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.

10 Comments

  1. Bill O'Connor 3 months 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 3 months ago

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

    • Steve Hyman 3 months 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.

  2. Richard Leute 3 months 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 3 months 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:

  4. Peter Heiberg 3 months 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 2 months ago

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

  5. Richard King 3 months ago

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

  6. Denis Mcnicoll 2 months 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
    mm…1946.
    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 2 months 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.

Leave a Comment

Watersports
We once saw a man walk on water. We were sailing back home to Lowrie in San Rafael after a long, splendid day on the Bay. As we close-reached up the channel, we saw a man . . . surfing without a wave, sail or kite. If we hadn't been keeping up on watersports trends, we may very well have thought that someone was walking on water.
Cabron Is for Sale
2013 Cookson 80 designed by Botin, Cabron is a high powered racing yacht.
When Poop Reigns
We were out of Cabo San Lucas headed for Puerto Vallarta when a frigatebird came swooping in, circling, circling, gliding in a steep left bank until its wingtip nearly touched the ocean, the top of its wings black, glistening in the late afternoon sun.
Latitude Logowear
Congratulations to two winners of Latitude 38 swag. Stephen Buckingham picked up a copy of the June issue at South Beach Yacht Club at San Francisco's Pier 40 on May 31.