THE SINKING AND SAVING I
t was a tough few days in mid-June for those who appreciate old ships, maritime history, and, in particular, Wander Bird, the historic 85-ft LOD German pilot schooner that spent more than half a century moored in Sausalito. Shortly after noon on June 8, the recently restored Elbe No. 5 — the ship's original designation at her launching 136 years ago — was rammed by a container ship on the Elbe River and sank a short time later. In a stroke of luck, several motor rescue boats from the DLRG (a volunteer group similar to the Coast Guard) were attending to another incident nearby and sped to the scene, rescuing all 43 people (14 crew and 29 passengers) aboard the schooner. Eight were injured, two seriously. At this writing, all had been treated and released. Several DLRG and other support craft stayed with the stricken schooner, supplying auxiliary pumps to aid Elbe No. 5's own pumps. They managed to get her out of the main channel and alongside a wharf at nearby Stadersand, where she finally went down in shallow water. The good news is that, eight days later, Elbe No. 5 was back afloat. By the time you read this, the ship should be hauled out at a yard for assessing what will likely be a repair process almost as long and involved as the nine-month refit completed only weeks before the accident.
uch discussion surrounded the cause of the collision, and at this writing, a week later, social media continued to
This still picture was taken from a video shot just moments before 'Elbe No. 5' collided with the oncoming ship 'Astrosprinter'.
buzz about who did what, when, and why. Until the official investigation is complete, we can't definitively answer those quesPage 72 •
• July, 2019
tions. However, using the resources available in mid-June — which included a video made aboard the schooner just prior to the crash (type: "Elbe No. 5 collision" into YouTube to see it); dramatic photos of the ramming itself; an AIS chart of the tracks of both vessels: and what had been reported by the German media — we went to the foremost authority we know on operating sailing craft near big ships in busy waterways: Commodore Tompkins, who's been doing just that for most of his life. OK, and because he certainly has more than a passing interest in the affairs of the old schooner. Here's how he saw things unfold: Elbe No. 5, under foresail and a single headsail, was proceeding northwest down the Elbe River, toward the North Sea. She was close-hauled, indicating a NW wind. The AIS track chart indicates that the schooner was favoring the east side of the river. The same AIS chart shows the track of Astrosprinter in the center of the channel, also headed for the North Sea, thus overtaking the much slower schooner. Shortly before the collision, Elbe No. 5 tacked onto starboard tack, assuming a course diagonally athwart the shipping channel. A videographer aboard Elbe No. 5 recorded the moments prior to the collision, the point of view being from far aft aboard the schooner, across her lee rail. It shows the Astrosprinter at some distance, steaming toward Elbe No. 5. Elbe No. 5 appears to be sailing slowly, perhaps four knots, both foresail and headsail drawing on starboard tack. One hears two sets of five blasts on a horn, probably from Astrosprinter, although this is not clear. Five blasts is the International signal for "Imminent danger!" One also hears voices speaking in German on the video. A translation to English is: "What is he up to?" "Why is he doing that?" "Bear off!" "We are going to hit him!" "Hard to port!" "We are going to hit him right on!" The video shows the tiller being put all the way to port, thus turning the schooner's bow to starboard. The identity of the speakers is unknown. Probably one of them (at least!) was the 82-year-old skipper. Were one to draw a plan view of the two vessels, their centerlines, at the time the video starts,
would intersect at approximately 130 degrees. The collision photograph shows the two vessels at right angles to one another. Astrosprinter rammed Elbe No. 5 abeam the foremast on the schooner's port side. Putting the tiller to port caused the schooner to turn about 45 degrees to starboard; her forward motion while describing this arc placed her directly under the bow of Astrosprinter. Presumably, had the schooner put her tiller to starboard and borne off, she would have turned in a similar arc, maybe faster since her sails would continue to draw as she turned downwind. Such a turn to port might have resulted in a glancing blow between the vessels as they passed starboard-to-starboard, and an exchange of paint.
he big unanswered question is why Elbe No. 5 turned into the path of the big ship rather than away from it. A popular theory circulating online was that inexperienced people near the tiller might have mistaken the command "hard to port" to mean, "push the tiller to port," rather
The July 2019 issue of the West's premier sailing and marine magazine.