TALL SHIP MUTINY: Crew Refuses To Go Aloft

Tall ship Gorch Fock crew aloft

I’m surprised this doesn’t happen all the time. I’ve never been aloft underway on a yacht, much less on a square-rigger. But I’ve watched square-rigger crews swarm aloft in harbor and, even with the ship firmly tied to a dock, my testicles have instantly shriveled at the thought of climbing out to the end of a yard-arm. The idea of doing it while a ship is sailing, and of leaning way over a spar to haul in canvas with nothing but a little footrope for support, I find simply staggering.

So too, apparently, do a number of naval cadets who were serving on the German sail-training ship Gorch Fock. Word is out that Gorch Fock‘s crew refused orders to go aloft after Sarah Schmidt, a 25-year-old cadet, fell to her death from the rig. The incident has mushroomed into a full-blown political scandal. German defense minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg has come under severe criticism; the ship’s captain, Norbert Schatz, has been summarily relieved of his command; all the cadets have been flown home to Germany; and a professional crew is bringing the ship home from South America. There have also been whispered allegations of sexual abuse.

Schmidt died after falling 80 feet on November 7 during a stop in Salvador de Bahia in Brazil. A report made public last week revealed that a number of crew members subsequently refused orders to go aloft while underway and that the captain accused four officer cadets of mutiny.  Captain Schatz is reported to have remarked: “As a boy, I used to climb the cherry trees in our neighbor’s garden, but I was always down quick enough when he came out. Young people don’t climb cherry trees anymore; they sit in front of computers.”

Capt. Norbert Schatz of tall ship Gorch Fock
Capt. Norbert Schatz and cadets

Several days later the captain ordered that the entire crew be flown home to Germany. The captain himself was ordered home, and the ship was ordered into Ushuaia, Argentina, last Thursday after the report, prepared by a parliamentary naval liaison officer, was leaked to the public. Defense minister Guttenberg has also faced criticism about the accidental death of a German soldier in Afghanistan.

Allegations that cadet Schmidt, or perhaps another cadet, was the victim of bullying and sexual abuse have been referenced in some accounts but have not been substantiated or described in any detail. There have also been reports that the Gorch Fock crew had a fine time celebrating carnival just a few days after Schmidt’s death.

So right now it looks like you can slant this one anyway you want. Hard-ass skipper? Wimpy self-indulgent crew? Or both?

German tall ship Gorch Fock
S/V Gorch Fock in harbor

Gorch Fock is now expected to return to Kiel, Germany, where she will be kept out of service for an indefinite period of time. Capt. Schatz reportedly will retire to his neighbor’s cherry tree to cop a mope or two.


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2 Responses
  1. Meh…there’s something funny going on here. I think climbing out on a yardarm sounds scarier than it is (and I’ve done it a fair bit). Plus most training vessels like this one are pretty adamant about the use of harnesses. I’m going to guess that the young woman who died was under some sort of stress, which the captain either caused or ignored, and that’s what caused the rebellion.

  2. Charlie

    That sounds like a fair appraisal, Ben. Since writing this some friends in tall-ship circles advise me the inside skinny is that Capt. Schatz was running a pretty slack ship and that there may be substance to the abuse allegations. Another cadet was lost (in an MOB incident) within the past year and a half.

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