Friday, January 13, 2012

Life and times of the unlucky Captain Christensen

Here's an old New Zealander you would have loved to share a beer with.  Welcome Captain Christensen.

Christensen was the captain of a fishing ketch named the Three Brothers, out from Gisborne.  In September 1888 he was caught in a storm and, lashed to the helm, steered the boat into shore until they were washed up the beach.

Christensen hired a cutter, the Ann Eliza, to salvage some of the gear from the Three Brothers, and during the return voyage he was hit squarely on the head by a winch that was being used to haul the anchor.  "On his hat, which had been jambed tightly over his head, being removed by those who had been called to help a vast quantity of blood came copiously from the wound."  Fortunately they didn't judge it as serious.

The Poverty Bay Herald printed an appeal on Christensen's behalf in order for him to get on his feet, as he had lost everything he had and the vessel was uninsured.  They wrote "Those acquainted with Captain Christensen express the opinion that he is a straightforward and kind-hearted sailor, who has always endeavored to pay his way and keep out of debt.  It is a pity to see a man of that stamp so far down in luck."

Maybe that knock on the head contributed to the next stage in the saga of Captain Christensen.  Or maybe not.  He took on a cutter by the name of the Alarm.  Sailing out near Great Mercury islands in 1893 he reported seeing a sea monster in the shape of a giant flying fish.  "It appeared to be about 30ft long, and had wings from 10ft to 15ft long, which it flapped together as it rose about 10ft above the water.  Mr Christensen states he has heard of similar fish having been seen by whalers, and also that they are to be found off the coast of Africa.

Now, the Mercury Islands is actually the famous site of the Maori myth where Paikea rode a whale from Hawaiki to land at Ahuahu, i.e. Great Mercury Island.  The myth was actually the basis of the book and movie "Whale Rider".  This area (Hauraki Gulf) is a migration area for humpback whales so maybe what Christensen saw was a humpback whale?  The description definitely fits, a 30ft long fish-shape with long wings (fins?), jumping out of the water.  But humpback whales were well-known during the times so how could an experienced ship captain who sailed regularly in the Hauraki Gulf confuse a humpback whale for a sea monster?  The article also says whalers also regularly saw these "fish", i.e. implying that they were fish as opposed to humpback whales which whalers are used to close contact with.  Or maybe the journalist was being sarcastic...?

Is that the end of the story of Captain Christensen?  Not sure.  There is a report of a "Captain Christensen" in this 1897 report of a shipwreck of the Kameruka, a steamer that wrecked off Pedro Reef near Sydney.  The vessel ran aground in rough and hazy weather, and was buffeted by waves while trapped against the rocks.  Unable to launch a boat from the ship, the crew and passengers had to float lines ashore.  They attached lines to pigs (?!) which swam the 200 yards between the vessel and dry land.  Once those on land were able to secure the lines, the crew fashioned a rough sling/cradle and those on the ship were drawn through the surf to land.

So what happened to Christensen?  It's hard to tell, since whether it's one person or more it was a bad time to be a ship Captain by the name of Christensen at that time.  I hope it was more than one person, otherwise this guy had a hard, hard life.  First there was a Norwegian barge called the Alma, that was wrecked at Malden Island in February 1906 after sailing from Lyttelton via Launceston.  Not a good place to wreck with nothing but a boat-load of guano.

Next on the Christensen hall of infamy is from June 1907.  Captain Christensen was in command of the Norwegian Barque Albania, which had sprung a leak when the cargo shifted and had been abandoned by the crew about four hundred miles to the south of Tonga (nine days in the lifeboats before arriving in Tonga then taken to Sydney by the Atua).

Probably a sign of how hard things were for ship captains in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and shows us how much we take for granted now about air travel and container ships.  But I tell you what, I'll be checking the surname of my pilot in my next international trip.  You know.  Just in case.

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