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The Sinking of Wander Bird

We were shocked to receive the news that the German pilot schooner Elbe No. 5  — which several generations of Bay Area sailors will know best as ‘our’ lovely Wander Bird — sank on Saturday after a collision with a commercial ship on the Elbe River near Hamburg. The incident occurred shortly after noon when the recently restored and relaunched 85-ft LOD schooner, with 43 passengers aboard, somehow ended up directly in the path of the 465-ft container carrier Astrosprinter.

Wander Bird Collision
The collision on the Elbe.

Early reports differ as to the cause of the accident. One report notes a ‘failed tack’; another that the Cyprus-flagged Astrosprinter was “out of its shipping lane.” Maritime law puts the burden on smaller vessels to keep clear of large ones, but we don’t know if the rules of the road are different in Germany (or the Elbe), how fast each vessel was going, or, ultimately, which one was at fault. Investigations are underway and we’ll post more information on ‘Lectronic Latitude as we get it.

Wanderbird escort
Post-collision and going down.
© 2019 DLRG (The German CG)

In a stroke of luck, several motor rescue boats from the DLRG (the German Coast Guard) were attending another incident nearby and sped to the scene. Everyone aboard Elbe 5 was rescued, with five to seven injuries reported, including one serious injury to someone apparently hit by the toppled foremast.

The Astrosprinter was not damaged and eventually resumed its outbound journey.

The extent of damage to Elbe 5 is unclear, but she did not sink immediately. Emergency pumps were brought aboard, and, along with the tall ship’s own pumps, they were able to keep her afloat long enough to for her to reach shallower water. The ship finally went down in what appears to be shallow water next to a wharf in the harbor at Stadersand. Most of the rig remains above the surface. The area above the ship is currently boomed off to contain leaking fuel while the owners, the Hamburg Maritime Foundation, decide what to do next.

Wander Bird going down
Water pumps could not keep her afloat.
© 2019 DLRG (the German CG)

Elbe 5 was built in Hamburg in the early 1880s, and launched in 1883. She served 41 years as a pilot boat ferrying pilots to and from ships in the North Sea. Steamers eventually replaced the old schooners, and over the next few years the ship — at some point renamed Wandervogel — went through a series of owners, ignorance, incompetence and neglect.

The adventures that made the ship an integral and beloved part of the San Francisco sailing scene began in 1929 when she was bought – cheap – by author/adventurer Warwick Tompkins Sr. The ‘translated’ Wander Bird arrived in San Francisco Bay in 1937 after a voyage around the Horn. Among those aboard were Tompkins’ 4-year-old son, Warwick ‘Commodore’ Tompkins Jr., who would go on in adulthood to become one of the premier racing sailors in the world.

Wander Bird ended up in Sausalito, where she would be homeported for the next six decades. The ship was eventually acquired by Harold Sommer in the late ‘60s and underwent an extensive restoration by a cast of waterfront characters and legends, including Spike Africa, John Linderman and actor/sailor/author Sterling Hayden. (In the 1990s that project was deemed by the Smithsonian Museum to be the most significant vessel restoration done by a private individual in the US.)

Wander Bird didn’t sail that often — partly because it took a small army of people to crew the ship — but it was always a thrill to see the schooner when Harold did take took her out, occasionally to race in a Master Mariners Regatta.

Wanderbird May 2019
From better days. Wander Bird sailing in the May 1992 Master Mariners Regatta.
© 2019 Latitude 38 Media LLC / JR

The ship’s tenure in the Bay Area ended in the mid-’90s, when a couple of art dealers in Seattle bought her. Long story short, their big plans for the ship never materialized, and Wander Bird started to deteriorate once again. Then, in 2002, the Hamburg Maritime Foundation acquired the old ship and had her returned to her home waters of Hamburg on the deck of a freighter. After some restoration work, it wasn’t long before she was taking tourists on tours of Hamburg’s harbor.

Last year, the ship went up on the ways at a Danish yard for her most extensive and expensive restoration yet. The nine-month, $1.7 million project was completed only last month. (Commodore, now 87, and his wife Nancy, were invited over for a VIP tour of the ship toward the end of that project.) The ship had only returned to Hamburg at the end of May to resume tourist sails.

As bad as this incident is, it could have been worse. Most importantly, there was no loss of life. Secondly, because of the quick action of the crew and German rescue teams, the ship is currently in about the best place possible for a salvage attempt. We hope we’re speaking for the entire Bay Area sailing community when we say we fervently hope that will happen.

We’ll keep you posted.



  1. Bill O'Connor 5 years ago

    Sterling Hayden wrote a book, a quasi biography about his adventures on Wander Bird, including taking his children from his estranged wife….a great story and much history and detail of the boat’s history… a great read!

    • Joseph Oster 5 years ago

      Hayden’s schooner ‘The Wanderer’ was a different boat from ‘Wander Bird’.

    • Steve Hyman 5 years ago

      The WANDERER, a former San Francisco Bay Pilot Schooner Ex-GRACIE S belonged to Sterling Hayden for a time. He renamed her and sailed her to Tahiti with his children and wrote the book, “Wanderer.” The WANDERBIRD was owned by Warwick Tompkins and sailed around Cape Horn with his family in 1936-37. He made a film and wrote a book about it, Fifty South to Fifty South.

    • Shelagh Considine 4 years ago

      The ‘Wanderer’ and the ‘Wander bird’ are two different boats.

  2. Richard Leute 5 years ago

    DLRG is not the German Coast Guard. Deutsche Lebensrettungsgesellschaft – German Life Saving Association. It is a private volunteer organization to save lives on the water. But it undertakes also other functions e.g. teaching swimming and safe conduct on the water.

  3. Steve Hyman 5 years ago

    Are you certain that photo of WANDERBIRD was taken in 1992? It appears to me that it was the 1991 Master Mariners Race against the CALIFORNIAN:

    • Daniel Jones 5 years ago

      I think you are correct

  4. Peter Heiberg 5 years ago

    “Maritime law puts the burden on smaller vessels to keep clear of large ones….” Wow, glad to learn that. Forty years at sea and somehow I missed that.

    • Jim Van Eaton 5 years ago

      Also known as the law of gross tonnage, if she outweighs you, stay clear.

    • Marcus De Chevrieux 2 years ago

      right of way is purely a matter of tonnage!

  5. Richard King 5 years ago

    50 south by 50 south by Warwich Thomkins is the story of trip around the horn

  6. Denis Mcnicoll 5 years ago

    We all remember the Wanderbird
    in Sausalito. Some folks lived aboard including an artist that painted my mother and newspaper cameraman Hump Campbell.
    He took pictures of us kids…
    me with a turtle in a tank over
    bu South School. Hm
    Not far from Police Chief Dunphy’s house, where we Sausalitans bought his carefully raised Cocker spaniels…
    anyhoo, the Wander bird was
    docked down by what is now
    Clipper yacht harbor….c’mon
    Seymour…kick in some more
    fun info?

  7. Mary Sprague 5 years ago

    Not unusual for a yacht to meet its end at the hands of a non-profit. Dry rot from lack of maintenance, collision with a shoreline or another vessel are fairly typical.

  8. H. Roland 5 years ago

    I read that the WANDERER went down in Nov. 1964 off Tahiti (on a reef in Rangiroa ). Not the same Schooner as the Wanderer Bird ! ?????

    • Daniel Jones 5 years ago


  9. Daniel Jones 5 years ago

    When most of us were playing little league on Saturdays, guys like Harold’s son Ross were hanging planks and stuff like that. What a great vessel.

  10. Shelagh Considine 4 years ago

    My brother-in-law came to the US aboard her. He rode the mainsail around the horn. She was an elegant lady.
    I first met the ‘Wanderbird’ in Sausalito. At age 16 I went aboard and joined a lot of locals at a party. When I pooped out at 3 am they were still singing and carrying on. Their average age was 73.

  11. Vince Perelli-Minetti 4 years ago

    My friend and I crewed on the Wanderbird when she was moored in Seattle. My fondest memory was of sailing her in strong wind side by side with the Adventurous in Elliot Bay. Gorgeous

  12. Joe Hanna 4 years ago

    That is a very sad situation for such a beautiful boat! I Was on her decks several times when Harold Sommers owned her. Always a thrill to just go onboard and see living history at its best! Also ran into Sterling Hayden several times; he wanted to see my Monterey fish boat. It was a jewel in mint condition. A friend of mine clued in Sterling to go down on the docks and take a look. I was very surprised! Another living legend! Those days are gone now. Right, Shelagh Considine? :<)

  13. Steve Fabes 4 years ago

    I live next door to the house that Hal Sommer lived in before his death. It’s a long story but I have the original bronze metal lettering WANDER _ _ RD. I am not sure what to do with them other than donate them to the Sausalito Historical Society. Unless someone else has a better idea.

    • Dylan Glockler 4 years ago

      Hi Steve, Do you still have the lettering? We own and run the namesake vessel Wanderbird, built by descendants of Tompkins – we are in the process of a mechanical refit – you can read more about our boat at We love the pedigree and history around this boat and her namesake, the original Wanderbird.

  14. Heather Mull 4 years ago

    I was on board Wander Bird in the late 1950s when she was at dock In Sausalito CA. Friends were living aboard and the masts were cut off.
    In my memory —After that, she was restored and Sterling Hayden ( who had been an apprentice as a kid , when the owner Warrick Tompkins Sr , ran the Wander Bird as a school ship) made the movie “Wanderer”(based on a book of the same name) , on the restored vessel. After that The” Wanderer “again sat in Sausalito until bought by the Seattle people and again restored. You have the rest of the story.

  15. Richard Levy 4 years ago

    Spent several nights on the Wanderbird in the early fifties. Gwen Tompkins opened it to any drop-in who wanted a place to spend the night….included breakfast….just help with the cleanup was the rule as I recall it.

  16. Elise Easley Brosious 3 years ago

    My father,George Easley, at 17 sailed on the Wanderbird in 1937. My siblings and I wonder if there are pictures of him at that time. Is there an archive we could contact.

  17. Mark Downing 3 years ago

    My father & his twin sister (Tom & Alice Day Downing of Berkeley, CA) sailed as crew on the Wanderbird when Tompkins was running her out to Hawaii & back as ‘sailing camp’ for teens. Not sure if the year (‘37 -‘40?) but I have some great pix of the kids & the ‘Bird’ underway.

  18. Chris Niederer 3 years ago

    I spent numerous days and evenings on the Wander Bird spanning from the late 1960’s through 1980s. I knew Harold and his son, Ross, very well. My dad, Cliff Niederer, did a lot of work on the boat during these years leading up to Harold getting her back under sail. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to be on her out of her berth in the Sausalito marina. Many good evenings spent down below listening to many a good story!

  19. Marc Carmichael 3 years ago

    All I know is there are probably a few guardian angels including my dad “John Lorentz and his bud Bruce Henderson” cheering on “the bird” and having a sigh or three at the “No name” or “sweet shop”. Inspired by time with Harold and crew, I ended up working “Northern Light” in Newport. Nothing better than messing around with boats. M “Rhino” Carmichael

  20. Bill Johnson 2 years ago

    In the late sixties and on for a few years, Harold had a few of us young wharf rats working on “Wanderbird” under his tutelage we all learned quite a bit of wooden ship building.there were three of us, primarily Kit Africa, Billy Martinelli, and myself Bill Johnson. I remember Billy and myself went to the maritime museum in San Francisco and made a template of the rudder of the boat, took that back to Sausalito and proceeded to build a new rudder with adz and hand planes, until we had the rudder built. I never did get to sail one the boat because I had left to pursue my own sailing career. Harold, I remember always fed us, so we wouldn’t starve. Great memories.

  21. Bill Brovold 1 year ago

    I got to visit and spend a day with my two sons on the Wander Bird in Seattle in the 1990s, at the invitation of one of the owners. It was moored at the mouth of the Duwamish River where it enters the Puget Sound. It was a beautiful piece of history to be aboard.

  22. Frederick Danforth 8 months ago

    Nothing like wandering history for all

  23. Ulrike 3 months ago

    Thank you for the insight! What an interesting history she has. She is now again being restored and a tug will bring her to a shipyard next week.

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