The thread about the København; the enigmatic Leith-built sailing ship that mysteriously disappeared in the South Atlantic, never to be seen again

This thread was originally written and published in January 2023.

This beautiful ship is the København; She plied the worlds oceans training boys to become sailors, moving cargoes from port to port until one day, some seven years after leaving her builders in Leith, she disappeared and was never seen or heard from again. Her fate remains a mystery to this day.

Final fitting out in dry dock at Leith, dated 1921. This was probably to giver her bottom a final inspection and coat of paint before handing her over, as described in the Edinburgh Evening News in September of that year. © Edinburgh City Libraries

A five-masted Danish sailing barque, she was one of the largest sailing vessels ever built. Her primary duty was the training of officer cadets for the merchant marine; there is a tradition in a number of European countries (continued to this day) of carrying out this maritime education on purpose-built sailing vessels. To help pay her running costs she also served as a general cargo ship, long after steam had displaced sail as the primary motive power at sea. The early history of the København is slightly confusing. She was part of an order from Ramage and Ferguson by A/S Det Ostasiatiske Kompagni (the East Asiatic Company) of Copenhagen in 1913 for three large sailing barques with auxiliary motor power. This København, yard number 242, was to have have four masts but war intervened before she could be completed and after lying on the stocks for two years, her incomplete hull was purchased by the British Admiralty in 1916 and quickly completed as an oil storage hulk. Named Black Dragon, this was towed to Gibraltar. Sold in 1922 to the Shell oil company, she remained in service there until 1960.

The modelmakers loft at Ramage and Fergusons in 1906. The three vessels being worked on are all large steam yachts of the type the yard was renowned for. © Edinburgh City Libraries

After the war,. the East Asiatic Company ordered a replacement ship of the same name from Ramage and Ferguson, this time with 5 masts. This København (yard number 256) displaced 3,960 tons gross, was 130m long (426½ feet), 15m wide (49⅓ feet) and had a draught of 8.2m (27 feet). Her five masts were nearly 58 metres tall (190 feet) and could spread 5,200 square metres (56,000 square feet) of American cotton canvas. For times when the wind was lacking, or for manoeuvring in harbour, she had a 4-cylinder, 650hp diesel engine specially imported from Denmark that could propel her at 6 knots. Her hull could carry 5,200 deadweight tons of cargo or 8.1 thousand cubic metres (288½ thousand cubic feet) of grain. On account of her size and her 5 towering masts, she gathered much local attention; taking a walk to observe progress became the done thing to do. She was launched on March 24th 1921, watched by a large crowd that had assembled to watch her slide into the dock basin.

The (second) launch of the København, contemporary photograph from the Daily Record

The Great Dane, as the British press came to call her, was the largest sailing vessel ever built in the United Kingdom (excluding Brunel’s sail-assisted steamship Great Eastern. Two other Clyde-built ships were marginally longer, but København had a higher displacement.) She was the last of only seven 5-masted barques ever built and is in the top 20 largest sailing ships – by length and displacement – ever built.

After launch and fitting out at Leith Docks, 1921. The masts are in place but there remains much work to be done © Edinburgh City Libraries

The ship was fitted with a generator to power electric lighting throughout and a wireless (radio) set with a 400 mile range. Her regular complement was 26 and somewhere between 45 and 60 cadets, aged 14-20, could be accommodated for training. In addition to her master, her crew included 4 mates, a doctor, 2 engineers, 3 cooks, 2 boatswains, a carpenter, a sailmaker and a wireless operator. At the the rear – the “poop” – of the ship, was her main saloon, captain’s and officers quarters, staterooms, wireless room and infirmary. The rest of the crew and the cadets were accommodated in a deckhouse amidships. As her figurehead she had a sculpture of the 12th century Danish warrior bishop and founding father of the Danish nation, Absalon.

Close-up detail of the proud figurehead of Absalon on the prow

She left Leith for her trials in the Firth of Forth on September 28th 1921 under the command of Commander Niels Juel-Brockdorff of the Royal Danish Navy. Again large crowds assembled to watch the spectacle; it took four tugs to tow her out stern first before she could be turned around and begin to move under her own power.

The København was brought carefully down the harbour, and the spectators had an opportunity of seeing to great advantage the graceful lines of the ship, its fine figurehead, and other decorative effects. Flags were fluttering gaily from the mastheads, and altogether an exceedingly pretty picture was presented as it passed down between the piers, its size contrasting strikingly with that of the attendant tugs.

Report on her departure from Leith in The Scotsman, 29th September 1921

The ship was now gone from Edinburgh and Leith, but not forgotten. For the next few months one of the most popular shows at the Synod Hall on Castle Terrace was her featuring in Poole’s Myriorama; a panoramic picture and special effect show. After trials she headed straight to sea and on to a welcome in her home port of Copenhagen before embarking on a circumnavigation of the globe during which time she sailed 38,326 miles, not returning home until 7th November the following year.

Painting of the København at sea by Peder Christian Pedersen. CC-by-SA 4.0 Hesekiel

In October 1925, she came close to catastrophe when she caught fire in the English Channel en route to Melbourne from Danzig with a cargo of timber. The fire started in the cabins at the rear of the ship and much of her fine wooden fittings were destroyed, but she was able to to put safely into Plymouth. After repairs, she was able to safely carry her load to Australia without further ado. In 1927, en route from Liverpool to Chile via the Panama Canal she lost a propeller blade on the Pacific coast of South America and had to put into Calloa in Peru to repair.

Kobenhavn in dry dock in Australia, photo from the Edwardes Collection of the State Library of South Australia
København in dry dock in Australia, photo from the Edwardes Collection of the State Library of South Australia

On September 21st 1928, the ship departed the Danish port of Nørresundby under the command of Captain Hans Anderson, carrying a shipload of chalk and cement for Argentina. It would prove to be her final voyage. She arrived safely in Buenos Aires on November 17th 1928 and waited in the port for 4 weeks for an onward cargo for Australia. None was forth coming and so the captain decided to leave empty for Melbourne, where he could load with wheat, She departed on December 14th with – depending on the source – either 60 or 70 souls aboard, including 45 cadets on a trip that was expected to take around 45 days. Eight days later she passed the Norwegian steamer William Blumer 900 miles to the west of the islands of Tristan da Cunha and the two ships exchanged signals, København indicated that all was well and the cadets were preparing to celebrate Christmas, which they planned to do so as they passed south of the Cape of Good Hope. She would never be seen or heard of again.

The last voyage of the København (approximate) showing the route east from the River Plate, across the South Atlantic and southern Indian Ocean to Australia.

Captain Anderson had a reputation for taking a “minimalist” approach to using his radio, and sailing journeys could easily take far longer than scheduled if the winds were unfavourable, so when København did not arrive in Melbourne on schedule there was no immediate worry. In February 1929, the East Asiatic Company began enquiries with Lloyd’s of London for any information concerning their missing vessel, but it was not until early April 1929 that they were sufficiently concerned to raise the alarm. The British Admiralty were approached for assistance and the search and rescue operation which now followed has been called “the longest, farthest reaching and most costly in the history of maritime service“. The Admiralty spread the word amongst British shipping and arranged for the Liverpool firm of Alfred Holt and Company to diverted their steamer Deucalion from Cape Town to make a search of potential landfall in southern latitudes on which the missing Dane could either have become bound or wrecked upon; the remote Price Edward Islands, the Crozet Islands and Kerguellen. The Admiralty lent an experienced navigator, a high-powered wireless set and two operators to man it. The East Asiatic Company dispatched their own motor vessel Mexico to make her own search.

København , photo from the Edwardes Collection of the State Library of South Australia

In May, news was received from the searching steamer Halesius out of Tristan da Cunha that an English preacher on the island, Philip Lindsay, claimed that he and others on the island had sighted, on January 21st, a 5-masted sailing ship with a white band round her hull approach the islands. The ship came from the south and her first two masts were broken. The ship then disappeared from their view towards a part of the island that was inaccessible. Objects were later found washed up on the shore but they could not conclusively be proved to have come from København. Lindsay told The Times:

The sea was rough for our boats and we could do nothing but watch her gradually crawl past and run inside the reefs to the west of the island. She was certainly in distress. She was using only one small jib [sail], and her stern was very low in the water. I estimated that she was within a quarter mile of the shore when we last saw her.

Philip Lindsay, eyewitness

The Halesius made a search of the rocky and unpopulated Gough Island to the south of Tristan, but found nothing and so carried on her way. The master of Halesius put his ship into Montevideo on June 22nd and caused a minor sensation when he was quoted by the press as having found the ship’s wreckage. He had, however, made no such claim and it was a reporting error that had mixed up facts. On the same day, it was announced that the Australian steamer Junee in Sydney and the Norwegian motor ship Lars Risdahl in Cape Town had both been chartered by the East Asiatic Company to carry on the search in the Southern Ocean and that their own searching ship, Mexico, would be diverted to Tristan to make a thorough investigation, just in case.

The Halesius in her former guise as the Lord Cromer in 1912, whose sensational claim to have located the Kobenhavn was disregarded. © National Museums Liverpool MCR/39/17
The Halesius in her former guise as the Lord Cromer in 1912, whose sensational attribution to have located the København was unfounded. © National Museums Liverpool MCR/39/17

The intensive search continued for the next two and a half months. The Mexico returned to Cape Town from Tristan in the middle of July and her master spoke to the London Daily News. He told the reporter that it was his belief that the ship had washed up on the lonely desert coast of southwestern Africa and that he was refuelling before heading off on that particular search course. Every coastline and grid square was combed, before the company reluctantly called off the operation on September 9th 1929. The København was officially declared “missing” by Lloyd’s of London on January 1st 1930. But hope was not yet fully given up, and interest in the disappearance of such a ship certainly had not been.

Various theories for her imagined loss were advanced. Had she collided with ice floes and been abandoned by her crew? But ice was unlikely on her route if she had indeed passed Tristan da Cunha, so had she become lost and icebound in the Southern Ocean? Some said that the observers on Tristan were mistaken; they had not seen the København at all, the much more rational explanation was that they had seen the renowned ghost ship of the South Atlantic, the Phanton Barque. Did she capsize in a sudden squall under her immense spread of canvas and due to her lack of a heavy cargo, giving no time for lifeboats to be launched? It was well known amongst any mariner who had sailed in the world’s southern oceans just how the mountainous seas and roaring winds could swallow a ship whole, never to be seen again. Yet others thought she would still be afloat, drifting aimlessly in the oceans, “a plaything of wind and current, a toy of unmerciful Neptune“, just waiting to be discovered.

Public interest began to wane, but in April 1934, on arrival in Adelaide, Captain Soderlund of the Finnish-flagged grain ship Lawhill told newspapers that he had sighted wreckage from the København floating in the Great Australian Bight, but had failed to retrieve it. Then in September 1934, the New York Times reported that a message in a bottle that had been picked up by a whaling ship on the Bonvel Islands. The message reputed that the ship had been blown into the Antarctic and the crew and boys put ashore on the ice, to watch their ship be driven by the winds to her destruction. It quickly transpired that the “diary” entries found in the bottle were copied out of a Spanish novel by a Danish journalist, who passed them off as genuine.

We know our boys are dead, but it is terrible not to know how and why and where the tragedy happened. Perhaps, too, there are some who cherish a faint hope against their better judgement that some day they will come back

A statement from the parents of the lost cadets, reported in the Daily Herald, October 4th 1934

On 11th December 1934, the Belfast Telegraph reported that a Norwegian yacht, the Ho Ho, and her 4-man crew had arrived in Montevideo after a year long voyage that had crossed the Atlantic to search up and down the coast of South America. Three days earlier, it was announced that Ramage & Ferguson had gone into voluntary liquidation after years of financial suffering in the post-war shipbuilding recession and then the Great Depression. One of the last ships completed by them had been the Mercator, a three-masted sail training ship for the Belgian government.

The Mercator in 1960. CC-by-SA 4.0 John Hill

Denmark still has a national sailing training ship, the Georg Stage. This 1935-built ship visited Leith Docks in April 2022, and tied up alongside Ocean Terminal: a shopping centre built on the site of the Ramage and Ferguson yard.

Georg Stage arriving at Leith in April 2022, with the former royal yacht Britannia and Ocean Terminal in the background © Self
Georg Stage arriving at Leith in April 2022, with the former royal yacht Britannia and Ocean Terminal in the background © Self

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

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