Recalling the Fate of the Pamir
It is now 50 years since the Pamir sank in mid-Atlantic in Hurricane Carrie, the loss of 80 of the 86-man crew, including 50 teenage cadets on their first ocean voyage, remains one of the more controversial maritime disasters of the last century.
The Pamir, one of the famous Flying-P Liners of the Laeisz company of Hamburg and the last 4-mast sailing ship to negotiate Cape Horn as an unmotorised, commercial concern in 1949, had lain in dock in Antwerp awaiting scrapping in 1950 when a new German owner bought her and installed an engine, deploying her as a cargo/sail-training ship for the German merchant navy.
A new consortium bought the ship in 1954 but its diminishing commercial viability saw it scheduled for decommissioning after its last (fateful) voyage in 1957.
She sailed from Buenos Aires for Hamburg on August 10th 1957 with a cargo of 3,780 tonnes of barley, but only 255 tonnes were stored in sacks in the holds, the rest loose, crucially the ballast tanks were used for storage, potentially compromising the ship's stability in a storm.
The Pamir sank within 30 minutes at 11.15 am on the 21st September 1957 at 35 degrees 57 mins north, 40 degrees 20 mins west, the speed of the event and the sharp angle of list meant that port side lifeboats lay under water, and starboard boats could not be lowered.
Only 6 persons survived, 4 crew members and 2 cadets (both are now deceased), after almost three harrowing days in two battered lifeboats.
The official inquiry in Hamburg deemed the incident " avoidable" and controversy still surrounds the sinking fifty years on.
Was Capt. Johannes Diebitsch too long out of experience of such large ships? Was the Pamir too slow in reducing sail in the face of the hurricane? Did commercial exigency dictate the loading of the cargo by untrained personnel during a local dock strike? Did these same considerations preclude a change of course as the hurricane approached (although Carrie herself suddenly changed direction)?
The disaster was almost doubled when the Pamir's sister ship, Passat, ran into similar weather as it was returning to Europe from Montevideo just two months later. As it encountered wind speeds 10-11 and waves of 14 metres in height, the Passat too developed a critical list. The captain sought volunteers to descend into the holds and transfer as much of the load as possible to the other side to counter the list. Two hours later it had produced no change.
Only the decision to introduce 150 tonnes of sea water into the ballast tanks, which had been filled with grain like the Pamir's, appeared to save the day, allowing her to limp into Lisbon.
Four of the six survivors from the Pamir returned to sea, but with the sinking of the Pamir the era of cargo under sail effectively came to an end.
German broadcaster ARD has produced an excellent, if loosely adapted, film of the sinking, " Der Untergang der Pamir".