Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Seasick… the English Channel

The Fischer family and Johann Holtorf were landlubbers; they had never been to sea. After leaving the sheltered waters of the Elbe on their respective migrant ships they traversed a corner of the North Sea and then entered the English Channel. The Fischers sailed on the Caesar, which was hit by a storm shortly after entering the Channel, no doubt the first of many over the following four months. Here is Dr Ernst Middendorf’s description of the first wild night. Anyone who has lived on a ship at sea will recognise the experience with a smile…

Form the Collection of Maggie Land Blanck

From the Collection of Maggie Land Blanck

On the following morning I found seasickness in full bloom in the steerage. The misery was naturally greatest among the women; the men generally held out well. The children, of whom we had a great number on board… naturally had to suffer a good deal during their mothers’ sickness. Meanwhile the wind became even stronger during the day and stormy around evening. Dutch fishing vessels came close to us. They were tossed about like nutshells, one minute disappearing and the next minute appearing again on the crest of the waves. Our ship made heavy weather of it too. Night fell and it got very dark. All around was black; one saw only the white foamy crests of the high waves ever rolling on towards us, while heavy rain gusts fell from time to time…

Rest was of course out of the question; one was thrown about in the bunk and it was an effort not to fall out. Outside, the storm howled, the ropes creaked, the rain splashed, the sailors ran about the deck at their work with their yodelling singing, between times the commanding voice of the Captain, the sea raged and the crashing waves hit the planks so that the whole ship shuddered. All at once there was a heavy crack and the table fell over, and all the furniture and trunks that had been fastened down flew about the cabin. From the steerage below boomed a dull noise of luggage tumbling about, then there was a small pause. The next thing we heard from below was the melancholy strains of a hymn; the people believed their last hour was nigh. That night every compartment of the ship had its improvised pastor.

Allgemeine Auswanderungszeitung (AAZ) no.73 17 Sep 1855, p.291

My most vivid memories of such rough seas are not from the English Channel, but from the roaring forties between Cape Town and Perth, which our family traversed in 1973 on board the passenger ship Ellinis. The waves towered high, buffeting us constantly from one side. Barely anyone came to meals in the dining room, everyone was sick. My parents warned me against going on deck, fearful that I might be swept overboard, a warning that I naturally ignored. It was wild and dangerous and exciting, although there were times when I too thought that the end had come, that our ship, as huge and solid as it was, seemed on the verge of capsizing and taking us all to the bottom with it. I can’t imagine how those old square riggers weathered these mighty storms at sea. They must have been tossed like driftwood.

Both the Fischer family on the Caesar and Johann Holtorf on the Steinwärder would, like us 120 years later, have to cross the wild southern ocean between Africa and Australia, but when Dr Middendorf wrote the above description they had barely left Germany, still in northern waters. There were many storms to be survived before they would sail out of Cape Town.


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