Tall ship tales
A classic film captures a voyage on the Christian Radich
LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American
The year 2020 has brought a lot of changes, to say the least. COVID-19 restrictions have meant postponed plans for many, but at the same time, staying at home has also led to many new discoveries.
For me, I admit that canceling my plans to visit Norway this summer was a hard pill to swallow. Not only had I planned to visit family and friends in Scandinavia, as editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, I was looking forward to sharing new adventures with my readers.
One of them was my long-awaited plans to sail on the Statsraad Lehmkuhl, an iconic tall ship considered to be one of the biggest and most beautiful sailing ships in the world. Built in 1914 in Bremen, Germany, the three-masted barque is owned and operated by the Statsraad Lemkuhl Foundation based in Bergen. Over time, the beloved ship with has become a proud symbol of Norway’s second city, where it is docked in the harbor there in all its majesty.
But I know the Statsraad Lehmkuhl will be waiting for me in Bergen when I am able to return again, so I decided to spend some of my extra time at home to learn more about Norway’s maritime history. I also mentioned to my husband, Ulf, that Seattle’s Cinerama movie theater was closing, having fallen victim to the downward turn with the COVID economy.
He asked if I had ever seen the old Windjammer movie, which he had seen as a boy the Vinterpalatset Cinerama theater in Stockholm. I hadn’t (I was too young at the time—the film had its roadshow engagements around the world from 1958 to 1964). But when I learned there is a documentary about another Norwegian tall ship, the Christian Radich, I was intrigued.
A quick Google search yielded an exciting result: the Windjammer movie from 1958 was available for streaming in a 2011 remastered digital version on Amazon. It would be our evening matinee. While we couldn’t experience it in the full glory of a Cinerama theater, we experienced two hours and 22 minutes of entertainment, which was both nostalgic and entertaining.
The official title of the movie is Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich. Following the route of Christopher Columbus to the New World, it documents a 239-day training cruise of 17,500 nautical miles from Oslo across the Atlantic, through the Caribbean Sea, up to New York, and back to Norway.
Windjammer was produced and directed by Louis de Rochemont III and was the only film ever shot in the widescreen Cinemiracle process. There was seven-track stereophonic soundtrack, with a score by composer, conductor, and pianist Morton Gould. Although it was a documentary (as opposed to a flashy Hollywood blockbuster), it was a box-office success, especially popular in Scandinavia. It had a 29-week run in Oslo, where it had 401,320 paid admissions in a city of 375,000 at the time.
The ship’s scribe was none other than Erik Bye, at the time only 31 years old, later to become one of the most popular radio and television personalities, an accomplished journalist, artist, author, actor, and folk singer. While not credited in the film, Bye also served as the film’s narrator. His young heavily accented voice adds a special charm and authenticity.
The crew on board consisted of Capt. Yngvar Kjelstrup, 16 officers, and 42 teenage cadets, and their mascot, the dog Stump. The S/S Christian Radich was a Norwegian school ship, one of the last of the great windjammers still in active service.
The purpose of the school ships was to train young men for careers at sea and to build character, a type of rite of passage. The narrator explains, “It’s up on the yardarm when you first begin to learn your responsibility, not only for your own safety, but for the safety of the ship and your shipmates. It is easy to understand why so many fathers believe that the best training of all in building character and making men is the school ship, the Windjammer.”
As we travel on board the ship with the boys, we experience the hard work and perils they face at sea and share in their adventures on land. First, the crew trains in the Oslo Fjord for a fortnight, as moviegoers become familiar with the ship and the trainees, both above and below deck. And the ship is a beauty: even when competing with sweeping scenery at sea and in 14 exotic ports of call, the ship is the star of the film.
The young trainees not only learn the value of hard work on board, there is also plenty of time for fun. Above all, they prove to be an unusually musical lot. During the journey, four crewmembers form a singing group, leading their mates in lively folk songs and sea shanties. By today’s standards, the scenes may appear a bit contrived, but they are refreshingly innocent and entertaining.
The Christian Radich was also perhaps the first school ship that ever allowed a boy to bring aboard his own piano. Toward the end of the film, cadet Sven Erik Libaek is invited to perform Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A minor” with maestro Arthur Fiedler and the famous Boston Pops Orchestra to play Grieg’s “Piano Concerto in A minor” in the docks of Portsmouth, N.H.
The film is full of colors and contrasts when the ship lands in exotic ports: Madeira in Portugal, Curaçao, Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago, San Juan in Puerto Rico, New York City. At a time when international travel was only accessible to the wealthy, one understands the importance of the life experience and education the cadets gain. There is plenty of unexpected adventure, even a chance meeting at sea with the German training sail ship Pamir, later to be lost in Hurricane Carrie in September 1957 with a crew of 86, including 52 cadets.
The S/S Christian Radich was built in 1937 at the Framnæs shipyard in Sandefjord, Norway, as a training ship, but the tragic sinking of the Pamir raised questions about safety of using such sailing ships for training young cadets. The Windjammer film journey also marked was the last of Capt. Kjelstrup, who at age 70, retired after a distinguished career at sea.
Today, both the Christian Radich and the Statsraad Lemkuhl participate in tall ship races and regattas around the world and are available for sailing training programs and special events—adventure awaits!
This article originally appeared in the June 26, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.