Built in Glasgow in 1903, the SV Pommern is now—75 years after going out of service—afloat and restored. She is tied up across the street from the Ålands sjöfartsmuseum, a maritime museum in Mariehamn, the delightful capital (and only town on) the chief island of the Åland Islands, a Finnish archipelago in the Baltic. Known as a lucky ship, she survived both World War I and II, and had very few casualties throughout her career. She is one of four remaining “Flying P-Liners,” sailing ships revered for their high speed and reliability that had names beginning with the letter P.
That she is “large” isn’t debatable: the four-masted barque is nearly 350 feet long, 43 feet abeam, and draws 22 feet, and her tubular steel masts rise to 157 feet above the water. Her cargo hold, a single open space loaded through four main deck hatches, can swallow nearly 8,400 cubic yards and hold 4,050 tons.
She’s described on the website of Greenwich’s National Maritime Museum as “the finest and most authentic large merchant sailing ship in the world.” Both superlatives are arguably true, despite the fact that two of her sister ships, the Passat and Peking, both built in 1911, also managed to avoid the breakers and are on display. The Passat is a museum ship at Travemünde, Germany. The Peking—the star of Irving Johnson’s famous silent film of her rounding Cape Horn in furious weather—now lies uneasily at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York City, where the facility’s financial problems threaten her survival. Elsewhere, another sister ship, the ex-Padua, built in 1926, is still sailing, renamed and under Russian colors. (Germany surrendered her to the Soviet Union in 1946 as war reparations.) A fourth ship, the Pamir (1905), was the last of the fleet to sail in commercial service. Neglected and dangerously loaded, she sank carrying grain out of Buenos Aires in Hurricane Carrie off the Azores in September 1957, drowning 80 hands. The great loss of life, three times the size of a usual crew, included many sail-training cadets.
In their glory days, the Pommern and her sister ships sailed for Ferdinand Laeisz’s shipping line. The line—based in Hamburg, and still at sea—managed to fight off the competition from steam ships moving freight through the Suez and Panama canals well into the 20th century because of low operating costs in the carriage of huge amounts of bulk cargo.
The Pommern was a greyhound. On average, it took her just 85 days to sail from Australia to Great Britain around the Cape of Good Hope, more than a month faster than the convict transports that had sailed the same route a century earlier. When saltpeter began to replace the bird manure that served as commercial fertilizer in Europe in the later decades of the 19th century, she participated in the Chilean nitrate trade. She twice made it from England around Cape Horn to Chile in nine weeks.
Today the Pommern is in maiden-voyage condition. Her many spaces are open for inspection, and her cavernous hold is lined along both sides with fascinating exhibits about the ship’s design, her crews and cruises, and her cargoes, placarded helpfully in English as well as Finnish. A movie about her 1936–37 voyage, “We Rounded the Horn,” runs in the same huge space on a continuous loop. Her great good fortune is a consequence of the generosity of a local shipowning family, who in 1952 gave the windjammer to the town, her last homeport, as an attraction.
A single ticket to the Åland Islands’ Maritime Museum offers admission to the museum and the ship, which is only a few minutes’ walk downslope. The museum’s fine collection of artifacts, art, and photography is focused on several core subjects: the merchant marine in the ages of sail and steam, ship construction (including a fine model collection), and navigation instruments.
The Åland Islands’ Maritime Museum
Hamngatan 2, 22100 Mariehamn, Åland, Finland
Phone: +358 (0)18 19930
Open: June to August, 1000 to 1700; other months, 1100 to 1600, excluding year-end holidays.
Admission: €5 for adults.