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Miraculous Survival at Sea

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Oct 03, 2018

Part of a little-known tale of maritime survival came to an end when newspapers across the country reported on Oct. 31, 1918, “A submarine chaser on duty off the Jersey coast about eight miles east of Barnegat on Monday afternoon noted an open boat showing a shirt fluttering from an oar. She bore down on the little craft and took aboard ten weary, hungry and weather-beaten men who had been fifteen days navigating the cockle shell through many sorts of weather over a thousand miles of sea, mostly lumpy and occasionally turbulent.”

The story began in September as the 352-foot-long, three-masted Norwegian bark Stifinder left New York bound for Fremantle, Australia, carrying thousands of cases of refined oil. As the Stifinder slowly crossed the Atlantic, the German U-152 was engaged in a surface battle with the U.S. Army transport Ticonderoga, sending it to the bottom with over 200 men, and taking two Army officers on board as prisoners.

One of the officers later remembered, “On October 11 this message came in code – as did all others: ‘Engage men of war only. The merchant war has ended. … the first act of our new government.’”

“On October 12, the Norwegian bark Stifinder was sighted about 4 p.m. and two shots sent across her bows. The crew took to the boats. Lieut. Willie went over to her with a boarding party, and returned with many provisions, onions, canned fish-balls, etc., from the United States, besides three live pigs. The Norwegians were given compasses and food, then told to set sail for the nearest land, which was Newfoundland, some 1,000 miles away. It was impossible to protest against this barbarity. The Stifinder was sunk by the submarine the next afternoon.”

Tarwald Frette, the mate on the Stifinder, told his story to the U.S. Navy.

“We first sighted the submarine at 1.45 p.m., when three shots were fired at us, none of which hit. I personally, only heard the last shot, as I was below deck when the first two shots were fired and had gone up above when I heard shouting by the members of the crew. Well, after I heard the shot I went up on deck and saw the submarine, which was on the surface in a westerly position from us, off our stern about 3 miles away. We at once hoisted the Norwegian flag and drew in our sails. We then lowered our boat, and at the request of the captain I took eight men with me and sailed over to the submarine in the small boat with the ship’s papers, it being the idea of our captain that they would want to see them as that had been our understanding of their practice in the past.

“After finishing looking at our papers, he said, ‘I see you are going from one enemy country to another and that your cargo is contraband, so you know what that means.’ I told him ours was a neutral ship, but he replied that it did not make any difference, as he would have to sink us, talking to me in English.’”

In the middle of the Atlantic, “The German officer than went up to our captain and began talking to him but instructing me to throw some food and clothes into our lifeboat and beat it. I asked him if I could get the ship’s instruments, and on being allowed went to my room, but before I got all I wanted they looked me up and told me to get out. … They let us take all the provisions we wanted and made no complaint about the quantity we took, and he gave orders to his men that nothing was to be touched until we left. … We then lowered our captain’s boat, which had been fully provisioned, and both our boats sailed away a few hundred yards and came together to talk over our position, where to land and we decided to try and reach Nova Scotia. There were 11 men, including myself, in my lifeboat, and 8 men, including the captain, in the captain’s lifeboat. My boat was sailing the fastest, so we gave the captain’s boat a line and tried to tow it. It was about 4 p.m. when we left our ship, and at 5 p.m. we lost sight of our ship on account of darkness. We had made about 5 miles in a westerly direction.”

Now they were alone.

“We only had some ship biscuits, water and tinned beef. The last we saw of our ship the Huns were ransacking her from end to end and placing the bombs to be exploded after they had left.

“For the first few days Captain Birkeland and I kept together, setting a course for Nova Scotia, which was the nearest land. The weather was fair and we had favorable winds, so that we could hoist our sails. Then the wind turned to the northwest and we had to steer for New York. On the third day a terrible storm began, lasting for the best part of nine days, and I lost sight of the captain’s boat. We were wet to the skin nearly all the time, and our boat was swept from end to end by terrible seas. It was impossible to sail much of the time and rowing was a tough job.”

John Frederickson was in the same lifeboat, and he told the press, “The second night we lost sight of the old man’s boat. We never saw it again.

“The next day the wind shifted and we figured we would do better by heading west, so we changed our course, hoping some tramp might pick us up. Every now and then the wind died out and we took to the oars. There was considerable sea on and time and again we took water. Those who were not at the oars bailed. We ate and drank just as little as we could get along with. About all we had was ship’s biscuits and tinned beef. These became salt water soaked and when we dried them the brine was there and it made our thirst worse.”

Things wouldn’t get any better.

“Then came a hard rain which caused us the worst suffering. We only had the clothes we had on when we escaped into the boat. Our hands, blistered and swollen from rowing, together with the salt water boils were bad enough, but after we became rain soaked it was terrible. We never had a chance to dry out for ten days until we were rescued. Our clothes seemed to cut our flesh every time we bent to an oar. At best we could only make three miles an hour when rowing. We never sighted a sail or a smokestack, and only once saw smoke off on the horizon.”

Frette summed up the ordeal saying, “Food was very short, though we never ran out, but every man had to be strictly rationed and some of them suffered severely from sore feet, due to their being all the time in salt water.

“We were always hoping that we would be picked up. Once we saw a convoy, but we knew that it was not permitted to stop. Another time we sighted a large schooner. We signaled to her and she bore down on us, took a look at us and deliberately sailed away. … For 15 days our life went on like this, and in spite of everything we made some progress each day, until at last we sighted a light.”

They had covered almost 1,000 miles.

“I thought from the location it must be Barnegat Light, and so it proved to be. Just 10 miles off the coast we were hailed by a torpedo boat chaser, which picked us up and landed us in Barnegat Bay.”

Over the next several days as World War I was drawing to a close, most people believed the second boat would never be found. Then on Nov. 5 from Turks Island in the British West Indies, The New York Times reported, “The captain and seven men of the Norwegian bark Stifinder, who had been missing since their vessel was stopped by a German submarine and they were (forced) to take to a small boat on Oct. 13, have arrived here after more than three weeks exposure and in almost starved condition.

“The captain said that his boat made for Halifax, but soon capsized, and most of the provisions were lost. The sailors managed to right the craft and then, because of the extremely cold weather, they decided to try to reach Bermuda. Instead they rowed all the way to Turks Island. … They suffered intensely and were in a pitiable condition when they reached here. They knew nothing of the fate of their companions who were in another small boat.”

Some stories, even those involving U-boats, have a happy ending. However, this one seems to have been overshadowed by the great celebration of Nov. 11, 1918, and the return of peace.

Next Week: The plague’s last gasp.


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