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Baltic crossing ends in disaster

Jan 1, 2003

We were ready to sail Christiania from Oslo to London. I was planning to live aboard while getting my master's degree in social anthropology there. Most of my earthly belongings were aboard the 102-year-old wooden boatoriginally built as a life-saving vessel. Together with my father and brother, Carl Emil Sr. and Jr., I had made Christiania ready for a year away and some ocean passages. She had a new bowsprit since we broke the old one on the way to Aberdeen and the Tall Ships Race in July. Christiania had been carefully maintained every year since a total restoration 18 years ago, and she was in the best state of her life, perfectly equipped from bow to rudder and keel.

I was sharing the role as captain with Carl Emil Jr. We also brought along four other friends as crew. Their sailing experience was variable, but everyone had guts, and we did have two circumnavigators on board who had been raised on Christiania.

We spent two days along the Norwegian coast going south. I had planned to go the direct North Sea route to London from Lindesnes. It was blowing Force 9 from the southwest, so we stayed inshore. By Monday the forecasts had improved, the low pressure front had passed, and the wind had turned to the northwest. We decided to leave.

The conditions were as expected: a strong gale from the northwest. This is perfect for a heavy boat like Christiania. We did seven knots with mainsail and jib. We discussed setting more canvas, but decided to wait until morning. Carl Emil, Runa, and Michael went to sleep. Anne, Are, and I took the first watch.

Conditions were rough, and we took waves aboard on the beam. I calculated that it would be three days of sailing to reach London in these conditions. The canvas for the main hatch was loose, and I fixed it. Anne shouted: "This is unbelievably beautiful." It was the first time she had ever been on a big ocean.

It was midnight. I went below to see that everything was okay. Back in the cockpit I got a wave down my neck since I forgot to put my cap back on. We sailed out of one wave, and hit the next one with a hard bangas hard as we had on the way to Trondheim two months earlier and, indeed, a hundred other times. I heard glass breaking, and I went below again to check it out. I met Carl Emil, who had woken up. "It was the lamp glass that broke. That was quite a jump. We have to clean it up, so no one steps in it." Then he said, "I hear running water. We must be leaking!"

I ran on deck and started the engine, which ran the pump with the most capacity. Runa and Michael got their clothes on, and Michael got on the hand pump down below. After two minutes the floorboards disappeared beneath him. Water was everywhere. The leak must have been enormous.

We tacked, hoping that maybe the leak could be lifted above water. It didn't help. Anne and Runa ran the big manual pump on deck, which worked after I primed it with a bucket of water. We took down the mainsail. Carl Emil grabbd the VHF. "Shall we send a Pan Pan or a Mayday?" he asked. "This is a Mayday," I said. The incredible words went out on the air: "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, this is Christiania, Lima Mike Six Five Eight Four, position"

It was like an unbelievable movie; it could not be true. This was Christiania, Norwegian rescue ship Number 10, responsible for the rescue of hundreds of ships and thousands of people, built for going out when others go in, a hull of oak with enormous strength. The driest Colin Archer on earth, in first-class shape with not a rotten plank. But the water around our feet was real enough.

I opened floorboards and bunks in the front, desperately looking for the source of water. But water was everywhere, flowing back and forth; it was soon to my knees. It was impossible to find out where the water was coming from. We had to pump for the life of Christiania. I let the last sail downless speed was probably good for less leakage. On the foredeck I could hear Anne and Runa, who were singing to keep their spirits up while they pumpedthree gallons going overboard with each pump.

Farsund Radio received the Mayday and coordinated our rescue. We begged them for more pumps. Two cargo ships heaved to half a mile away. Everything was floating nowpillows, floorboards, food, charts. It all became like drift ice banging around our waists. Carl Emil sat on top of a table to avoid most of it. I told the four on deck about the situation. This was not life-threatening; we had a life raft and all kinds of equipment. Two ships were standing by close to us, and a helicopter and a rescue ship would be there in an hour. The latter must have big machine pumps on board, and I shouted, "If we manage to keep her afloat until then, we may save Christiania."

Are said that the manual pump on deck was getting hard to move. I put my hand into it, and pulled a T-shirt through the membrane. Good pump! Later on, Carl Emil pulled through a blanket.

It was two hours since the bang. Four pumps were getting hundreds of gallons of water out of the hull every minute, but it was still getting in faster. The main engine stopped when water got into the air-intake. I put emergency equipment in a bag, which I tied onto the mizzenmast.

Carl went on deck with a handheld VHF. It died when drowned by a wave. We were without communication. We heard sounds from a helicopter, and got caught in the light. Fifteen minutes later the ship was there. I screamed "pumps" and signaled with my arms. The life raft was already in the water. I tied it on the lee side, where it floated nicely.

Something came out of the helicopter on a rope. We pulled it on board and opened it. It was a gasoline pump. Hoses and filters, one can of gasoline, one with water. Water? Carl Emil read the procedures by flashlight. We managed to get it going, and it pumped 156 gallons a minute.

The manual deck pump was blocked. We told Are, Anne, Runa, and Michael to get in the life raft. The plan was to let it out on a long line so they could be picked up by the rescue ship. We were very low in the water, so it was easy for them to get on board. But the rescue ship refused to take anyone on board before everyone was on the raft. We decided to keep the raft close; they were uncomfortable but safe. Three hours had elapsed since the bang.

We got another pump from the helicopter. We then had a capacity of 312 gallons per minute. The filter got blocked on one of the pumps. Carl Emil jumped down and freed it. The generator below stopped, but we could hear the electrical pump still running even though the batteries were underwater. The cabin lights were also still burning brightly.

The second pump was blocked. I cleaned and primed it. Both pumps were getting paper stuck in their filtersthe charts were floating. We worked quickly and mechanically: Clean. Prime. Start. Pump. Clean. Prime. Start. Pump. Are pulled the life raft close and shouted: "The helicopter only has gas for another 10 minutes."

"We'll let the raft loose, then the crew can be picked up by the helicopter and we can swim to the rescue vessel ourselves if necessary," shouted Carl Emil. I agreedwe had lights and life jackets enough, and it was pretty warm.

We looked around in the light from the flashlights. The waves were covering the whole boat. Sometimes the hull stayed underwater and threatened to not rise again. Two pumps were pushing water at high speed from the hatch, but we had to admit it wasn't enough. We looked at each other, shook hands, and smiled sentimentally. I put on the life jacket I had tied to the mast while working. Carl Emil got into the raft. I took the emergency bag down from the mizzenmast. In it were Carl's wallet, a portable GPS, some rockets, a knife, and torches. I threw it into the raft before I entered. I had to step up to get into the raftChristiania was doomed. It was four hours since the bang. Michael cut the line, and we drifted away. "There sinks a hundred and two years of history," Carl Emil shouted.

Half a minute later we had a guy from the helicopter in the raft. As the first two of us were hoisted, the stern of Christiania disappeared. The bowsprit and mainmast were pointing to the air. The pumps made no more noise.

When the next two were hoisted out of the raft, I could see no more of Christiania. One minute later we were all in the helicopter, on the way back to Norway. Then our feelings arrived with a bang. While we were on board, I was only thinking of what the next task was.

After the accident the support and understanding was enormous. We received flowers, letters, and telephone calls. Everyone asked us: "Where did the leak came from?" But we had no answers, and every theory seemed improbable. Did we hit a container? A leak like that does not occur from wave impact. Christiania was so strong and in such a good shape. As a fellow sailor said to me later: "If this could happen to Christiania, what about us?"

Can Christiania be rescued? The spot where she sankat 56° 48' N, 7° 39' Eis more than 1,600 feet deep with a sand and mud bottom. We are investigating if it can be possible. Nothing would be better.