A young woman at sea

This Boundless Ocean: A Young Woman sails the Globe 1913-1914

Ragnhild Hjeltnes
Assistant Editor
The Norwegian American

Every family has stories that are passed down the generations. In my family, the story of Ninna Saanum, my great-grandmother, who joined her father, a sail ship captain, on a voyage around the world at age 22, made the greatest impression. Her experiences on board the tall ship Svaland in 1913 and 1914 came to life through letters and journals she wrote on her journey, and through the photos she took, all of which have been preserved and kept in the family.

These texts and photographs have now made it into a book, This Boundless Ocean: A Young Woman sails the Globe 1913-1914, co-authored by my mother, Kari Grønningsæter, from Kristiansand, Norway, and Nicholas E. Preus of Decorah, Iowa. Her writing is put in context to the time in which they were written: the end of the era of commercial sailing and the outbreak of World War I.

Nick Preus, professor emeritus of English at Luther College and a lifelong sailor with a special interest in maritime history, learned of Ninna’s voyage from Kari when she was a visiting professor at the college from 2012 to 2017. Having taught college courses for The World Ocean School in the Caribbean on board the sailing ship Roseway, he took great interest in what he describes as a unique story of a woman at sea.

 Karoline “Ninna” Saanum sailed around the world onboard the tall ship Svaland. She took this photograph of the ship from a small rowboat.

“The accounts that we have in the historical record and the literature of women at sea from that time are very, very few,” Nick explained. “Ninna Saanum’s letters, in particular, because they are reflective, thoughtful and expressive, are a real addition to that library of texts. And her story is unique in that she took photographs during the voyage and developed them herself on board. As far as I know, this is the only instance that we have of photographs that have that provenance.”

Karoline (Ninna) Saanum (1891 – 1973) was the daughter of Johan A. Saanum (1855 – 1959), a commercial sail ship captain with a mission in 1913 to bring lumber to Australia and return with wheat. Joining him on board the 300-foot steel-hulled tall ship Svaland was a crew of 21 men—and Ninna.

As the captain’s daughter, Ninna was expected to serve as a kind of moral example on board and to help with practical tasks. In her free time, she was able to write colorful accounts of her experiences in her journal and to photograph the 11-month journey with her personal camera.

 The entire crew of the sailing ship Svaland. Two dogs and one cat accompanied them on their voyage, in addition to two pigs and several chickens.

The captain’s logbooks have also been preserved and were a valuable source for the book. Through his accounts, we learn about the precarious first few weeks, when Svaland gets caught in a terrible storm in the North Sea and drifts for three weeks before the captain regains control and can guide the ship safely through the English Channel.

The return to Europe almost a year later proves to be just as dramatic. World War I breaks out on June 28, 1914, when Svaland is making its way back from Australia, unbeknown of the events taking place in Europe. It is not until Aug. 29, when they cross paths with a commercial steamer, that they receive the unsettling news. Ninna writes:

“Oh, what a terrible message. Is it really true? Only time will tell. Where are my hopes now? I’ll tell you – they are almost gone. If we just could make it to the harbor with our important cargo […] This is really too scary.”

Ninna had reason to be concerned. During the war, it was common for German submarines to attack cargo ships carrying grain to Europe, drive the crew into lifeboats, steal the cargo, and sink the ship.

 Captain Saanum and Ninna, photographed while using the sextant to measure latitude. Photo by the first mate (name unknown).

This Boundless Ocean is a story from the end of the era of commercial sailing, a time where the pace was slow and communication limited, when sail ships where at the mercy of the wind and the weather, with no access to weather forecasts or news from land.

“I hope the readers will be able to get a sense of the slow pace of everything,” said Kari when I asked her what she hopes readers take from the book. “Two months without knowing that the world war rages in Europe. No communication with the outside world. The slowness is difficult to understand today.”

Anyone with an interest in women’s studies or maritime history should find This Boundless Ocean fascinating. The book is being published in both Norwegian and English and will be available for purchase online. You can order your Norwegian copy now at Bokhuset Forlag at bokhusetforlag.no.

All photos by Ninna Saanum unless otherwise noted.

This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ragnhild Hjeltnes

Ragnhild Hjeltnes is assistant editor of The Norwegian American. Born and raised in Norway, she studied at Luther College in Iowa and at the University of Minnesota. She has worked at the consulate in Minneapolis for several years and now lives in New York with her family.