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Story by Tor Pinney                                                                                                                                        Back to List of Tor's Tales


1992 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved


When I was a boy growing up on the Long Island Sound in New York, my Norwegian grandfather, whom we called "Morfar" (meaning, literally, "mother's father"), would sometimes recount his youthful sea adventures while I listened, wide-eyed. Maybe those stories had something to do with the fact that today, as I write this, I am captain of my own stout sloop, aboard which I'm now sailing around the world.

My mother's father, Arnt Berthelsen, was a Norwegian seaman in the early part of this century. Born the son of a Mandal boat builder in 1900, he shipped out of Oslo as a cabin boy at the age of fourteen aboard one of the last working tall ships. For the next decade or more, he ranged far and wide aboard a variety of ocean-going vessels, eventually becoming a captain.

In the winter of 1916, my grandfather's ship, the barque Sagitta, was making a gale-ridden passage from Savannah, Georgia to Kallenburg, Denmark, laden with ordinary cargo. The Great World War was raging, and all hands were nervous about passing through the heavily mined North Sea. But it wasn't the mines that got them. They were attacked by a German submarine, which suddenly surfaced and opened fire with its heavy deck guns.

At the first salvo, a piece of steel ripped into my grandfather's forehead, and he was nearly blinded by the blood. Then, even as the Captain ordered the topsails backed to heave the ship to, the submarine fired a torpedo. The unarmed merchant vessel shook with the explosion. The Sagitta was fatally holed, and a lifeboat was lowered as the shattered 3-masted barque began to sink stern first into the icy waters. Nineteen sailors - including the father of my unborn mother - scrambled into the small boat and took to the oars. The German sub stood off watching, never offering rescue assistance.

My grandfather and his mates soon found themselves alone in their lifeboat on a freezing, storm-tossed ocean. There were no supplies aboard and the weather was severe. Morfar spoke of that time of suffering and tragic death:

"We had nothing to eat; no water to drink. We rowed, those of us who were able, day and night. We had brought a dog, our beloved ship's mascot, into the lifeboat with us. One night some of the men, half-crazed with hunger, cut his throat, carved him up and ate him raw. Another night it snowed and all of us, by then nearly dead of thirst, licked the moisture off our sleeves and off the boat's rail, praying it would snow harder! The cold and the suffering became unendurable! During the five days and nights we were out there, some of the men went mad with despair and killed themselves, several by throwing themselves overboard to drown; a couple by cutting their own throats. Others simply froze to death. It was a horrible time. I kept rowing as long as I could, afraid I might lose my mind, too, if I stopped. I think the only reason I lived was because I was one of the youngest. My resistance was a bit stronger than the others, you see. Anyone over 17 or 18 years old just didn't have the stamina to survive that exposure - the bitter cold! So many died," he trailed off sadly.

Eventually, the skiff washed up in a little fjord on the coast of Norway, luckily near a village. A lone newspaper boy, out on his morning delivery route, discovered the boat-full of frozen bodies and sounded the alarm that brought help. At first the townspeople thought that every one of the castaways were dead. But they discovered that four young men, covered in ice and blood, were still alive - just barely.

The event made headline news in the Norwegian papers. There was shock and outrage at the German sinking of the unarmed merchant ship, and the subsequent loss of life. During a long hospital recovery, Morfar sketched with a rough artist's hand a graphic portrait of the sinking of the barque, Sagitta, as he remembered the scene from the lifeboat. In the picture's background is silhouetted the black German submarine. 

My mother now has that sketch framed and hanging in her home. Someday it will be mine, then my children's, and then their children's.

The epilogue to this tale was my grandfather's favorite part of the story. It was decades later, long after he and his young Norwegian bride (you guessed it, my "Mormor") had emigrated to America. They were living in Brooklyn, New York, where a large community of Norwegian immigrants had settled. Morfar was working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and commuted daily by subway. Naturally, there often were other Norwegians on that train line. So he wasn't too surprised when one day a Norwegian man he didn't know struck up a conversation. As a newsboy passed through the train car hawking papers, the man said, "You know, I was a newsboy myself, in my village during World War I. As a matter of fact, I was once a bit of a celebrity because of it."

"Oh, is that so?" answered my grandfather.

"Yes," boasted the man. "You might recall a big news story back then, when the Germans sank one of our sailing merchant ships? The survivors were discovered on the beach by a young newsboy, you remember? Well, I was that boy who found them! What do you think of that!"

My grandfather just smiled and shook his head, momentarily puzzling the self-proclaimed hero. Then Morfar exclaimed, "Well it's good to see you again!" completely baffling the gentleman. So he explained, "You see, I was one of the four survivors you found in the lifeboat that day! What do you think of that!"

And so they had a grand reunion aboard a New York subway, thirty years and several thousand miles from that wintry North Sea fjord.

Undaunted by the sinking of the Sagitta, Morfar continued going to sea for many years. At the age of 22, he obtained his Captain's papers and took command of a research vessel that explored the Arctic seas and ice packs. Later, after emigrating to the U.S., he worked for a time as a lobsterman with his older brother, along the New Jersey shore. That was during prohibition years, and he had an amusing tale to tell about it.

"We really were just honest fishermen, you understand. But there were plenty of speedboats operating offshore in those days, running contraband liquor in from mother-ships hove-to outside the 12-mile limit. Not so different from the marijuana smugglers today, I suppose. Anyway, the rumrunners were sometimes chased by Federal revenue agents. If they thought they were going to be overtaken, the smugglers would dump their illegal cargo overboard so as not to be caught with it in their possession."

"Well," chuckled Morfar, "the wooden crates of liquor would float, you see, and they tended to collect along the tide lines that the currents formed a few miles offshore. So, while we were working our traps, we'd always keep an eye out along the tide lines for what we called `square lobster'. It wasn't so much to supplement our income, mind you, as to share with our mates, family and friends. The problem was, the Feds got wise to this, and sometimes when we came ashore they'd be waiting to inspect our `catch of the day'."

"Pretty soon, we worked out a system," he told me. There was an old Swede who worked in the boat yard. Whenever the revenue men were there waiting on shore to check us, he would just saunter over to the big power winch we used for hauling out the boats, and he'd casually drape his yellow oilskin jacket over it. Well, we could see that bright yellow jacket from a couple of miles off through binoculars, and that was the signal that we had company ashore. If we had any `square lobster' aboard, we'd just dump them over the side. We knew we'd always be able to find them again the next day, out at the tide lines!"

So many years at sea yielded plenty of sea stories, and I never tired of hearing them. My grandfather eventually gave up life at sea to raise a family in Brooklyn. In spite of his lack of a formal education, his innate and acquired talents earned him an engineering position at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he eventually helped design top secret defense missiles for the government of his adopted country. Morfar passed away a few years ago, soon after my grandmother. But he left behind a legacy of the sea that this son of a daughter of a sailor carries aboard today.


Click here for my young nephew's version of Morfar's survival at sea story.

~ End ~

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