Simple Courage: A True Story of Peril on the Sea

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9780739333686: Simple Courage: A True Story of Peril on the Sea
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“HEAVEN HELP THE SAILOR ON A NIGHT LIKE THIS.”
–old folk prayer

In late December 1951, laden with passengers and nearly forty metric tons of cargo, the freighter S.S. Flying Enterprise steamed westward from Europe toward America. A few days into the voyage, she hit the eye of a ferocious storm. Force 12 winds tossed men about like playthings and turned drops of freezing Atlantic foam into icy missiles. When, in the space of twenty-eight hours, the ship was slammed by two rogue waves–solid walls of water more than sixty feet high–the impacts cracked the decks and hull almost down to the waterline, threw the vessel over on her side, and thrust all on board into terror.

Flying Enterprise’s captain, Kurt Carlsen, a seaman of rare ability and valor, mustered all hands to patch the cracks and then try to right the ship. When these efforts came to naught, he helped transfer, across waves forty feet high, the passengers and the entire crew to lifeboats sent from nearby ships. Then, for reasons both professional and intensely personal, and to the amazement of the world, Carlsen defied all requests and entreaties to abandon ship. Instead, for the next two weeks, he fought to bring Flying Enterprise and her cargo to port. His heroic endeavor became the world’s biggest news.

In a narrative as dramatic as the ocean’s fury, acclaimed bestselling author Frank Delaney tells, for the first time, the full story of this unmatched bravery and endurance at sea. We meet the devoted family whose well-being and safety impelled Carlsen to stay with his ship. And we read of Flying Enterprise’s buccaneering owner, the fearless and unorthodox Hans Isbrandtsen, who played a crucial role in Kurt Carlsen’s fate.
Drawing on historical documents and contemporary accounts and on exclusive interviews with Carlsen’s family, Delaney opens a window into the world of the merchant marine. With deep affection–and respect–for the weather and all that goes with it, he places us in the heart of the storm, a “biblical tempest” of unimaginable power. He illuminates the bravery and ingenuity of Carlsen and the extraordinary courage that the thirty-seven-year-old captain inspired in his stalwart crew. This is a gripping, absorbing narrative that highlights one man’s outstanding fortitude and heroic sense of duty.

“One of the great sea stories of the twentieth century... [a] surefire nautical crowd-pleaser.”
--Booklist é (starred review)

“Frank Delaney has written a completely absorbing, thrilling and inspirational account of a disaster at sea that occasioned heroism of the first order. In the hands of a gifted storyteller,
the ‘simple courage’ of the ship’s captain and the young radio man who risked their lives to bring a mortally wounded ship to port reveals the essence and power of all true courage–
a stubborn devotion to the things we love.”
–Senator John McCain

From the Hardcover edition.

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About the Author:

Frank Delaney is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Ireland, as well as several fiction and nonfiction bestsellers in the United Kingdom. A former judge for the Booker Prize, Delaney enjoyed a prominent career in BBC broadcasting before becoming a full-time writer. Born in Tipperary, Ireland, he now lives in New York and Connecticut.
From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1.

In the national archives of the united states in washington, D.C., lies a dense report—several inches high of typed papers— on top of which rests a separate, summarizing document ten pages long. This is “the record of the Marine Board convened to investigate subject casualty, together with its Findings of Fact, Opinions and Recommendations.” Dated February 26, 1952, and signed by “P. A. Ovenden, Chief of the Merchant Vessel Inspection Division in the United States Coast Guard,” this official prose contains no hint of the magic energy that conceives a legend.

Mr. Ovenden’s conclusions, sent by the Coast Guard to the chief of Merchant Marine Safety, begin by observing that a welded freighter named S.S. Flying Enterprise “departed from Hamburg, Germany for New York on 21 December 1951, loaded, among other things, with 762.6 tons of pig iron in No. 2 lower hold and 508 tons of pig iron in No. 4 hold.”

Flying Enterprise, a freighter in the class known as “C1-B,” was built in the Wilmington yards at Los Angeles by the Consolidated Steel Corporation and released from the shipbuilder’s yard to the War Shipping Administration on March 18, 1944. (The man who stamped her brass registration plate made an error in the date, and his original “1943” is overstamped with “1944.”) She had the registration number 245133 and the combined signal and radio call sign KWFZ. After the war she went, in January 1946, to the U.S. Maritime Administration, where she was named Cape Kumukaki.

On April 25, 1947, Cape Kumukaki became one of twelve vessels in the Isbrandtsen Line, out of New York, owned by a buccaneering Scandinavian, Hans Isbrandtsen, who, to echo the old sailing clippers, used the prefix Flying for all his cargo ships. He had accumulated his fleet largely by purchasing, at bargain prices from the U.S. Navy, those ships no longer required for the transport of wartime supplies. For this, his competitors in the bare-knuckle freight shipping business disliked him—largely because he had stolen a march on them.

His son, Jakob Isbrandtsen, thinks today that Flying Enterprise “must have been one of the last of the C1-B class. They weren’t great freighters; they were too small and too slow.”

Yet they were not, in a landsman’s terms, insignificant ships. Here are Flying Enterprise’s vital statistics, which become crucial to her poignant history. She had three decks and two masts; her length, stem to stern, was 396 feet, her breadth 60 feet, her depth just short of 26 feet; she had 4,000 horsepower, weighed 6,711 tons, had a range of 15,000 miles without refueling, and had a cruising speed of 14 knots (equivalent on land to 16 miles per hour, a knot equaling 2,027 yards per hour).

You will not find anywhere in her papers the astounding fact that S.S. Flying Enterprise once became the most famous ship in the world—a renown that lingers, especially among career sailors. And among men who, inside themselves, can still be boys: for us, this cargo ship, longer than a football field and painted jet-black, became and remained part of our inner lives. In the typeface named Cheltenham, the white name isbrandtsen stood ten feet high along her sides, with flying enterprise inscribed smaller on her bows; for two weeks these thrilling words dominated the conversation of the planet.

She was that most romantic of sea creatures, a tramp steamer, and after departing New York on November 24, she called to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Norfolk, Virginia. Now, almost ready for the homebound leg of her twenty-seventh voyage, she sat patiently, being loaded in Hamburg on the shortest day of the year.
i was nine years old in December 1951; and, if a shade too shrewd for Santa Claus, I believed in everything else: miracles, the power of magnets, haunted houses, the truth of all stories, time travel. As do all wary children, I watched everything—my parents, my seven older siblings, the sky above my head. On good days I believed that every time I ran anywhere, the globe of the world spun faster under the pressure of my feet. On bad days I looked for ways of escape.

Soon, this American ship in a German harbor, and a sea captain whose name had a hero’s ring to it, would take and maintain a grip on my romantic but uneasy world. In the way of only the most inspiring stories, Flying Enterprise and Carlsen, her skipper, would, in effect, bear me to the eventual safety of great example. In the process, I developed a permanent near obsession with this man and his ship and the legend that grew up around them.

Although my family lived solidly inland, I already had a strong awareness of the sea’s wonder. Limerick, the city of my mother’s birth, has a port on the river Shannon, Ireland’s largest waterway, which runs on down to the Atlantic on the southwestern coast. The Shannon estuary favors big ships—or at least they seemed big to me when my grandfather first took me down to see them at Arthur’s Quay.

He was known to all in that small city—Stephen O’Sullivan, six feet four, benign as a sultan and with what he told me was “grass” growing under his nose, a bushy mustache. None of the menace that I already felt in life, and the daily fear that I already knew, came from him. This big, warmhearted man ate breakfasts that were world- famous in our family: steak and eggs, bacon, sausages, blood pudding, fried bread, fried potatoes, mushrooms if he could get them—his plate looked like a market food stall. He himself cooked this huge dawn feast, to the accompaniment of bawdy songs, which, to my mother’s consternation, I picked up.

Mischief clung to him. Steve Sullivan drove trains but refused to handle the honored carriages bearing Queen Victoria around our province of Munster. “Let her drive it herself—it’ll do her good,” he said. Of humble origins, he married a woman of substance, but all his life he refused her trappings—the furs, the cruises, the haughty friends. He smoked a pipe hour upon hour, with the most rancid tobacco ever rubbed—a cut plug that stank, as he said, “like a hoor’s boot.”

On our walk to Arthur’s Quay that day (I was about five years old), he told me to watch out for “a gent on a bollard.” This was an old sailor who pulled a stunt for passersby: he would pare his own plug of tobacco with a hunting knife and then slam the blade vertically into his thigh, halfway above the right knee. There it stood, the white bone handle projecting from the unbloodied blue of his canvas trousers.

That day we went down, the cork-legged sailor never showed. I went back many times on my own, but I never found him. Am I and my imagination the richer for not having seen him? In any case, my grandfather overturned my disappointment by leading me along the line of moored ships at the quay. I had never seen a ship before and we stopped at each and every one. Big, black, tawdry vessels they were, and the white paint had rusted on their housings, but I gazed up at them wide-eyed.

Each ship had a “load line,” better known as a “Plimsoll line”—a legal, Egyptian-looking hieroglyphic running down the side into the water; my grandfather told me that a freighter must carry this to indicate how heavily she was permitted to load. To the small boy’s inevitable “Why?” he told me that ship owners used to overload the holds with useless cargo so that the vessel would sink and they could claim the insurance, like people who had what he called “a good fire.” And he then explained the term “a good fire.” My mother, when I told her, grunted a knowing concern at my grandfather’s mischievous ethics.
after she left america, Flying Enterprise “discharged and loaded cargo” (according to the Coast Guard report) “at several north European ports”; this included five tons of carpets loaded at Antwerp on December 10. In Rotterdam five days later, she picked up her pig iron freight, plus 447 tons of rags, 486 tons of coffee, six tons of onions and gherkins in brine, and seventeen tons of animal hair, listed as “bristles.”

At the port of Bremen, she loaded thirty-nine tons of peat moss, a dozen Volkswagen cars, a few tons of birdcages—and a cargo of antiques, with eight early Chippendale chairs, a collection of Worcester china miniature pitchers, a gilded convex mirror decorated with the insignia of the British Order of the Garter, and a needleworked fireplace screen dated 1740.

These glorious pieces, in addition to Louis XIV furniture, a small orchestra’s worth of priceless antique musical instruments, a handful of Old Masters, and some rare Belgian porcelain, were being shipped, port by port, to New York antiques dealers on Third Avenue and East Forty-seventh Street. Not detailed item by item, they came aboard under catchall terms such as “general” or “special” cargo.

By the time she was ready to sail from Hamburg, Flying Enterprise had also taken on such oddities as several hundred typewriters, as well as zirconium or zirconite powder, one application of which included the making of fuel for the U.S. nuclear submarine program. She also loaded thirty tons of the volatile chemical naphthalene, which is a coal tar product smelling of mothballs, used in the making of plastics and dyes; they stowed it on deck so as not to contaminate the foodstuffs in the holds.

Far from fully loaded (always disappointing to a ship owner), she was due to reach New York on January 3.

2.

That dockside walk with my gra...

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