Albatross (1920 schooner)

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Refit: In 1954 as a Brigantine
Fate: Sunk in a white squall, 125 miles west of the Dry Tortugas in 1961
General characteristics
Tonnage: 93 GRT
Length: 82.8 ft (25.2 m)
Beam: 20.8 ft (6.3 m)
Draft: 9.8 ft (3.0 m)
Propulsion: 1 screw
Complement: 19

Albatross, originally named Albatros, later Alk, was a sailing ship that became famous when she sank in 1961 with a group of American teenagers on board. The events were the basis for the highly fictionalized film White Squall.

Early history

The Albatros was built as a schooner at the state shipyard in Amsterdam, Netherlands, in 1920, to serve as a pilot boat in the North Sea. The ship spent two decades working the North Sea before being purchased by the German government in 1937. She served as a radio-station ship for submarines during Second World War. In 1949, Royal Rotterdam Lloyd bought her for use as a training ship for future officers of the Dutch merchant marine. Her smallness made her ideal for this kind of work and the dozen trainees could receive personal attention from the six or so professional crew. While under Dutch ownership she sailed the North Sea extensively, with occasional voyages as far as Spain and Portugal.

The American aviator, filmmaker and novelist Ernest K. Gann purchased the Albatross in 1954, rigged her as a brigantine, and she cruised the Pacific for three years. According to Charles Gieg (The Last Voyage of the Albatross), the Albatross survived a tidal wave in Hawaii during this time. She was also used in the 1958 film Twilight for the Gods (starring Rock Hudson and Arthur Kennedy), whose script and the underlying novel by the same title were written by the Albatross' owner Gann. In this adventure film she was portrayed as an ostensibly sinking and burning ship.

Albatross at the "Ocean Academy" and loss

In 1959, Christopher B. Sheldon's Ocean Academy, Ltd., of Darien, Connecticut, acquired her to use her for trips combining preparatory college classes and sail training. Over the next three years, Christopher B. Sheldon Ph.D. and his wife, Alice Strahan Sheldon M.D., ran programs for up to fourteen students in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific Ocean.

From fall 1960 to spring 1961, a crew of four instructors (including the Sheldons), a cook and 13 students sailed the Albatross from the Bahamas through the Caribbean to the Galápagos Islands and back to the Caribbean; a fourteenth student had been on the ship for the first part of the voyage, but had left in Balboa, Panama. At the beginning of May, the Albatross was en route from Progreso, Mexico, to Nassau, the Bahamas. On the 1st of May, skipper Sheldon decided that they would make a stop at one of the Florida keys to refuel.

Shortly after 8:30 am on the 2nd of May 1961 the Albatross was hit by a sudden squall about 125 miles west of the Dry Tortugas. She keeled over suddenly and sank almost instantly, taking with her Alice Sheldon, the ship's cook George Ptacnik, and students Chris Coristine, John Goodlett, Rick Marsellus, and Robin Wetherill (John Goodlett was on deck in the last minutes, but probably became entangled in some of the lines or a sail of the sinking ship while freeing a lifeboat, and Christopher Coristine reportedly went below deck in an attempt to save someone else). As there had not been time to send out a radio distress signal before she was lost, the remaining crew used her two lifeboats to make way towards Florida. Around 7:30 a.m. on the 3rd of May, the two boats were found by the Dutch freighter Gran Rio, who took the survivors to Tampa, Florida.

According to Sheldon, the squall hitting the Albatross was a white squall, i.e. an unpredictably sudden, very strong squall. His opinion was that the Albatross was essentially a stable, "safe" ship, and that the crew of teenagers—who had already spent about eight months on board—were sufficiently trained, but that this rare weather phenomenon left the ship no chance. Critics of this view, however, have argued that refittings of the Albatross over the years by her various owners had made her top heavy, which impacted her secondary stability, i.e. her ability to remain stable or even right herself back up when tilting to the side, as opposed to capsize. In her times as northsea pilot schooner, the ship had a far smaller and lower sail area, which means that the force of the wind did not have as much power and as powerful an angle as it did the day she sank. Almost 40 years after the loss of the Albatross, Parrott (2000) reanalyzed some of the documents about the ship and what he considers comparable ships. He suggested that due to the ship's impaired stability, even a "normal" squall could have sunk her; according to him, only the expert handling of the ship and the habitual prudence of the ship's captain(s) to reduce sail area early had prevented the refitted Albatross from capsizing in previous strong wind conditions.

In 1932, the German training vessel Segelschulschiff Niobe suffered a similar fate, killing 69. Parrott (2000) draws parallels to the sudden losses of the Marques (1984) and the original Pride of Baltimore (1986), which were similarly affected by (too) large sail areas; in the case of the Marques, this was likewise the result of refittings over the years of her existence.

Aftermath and narrations of the ship's loss

The loss of the Albatross prompted the United States Coast Guard to undertake a thorough review of the instantaneous stability—i.e. the ability of ships to remain upright—and design requirements for sailing school ships. The new rules were codified in the Sailing School Vessels Act of 1982.

Narrations of the last voyage of the Albatross were published by two of the surviving crew members.

A highly fictionalized version of the ship's tragic loss starring Jeff Bridges appeared in the 1996 film White Squall. As the name suggests, the film suggests that the Albatross was sunk by a white squall. A part of the film deals with the reason for the ship's loss, but the discussion is limited entirely to the question if skipper and crew reacted insufficiently to an ordinary weather phenomenon, or if an extraordinary weather phenomenon made all reactions useless. The concerns about the ship's stability are never mentioned.

After the loss of the Albatross, Sheldon worked for the Peace Corps and briefly started another ill-fated sailing school. He died October 5, 2002, in Connecticut.

Further reading

  • Charles "Chuck" Gieg & Felix Sutton (1962). The Last Voyage of the Albatross. Duell, Sloan and Pearce: New York. (Gieg was one of the students on the last trip.)
  • Richard E. Langford & Jerry Renninger (2000). White Squall: The Last Voyage of Albatross. Bristol Fashion. (ISBN 1-892216-36-1) (Langford was the English instructor on the last voyage.)
  • Daniel S. Parrott (2003). Tall Ships Down. International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press. (ISBN 007143545X) (an in-depth study of 5 modern tall ship tragedies including that of the Albatross)

External links

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