København was a Danish five-masted barque used as a naval training vessel until its disappearance after December 22, 1928. Built for the Danish East Asiatic Company in 1921, it was the world's largest sailing ship at the time, and primarily served for sail training of young cadets.
The København was last heard from on December 21, 1928 while en route from Buenos Aires to Australia. When it became clear the ship was missing, a lengthy search ensued, but turned up no trace. The disappearance has become one of the greatest maritime mysteries of the modern era, and led to much speculation about the ship's ultimate fate.
A number of theories for the København's disappearance have been advanced. The most commonly accepted is that the ship struck an iceberg in the dark or fog. If so, the ship may have sunk too quickly for the crew to react. The lack of wreckage found later may have been the result of the ship's particularly secure loading and rigging, a necessity against the strong winds known as the Roaring Forties. An alternate theory is that the ship, which was in ballast with no cargo, may have been capsized by heavy winds, disabling the lifeboats for survivors.
For the next two years after the København's disappearance there were a number of sightings of a mysterious five-masted ship fitting its description in the Pacific, fueling further speculation about the vessel. Early reports came from Chilean fishermen, then in July 1930, the crew of an Argentine freighter sighted a five-masted "phantom ship" during a gale. The captain took their statements and wondered if this was the "wraith of the Copenhagen". Further sightings came in the following weeks from Easter Island and the Peruvian coast. Later some wreckage, including a piece of stern bearing the name "København", reportedly was found off West Australia.
Tentative evidence for the ship continued to emerge. In 1934 The New York Times reported that a København cadet's diary had been found in a bottle on Bouvet Island in theSouth Atlantic. The supposed diary indicated that the ship had been destroyed by icebergs and abandoned, the crew taking their chances in lifeboats. In 1935, human remains and the remains of a lifeboat were found partly buried in the sand along the southwest coast of Africa. These may have come from København.
that a ship in distress, believed to be the Kobenhavn,
was seen near that island on January 21, 1929.
The date would have fitted in. It might
well have been the Danish five-master,
except that there was no record of any
wireless message of distress having been
received, and, according to this report,
the Kobenhavn was derelict, showed only
a wisp of sail, and yet had her masts standing.
If it were she In such a plight surely she could
have wirelessed an S.O.S. On the other
hand, the vessel appeared to be unmanned,
which would suggest that she had been abandoned.
Yet, if she floated, why abandon her? And, again, why
no wireless call for help?
Seafarers believe that whatever the
vessel seen by the missionary at Tristan da Cunha,
it was not the Kobenhavn.
Fascinating mystery in the league of the Waratah. Extensive searches to no avail. Theories and the tantalising possibility that the wreck off Tristan da Cunha could be the Kobenhavn. What a magnificent vessel and desperate tragedy.
If the Waratah did founder 0.5 miles off the St John reef, there was good enough reason for the Harlow not to have gone back to investigate. It was night, the currents notorious and the extent of reefs off the Wild Coast poorly documented on charts. It would have been 'impossible to approach the doomed steamer'.
and a strong south-westerly wind was blowing. The uncommon spectacle resembled a large whirlpool, with dense columns of steam rising to the sky, and was estimated to be about three miles from the boat, in the vicinity of Cape Jervis.
Not far behind the vessel was a long
tapering white cloud connecting the sea
with the clouds. The whirlpool, which
was plainly visible to the passengers,
seemed to be gathering in force and
ascending at a tremendous pace, but as the
white cloud lifted the whirlpool gradually disappeared.
These facts were verified by Mr. A.
Le Messurier (secretary to the Coast
Steamships, Limited, which owns the
Karatta) in an interview with the 'Mail '
'I was travelling on the same boat said Mr. Le Messurier, and I saw the
whirlpool myself. It seemed to be between Cape Jervis and Hog Bay, about
two or three miles away from the vessel,
which was in a direct line with the
phenomenon. The spout was travelling
from a north-westerly to a South-easterly
direction, and after a little while it disappeared towards land and got out of the
range of vision. It looked a magnified size
of the tail of a comet.'
'What theories have you for such occurrence?' . ,
'There may be many. It just looked
like a whirlwind that we see on land
except that on the sea there was nothing
to stem its progress, and it must have,
been gathering great force and power.'
'Do you think it would have caused
disaster had it struck the boat?'
'If it had got our upper works it might
have made a short job of them, or if it
had struck something solid damages could
have been done. It is hard to say. One
of the members of the crew of the
wrecked Warilda who was on board the
Karatta remarked to me that when he
was on a vessel of about 300 tons some
where in the eastern seas she was struck
by one of these spouts and just narrowly
'Do you know whether this phenomenon has ever before occurred in South Australia?'
'No,' said Mr. Le Messurier; 'not in
There was a. large number of passengers
on board the Karatta, and the extraordinary incident aroused great interest and speculation. It was recalled that some time ago the ketch Trucannai just missed a waterspout outside Kingscote. It was considered possible that if a vessel were caught in one of these the water descending would speedily swamp it, and that such mysterious disasters as overtook theWaratah, Yongala, and Koombana might be attributed to this cause.
The above description is more in keeping with a tornado at sea:
The video suggests that serious damage if not total destruction of a vessel could be the end result.
Have such tornadoes ever been described off the South African coast?
- From all appearances the loss of the steamer Sumatra will add to the secrets of the sea. No additional bodies have come ashore, and time has been no more evidence that would throw light on the disaster. Sensational charges have been made regarding the seaworthiness of the vessel, but these have been repudiated. It was stated to day that the Commonwealth Ministry would probably appoint a Royal commission to investigate the condition of the vessel, and that the lnquiry is being requested by Government officials who desire that their position be vindicated.
There is no definite clue as to how the
vessel was lost, and the disaster has aroused
keen discussion in shipping circles. It is
generally accepted that the vessel met her
doom in the night, and the fact that only
two bodies, those of the captain and the
chief officer, have come ashore, has led to
the conclusion that the Sumatra was engulfed by huge seas, and that those below did not have a chance to escape. From a mass of conjecture, the most tenable is that the chief officer was on the bridge when the storm broke over the vessel and that the situation was so alarming that he sent for the captain. This is supported by the fact that Captain Bell was clad in pajamas, with his ordinary apparel hastily donned over them. In the terrible seas which buffeted all the shipping along the coast, the remainder of the complement would be kept below, and this would also apply to the native boy, from whom, in the presence of danger, one or more of the officers would have taken the wheel.
WAS VESSEL SEAWORTHY?
Allegations and Denials.
Sensationial charges were to day made
against the seaworthiness of the Sumatra
by Mr V A B Willis, a member of the
Sydney Stock Exchange, who volunteered
for Benlee with the expeditionary force to
Rabaul. Mr Willis, who left Sydney as a
captain in the force, stated that while he
was in Rabaul he was in charge of the
militia, and that he was twice ignored in
complaints made to the authorities concerning the seaworthiness of the vessel.
These complaints were made against the
Sumatra in 1915, only 12 months after
Lloyds Register, the highest authority on
seaworthiness, had marked the Sumatra as
been given a classification of seaworthiness
by the Germanischer Lloyd, which is the
corresponding body in Germany.
The Mercury (Hobart) Monday 2 July, 1923.
THE S.S. SUMATRA.
All Hope Now Abandoned.
The Captain's Body Identified.
SYDNEY, July 1.
All hope for the safety of the unfortunate
crew which left Sydney on Monday afternoon in the steamer Sumatra has been swept away by the events of the week end. The second body which came ashore near Crescent Head has been identified as that of the master, Captain E. (Edward) Bell. A message from South West Rocks on Saturday announced that a third body had been washed ashore,
but it had not been identified. Wreckage is coming ashore along the north coast, which is believed to have come from the steamer.
Along the beaches of the north coast
from Port Macquarie northward many
parties were out to day searching for
traces of wreckage or more bodies. The
wreckage picked up established beyond
all doubt that the Sumatra has been
lost. Pieces of a boat, chairs, companion way,
and of the galley amidships,
and timber accompanied by three bodies,
made it certain that the steamer foundered
in the gale which swept along the
coast on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Word was received by the Secretary
of Navigation on Saturday that the tug
Undaunted, which left Port Macquarie
on Friday had returned after a fruitless search.
The police of the north coast have
been supplied with a full description of
each of the white people on board in order to assist with the identification of
any bodies that might come ashore. One
of the most difficult tasks was communicating with the relatives and families
of the people on board, and answering
anxious heart rending inquiries, which
were prompted by the news that the
steamer was missing.
The statement that the vessel was
overloaded was denied by Mr W C Harvey,
manager in Sydney of the New
Guinea Trading Agency, the agents for
the vessel. "I was particularly careful,"
said Mr Harvey, "to see that
everything was all right in connection
with the steamer before she sailed, and
on Monday afternoon I went down my-
self to go over the boat before she left
the wharf. The Plimsoll mark was
then six inches above water, and the
vessel was riding appreciably higher at
the bow " Mr Harvey added that Captain
Bell was a most careful and scrupulous man
An eye-witness, who was close to the
Sumatra as she proceeded down the
harbour on her last voyage, also said that
the vessel was not overloaded. The
Plimsoll mark was above water, and the
mark forward was about two feet above
Important information was gained on
Saturday morning regarding the life-
boats and life saving gear. During the
stay in Sydney, not only was the vessel's
hull thoroughly overhauled and repaired and
engines inspected and over-hauled, so as
to gain a certificate from the Department of Navigation,
but the life saving apparatus was scrupulously
attended to. The Superintendent of
navigation (Captain Morse) was particularly
careful with the lifeboats of the
vessel, and before granting a certificate
he ordered one of the lifeboat's to be
overhauled This was done, and when
the vessel sailed her two lifeboats were
as seaworthy as it was possible for boats
to be. The two lifeboats carried were
considered ample for the whole complement
of the vessel The lifebelts were
also inspected and brought up to the
standard required by the Department
of Navigation Three new regulation
belts were shipped, and this fact may
account for the belt round the body of
the second officer (Mr Fewtrell) bearing no name.
The value of the cargo on board was
£5,500. It was consigned to the Expropriation
Board at Rabaul but was not covered by insurance,
and did not exceed 300 tons.
Another mystery of the sea and no concrete explanation as to the cause of the loss. Rumours of unseaworthiness abounded, promptly refuted by the agents and officials. Sounds familiar? One thing is clear, the Sumatra, like the Waratah, was not a SPOTTED ship - insurance cover would have been high if the owners were 'expecting' a total loss at sea - which suggests that the rumours were unfounded.