It’s been nine years this summer since I shipped aboard the SS Christian Radich for a two-week training voyage from Oslo, Norway to Waterford, Ireland. It was the journey of a lifetime and I still think of it nearly every day. The Christian Radich is one of three Norwegian square-rigged sailing vessels that are active today. The other two are the Statsraad Lehmkuhl and the Fullriggeren Sørlandet.
Background: When I was about 7 or 8, my parents presented me with a book titled Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich. It was a piece of merchandise that you could buy in the lobby of the movie theater that was showing the movie of the same name. The year was 1958. Windjammmer was showing at the Cooper Theater in suburban Minneapolis, the only movie theater-in-the-round in the state at the time. The Cinerama format was all the rage. It wasn’t really 360 degrees, but it definitely felt like more than 180.
The story detailed the epic voyage of the Christian Radich from Norway to the Caribbean with a crew of 80 young male cadets in 1957. There was an intense national competition for the chance to be selected for the adventure. The ship stopped in Madeira off the coast of Portugal before heading west into the Atlantic. When she reached the Caribbean, she visited Trinidad and Puerto Rico, before continuing on to the United States and then home again to Norway.
I didn’t get to see the movie. I got the book and later, the LP record with the soundtrack. I played the record until the needle practically wore through the entire disk. I memorized every word of every song.
All I ever wanted was to see the movie. Problem was, Cinerama disappeared as a viable format sometime in the 1960s and Windjammer was never adapted to newer technology. The movie simply disappeared from public view into some dusty celluloid Hollywood vault.
Fast forward 50 years: In 2010, after traveling to Duluth, Minnesota for the first-ever “Tall Ships Duluth”, I learned that the “Tall Ships” movement was international and every year, there was a Tall Ships competition in European waters. Multi-masted ships, especially those that had three masts and were square-rigged, needed lots of hands to function. Anyone between the ages of 15 and 80 could join up and I decided to pursue the opportunity. When I read that the Christian Radich was one of the vessels that participated the next summer, I sent off my application. Remember, I said earlier that all I ever wanted to do was see the movie. Now I was going to catch a ride on this magnificent sailing ship as part of the crew!
I arrived in Oslo the day before we needed to report to the ship. Even though I had serious jet lag, I spent the afternoon touring the city. After a night at the Hotel Bristol, I spent the morning shopping for a few items that I was missing from the “suggested items checklist” and then went onboard about 1 pm. We left port in the late afternoon with a parade of smaller craft and firefighting ships with their hoses on high volume. It was a grand departure!
It took several days to transit the North Sea and the English Channel. During that time we drilled on our watch duties: rigging sail, helming the ship, fire and safety patrol, and lookout on the bow. We suited up in survival gear and studied man overboard protocol. The cohort of 80 trainees was divided up into three watch groups. Each watch worked 2 four-hour duty shifts and had 2 eight-hour periods to relax during each 24-hour day. My watch got the best time slots: 8 am to 12 pm and 8 pm to midnight. Each watch was supervised by two members of the permanent crew.
If the Captain or the Mate didn’t need us to furl or unfurl sails or to assist in any course changes (which was a lengthy process involving line-hauling on all three masts), we spent our time practicing our knot tying or learning how to splice lines. Our watch captains taught us how to identify the various sizes of vessels, tested us on the names of all the sails and all the lines on the boat, and took us into the wheelhouse to see the advanced radar technology and marine communication equipment.
Prior to arriving in port, we learned that protocol required the shining all of the brass fittings on the boat. We had already been taught that the deck needed regular swabbing for preventive maintenance. “Swab the deck” isn’t a meaningless phrase on a square-rigged boat. We had to polish all of the belaying pins, the nameplates on the deck doors, and, of course, the ship’s bell. We put in about three hours of work on that project!
Sail Training International was founded in 2003 in England for the sole purpose of educating young people about the skills of sailing and encouraging them to become lifelong sailors. They sponsor a racing competition each summer in European seas. The 2020 competition has been virtual, of course, but there’s a full schedule planned for 2021.
When we arrived in Waterford, Ireland, the entire waterfront was given over to a marketplace of vendors and activities for both sailors and the general public alike. At each port-of-call during the Tall Ships competition, there is an awards ceremony for the race leg just completed. The leg for which I crewed, the Norway to Ireland leg, wasn’t actually a competition. It was called a “cruise-in-company” leg so there weren’t any awards. The following leg from Waterford to Greenock, Scotland was a competition and the Christian Radich was the victor in her class!
Since we hadn’t been able to have adult beverages for over two weeks, the biggest motivator for my group was the pub scene. We did ourselves proud with the Irish I’ll admit. The other goal of the weekend was to make a solid presentation in the Crew Parade. Each destination port stages a parade of the crews from all the vessels that successfully completed the voyage from the previous port, competition or no. Our entry featured a captive boy from the crew of trainees that were going to take our place from Waterford to Grennock.
I kept a journal when onboard the Christian Radich and you can read all of the episodes by clicking here (after each post, click “Newer Post” to continue reading). I made a short video while onboard and then used music from the Windjammer film as a soundtrack. You can see the video “Norway to Ireland on the SS Christian Radich” by clicking here.
In July 2011 after I returned from my Tall Ships adventure, a film historian on the West Coast named David Strohmaier contacted me to introduce himself. I have no idea how he learned about me, but he knew that I had been on the ship recently and wanted to tell me about his work in restoring the Cinerama movie for new audiences. After several years of effort, he developed a process to convert Cinerama into a digital format, with the specific goal of bringing Windjammer and other Cinerama movies back to life. Eventually, he succeeded with a solution called Smilebox (a curved screen simulation), and organized special showings for interested audiences. He wanted to know if I was interested in showing Windjammer in Northfield. I wouldn’t have to pay a rental fee, just arrange travel expenses for him and a technician to come to town. They would give a talk in advance of the screening and have a Q and A afterward. We exchanged emails for several months and I tried to get colleagues at either Carleton College or St. Olaf College to co-sponsor the event (hint: provide funding!), but I wasn’t successful. In fact, no one even returned my calls. I was miffed.
The next year, however, Flicker Alley and This is Cinerama, Inc., launched a DVD of the converted movie. Needless to say, I immediately bought several copies and was finally able to watch the movie in my own home. The story had come full circle and I couldn’t have been happier about it.
In 2014 I bought my own boat and have been sailing on Lake Pepin each summer whenever I get the chance. That has provided me with instant gratification for my sailing habit. Still, nothing beats the majesty and drama of sailing on a square-rigger. Now and then I muse on whether or not to go back for a second training cruise! After we beat COVID-19, of course.