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Shipwreck on the Skeleton coast

Avatar of inke inke - 20. November 2015 - Discover Namibia

The “Gertrud Woermann II” sailed from the port of Hamburg on her second voyage to German South West Africa. She ran aground north of Swakopmund. (Postcard, collection Gunter von Schumann)

Shipwrecks along the Skeleton Coast testify to the hazards of navigation without modern instruments. The Woermann Line, which operated scheduled shipping services to the German colonies in Africa until the First World War, lost several ships off the southwestern coast, among them the “Gertrud Woermann”, named after Adolph Woermann’s wife. The ship ran aground near Port Nolloth in 1903. At the time the Woermann Line was the largest private shipping company in the world and immediately bought a replacement vessel, the “Gertrud Woermann II”. She set sail on her first voyage to Africa in June 1904. 

The port of Hamburg was a hive of activity. The “Gertrud Woermann II” was back. She was to sail again within a week because of the Nama uprising in German South West Africa. On 26 October 1904 the steamer was on her way.

Bustling about the ship, apart from a crew of 79, were the officers and troops of the Survey Party, the 2nd Reserve Battery and the 4th Reserve Company as well as the replacement crew for the cruiser “SMS Vineta”, waiting for them in the waters off their destination, Swakopmund. They were 428 passengers in all, plus 300 horses, provisions for the journey of approximately four weeks, crates of arms and coal for the ship’s boilers. 

One of the passengers, Waldemar Kähler, a farmer, later reported that the journey was very well organised and harmonious despite the crowded conditions. Near the equator the engine gave problems but the crew was able to repair it in less than 24 hours. Otherwise, nothing out of the ordinary happened. 

Until the evening of Saturday 19 November. The ship was scheduled to arrive in Swakopmund on the next day, the Sunday morning on which the dead are commemorated (Volkstrauertag). It calmly glided over the ocean while the end of the journey was being celebrated below decks. Around midnight a crew member, Fritz Möhring, was enjoying the peace and quiet on deck. Suddenly he heard a loud scraping sound and felt a tremor going through the ship. On his way to wake his mates for the next watch he was toppled by two more jolts. Then, silence ...  

The “Gertrud Woermann II” had passed over a sandbank and run onto rocks. Events now unfolded in quick succession. The crew was called to the engine room because rocks had cut into the hull. 

Fritz Möhring writes: “Hellish smoke bellowed from the companion ladder to the boiler room because the water gushing in had already made its way to the glowing ashes in the lower fire ranges. Therefore we now had to extinguish all the fires as quickly as possible to prevent the risk of a possible explosion.”   

The engineers feverishly tried to open the safety valves. At last the “all-clear” was given. Valves were open and pressure in the boilers was dropping. The ship lay approximately 20 kilometres north of Swakopmund, 500 to 600 metres from the shore. 

Meanwhile the crew on deck ensured that no panic erupted among the startled passengers. The “Gertrud” was stuck on the rocks but did not sink. There was no immediate danger. 

A motor launch was lowered for the First Officer to go and get help in Swakopmund. The “Gertrud” was enveloped by thick fog. One of the passengers decided to while away the time by playing the piano. Soon all the tables in the dining room were taken and the crew began serving refreshments. Before long the atmosphere resembled that of an outing on Father’s Day. 

It took the motor launch until 9 o’clock to make it to Swakopmund due to the fog. The news of the shipwrecked Gertrud spread like wildfire. Schutztruppe soldiers mounted their horses to lend a helping hand at the site, and many Swakopmund citizens skipped the commemorative church service and set off on foot without further ado. 

The harbour authority immediately pulled out all the stops to salvage the Gertrud and her cargo. The first rescue vessels, with rafts in tow, were on their way within less than an hour. One of them was the cruiser “Vineta”, waiting for her replacement crew. The fog had not yet lifted and the rescue teams only found “Gertrud Woermann” around midday. 

All hands were needed now. Since the engines were idle, the horses had to be heaved to deck by pulleys and then transferred to the landing rafts dancing on the waves. Safely brought ashore, 110 soldiers took the horses to Swakopmund. In the meantime the fog had dissolved and the sun beat down relentlessly, giving the newly arrived troops a foretaste of what they would experience in the German colony. All survived the shipwreck; the passengers, the crew, the soldiers and the horses. 

Attempts to salvage the cargo that included urgently needed arms and ammunition continued for months. Most of the cargo in the flooded holds was lost. In June four men on the salvage team were drowned in rough seas. 

The maritime investigation board in Hamburg concluded in January 1905 that the wrecking of the “Gertrud Woermann II” was caused by thick fog and an unexpected northeasterly current, and that the captain’s navigation lacked caution. Nevertheless he was not dismissed. 

The wreck of the ship remained visible on Rock Bay Reef, south of today’s Wlotzkasbaken, for years. It finally broke apart and sank during a violent storm.

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