Gustaf Erikson and the Sailing Ships

Åland’s ship history

For hundreds of years, shipping has been permanently linked to Åland’s economic and cultural history. Since they gained self-government in 1920, Åland became a base for the largest commercial deep-sea sailing ships in the world, which, among other things, operated the wheat route, often called “The Great Grain Race”. The last, iron-hulled models of the sailing ships, known informally as “Windjammers”, were used to transport wheat from South Australia, across the Atlantic, to Europe.

“The Windjammer”

The production of sailing ships can be traced back as early as 3000 BC, but it was only in the late nineteenth century that we began to see “Windjammers”. The iron-hulled ships were mainly manufactured between 1870 and the beginning of the 20th century and were the last evolution of the classic sailing ship. They had between 3 and 5 masts, and with a capacity of 5000 tons, they were the largest merchant sailing ships of their time, purposefully built to carry large quantities of goods.

It was also during this period that the development of steam-powered ships began to slowly push the sailing ship towards extinction. Steamships had been around since the early 1800s, but the amount of coal required to make long-distance journeys meant they were never commercially viable. Not until the 1860s did innovations in fuel efficiency allow steamships to make transatlantic voyages with sufficient space for both fuel and cargo. The classic tall sailing ship gradually became obsolete.

But there was a man who still believed in the usefulness of the sailing ship.

Gustaf Erikson – One of the last sailing ship owners

Gustaf Erikson was born in Lemland, a municipality on Åland, in 1872. He was born and raised a sailor, first he worked as a cabin boy on the barque Neptun, as early as 10 years old. A decade’s worth of nautical experience was put to use when he captained his first ship, the Adele, in 1893, aged just 20. Under Erikson’s command, the sailing ship made two trips to Morlaix.

His sailing horizons were further expanded in 1900 when he obtained his ocean-going vessel license, giving him free reign over all the world’s oceans. In the same year, Erikson took command of a barque named Southern Belle, closely followed by a crude-sail vessel called the Albania in 1906, and then another barque (and earlier crude-sail vessel) named Lochee in 1909.

By this time technology had developed and ‘The Age of Steam’ was a general term. The years before that, spanning from 1571-1862, was a period often referred to as “The Age of Sail”, signifying a time in time when international trade via sailing ships and warship warfare were at their peak. Due to the great industrialization across Europe in the 19th century, things had changed drastically.

A man’s faith

Nevertheless, Gustaf Erikson’s faith in the sailing ship permeated all obstacles. He could not forsake a lifetime of sailing experience, and in 1913 he made the decision to invest in sailing ships and become a shipowner in the nearby capital Mariehamn. It was this year that Erikson bought his first ship, Tjerimai, a three-masted barque. He also bought Renee Rickmers, which he renamed Åland. Tjermai served Erikson well until 1925 when she was wrecked in the North Sea, Åland on the other hand, beached in front of Wellington just a year after the purchase.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Erikson’s livelihood was at serious risk but he was incredibly lucky to lose only a few of his ships during this period. In the coming years, he expanded his beloved collection of ships, acquiring the majority of Professor Koch and Grace Harwar in 1916, the purchase of the then largest sailing ship in Finland named Lawhill in 1917 and the legendary Herzogin Cecilie in 1921.

Perhaps his most famous investment was the four-masted barque Pommern which he bought in 1923. This vessel was previously owned by Ferdinand Laeisz of Hamburg, a salesman Erikson often turned to as he knew that Ferdinand owned very well maintained vessels. The Pommern was categorized as a “P-liner”, a type of sailing vessel generally considered too expensive for Erikson’s taste, although he also came to own Pestalozzi, Pamir and Penang. The Pommern remains intact to this day, but some other of Erikson’s P-liners did not fare so well. Unfortunately, Penang was reported lost at sea in 1941, and it was not until 1971 that it was discovered that the ship had been torpedoed by a German submarine.

Erikson’s ever-growing fleet of ships toured the world and charted several different routes across the seas. However, his fleet was no match for the ever-larger motor ships, and by the 1930s it was really only the Australian wheat route and coal transports that the remaining sailing ships were still competitive enough for. Over time, the wheat route became a race between ships from Spencer Gulf in Australia to Lizard Point in Great Britain; any trip lasting less than 100 days was considered a “good” time. In 1935 Erikson bought his last sailing vessel Moshulu. Moshulu won the last competition in 1939. For winners and more information about Erikson’s fleet, see links in the box on the right.

Erikson’s legacy

World War II took a heavy toll on Erikson’s fleet, as a large number of his sailing ships were blown up, sunk by the Germans, or seized by foreign governments. After the end of the war, Erikson’s ships, Viking and Passat, made two final voyages for the grain trade. At the same time, Gustaf made great efforts to recover his seized ships. Unfortunately, he never succeeded in this and died in 1947, aged 75.

After his death, his son Edgar tried to follow in Eriksson’s footsteps but was forced to sell the sailing ships as they were no longer profitable. Nevertheless, Erikson’s impact on shipping and his importance to Åland’s history is undeniable. The Tall Ship Pommern can still be seen today at the maritime museum in Mariehamn, where Erikson’s legacy will live on forever.

More information

“The Great Grain Race” winner

Book: The Last Tall Ships by Georg Kahre

Museum Pommern

Pommern on Åland Online

Below is a taste of what it could be like at sea. The film is a composite of several films owned by the South Australia Maritime Museum

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