Simple Courage returns us to 1951, when the world watched a brave and able sea captain, Kurt Carlsen, refuse to depart his nearly capsized tramp steamer amid dangerous North Atlantic seas. SS Flying Enterprise, bound from Hamburg to New York carrying pig iron, Volkswagens, cash, mail — and passengers — departed safe harbor on Dec. 21, 1951. On Christmas Day, a Force 12 gale punished the former Liberty ship, breaking loose pig iron, and then cars, and then cracking the hull just forward of the superstructure.
The ship’s company responded professionally and valiantly, but ultimately the seas and the damage achieved the upper hand. Ordering “abandon ship,” Carlsen managed to successfully evacuate all his crew and passengers, save one, to ships responding to the North Atlantic distress. But Carlsen himself stayed with Flying Enterprise, fully intending to bring his ship, at the end of a towing hawser, to safe harbor.
A tow was, amid great difficulty, established from the tug Turmoil. And Carlsen approached to within 40 nautical miles of Falmouth, England, before the towline parted and Flying Enterprise sank. Only then did Carlsen abandon ship. His had been a world-inspiring ordeal of almost two weeks.
Throughout the rescue operation, ships of the U.S. Navy stood by, relaying messages and keeping the world informed of the heroics of Carlsen, a 37-year-old Danish-American stubbornly staying with his ship. Carlsen also maintained communications to stations both afloat and ashore from his ham radio. The public interest at the time, on both sides of the Pond, was akin to the Apollo 13’s re-entry from space.
When the saga ended, Carlsen found himself a reluctant international hero, but also someone mired in legend and controversy. There was of course a board of inquiry by the U.S. Coast Guard. The findings included plaudits for the ship’s company, concern about what was a fairly standard stowage for the time, and a rather tepid acknowledgement of no error by the captain. There were no accolades for Carlsen.
Carlsen’s own stated reasons for staying were always straightforward. It was his duty as a captain to bring his ship home. He also knew that any errant action of his might cost him his master’s license and rob him of the means of supporting his family.
Author Frank Delaney, who remembers this epic from his boyhood in Ireland, investigates all the threads of the story, as well as the character of the man who would not abandon ship until she was absolutely downward bound to full fathom five.
This is a wonderful read for both the armchair sailor and the old salt. And, indeed, the latter will be grateful for not having been there