Lars, the Old Sailor Part 2 – Escape
For many months a secret activity took place in a small, previously refrigerated compartment tween decks on the Nyhorn. At night when the guard was asleep, small boats were being constructed using dunnage for the framing, which in turn was covered with waterproof canvas. Sails were also made from old canvas. The first of these boats set out form the Nyhorn on September 20, 1941, carrying Ingolf Saxe, the Nyhorn’s second mate and three others. It reached Gibraltar on May 24. The second boat, constructed of the same materials in the same location, quietly rowed down the river and set her sails on December 8, 1941. On Sunday April 13, 1942, construction began on the third boat, to be occupied by Captain Thy Messel and mate Ingolf Valvatne of the Norwegian vessel D/S Ringul, the Nyhorn’s AB Hans Johansen and oiler Karl Linnerud, and Egil StrØmmen, a survivor of the torpedoed M/T Knutsen whose lifeboat had been picked up by the French. While the rest of the lifeboat’s occupants were sent to Azenmour, the fortunate StrØmmen was put aboard the Nyhorn. Deckhand Lars would be the sixth occupant of the new boat, which he also helped to build. Seventeen feet long with a three-foot draft, the boat was made of the same materials as the previous two vessels. So that the guard would not hear hammering, they used screws instead of nails. The boat had a jib and a main, a rudder, and two thwarts to accommodate four oarsmen. The men worked feverishly around the clock to ready their craft before the end of the new moon, which was due in only a few days. By the evening of April 16, the boat was completed. Thy Messel and Ingolf Valvante had returned to Casablanca, which was where they were interned. On Sunday April 20 they took a train back to the Nyhorn, purchasing round-trip tickets to deceive the gendarmes at the station.
The Vichy French officials, exasperated by the spate of escapes, had recently moved the Nyhorn and the other vessels further up the river to Port Lyautey, where they were moored along the bank opposite the town’s quay. There the two officers rejoined the other men. On the evening of Monday April 21, despite a now bright moon, the escapees proceeded with their plan. After fooling the guard into leaving the Nyhorn, they used the ship’s gear to lower their boat into the river on the opposite side of the ship from the town. Thus hidden from view, the men began boarding the boat with their meager supplies, but as the sixth man came aboard they realized that the boat simply could not take their weight. She sat so low in the river that any movement by any of them, much less any heavy seas, would immediately put her railings in the water. It was impossible to go anywhere under such conditions, so hurriedly they raised the boat back on the deck and returned her to the ‘tween deck compartment in the hold.
After some debate, they decided the boat had to be rebuilt. Thy and Ingolf returned to Casablanca, and the others, aided by their mates, set to work. They widened her by eighteen inches to give her a beam of six feet, three inches and rounded her bottom to provide greater floatation. By the middle of the following week she was ready again, but then a series of storms hit and they were forced to delay their departure.
Finally on the evening of Saturday May 9, all was ready. A sliver of moon gave but little visibility, and at midnight the tide began a strong ebb. The third mate had got rid of the guard by asking him to go to town to pick up the Nyhorn’s captain and first engineer, who were on “official business.” At 2200, as soon as the guard left, they set a derrick over the hatch of the compartment, raised the boat, and set it next to the Nyhorn alongside the deserted bank facing away from town. Three men jumped in and began quietly rowing by the other interned ships – each with a guard aboard. On the other side of the river, beside the town jetty, were some small French patrol vessels. From time to time their crews would shine spotlights on the interned vessels and on the river itself. However, since it was a Saturday nights, the escapees hoped that many of the enemy sailors would be ashore and those still aboard would have other things on their minds. In any case, they were not observed and their boat crept quietly down the river.
The next obstacle was the airport bordering the river a few miles downstream. It was heavily guarded, with many lights shining on the river, but somehow they passed unnoticed. Once past the airport, they rendezvoused with their three compatriots, who had fled on a small barge used for painting the Nyhorn. In fear of capture, the escapees had split into two parties, figuring not to jeopardize all of them in the same boat. Still, now all together in the canvas craft, they had to get past numerous native fishing boats moored by the riverbanks, many of which carried barking watchdogs. The Arab fishermen would be very happy to receive the reward paid for information leading to the capture of escapees. Holding their collective breaths, the men drifted past one boat after another without arousing humans or canines.
Still to come was the fortress at the river mouth. At 0230 they silently glided by it and were now nearing the much rougher sea. To reach it, they had to pass between two breakwaters with large waves breaking along the northernmost. Five men rowed as hard as they could while the sixth manned the tiller. They feared not only the waves, which could so easily overturn their crude boat, but also the possibility that in the shallow water the canvas would be snagged by an underwater obstacle. However, luck was still with them, and soon they moved into deeper water and calmer seas.
A breeze came from the west, and the escapees could have used their boat’s sails, but with lookouts along the coast and planes patrolling regularly, they thought their white bed sheet sails would give them away. Instead, the five oarsmen rowed as hard as they could. Lars remembers feeling exhilarated by being back on the sea. I asked him if he or the others were afraid. “Afraid? Have you ever seen a Norwegian afraid?”
The men did have lifebelts made from rolled-up oilskins. Other supplies onboard were two zinc buckets for bailing, a water keg, a sack of ship’s biscuits, and six cans each of sardines and corned beef. They had also fashioned a homemade sea anchor.
Once they judged they were a few miles offshore, they set their two sails but kept rowing so that they could direct their craft more easily. Small squalls also helped push them further out. About midday they spotted native fishermen ahead. To avoid them they had to change their course from north to east. By this time they were nearly six miles offshore. Later in the day they resumed their northerly heading.
Captain Thy Messel adjusted their course, checking it with the old ship’s compass they had brought. He had copied a map onto a sheet of paper together with compass headings, and by match light he referred to it during the night. But even at night they had to be careful. Lars said, “We had fishing boats passing us right by, very close, so we had to be very quiet – not even rowing.”
The following day , Monday, Thy, the leader and navigator, again had to readjust their course to avoid more fishing boats, then recalculate their new course once the danger had passed. They had no sextant and no way to calculate their drift except by tossing a small matchbox overboard from the bow and seeing how quickly they passed before the man at the tiller grabbed it so it could be used over again.
Lars remembered the two officers, Thy Messel and Ingolf Valvante, with great respect. “They were fantastic sailors. The captain was an excellent navigator and the mate came, I remember, from Stord” (A small island near Lars’s hometown). Lars believed these two men provided the necessary leadership and seamanship to affect their escape.
The wind shifted on the second day to west-northwest, providing little help to the rowers, who nevertheless continued with few breaks. Their only long rest came during their turn at the tiller. The day progressed without incident until late afternoon, when a huge bomber passed just above the surface heading straight for Casablanca. Immediately they stopped rowing and pretended to be fishermen. If it was an enemy plane, maybe their crew would fall for the ruse. An hour and a half later, just before dark, the plane returned, flying so close to the surface that it had to lift a wing to avoid hitting their mast. Too late, the men saw the insignia of the British air force. Madly they waved their Norwegian flag and their hats. They rejoiced. Maybe they would be reported and a rescue boat sent for them. Later they learned that their boat had never been reported – probably the pilot had thought nothing about them except that they were local fishermen.
That night at 2200, they took a bearing on the light from the Pounta-Nador lighthouse on the Moroccan coast. Their calculation showed that even though they had rowed many more miles dodging local fishermen, they were about twenty-eight miles off the coast. By now they had been rowing more or less continually for nearly twenty-four hours and they were exhausted.
They divided themselves into two watches, each on duty for two hours. Two men would row with a third at the tiller while the other three tried to sleep in the bottom of the boat. Through the night they continued, generally bearing north-northeast.
The six Norwegians followed a long tradition of rowing at sea. From the Vikings to offshore fishermen in small skiffs, their countrymen braved the elements using oars, as well as sails for propulsion. Two notable examples were Frank Samuelsen and George Harbo, penniless Norwegian immigrant fishermen who set out from New York harbor on June 6, 1896, attempting to be the first to row across the Atlantic. They hoped to reach Le Havre, France, in an eighteen foot surf-boat especially designed to weather heavy seas, and in doing so to reap substantial publicity and, they hoped, attendant riches in the form of interviews, books, and endorsements. Averaging fifty-two miles a day and enduring storms, capsize, fire spreading from their cookpot and ramming by a hammerhead shark, they did indeed reach Le Havre on August 7. But after two grueling months at sea and the international acclaim it generated, they never garnered the wealth they had dreamed of, so they went back to being fishermen in New York, though Harbo later became a Sandy Hook Pilot. Still, their names have gone down in history for their remarkable feat.
While the six escapees hoped only to reach Gibraltar safely, even that goal seemed in doubt. The next morning, Tuesday, they took their final bearing from the lighthouse and, with the wind picking up, were again able to set their sails. However, with a heavy sea from the northwest, the wind now began to build form the southwest. Wave rose larger and larger and soon the crests started breaking. As the boat was now broadside to the seas, the men were forced to take in their sails and start bailing frantically to keep afloat. Two men each manned an oar to try to keep the boat running before the seas. They only partly succeeded but still managed to avert catastrophe.
During the worst of the storm two large Spanish fishing vessels steamed up to observe them. It was tempting to ask the fishermen to take them on board, but the possibility of internment in Spain and then being returned to Vichy French Morocco or to Nazi-controlled Norway was too great a threat. So they asked for no assistance and after a while the Spanish vessels left.
By early afternoon, they were able to change their course to head due east and thereby to run before the seas. This helped them, even though they still needed the steering oar. They were also able to raise their jib and even put up a makeshift reefed main. By evening the seas had diminished some and they got their first glimpses of what they believed was Cape Spartel, the southernmost tip of Spain, just west of Gibraltar. During the night they were also aided by the Gibraltar current, which pushed them further east. At 0200 on Wednesday morning, they figured they were about seven miles southwest of Cape Spartel. They continued east, making sure to remain outside Spain’s three-mile limit.
Dawn was fine. The seas had moderated, the rain stopped, and only a light breeze blew. Late in the morning they could see Gibraltar clearly. Running up their small Norwegian flag, they steered directly for it, and early afternoon found them just off the Gibraltar pilot station. A Pilot boat came out to tow them in.
Lars figures they had rowed and sailed about two hundred and seventy miles during their three-an-a-half-day ordeal. He and the others were overjoyed. They had escaped and now they were safe. And aside from exhaustion, the only price they’d paid was rowing hands covered with blisters.