireland, and brooches of jade and necklaces of jet for their singers and sweethearts.

It never occurred to me to ask what customers existed for such exotica in Limerick (corsets excepted), because his talk boomed like a South Seas conch. And presently, my lessons in school supported his wondrous version of freight. The poem “Cargoes,” by John Masefield, appeared on our English syllabus and Masefield’s ships carried “diamonds, emeralds, amethysts, topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.” No reason, therefore, why these shabby old dames in their rusty black couldn’t also bring back to the docks of Limerick “apes and peacocks, sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.”

Thus, in the afternoon of a child is a man’s lifelong pathway of fancy and possibility opened up, like the moment when a plowman cuts a headland in a rich field. After that afternoon walk and its ships and ropes and anchors, and all the fancies of a beneficent and merry grandfather, Flying Enterprise with her valiant skipper, with the mysteries of their 1951 Christmas voyage (mysteries that I have now at last solved to my own satisfaction)—she made steam shipping at least as glamorous as schooners and square-riggers and she had an easy passage into my heart.


Flying enterprise had five holds, each of whose hatch covers was the area of an average living room floor. Every hold went down three levels; if you fell from the bright open deck to the darkness of the keel, you’d have dropped off a three-story house.

Hamburg has long, gray wharves; they seem to stretch for miles. As the last freight came on board there that December afternoon, Carlsen reckoned his ship little more than a third full, with individual loads distributed here and there in the holds, many of them according to their shape and nature. The Volkswagen cars, for instance, had arrived in Bremen uncrated—they were, in effect, “parked” on the second level in the No. 3 hold, close to midships, along with twenty-nine tons of steel pipes.

Then, with sailing a matter of hours away, a large cargo of U.S. mail came into Hamburg. Mainly from American servicemen still in the German postwar garrisons, there were seventeen hundred or so mailbags weighing close to five hundred tons. The chief mate directed the Port of Hamburg’s dockhands and his own crewmen to load this pile amidships too, in No. 3 hold, which had a strong room for the fifty sacks of registered mail.

Other valuable cargo had already come aboard—consignments that have contributed substantially to the half century of questions hanging over Flying Enterprise. They included registered and unregistered packets containing international currencies, unspecified amounts in liquid stock certificates, and more than a thousand watches. These valuables arrived from Switzerland and Belgium, addressed for New York, and when the nature of this freight was later identified, conspiracy theorists seized upon this detail (among others) as a possible explanation of Kurt Carlsen’s “inexplicable” behavior.

Her cargo as a whole, both in form and content, plays centrally to all considerations of Flying Enterprise. The boatswain, Arthur Janssens, from Washington Heights in New York City, had already challenged the way the ship was loading on this voyage. Back in Rotterdam, he had questioned the decision to put the pig iron in Holds 2 and 4. The ship, as everyone knew, was sturdiest in front of the engine room, where she had been built strongest to accommodate the plant, the generators, the huge boilers—in other words, right amidships at Hold 3.

Now, with all the U.S. mail going into Hold 3, the boatswain raised the stowage issue again, and used the word “misbalance.” The first mate referred the question to the captain, who overruled the boatswain; Carlsen cited orders from the owners of the shipping line and support from their Hamburg agent.

If Janssens had prevailed, they would have had to redistribute some of the pig iron from Holds 2 and 4 into Hold 3, and as they did not have the time to do that (or the money; dock labor is costly), the boatswain’s arguments faded—for the moment—on the cold quayside air.

Did he have a valid point? In the final stowage plan of Flying Enterprise, she can be perceived densest with heavy cargo at the upper two levels, the “tween decks,” of Holds 2 and 4. Both holds also had open space, fore and aft, on their lower levels. Not ideal, this combination of weight and empty air; no freight skipper likes it. It means, obviously, that his ship is not employed as profitably as she could be. It also means that, in extremis, there’s room for loosely stowed cargo to shunt about, especially in rough weather.

the word “stow” derives from an ancient European word for place—it crops up still as a suffix in England: Bridestow in Devon, Felixstowe in Suffolk. I know this because my grandfather’s induction also brought to me a fascination with the language of the sea.

He said the word mate came from meat, from the person who sat beside you at the table, from the meat that he ate with you. (Even though lacking—or not caring for—the finer points of etymology, he wasn’t all wrong.) The word inundate, he told me, comes from unda, the Greek word for wave. A fathom, he showed me, stretching wide in his black three-piece suit and silver watch chain, is the measure of the arms across the body from fingertip to fingertip, because fathom or a word like it (fadom) was the old northern European word for embrace. The “boatswain”—he said “bo’sun”—was the boy who looked after the ship’s ropes. Sadly, I later discovered that the term stevedore came not from my grandfather’s name, as he blithely avowed, but from a Mediterranean word, stivador—one who stives or stows.

By twilight that Friday afternoon, Flying Enterprise had stowed all she was going to get on this trip. To an expert underwriter, the freighter might have seemed a touch canted at the dock: her bow was eight feet higher than her stern. But such tipping, though never ideal, represented no great abnormality.

Frank Bartak, the chief mate, came from Maple Heights, Ohio. He answered to the captain for the loading of the ship; a captain is not a crew member—he is the ship owner’s representative aboard. Bartak professed complete confidence in his stowage. He had drawn up the cargo plan, which he then, under orders, “before leaving Hamburg, or with the Hamburg pilot before the ship left the Elbow [sic] river,” sent by mail to the Isbrandtsen office in New York.

The New York Coast Guard inquiry questioned Bartak closely about his work methods. (His testimony—and the evidence of several witnesses—was recorded verbatim by the stenographers at the inquiry.) The chief mate seemed to have total recall of how he had handled his cargo in each port. “You see, you have to conform your loading to the routine you have in Rotterdam. They have these motor trucks and they ride in, and if he has one big lot he stows it, he makes it fast, and we will stow it fore and aft athwartships.”

Bartak was describing the swiftness and efficiency of the Dutch port workers, who lowered big electric trucks down the hatches, dropped the cargo on their flatbeds, and then ran the trucks all over the holds, where Bartak had the stevedores and his own crewmen distribute it. The holds in these freighters were as big as a school gymnasium.

Many of the Coast Guard’s questions focused on the Rotterdam stowage—on how differently, in two of the five holds, the ship had loaded her cargo of pig iron. It consisted of heavy ingots. Some were four-inch-thick oblong slabs measuring eighteen inches long by six inches wide, as big as a tall old Bible. And some of the ingots were oval with a domed top and flat bottom. All, in crew opinion, weighed about five pounds apiece.

The inquiry board questioned Bartak insistently on the way in which the stevedores had actually distributed the iron. (Janssens, the boatswain, hadn’t yet given his evidence, in which he said that he had raised the same query.) Although each quantity had been correctly placed at the appropriate level of the appropriate deck, and sensibly spaced along the length of the ship in Holds 2 and 4, their positioning within each hold differed.

Hold 4’s 508 tons of iron was spread out evenly and flat; it lay in equal and regular piles, and this received general approval. In Hold 2, however, the iron pigs made something of a rectangular pyramid; the 762 tons stood up like a ziggurat directly beneath the hatch of Hold 2.

Then they spread out what was left in lower, flatter piles that tapered out across the floor of the hold to the side of the ship. Lying flat, and no more than one, two, or three pigs high, this distribution represented no problem, because it couldn’t fall over. The tall pile beside it, though, had no more stability than a tower of bricks. Bartak defended this “pyramiding.”

“It wasn’t very high,” he argued. “I was down there in the hold.” But it was, he agreed, tall enough to be noticeable—“six, six and a half feet high.” A difficult load to manage, “it was dropped in the middle—while loading—with grapples, and pushed in the wings.” The handlers, waiting below, had already spread the smaller, flatter piles out across the floor of the hold—but they left the bulk of this pile standing upright, more or less as the cranes lowered it.

To “soften” the iron pyramid, the peat moss bales and some of the coffee sacks were piled aganst the ingots. Before leaving Rotterdam for Bremen and Hamburg, the chief mate also, in a customary procedure, made his crew, assisted by locally hired carpenters, fence it all in with wooden spars, or “cribs,” to keep that portion of the cargo from shifting—as if anything of any devising could have controlled anything on that ship in the days that were to come.

Bartak was the one person aboard Flying Enterprise who had a complete grasp of how the ship was loaded. If they could have scanned his mind, the board of inquiry would have seen an exposed side view of the ship showing the piles of these little chunks of pig iron on the floors of two holds, one consignment flat and spread out wide, the other in a tall, peaked, and somewhat irregular stack. And they’d have seen the piles of burlap sacks of coffee here, there, and everywhere, and the ungainly consignments of peat moss and grass seed swaddling but not quite sandbagging that zigzag pyramid.

The chief mate used the same loading method on all the decks below. Where a cargo needed packing, anything soft went to cushion the harder materials, to keep them from moving or crashing into other freight. Effectively, he used cargo to protect cargo, so that his ship could do her job and bring home the bacon. In the classic tradition of stowage, cargo becomes its own dunnage.

The word dunnage (which may or may not come from a corruption of the word thin in its meaning of insubstantial) embraces any materials planted under or beside cargo items to keep them dry—or, as in this case, wedged among other freight items so that nothing turns into a loose cannon. Typical dunnage in a general-freight ship has adhered to the more or less universal guidelines of marine commerce, and dunnage by itself has enough weight to be reckoned a factor in assessing a ship’s loaded tonnage.

During loading, a sharp-witted mate will keep dunnage in mind all the time, and he should know what the regulations require for the stowing of certain freights (and if he doesn’t, his master will). Some foodstuffs, for example, such as rice and tea, traditionally called for bamboo housing. Where a cargo has known fragility or possible mobility, no matter how well packaged, the mate uses soft dunnage; on Flying Enterprise they deployed the sacks of coffee and several tons of grass seed.

The cleanliness of dunnage also has great importance. When scorpions, tropical beetles, snakes, or baby crocodiles turn up unexpectedly in places where they don’t belong, sailors know that they probably came aboard in the dunnage, which can include sawdust; coconuts; all kinds of wood, including rattan; wads of old sacking—anything that will pack around objects with comfort. Dunnage, in short, amounts to a kind of ad hoc bubble wrap dating back centuries. Flying Enterprise had a varied cargo, and therefore her stowage required much—and mixed—dunnage.

those who own, insure, and handle ships assume that the loading will be expert—as well as economical in terms of labor costs. They hope that her cargo will be housed in her holds prudently and securely, fenced and firm and shored against shifting, her dunnage deployed astutely. They assume that everything possible will be done to ensure the safe passage of everyone and everything on board.

At the same time, they acknowledge openly that they carry out all this work more in hope than in confidence—because they know that no matter how expert they are, no matter how hard they work, they do not have the last say. And they do not have the last say because every ship in the world is entirely subject to two greater forces. This pair of Greater Authorities will undo the best cargo plans ever drawn, will scorn the tightest, sweetest dunnage ever packed, will splinter the neatest cribs, will overrule the best deckhands, the best stevedores, the best longshoremen, the best mates, the best masters in the world.

That is why, throughout generations of marine commerce, the names of these two overriding powers have appeared in the last phrase of every freight-shipping contract. Cargo vessels depart from the dockside “Subject to the Will of God and the Perils of the Sea.”


After my grandfather’s magical captivating introduction to the sea by way of cargo ships and ports, I couldn’t get enough ocean lore—ghost ships and tall ships, harpoons, whalers, rafts, mermaids and messages in bottles. I learned how to tie knots: a black knot, a bowknot, a hitch knot. My grandfather claimed, “It’s the one thing women can’t do and it annoys them; they can’t tie a knot.”

Like so many boys of that age, I dabbled in Morse code and learned the most exciting dialogue in the theater of the sea: SOS, three dots, three dashes, three dots. I long believed that it meant “Save Our Souls” or, possibly, “Save Our Ship.” It meant neither; the Germans chose it for emergencies because the particular Morse sequence proved easy to memorize—a regrettably prosaic derivation. Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, and myriad other seafaring writers created their own oceans in my mind. Tantalizing ghost ships sailed across my nights, the Flying Dutchman, the Mary Celeste, empty and chilling, steered, very possibly, by the Ancient Mariner, circled on high by his accursed bird. And, real and alive, and therefore almost most wondrous of all, an old lady in the next parish had made it to the lifeboats of the Titanic.

She constituted one of my two most direct encounters with the ocean’s drama; the other arrived by air. From time to time, on the prevailing west wind, an egregious seagull landed in the fields near our house, obviously a long way from his base. He alighted on a tuft of grass as though it were the crest of his own personal wave and sat there unperturbed.

He troubled me; with his harsh yellow bill and glittering eye he glanced at me like a little white-suited mugger. And he brought with him an acrid lick of reality; the gull had flown inland, said the people, to escape a storm at sea. On those rare and uneasy days when I saw him in our fields, forty miles at least from the Atlantic—those were the times when my mother recited her family prayer: “Heaven help the sailors on a night like this.”

flying enterprise completed her loading early in the afternoon on Friday, December 21. With just over four thousand barrels of fuel aboard and nearly four hundred barrels of fresh water, she caught the Hamburg evening tide. Fog came in—no surprise in the north of Germany. The helmsman, with Captain Carlsen standing beside him at the wheel, eased the ship’s black nose out into a thick gray blanket. Hamburg has a winding port, which enables ships to “feel” their weight before setting out on the long ocean haul.

By the time the Elbe flows into Hamburg, she has traveled over seven hundred miles from the Giant Mountains on Poland’s borders. This river has always worked for her living, a trade route of large ships, with every cargo imaginable. The hospitable and deep central draft, navigable from the North Sea deltas back down to Prague, makes her one of Europe’s most effective waterways. Beyond Hamburg the river first tapers into a long, winding estuary and then widens out like a fan.

Throughout that first night, Captain Carlsen stayed on the bridge as the Elbe’s banks crept by in the fog. The spiked mines of the war still bobbed in the sea-lanes of Europe, and even though the keepers of the river had swept a course, they had not succeeded in creating a straight one—but they had marked all remaining ordnance with warning buoys. For the next thirty hours Carlsen never took his eyes off this course; he wanted to make sure that he navigated every one of those lethal porcupines. And so, early on Saturday, December 22, we find Flying Enterprise, muffled and all but invisible, leaving the soft jaws of the Elbe, gliding slowly into the North Sea, about to change course from northwest to southwest, looking for the moment when she can at last turn her face west toward New York.

“From Hamburg to the English Channel the vessel encountered continuous heavy fog and the master deemed it impractical to hold boat drills,” said the U.S. Coast Guard report. Understandably so; in that visibility, the crew would scarcely have been able to find the ten passengers had they ventured on deck.

These “civilians” had boarded on the morning of sailing. A cargo ship was allowed up to a dozen fares—thirteen and she’d have been reclassified as a passenger ship. Though obviously less suave than a liner, Flying Enterprise—and many freighters of the day—offered a reasonable travel deal. Carlsen’s voyagers, European emigrants, all had relatives or friends waiting to accept them into the New World.

The ship’s “Manifest of Inbound Passengers (Aliens)” lists them with their luggage. Curt and Elsa Müller and their two children, Leanne and Lothar, all registered as “German.” Leonore Von Klenau, a thirty-nine-year-old photographer, was listed as “Danish” and had “3 cases, 2 trunks and 3 parcels.” Rolf Kastenholz, a twenty-seven-year-old German accountant, hoped to meet his father for the first time in twenty years and had “2 trunks, 1 suitcase.” Nina Dannheiser, aged fifty-six and also German, stowed “10 suitcases, 3 parcels”; she also carried a small, fluffy white dog.

The “stateless” Nikolai Bunjakowski, age fifty-four, had “8 collis” (a now archaic word for a package or bundle). Seventy-year-old Frederic Niederbrüning had “1 trunk, 1 case, 2 collis.” And Maria Duttenhofer, age forty-five and German, had “3 trunks, 2 suitcases and 2 collis”; she was listed as “single,” as were all the others except Mr. Niederbrüning and the Müller parents; Mrs. Dannheiser and Mrs. Duttenhofer were widows. All of their possessions except their most immediate cabin essentials were listed as “general” in the cargo manifest and stowed below. And all found their cabins roomier and more comfortable than the word freighter might connote.

that first saturday, the watch changed as usual, in its univer- sal way, every four hours. By then, all ten passengers had succumbed to some of the weather’s dank torpor, and the Müllers and Mrs. Dannheiser and Mrs. Duttenhofer and most of the others left their cabins only—and not always—to go to the saloon at mealtimes.

Sensible travelers facing a long sea voyage prepare mentally. After the first romantic thrill of embarkation, the unprepared passenger feels, to begin with, massive boredom—nothing to do, nowhere to go. Until landfall, the limits never change: that distant, permanent line of horizon defines all. An experienced or prepared passenger sets a schedule for every day at sea, plots the number of hours spent reading, eating, walking on deck, looking out to sea, and does not rely on the other passengers for diversion. Many fear to socialize aboard, lest seasickness become a humiliating fact.

Now and again, an incident out on the water will call every passenger to the side in excitement: a passing ship, a school of creatures showing off their arcs and prancings, a gossipy piece of flotsam—cords from a torn old net, a bottle, a spar of wood, loose wheels of weed. Seabirds will drift over, and if there’s a thunderstorm, lightning will likely find the ship, because to its vicious fingers—indeed, to all of the sea’s wanderers—you are, for that moment, the nearest solid point in a constantly shifting world. And at sea, many people sleep better than they can ever imagine, with an unforgettable quality of soft, safe oblivion.

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