How a famous freighter sank in a watery grave in Devon

The beautiful barque Herzogin Cecilie was flying high after a speedy voyage from Australia to Cornwall, but the triumph turned into disaster when thick fog surrounded the vessel as it swept under full sail along the south coast of Devon in the middle of the night.

With visibility so poor that the captain and crew could not distinguish between sea and land, the elegant tall ship struck a reef at Ham Stone, near Soar Mill Cove, in the early hours of Saturday 25 April 1936. Her bow was pierced and sea water was gushing into the hold.

It was a sad end to the journey for Finnish captain Sven Erikson and his South African wife, Pamela, who were on honeymoon and had just celebrated winning the Australian Grain Race from Port Lincoln to Falmouth in just 86 days , nearly breaking the all-time record. .



An unsuccessful attempt to raise Herzogin Cecilie from the rocks near Ham Stone with two tugs

Distress flares caused coastguard and lifeboat crews to rush to the rescue, and their heroic operation on land and sea was harsh and dangerous, especially in the gloom and thick mist. The rescue apparatus was hauled by horses for miles across the cliffs at Bolt Head and Hope Cove, with the workforce taking over for the last half mile.

Twenty-three crew were brought ashore by lifeboat, along with Ms Erikson’s close friend, Ms Diana Firth of Bradley Manor, Newton Abbot, who had joined the windjammer in Falmouth for the final leg of the voyage . But with the cargo of 4,500 tonnes of wheat still in the hold, bound for Ipswich, the captain and his wife refuse to give up hope that the ship will be refloated and remain on board with a reduced crew of six.



Herzogin Cecilie stuck on the rocks at Bolt Head, Salcombe, in June 1936
Herzogin Cecilie stuck on the rocks at Bolt Head, Salcombe, in June 1936

As the emergency services relentlessly watched the Herzogin Cecilie from shore, in case her position became even more dangerous, news of the sinking of the famous ship had spread throughout the Westcountry and beyond. By Sunday morning, the scene had become a sight for tourists and a constant invasion by the South Hams was underway.

Cars blocked the narrow Malborough road and around 4,000 vehicles were parked at the top of the lane leading to Soar Mill Cove (also known as Sewer Mill at the time). Curious locals came by bike or on foot and the cliffs were filled with people eager to witness one of the finest ships of its kind impaled on the rocks before its ultimate demise.



Surveying the Herzogin Cecilie struck from the top of the cliff
Surveying the Herzogin Cecilie struck from the top of the cliff



The ship is named after Duchess (Herzogin) Cecilie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Crown Princess of Prussia
The ship is named after Duchess (Herzogin) Cecilie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Crown Princess of Prussia

The white-painted Herzogin Cecilie was built in Bremerhaven, Germany in 1902 and is named after the German Crown Princess, Duchess Cecilie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, wife of the son of the last Kaiser. Measuring 102.01 m (334 ft 8 in) long and 14.10 m (46 ft 3 in) wide, she sailed under German, French and Finnish flags. One of the fastest tall ships on record, she reached 21 knots at Skagen.

After being interned by Chile during the First World War, she returned to Germany in 1920 and then sold to France, before the Finnish shipowner Gustaf Erikson bought her to transport grain from Australia to Europe. It was traditional for tall ships to rush to dock at their destination port first so they could sell their cargo for the highest price. Herzogin Cecilie won the race four times before 1921, and four more times in 11 trips between 1926 and that fateful last race in 1936.



The Herzogin Cecilie on the rocks at Bolt Head, near Salcombe in April 1936
The Herzogin Cecilie on the rocks at Bolt Head, near Salcombe in April 1936

In the weeks and months that followed, numerous attempts were made to salvage the doomed vessel and after some of the cargo was successfully unloaded, she was briefly refloated before being towed and beached in June just around the corner from Bolt Head near Starehole Bay at the mouth of the Kingsbridge Estuary.

It was here in January 1939 that the Herzogin Cecilie eventually capsized and sank. It remains there to this day at a depth of seven meters. Her wooden and brass portholes from the chart room were removed and used to build a small room in the Cottage Hotel at Hope Cove, near Salcombe and her salvaged figurehead is in the Maritime Museum in Mariehamm, Finland.

While the tourists are long gone, the story of the mighty sailing ship and its final voyage was immortalized in the folk song Herzogin Cecile by Ken Stephens.

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