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    Der dümmste Kapitän des 20. Jahrhunderts -The stupidest captain of the twentieth century

    Ein Artikel aus den TALL-SHIP news Nr. 67 - IV/2008 von Dietmar Glöckner.

    The stupidest captain of the twentieth century

    This event took place in 1924 and was tried before the Hamburg Maritime Office. And it would have been a laughing matter if the whole affair had not cost human lives. Out of consideration for descendants, the names of the shipowner, the nautical inspector and the captain have been changed. Nevertheless, the plot corresponds to the facts.

    After the First World War, seamen who wanted to become officers or captains had a hard time. In order to be able to attend a nautical college at all, they had to have sailed on a sailing ship for a while on their way to becoming a sailor. But the German sailing ships all had to be handed over to the victorious powers at the end of the war. And so, there were hardly any ships on which training was possible. Herbert Sunus, the nautical inspector of a less well-off Hamburg shipping company, also recognised this. And he further realised that good money could be made from it. So, he made a proposal to his shipowner to send a sailing ship on a voyage as a cargo-carrying training ship. And he understood quite well to convince his boss of the merits of his plan.

    If enough "cadets" were taken along, fewer seamen would be needed and less wages would have to be paid. On the contrary, those interested would be happy to pay extra just to have the opportunity to sail on board. And fifteen hundred gold marks a year should be worth their career.

    Shipowner Paulins also saw that. And so Sunus travelled to Gothenburg to acquire the Bohus, which was up for sale, for this purpose. The Bohus was a 32-year-old barque, but still in good condition. She was 75.6 m long and 11.7 m wide, large enough to accommodate cadets in addition to cargo. Hans Petermann was signed on as captain of the company. Petermann was a ship's officer, and as such had spent several years shuttling back and forth between Europe and Africa on a steamer. However, he had not gained much experience. Above all, he had never managed a ship, let alone a sailing vessel. And he did not have a captain's licence at all. But he had one advantage for the shipowner: he was cheaper than others.

    Nineteen cadets signed up, which brought in 28,500 gold marks. Why wait long for that. Bringing the Bohus to Hamburg would have been an unnecessary expense. So, the cadets and crew were ordered straight to Gothenburg to start the first voyage from there. Before the final departure, Inspector Sunus "instructed" the cadets. He showed them how to fasten and unfasten a sail. Then he announced that they had had enough and that the next day the Bohus would set sails.

    And so it was. On 25 April 1924, the Bohus left Gothenburg harbour under ballast. She was quite well manned with a crew of 19 and 19 cadets. However, only the 19-man crew were seamen - some of the cadets had never been to sea before. The voyage was to go to the west coast of America and from there back to Hamburg with a cargo of saltpetre. At the time, no one suspected that the voyage would tragically end after only three days.

    Captain Petermann had chosen an unusual route for lack of better experience. There was a light wind, and so the Bohus sailed across the North Sea at a moderate speed. But on the second day the wind freshened, the Bohus picked up speed and finally reached ten knots, a remarkable speed for the old ship. And with this speed, the Bohus chased into the passage between the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands to reach the North Atlantic by this route. This passage is often used by well-motorised fishing trawlers on their way to Iceland. It is not difficult for them either. For a sailing ship, however, it holds many dangers. It is riddled with strong, unpredictable currents and usually offers very poor visibility. Navigating a full-grown windjammer through it in one piece requires a good degree of seamanship. But Petermann did not have that.

    Shortly after noon, a lighthouse briefly came into view between wisps of fog. Petermann was sure it was the one at Fair-Eiland. He didn't have to look in the list of beacons or take a bearing. He was on the right track and therefore good! He thought.

    But then came a cry from the lookout, "Land to port!" and a breath later, "Land to starboard!" In the fog, a high, rocky steep bank appeared in a blur, towards which the Bohus was heading at full sail. Petermann now realised that he had completely lost his way. He ordered to shoot into the wind, but it was too late. The barque was already too far into the small bay to be able to sail free. The anchor was also no longer holding on the rocky ground. And so the Bohus drifted across a real cliff field towards the near shore. She passed a few cliffs, but then one impaled her in the middle of the ship. She fell to starboard and remained a wreck.

    Some Scots had observed the incident from shore and rushed to help. Some good swimmers brought a line ashore so that most of the shipwrecked could save themselves with the help of the line. Cadet Thomas Eberth saved four of his comrades from certain death at the risk of his life. But then the surf washed him off the cliff on which he was standing. He drowned in front of the eyes of those he had saved. The cook wandered absent-mindedly away through the cliffs and was later found dead. In all, four men had lost their lives in the stranding. The Bohus was also lost, of course. And the plan of running a lucrative training ship had also come to nothing, because now the case was sent to the Hamburg Maritime Office for processing.

    There they found extremely harsh words and appropriate sentences for Petermann and the shipowner.
    The figurehead of the Bohus, the "white woman", was washed up on the beach in September 1925. The people of Otterswiek on the Shetland Islands erected it at the site of the stranding, together with a memorial plaque, as a monument to the memory of the accident. On it is written: "Due to a navigational error by the captain...". Petermann got off even better than he deserved.

    (translated by DeepL)