The Sailing Ship Moshulu at Esquimalt British Columbia

by Captain Peter Cox (2011)


Moshulu in Esquimalt Harbour From a Dugout Canoe (Photo from the G.R. MacFarlane Collection 1935)

On May 28, 1935, the four–masted barque Moshulu was towed into Esquimalt harbour by two tugs, and entered the drydock for survey and bottom cleaning. After refit and refurbishment she was intended to resume her role as the largest commercial sailing ship still in operation at the time. She would continue to operate for four more years until seized by the Germans in the early stages of World War Two.

The 335’ Moshulu is a four–masted steel barque built as the Kurt by William Hamilton (Port Glasgow) in 1904 for G.H.J. Siemers & Co. of Hamburg, Germany. Although very large and heavy – 3,115 gross registered tons and 5,393 deadweight tons – she was actually finer in her hull form than her contemporaries. Siemers’ ships all had black and white hulls, with square black false gun–ports painted on them which tended to make them look heavier than they actually were.

The Kurt was fitted with labour–saving brace and halyard winches, and was built with a raised bridge deck amidships – a "Liverpool House" – that gave her much better accommodation than flush–decked sailing vessels. She crossed royal yards over double top–gallant yards and was rigged with double spanker sails on the jigger.

Under Siemers’ ownership she loaded coal in Welsh ports and sailed to the west coast of South America around Cape Horn and returned with nitrate fertilizer bound for German ports. She also made several passages to Australia, Chile and Mexico. She once made a magnificent run of 31 days from Australia to Chile in 1909. Only two ships, the Wenour and the Loch Torridon had bettered that record. Her quick passages and low operating costs made her commercially viable.

At the start of the First World War she was sailed to Astoria Oregon under command of Captain W. Tonissen and was laid up there. When the United States entered the War in 1917 she was seized by the government and renamed as the Moshulu, operated by the U.S. Shipping Board. Re–named as the Dreadnought her name duplicated that of another vessel and she was renamed as the Moshulu – from a Seneca word meaning "dread not".

She made seven passages between North America and the Philippines and two to Australia 1917–1920. In August 1921 she was sold to the Charles Nelson Co. for $29,505. In 1922 she carried a cargo of lumber from Puget Sound to Capetown via Cape Horn in 89 days, returning to Port Angeles Washington in 101 days. In the Spring of 1924 she sailed from Portland Oregon to Australia with a cargo of lumber, returning in ballast. She was laid up in 1928 firstly in Lake Union (Seattle) WA and later in Winslow Washington. She remained there until 1935.

In 1935, the Moshulu was purchased for $12,000 by Captain Gustaf Erikson from the Charles Nelson Co. of San Francisco. On March 14th, 1935, when the contract was signed she was towed into Esquimalt Harbour. Captain Gunnar Boman and a small handful of key crew members arrived from Finland and took over the completion of the re–fit. They had traveled by ship to Montreal and traveled across Canada by bus (the cheapest form of transport).

During the period of lay–up her running rigging and sails were in bad shape so her sails were repaired and bent. On leaving drydock she remained in Esquimalt Harbour for several months while she was readied for sea.Upper deck repairs were carried out, some of the decking was replaced and re–caulked. Living quarters were refurbished and rigging re-fitted.

It is interesting to note that the tops of her her steel masts – fore, main, and mizzen – were almost 200 feet above the waterline, and the three lower yards, also steel, were 96 feet long and weighed 5 tons each. The sails carried on these lower yards each weighed a ton. The total weight aloft was enormous, one of the reasons 1,500 tons of ballast was required when the ship had no cargo on board.

The Moshulu carried one course, two topsails, two top–gallant sails and one royal sail on each square–rigged mast, stay sails between the masts, double spankers on the jigger and stay sail and jibs on the bowsprit – a total of 42,000 square feet of canvas. One can imagine the work required by a small crew – normally 26 to 30 men, but in this case only 20 including 5 apprentices – to handle her at sea. When tacking every sail would have to be reset on each new tack and all the running gear coiled down ready for running, a task that might take an hour or more even with an experienced crew.

The Master was given the authority to sign on a number of apprentices for the voyage to augment the experienced crew he had on board. Since Apprentices had to pay for the privilege, their fees represented a welcome income windfall for the company. Prior to leaving Esquimalt four Americans and John Kincaid from Victoria BC signed on as an apprentice. Attracting apprentices was not difficult. At this time Germany and the Scandinavian countries required sea time under sail for merchant marine officers training for a Master’s ticket or for Pilot’s qualification. There were always a few aspiring officers willing to pay for the privilege of acquiring the necessary sea time under sail. John Kincaid made the voyage to Australia in 1935 and on to the UK. On the return voyage to Australia in 1936 he was injured in a fall into a hatch and had to be transferred to a steamship to obtain needed medical attention.

I have always had a deep feeling for sailing ships. As a teenager seeing that magnificent vessel in Esquimalt Harbour, and hearing that she would be signing on apprentices, my interest in the Moshulu mounted. However I was one year too young, and perhaps more importantly, not having the necessary $200 fee. I was unable to fulfill my wish to go sea under sail. I have often wondered what adventures I might have enjoyed had I been able to embark on such a sail of a lifetime!

Wages paid on these ships during the 1930s were roughly $90 per month for the Master, $45 per month for the First Mate, and $13 per month for Able Seamen. During the period of Erickson ownership the working language of the ship was Swedish, even though she sailed under the Finnish flag. The ship’s home port at the time, Marienhamn, is on the Swedish–speaking Aland Islands of Finland.

The Moshulu had no engine, no electricity and no radio wireless gear. She did have a steam donkey engine for weighing anchor and working cargo when no shore facilities were provided. The steam donkey was never used at sea however.

To help overcome the lack of fresh provisions, live pigs and chickens, and sometimes sheep, were taken aboard and slaughtered as required during the voyage. The pigs were kept in a sty under the foc’sle head and the chickens in a coop on the bridge deck.


The Moshulu in Esquimalt Harbour from George MacFarlane’s dugout canoe when delivering the seedlings (Photo from the G.R. MacFarlane Collection 1935)

My friend George R. MacFarlane arranged for 60 chickens to be taken aboard prior to sailing. He also provided Captain Boman with two arbutus trees and several young western red cedar seedlings planted in jam cans. Although Aland Islanders in Finland relied mainly on the sea for a living, many had small farms to augment their wages. Captain Boman may have wanted to experiment with trees from Canada to satisfy his curiosity as to whether they would survive and perhaps establish a new variety to his homeland islands. It would be interesting to know if any of the trees survived the voyage.

At the end of September, 1935 the Moshulu was ready for sea. Her crew of 20 was an extremely small number to handle the largest commercial sailing ship then afloat, especially when 25% of them were apprentices who had never sailed on a square–rigger before. The Moshulu set out from Esquimalt at the beginning of October and arrived in Port Victoria, South Australia, 75 days later. There she loaded 4,850 tons of wheat in bags (bagged wheat reduced the chance of the cargo shifting) and sailed for Falmouth England, in February 1936. Her cargo was discharged at Cork Ireland.

Then she sailed with minimum ballast on board to Nystad, Finland. There Moshulu took on the remainder of her ballast, but when she was due to sail it was discovered that she was aground! So her ballast had to be discharged until she re–floated, and then re–stowed (in deeper water) before sailing. During the following years, and until the outbreak of World War Two, she made three more voyages to Australia in ballast returning to the UK with wheat, and one more trip to South Africa with lumber.

Severe weather was often encountered in the North Atlantic. On one occasion Moshulu was hit by a squall and heeled over to a point where her lower arms dipped into the sea and her ballast shifted. On another trip, her passage time from Australia to Europe around Cape Horn was 91 days, while the average time for 13 other sailing vessels that year – 1939 – was 123 days for the same passage.

At the outbreak of World War Two, the Moshulu was at Goteborg Sweden, still under the Finnish flag and Erikson’s ownership. In October 1939 she sailed for Buenos Aires where she took on a cargo of maize. On arriving back off the coast of Norway in the spring of 1940 she was captured by the Germans the same day that they invaded Norway. She was ordered into Farsund Norway, to discharge the cargo on what turned out to be her last deep–sea voyage under sail.

Subsequently she was towed to Kristiansand and laid up for two years. The Germans chartered her as a depot ship and towed her to Kirkenes Norway where her masts and yards were dismantled. Later she was towed to Narvik, where she remained until the end of the war. This iconic vessel endured a de–masting and even capsizing in 1947. After salvage she was converted to grain storage. She changed hands several times, owned by dreamers and consigned to the reality of being employed as a grain storage hulk.

In 1970, the ship was bought by the American Specialty Restaurants Corporation, who rigged her out in Holland with phony masts, yards, and lines and eventually towed her to the South Street Seaport, New York City. In 1973 the ship was bought by a American committee who wanted to restore a New York harbour site from about 1900, including some sailing ships. Eventually she was moved to Philadelphia PA USA. She was used as a Hollywood film venue and was a restaurant on the waterfront at Penn’s Landing, Philadelphia PA USA. She is believed to be still in operation.

In my minds eye I can still see that majestic sailing ship in Esquimalt Harbour on that day 77 years ago. And oh, how I have longed to have been able to sail in her!

Editor’s Note: The late author, Peter Cox, served 34 years in the Royal Canadian Navy, latterly as the Commanding Officer of the famous sail training ship HMCS Oriole. After retirement from the navy in 1971 he obtained a Master Mariner’s qualification and spent 11 years in command of Canadian Navy auxiliary vessels on the Pacific coast. A shipwright of some note he built the wooden sailing vessel Alioth in which he cruised extensively on the British Columbia coast.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2011) The Sailing Ship Moshulu at Esquimalt British Columbia. 2011.

New Nauticapedia Book Just Published!

Volume Four in series

The Nauticapedia List of British Columbia's Floating Heritage Volume Four

Book — British Columbia's Floating Heritage
For more information …

Site News: March2nd, 2019

Databases have been updated and are now holding 56,584 vessel histories (with 5,550 images) and 58,184 mariner biographies (with 3,673 images).

© 2002-2019