Sea Stories

The Flying Enterprise story of Man vs. the Sea

During Christmas Week, 1951, began an incredible sea story involving a WWII era cargo vessel named the Flying Enterprise and her captain, Kurt Carlsen.  Captain Carlsen was a Danish-born seaman that began his sea career at the age of 14. He became master of his first ship at the age of 22 with the Danish-American company American Export-Isbrandtsen Lines which was a New York based US-flag shipping company from 1919 to 1977, offering both cargo and passenger ship services. In 1977 it declared bankruptcy and was acquired by Farrell Lines.

The SS Flying Enterprise was a 6,711 ton Type C1-B ship. She was built in 1944 as SS Cape Kumukaki for the United States Maritime Commission for use in World War II. The ship was sold in 1947 and then operated in scheduled service under the name Flying Enterprise.

The Storm

On December 21, 1951, The Flying Enterprise departed Hamburg, Germany bound for New York with a cargo that included 1,300 tons of pig iron, 900 tons of coffee and 10 passengers. From the departure out of Hamburg through the English channel the vessel encountered heavy fog.

Late on the 23rd of December, as the Flying Enterprise was steaming southward in fog towards the English Channel, a weak surface low of 1016 mb was noted over Michigan.

As the vessel steamed though the English Channel on Christmas Eve, the Flying Enterprise first encountered heavy weather due to a strong low pressure area that was moving well northward of Ireland and Scotland.  The heavy weather continued through Christmas Day and the day after Christmas as the vessel passed out of the Channel and into the North Atlantic as gale force winds increased to storm force 10.  During the night of Dec. 26, Capt. Carlsen decided to heave the vessel to as winds continued to increase and approach force 12 (hurricane).  At the same time the weak disturbance far to the west moved out over the western North Atlantic and began to deepen reaching 1006 mb by 12Z Christmas Day as it passed southward of Cape Race, Newfoundland.  Twenty-four hours later, at 12Z on December 26th, the western low was rapidly deepening into a 974mb storm low and was racing east-northeastward near 50N 24W.

Rapid deepening continued through the 26th and by 06Z on Dec. 27th the now violent storm low had reached 944 mb near 55N 12W,  just as it passed to the north of the Flying Enterprise position.   Note:  Between Dec 25/12z to Dec 27/06z the storm had deepened 62mb in just 42 hours!.

The Flying Enterprise Encounters the Storm

As the storm center passed north of the Flying Enterprise that morning, the vessel encountered what was described as “a very high sea” at position 50-41N 15-26W (about 400 miles west of Lands End). Several load bangs where heard (like the firing of a gun) throughout the ship and an examination determined that the vessel had suffered two main fractures.  The first began at the after port corner of #3 hatch and ran across the deck and back to the accommodation ladder opening at the side and ran down the side to the longitudinal riveting at the base of the sheer strake.

On the starboard side the crack ran from the forward corner of the deck house straight across to the accommodation opening and from there down to the riveting on the opposite side. The cracks were estimated to be between 1/8 and 3/8 inches in width.  A smaller crack ran from the after starboard corner of the #3 hatch toward the side of the ship and was estimated to be 18 inches long.  At the time, Capt. Carlsen reported force 12 winds and 40ft seas.  A measurement of the pressure gradient near the vessel suggests winds were at least 60kts which would be consistent with a violent storm BF 11 (56-63 kt wind and 30-45 ft waves) and could have easily reached force 12 at times.

Given the ship’s position it is apparent that the captain had set out on a minimum distance great circle route from Bishop Rock towards Nantucket.  Had Carlsen chosen a more southerly wintertime track, perhaps the vessel would not have encountered conditions that severe.

In an effort to reduce the strain on the now damaged vessel, Capt. Carlsen turned the ship southwestward so that the wind and sea were broad on the bow and later more southerly bringing the wind almost abeam.  During this time period, Carlsen had the crew fill the cracks with cement then run cable from the bitts at #3 hold to bitts aft in order to bind the deck together.

As the Flying Enterprise proceeded south keeping the seas on the starboard beam, Capt. Carlsen concluded that he must put in at either an English or French port or head to the Azores for repairs. During the night of the 27th into the morning of the 28th as yet another storm passed to the north, the vessel experienced rolling of up to 20 degrees. At about 1130 on the morning of the 28th the vessel was hit broadside by another high wave which rolled the vessel between 50-70 degrees to port shifting the cargo and causing the vessel to return to a permanent list of about 25 degrees.  The list increased gradually and eventually the engine lost lubrication oil due to the list which resulted in the loss of both boilers forcing Capt. Carlsen to have his radio operator send out an SOS.

The Rescue Attempt

The SOS was answered by several ships and the passengers and crew were rescued in heavy seas by lifeboats from the US Navy troop ship USS General A W Greely and the steamerSouthland on Dec. 29th.  Because of the heavy list, the lifeboats on board the Flying Enterprisecould not be launched and both passengers and crew were forced to jump into the cold North Atlantic before being recovered by the lifeboats. One middle-age passenger drowned during this operation, otherwise, all of the remaining passengers and crew were successfully rescued.

Captain Carlsen chose to remain with his ship in order to wait for the arrival of a salvage tug.  The salvage tug Turmoil finally arrived on January 3rd some 5 days after the passengers and crew were rescued but it quickly became evident that it would be impossible for Capt. Carlsen, alone aboard a heavily listing vessel (now listing at 60 degrees), to secure a tow line himself.

After several unsuccessful attempts to secure the tow line, the 27-year-old chief mate on the Tug Turmoil, Kenneth Dancy, leaped from the deck of the tug onto the railing of the Flying Enterprise on one of the very close approaches made by Capt. Dan Parker of the Turmoilduring one of the failed attempts to secure the tow line.  With Dancy’s help, however, a tow line was secured and the long tow back towards Falmouth England began.

While the tug and tow approached the English coast on January 8th the weather started to deteriorate.  On January 9th, just 45 miles from Falmouth, heavy seas parted the towline.  The Flying Enterprise drifted eastward while several attempts were made to re-secure another towline but all attempts were unsuccessful.   At 1536 on the afternoon of January 10, 1952 as the Flying Enterprise, now listing at 90 degrees and taking water down the stack.  Both Dancy and Carlsen jumped into the sea from off the stack and were taken aboard the Turmoil where they watched the Flying Enterprise sink under the waves, stern first at 1609.

By now this ongoing sea drama was being reported around the world and Capt. Carlsen had become world-famous for staying on his crippled freighter. Captain Carlsen received a hero’s welcome when he came ashore at Falmouth and later was awarded the Lloyd’s Silver Medal for meritorious service in recognition for his attempts to save his ship.

Carlsen received a ticker-tape parade in New York City on January 17th.   A few months later he took command of the Flying Enterprise II, passing up several lucrative offers from Hollywood for his story.  Carlsen, and his ordeal aboard the Flying Enterprise, is the subject of  an excellent the book “Simple Courage: a True Story of Peril on the Sea” by Frank Delaney.

Coast Guard Report

The US Coast Guard inquiry found that the damage, abandonment and loss of the vessel were caused by circumstances beyond the control of the master and crew.  The fracture sustained while hove to in head seas was not a direct cause of the vessel’s loss but merely an indirect contribution to the loss.

The Coast Guard did remark about the stowage of the pig iron cargo in #2 hold and noted that it was not leveled out as was the pig iron in #4 hold but was stacked in a pyrimid shape.   The report stated that this did constitute a certain hazard as to shifting, however, this type of stowage  was a common practice at the time and had been sanctioned by the shipper, underwriter, owner and the master.   It was also believed that the empty condition of the double bottoms aft and the deep tanks in #4 hold had an appreciable effect on the great degree of list which the vessel took. ~ Fred Pickhardt Source

NYC ticker tape parade

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