I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Captain Henrik Kurt Carlsen was the skipper of the SS Flying Enterprise, a general cargo vessel in the North Atlantic. In late December 1951, she ran into a storm that damaged the ship and caused some of her cargo to shift. The vessel began to list and take on water.
At 6,700 tonnes, the Flying Enterprise was not a big freighter compared to the behemoth container ships that ply the oceans today. She was steam powered and had a crew of 40 with accommodation for 10 passengers.
On December 21, 1951, the Flying Enterprise left Hamburg, Germany en route for New York. She carried a mixed cargo of pig iron, coffee, a dozen Volkswagen cars, some typewriters, and other odds and ends. She also had a full complement of passengers.
On Christmas Eve, the vessel ran into some heavy weather in the English Channel. By Christmas Day the winds had strengthened to storm force 10, and then the tempest got worse to become the most powerful Atlantic storm in 40 years.
During the night of December 26/27, the winds were approaching hurricane force and Capt. Carlsen decided to heave to with his bow facing into the wind and the 40 foot waves. As thousands of ship's masters had done before him, the prudent course was to run on limited power and ride out the storm.
The Ship in Peril
At dawn on December 27, everybody on board heard several loud bangs. The ship's engineer reported to the captain that the Flying Enterprise had developed two cracks about half an inch wide. The crew did the best they could in filling the holes with concrete, but with the vessel tossing about like a cork this job could not have been easy.
As if the ship had not already suffered enough of a battering, the following morning brought new misery. “At about 1130 on the morning of the 28th the vessel was hit broadside by another high wave which rolled the vessel between 50-70 degrees to port shifting the cargo and causing the vessel to return to a permanent list of about 25 degrees” (oceanweatherservices.com).
Kurt Carlsen sent out an SOS.
Flying Enterprise Rescue
Several ships answered the Mayday call including the American troopship USS General A.W. Greely. Carlsen gave the order to abandon ship, but the Flying Enterprise was listing so badly that her lifeboats could not be launched. The only way off the crippled vessel was to jump into the cold Atlantic Ocean.
Each passenger was assigned a crew member and they jumped in pairs. They swam to the General A.W. Greely's lifeboats and were hauled aboard to safety, although one passenger drowned. But, Captain Carlsen remained aboard. As lookandlearn.com commented the captain's decision not to leave his ship “was to capture the imagination of people all over the world . . . for the next two weeks.”
The skipper had two things in mind when he made his courageous choice to remain aboard. If there was no representative of the owners on the ship she was fair game for anyone who could salvage her, and the owners would lose a lot of money.
There was another reason. In the cargo hold was a quantity of zirconium, an element that was destined to be used in the super-secret nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus. Capt. Carlsen was determined that if his ship was to sink his top-secret cargo would also disappear under the waves.
Captain Carlsen and Kenneth Dancy
When the owners of the Flying Enterprise learned of her plight, they chartered a salvage company in Britain to try tow her to port.
Carlsen was still aboard the heavily listing ship. He had no food or heat, but he was in radio contact with the destroyer USS John W Weeks that was standing by. Its crew were able to fire a line onto the stricken ship and transfer food and coffee. News media were sending out film crews to fly over the crippled vessel to get film of the listing ship and deliver gripping stories about the plucky captain still clinging to her.
The tugboat Turmoil left Falmouth in southwestern England and arrived on scene on January 4, 1952. It was clear that Carlsen could not attach the heavy towing cable alone so the first officer of the tug, Kenneth Dancy, transferred to the Flying Enterprise to help.
But, “transferred” doesn't capture the drama of the event. In an example of masterful seamanship, Turmoil's captain manoeuvred his tug close to Flying Enterprise's stern and Dancy jumped. The action has entered the lore of the sea as “Dancy's Leap.
On January 5, the two men managed to secure a tow line and the slow business of pulling the freighter the 350 miles to Falmouth began.
For five days, the world watched as the two vessels got closer and closer to Falmouth, but Mother Nature had one last cruel blow left. The storm, which had abated somewhat, intensified and put extra strain on the tow cable. In the early hours of January 10, the line snapped. The two men tried to make repairs but failed. The end was near.
By early afternoon, the Flying Enterprise was lying on her side, Carlsen and Dancy walked along her horizontal funnel and jumped into the sea to be picked up by the Turmoil.
Shortly after 4 p.m., the Flying Enterprise slipped below the waves to a chorus of foghorns and whistles from an attending flotilla of ships. She just 38 miles from Falmouth.
Aftermath of the Sinking
The people of Falmouth had decked the harbour out in flags in anticipation of a celebration of the crippled freighter being towed into the port. News of the sinking saddened everybody but they still put on a hero's welcome when Kurt Carlsen and Kenneth Dancy stepped ashore.
Captain Carlsen also received a ticker-tape parade in New York City and was awarded several medals for valour. Hollywood approached him with big money for his story, but he turned them down and went back to sea as master of the Flying Enterprise II. He died in 1989, at the age of 75.
Kenneth Dancy also received a hero's welcome in his home town when 20,000 people turned out to cheer him. He also rejected lucrative offers to pose beside television sets and refrigerators for promotional shoots. He died in 2013, aged 88.
It has been reported that in 1960 an Italian company salvaged about a quarter of the Flying Enterprise cargo. Apparently, the salvage contract contained a clause to the effect that whatever was recovered had to be kept a secret.
In 2001, deep sea divers found the wreck lying on its port sea at a depth of 276 feet (84 metres). Filming of the sunken vessel was shown on the History Channel's program Deep Sea Detectives in 2005.
- It has been reported that the RMS Queen Mary (81,000 tonnes) encountered the same storm that crippled the Flying Enterprise. The sea was so rough that passengers aboard the luxury liner were tossed out of their beds.
- There's a pub in Cork, Ireland named The Flying Enterprise after the ship. It is located on Sober Lane, so it is.
- The author Hammond Innes used the Flying Enterprise story as the template for his 1956 novel The Wreck of the Mary Deare. The book was made into a movie of the same name in 1959 starring Charlton Heston and Gary Cooper.
- “The Flying Enterprise Story of Man vs. the Sea.” Fred Pickhardt, oceanweatherservices.com, December 23, 2015.
- “Ship Carried Mysterious Cargo.” Bryan M. Sundie, The Register Citizen, August 29, 2017.
- “Captain Carlsen Eventually Abandoned His Ship, the Flying Enterprise.” lookandlearn.com, November 9, 2012.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Joanne Hayle from Wiltshire, U.K. on June 11, 2021:
Compelling story and writing, thanks for sharing the details. I had never heard about this before.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on June 10, 2021:
Actually, the idea that captains go down with their ships is honoured more in the breach than observance. I covered this in my article "Captains Who Abandon Ship."
Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on June 10, 2021:
Wow, what a story! And what bravery! I've heard that vessel captains would rather go down with their ship(s) than abandon them. That certainly seems to be the case here.
I can only imagine the unadulterated fear the crew and passengers felt while the ship was being tossed about by Mother Nature. I would have been petrified!
I'll be back once I get home from work to watch the videos. I certainly don't want to miss them!
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 10, 2021:
I happened to be born and live on the waters of the Niger Delta, a seabound coast of the Atlantic ocean. Learning to swim, diving in and out of the waters, and harvest live fish trap in nets, water is life. Capt Carlsen and the tug mate bravity rtolen my heart. These men are mostly naval officer materials.
Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on June 09, 2021:
I just watched that second video too ... those waters do not look welcoming and those two guys just jumped in the water. That's why I'm not captain of any ship. I would have been gone long before that time, important cargo, or not. Water is not forgiving and I don't have webs between my fingers, nor do I have gills. Haha!!
Kudos to that captain and that tug-boat guy! And thanks for another interesting article. All the best!
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 09, 2021:
Capt Carlsen touch my heart.
Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on June 09, 2021:
Fascinating story. Thank you for sharing.