She was the largest sailing ship in the world. When the Copenhagen (Kobenhavn) was launched in 1921 she was immediately dubbed ‘The Great Dane’, her 131 metre hull supporting five masts towering nearly twenty stories into the winds that would bear the barque twice round the world before her still inexplicable disappearance en route for Melbourne, Australia.
The Copenhagen carried some cargo but was primarily a training vessel for young sailors between fifteen and twenty years of age seeking an officer’s ticket. Her voyages provided an opportunity for seasoned mariners to teach young men the many skills they would need to make a career in sail, still a serious option in Scandinavian countries at that time.
On her tenth voyage, the Copenhagen sailed from Northern Jutland bound for Buenos Aires with a cargo of cement and chalk. Aboard was the experienced Captain Hans Anderson together with 26 crew and 45 cadets from many of Denmark’s leading families. Unloading at Buenos Aires, the ship was unable to find another cargo for Australia and so Anderson decided to set sail without one. Now with a crew of only fifteen, they set a course to Adelaide (then Melbourne) eleven days before Christmas, a trip expected to take just under seven weeks. On December 22 the Copenhagensignalled ‘all is well’ to a passing Norwegian steamer around 1500 kilometers from the island of Tristan da Cunha.
Captain Anderson was known not to make much use of radio and often went for long periods without signalling. In those days, marine radios had a very limited range. The Danish East Asiatic Company who owned the ship were not unduly concerned when they had no word. But as the weeks slipped by and there was no sound from their magnificent vessel, nor any sight of her, they became increasingly alarmed. The Australian press echoed Danish fears for sons, brothers, fathers and uncles. ‘Where is the Kobenhaven’, asked the Adelaide Advertiser in mid-March, initiating a lengthy chronicle of newspaper articles in the Australian press and around the world.
A search vessel was sent to Tristan da Cunha. A large sailing ship with a broken foremast had been sighted in late January. With her sails only partly set and low in the water, the drifting vessel showed no signs of life. Locals were unable to reach her because of bad weather but had found no wreckage and thought she must have passed by the island. With the assistance of a small Australian intestate steamer, the Junee, the search continued for some months, but without result. At one point it was surmised that wreckage might drift to the Western Australian coast. A plane was chartered to fly from Fremantle to Northwest Cape, but again nothing was found. The Danish government declared theCopenhagen, her captain, crew and cadets lost. Another mighty ship joined the untold others foundered in the world’s ocean deeps.
But then the sightings began. Over the next few years Chilean fishermen reported a five-masted ship in their waters. Sailors aboard an Argentinian freighter saw a what they called a ‘phantom ship’ fitting the Copenhagen’s description as they fought a gale. Other sightings came from Easter Island and the coast of Peru. It was also reported that a ship’s stern section with the name København had washed up on a West Australian beach.
And then they found the bottle. In 1934, the son of Argentina’s President visited the United States telling a strange story. Men from a whaler working off Bouvet Island in the South Atlantic had found a sealed bottle containing a ‘log’ or diary of a surviving cadet of the Copenhagen. The log told a grim story. The Copenhagen struck an iceberg. There was no option for those aboard but to take to the lifeboats. In the distance they saw their fine ship crushed between two icebergs. The diary ended with ‘It is snowing and a gale blows. I realize our fate. This sea has taken us beyond the limits of this world.’
Whatever the authenticity of this now-missing document, the story fitted the predominant theory about the disappearance of the Copenhagen, like the Titanic, victim to a drifting iceberg. The following year another grim find appeared to provide further support for this explanation. It was reported that the remains of a ship’s boat with seven skeletons had been found on the southwest coast of Africa, over 600 kilometers north of the city of Swakopmund in Namibia. Nautical experts ridiculed the suggestion that this might be a boat from the Copenhagen. “It is a far- fetched theory, absolutely without justification, said Captain Davis, Victorian Director of Navigation.
Other speculations abounded. The Copenhagen might have encountered a tidal wave. As her holds were empty and she sailed only in ballast she might have capsized in bad weather. Rumours, theories and searches for the lost barque have continued ever since. In 2012 divers found a wreck on Tristan da Cunha that some believe might be the missing ship. The Danish government and the Danish East Asiatic Company were reportedly taking the suggestion seriously enough to establish the truth of this possibility. But nothing has since been reported and today, the fate of the Copenhagen and her crew is regarded as one of the world’s greatest unsolved maritime mysteries.