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.
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.
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.
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.
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.