A Wartime Sail Into Baltimore Harbor


January 20, 1991|By Carleton Jones

The next day, 4,000 would die at Pearl Harbor. It was Dec. 6 1941. The handsome clipper ship, now demoted into the bulk fertilizer trade, was sailing that day for Boston from Santos, Brazil. On board were 3,410 tons of fertilizer.

Immediately, the huge, graceful Swedish craft (316 feet long and 43 feet in the beam) ran into rough weather. Then radio reports noted the news from Europe that Nazi subs were fanning out to prey on previously immune vessels, especially Allied ones.

Germany had seized Norway and perhaps Sweden would be next. That would be dangerous for the ship because the old windjammer, named the Abraham Rydberg after a patron of the Swedish maritime academy, was the official merchant fleet cadet ship of Sweden. The captain headed for the safety of Baltimore's port.

As she cleared the capes and entered the Patapsco from the Chesapeake Bay, the Rydberg, under tow in shallower water, could hardly have been an unfamiliar sight. A year earlier it had docked at Fairfield with cottonseed oil cake aboard.

During the 1941 trip north, the cadets had leaped into action working the jibs, topsails, topgallants, staysails and spankers and keeping the ship immaculate. The Rydberg was already almost half a century old, built for the Hawaiian trade in 1892. But it was still romantic, trim and handsome. It had four masts that reached as high as 100 feet and a gleaming deck of Oregon pine.

The steel-hulled ship had no major motive power, but relied on a spectacular spread of sail. On board were only a donkey engine to raise the anchor and the sails.

The ship reached Baltimore harbor in March 1942 and on the last day of the month discharged her cargo at the foot of Caroline Street.

"While the vessel was unloaded the ship's officers held daily classes for the 42 cadets. The mornings were spent repairing sails and renewing ropes, then the decks were swabbed until they glistened. After lunch, instructions were given on navigation, compass and use of the sextant," reported the late Norman Rukert in his volume "The Port of Baltimore," Bodine Books, 1982.

Wartime stringency had already affected the supply lifeline in U.S. ports. As a sample, when the Rydberg needed Manila rope and cable, it had to supply an equal amount of frayed or damaged cable to Baltimore port to prove its needs.

In January 1943, the clipper was purchased by Portuguese interests and renamed the Fos de Douro. Soon after it loaded more than 204,000 packages of food for Allied war prisoners, to be moved through neutral Portuguese channels.

On her last voyage from Baltimore, the ship had moved through the C&D Canal to the Delaware River, trimming her masts to accommodate canal bridges. Anchored at Ready Point, the Rydberg again went under sail. On board was famed photographer Aubrey Bodine, of The Sun, who made a memorable series of photographs of a moment forever passing into maritime history.

In March of 1945, the old bark was given two diesel engines in Philadelphia. This "brought to a close" the days of sailing cargo vessels, according to Tod Giles, maritime author and expert on the history of sail. For a while the now-motorized hulk was active between Lisbon and ports along the Gulf of Mexico. In 1959, it was broken up in Italy, according to the Mystic Museum Library in Mystic, Conn. *

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