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German tall ship mutiny after cadet's death fall

by Sail-World Cruising round-up on 24 Jan 2011
Gorch Fock in action .. .
Life on a tall ship is meant to be an adventure, but after a female recruit called Sarah Schmidt, 25, was killed when she fell 100 feet from the foremast, the rest of the cadets had had enough, and they mutinied against the captain.

It happened in Brazil in November, on Germany's most famous sailing ship, the Gorch Fock, and has caused serious embarrassment to military chiefs in Germany.


The elegant tall ship, named after the German poet Gorch Fock who died in a 1916 sea battle, was on a round-the-world sailing trip when the incident occurred, but as a result of the mutiny the journey was forced to be cut short. The ship was launched in 1958 and for over 50 years has been a familiar sight in ports around the world, but since the mutiny the Captain has been relieved of his command and the ship taken out of service.

At a parliamentary committee hearing on the incident, Hellmut Königshaus, the Commissioner for the Armed Forces of the Bundestag told the committee, 'What followed was, simply, a mutiny.'

Officials said the sailors did not want to continue their voyage after the tragedy in the harbour of Salvador de Bahia in Brazil, and refused to get back in the rigging for exercises.

Norbert Schatz, the captain of the ship, cabled back to Germany that he was in a 'Captain Bligh' situation – a reference to the famous Mutiny on the Bounty of 1879 when sailors on a British warship overpowered their cruel captain, William Bligh, and cast him adrift in an open boat.

Captain Schatz said: '[I am faced with] indiscipline and a refusal to carry out orders. They [the cadets] display a lack of co-operation with the ship’s command and are guilty of mutiny and inciting the crew.'

In the end four were flown back to Germany – but it was not the end.

The other 66 trainee officers were also refusing to sail on and in the end all of them had to be put on a plane back to Germany in the most embarrassing incident of a breach of military discipline for the republic since it was formed in 1949.

He was described by the cadets as being insensitive, a hard taskmaster and indifferent to the death of the young woman. According to the cadets, rather than enjoying the romance of the Age of Sail, they had to endure seasickness, cold, the terrors of climbing high masts on a heaving ship and irregular sleep in order to learn the Navy's brand of spirit.

They say they were pressured to get back up the mast from which their colleague fell to her death and refused to do so.
But Captain Schatz accused the recruits in turn of being too soft.

In a letter to military chiefs probing the mutiny, he said: 'As a boy I climbed cherry trees in the garden of my neighbour and was also able to get down quickly if he came home. 'But the motor-coordination skills of today`s youth are questionable because they sit for too long in front of computers all day instead of climbing cherry trees.'

Mr Königshaus wrote that many of the officer cadets 'did not want to go aloft after the painful loss of their comrade and others did not want to continue on the Gorch Fock.'

The letter continued that there had been 'great pressure' on cadets to climb the rigging. 'If you don’t go up, you’ll fly home the next day,' an instructor is supposed to have told them.

The barque has a crew of 85 training officers and able seamen who teach intakes of up to 138 cadets at a time. Down the years it has trained 14,500 cadets. Many remember it as harsh, while others have told reporters they found it an adventure.

The vessel, 89 metres long and with a mainmast and foremast 45.3 metres above the water, has a diesel engine that can push it to 12 knots. Under sail it has exceeded 18 knots. Cadets sleep in hammocks stacked high in a single room.

The oldest ship in the German Navy, it has continually taken part in Tall Ships races and sailing parades round the globe during goodwill visits, but her future is now uncertain...

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