Appledore to Denmark, 1947

Bessie Ellen’s first trip from Appledore [Devon] to Denmark.

Møller was a shipmaster from the era of sailing ships. As master of his own ships, Møller had only two requirements for his ships – they should be of wood and there should be a place for playing card games on trivial trips. At least two of Møller’s ships were named ”Forsøget” (“The Trial”). The last ship was built at Ring-andersen and was christened “Talatha” and known later as “Mercantic 2”.

The following account is but a single episode in an exciting lifetime. It deals with the purchase and bringing back of the “Bessie Ellen” from the Bristol Channel in England to Denmark, where for many years, it sailed with cargos such as peat, grain, scrap iron and much more.

This account is from April 1978, as told by Jørgen Bay and retold here by Ole Pietersen.


Jørgen Bay, who was then captain of a bridge, had the responsibility for safe passage through the Guldborg sound. He was an ex-captain of the four-masted schooners that sailed to Greenland and other places. He is probably somewhere in his eighties now; a forthright chap, with an unflinching gaze and no-nonsense speech; this is his account of his journey across the North Sea on the “Bessie Ellen”.

“Yes, it’s a fact that Møller and I sailed her home over the North Sea – just two men”. Møller went to England in the beginning of the year. It must have been 1947. He expected that everything would be ready for departure within a few days. However, he would spend three months over there, as things were. There was this about Møller – he spoke perfect English when the bung was knocked out of a cask of whiskey, but he did not always understand what was said. So he had agreed that the English should caulk and treat the bottom of the boat up to the waterline. However, in view of the fact that we should have a cargo of clay on board to Næstved paper factory, it was not sufficient and the Englishmen grumbled somewhat terribly. There was, also a lot of paperwork, for example, the permission to sail from the board of trade was not in order.

When I arrived, the first question that Møller asked was whether I had brought rye bread and salami with me? He was damn hungry and I replied that, he could just have asked me beforehand, so I could have done something about it. The British were still on rations in 1947, and everything was in small supply. At the beginning, we stayed at a hotel and we never had enough food to eat. So we made friends with the cook, who then gave us an extra ration or a fried egg once in a while. As time drew on, we figured out that we could stay on board the boat, so we ordered supplies for six men. By English standards it could just be enough to fill us. They objected, “You are not six men”. We replied, “No, but we will be that as soon as the crew is on board”.

Bessie Ellen was otherwise one of the best sailing ships I have ever been on, when I think back. She was also strong and I suppose that she still is. If you look after her, she could easily last another 70 years or more, being built of salted wood. Easy to handle as well. She would also remain on course for a few hours without having to touch the steering.

Anyhow, we finally set sail. Møller had found an englishman who would like to tag along to Dover. He was not to be remunerated except for all the spirits he could guzzle and a free return trip. But he was not particularly helpful. He was seasick as soon as we left port, and lay down on the deck and stared up into the sky. So we put him ashore as soon as possible. Perhaps it was at St. Ives [Cornwall]? I don’t recall precisely any more. It is so long ago, and I’ve been to so many ports. But when I now recall I believe that we loaded in Par [Cornwall] before we sailed on.

Bessie Ellen needed as large amounts of lubricant as she burnt diesel. So we put into Dover in order to load a couple of barrels. It was raining when we left Dover [Kent]. Later it became foggy, so thick that we couldn’t see from the bow to the stern. The lighthouse, South Goodwin, was the point of departure and we steered a course for Elbe 1. As we could not hoist the sail by ourselves, we got a couple of boatswains from the port on board, to help hoist it. So, I said to Møller – “Now let’s get the hell out of here because we cannot do anything on our own”.

We had been staying in the fore crew cabin. It looked terrible towards the stern. The last captain had not lived on board. He had slept at home, so his cabin was filthy. But the second aft cabin was tolerable – with cooker, stove and two berths.

I think we spent two or three days to get across the channel. The fog was thick all the way. Suddenly we discovered a lifeboat that was adrift. It was a fairly large vessel, about 17-18 feet, I should think, and it was full of sailor’s belongings and other goodies like a mandolin or whatever it is called. Møller asked, “What do we do with it”? “Well, let’s see. We sail quietly around it”. The interesting thing about Bessie Ellen’s engine was that it could only do full speed ahead.   We couldn’t reverse. If we had to there was a infernally long Rod that you had to pull at, whilst thrusting your legs with all your might. If you ran the engine at half power, it would stall. I said to Møller, “We sail around it”. I will gather some shackles and other things so we can hook her when we are aside her. And so we did.

At first, we gave her all the rope we had. Later on, we got her aside and unloaded her goods. There were many suitcases and emergency rations that we tasted later. They tasted like hell, so we put them aside. Then there were oilskins and eight lovely sweaters. Those we stole. We found some letters in one of the suitcases, among them some love letters, that I sat and read aloud to Møller up in the wheelhouse, while I occasionally played mandolin or banjo or whatever it was called.

We laughed. Later on, when we had arrived home and given the stuff to the police, we were told that the boat came from a Norwegian vessel that had hit a mine. I could figure out that they were ready to abandon ship. Perhaps, they had tried to reach land in order to put her aground before she sank completely. But then the tow line broke and their plumb line jammed in between the rudder and the bow. They had no chance to fiddle with her. But we got her in tow. Møller suggested that we should try to get her up on our deck. But we had to tow her through the Kiel Canal. We agreed to pay the couple of kroner it would cost, instead of sailing the long route north of Skagen. Because of the fog, we never saw a thing after we had set the course for the Elbe, until we arrived.

We needed a pilot, and he was in sight in no time at all. It had been foggy for three days, so he hailed us to drop the anchor and wait for the fog to disperse. I asked, “What is the depth here?” He answered, “Oh, how about 60-70 fathoms”. I asked, “How are do we get the anchor back up.”. He answered, “The crew must manage that”. “The crew stands here”, I shouted, and pointed to Møller and myself. “Damn”, he said.

I asked, “Don’t you think we would be allowed to swing by the lightship and wait there”? “If we gave you some provisions”? As soon as I had said the word, provisions, we were allowed to do whatever we wanted. They had no proper food on board, so we gave them all emergency rations from the lifeboat. We would have thrown them overboard anyway and they were happy.

sonjackLWe spent perhaps a half-day waiting for better weather and another half-day going through the Canal. Møller was now tired and I sailed her to Karrebæksminde. I woke Møller when we had the pilot on board and said, “we are now at Næstved”. “Surely not”, said Møller, and jumped out of the berth.

We got about 4000 kr salvage money for the lifeboat. She had a good engine. It would probably cost about 20-30000 kroner nowadays. But otherwise we could get little or no information about the Norwegian ship. At that time things were not really open. Most of it was still secret.

Bay’s wife describes their arrival in this way: “Never have I seen anyone as filthy as those two. When they were fairly clean, we went to the inn to eat. I’m not lying when I say that they ate every scrap that was being served. There was not a potato, a piece of rye bread, or a twig of parsley left when they had finished”.

As soon as we had returned home to Næstved, Møller got a cargo of scrap iron from Nakskov to Frederiksværk. He asked me, “Will you sail with me?” I replied, “No, damn it, now I want to go home”. I had not asked for much to sail home with Bessie Elle. I did it mostly for the sake of old friendship. Now I have to earn money. I think, by the way, she sailed just one cargo before Bessie Elle went for a refit.