Christmas at sea a century ago


The great steel ship was becalmed and rolling in an uneasy swell, her sails slatting against the masts, the chain sheets rattling and unnerving the crew who did not like the look of the low, sandy coastline of Terschelling, Holland. The shoreline was far too clear in the dying, late December light of 1909.

The four-masted, 319ft barque, Pitlochry, deep laden with 4,000 tons of nitrates was 62 days out from Tocopilla, Chile, bound for Hamburg. The Force 8 sou-wester which had pushed her up the English Channel at speeds of up to 16 knots, was gone.

‘Everyone was getting a little on edge, just outside our home port more or less, but not getting anywhere with this queer atmosphere about. It was eerie,’ Captain Miethe recalled later, ‘This was one of the busiest sea zones in the world yet we saw no other ships. I guessed the storm signals must be flying at every harbour mouth for 100 miles around.’

The 37-year-old captain could smell the weather that was on its way. The glass was dropping steadily. He shortened canvas and prepared his ship. And then it hit them: a hail storm which cut visibility down to half a ship’s length, riding on the back of a nor-wester Force 10 gusting 11.

Off the Elbe there was no pilot boat: Pitlochry had made such a fast passage she was not expected for another week at least. So here she was 3,000 tons of ship, 4,000 tons of cargo at night in an blinding hail storm. She was embayed. She could not tack in such weather, nor was there enough sea room to wear (gybe) ship.She had to go in, pilot or no.

Captain Meithe had both bower anchors prepared to let go with men standing by each. He caught sight of the Elbe No 1 lightship, briefly and took a bearing. The ship ran into the river on the flood making 18 knots over the ground.A squall blew out her main lower topsail: ‘A solid piece flew towards Cuxhaven to let them know we were coming,’ said the captain.

‘Now sand was flying through the air. It felt as though I was being sandpapered. In the tumult of spray and hail and sand and tremendous ear-assaulting noise, I noticed the higher sound of the wind’s scream at the rigging screws, the deeper roar of that mighty orchestra in the powerful shrouds and backstays.’

He rounded up the ship let go both anchors at Elbe no 5 lightship and prayed. She held. The next morning at low water he had one fathom (six feet) below the ship’s keel and found her stern was just 50 yards from the ship-breaking Mittelrug Sand.

The pilot could not believe his eyes: ‘Where did you come from?’. ‘Tocopilla, 63 days,’ answered the good captain who later told Alan Villiers for his brilliant book The War With Cape Horn: ‘So it goes. A lot of luck, a little skill – and don’t ride the luck too hard. The ship found the spot to anchor. I only recognised it.’