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Captain Stay Put’s Endless Voyage

by | Oct 1, 2013 | 7 comments

Flying Enterprise - January 10, 1952

Flying Enterprise – January 10, 1952

Among the many maritime yarns recounting heroic deeds of masters and their vessels is the extraordinary tale of Henrik Kurt Carlsen, better known as Capt. Stay Put.

Although Carlsen, the 37-year-old Danish American skipper of the SS Flying Enterprise didn’t coin the phrase, ‘Don’t give up the ship,’ he surely abided by it. When his vessel, a 6,700-ton merchant freighter owned by a German company, left Hamburg for New York in late December, 1951, the dense fog didn’t faze him or his crew.

The weather cleared outside the English Channel and until the seventh day, nothing suggested that the vessel faced anything other than a routine crossing of the wintry North Atlantic. That’s when one of the worst storms in 20 years hit the Flying Enterprise with fierce winds and 50-foot-waves.

Newspapers throughout the world followed the saga of Capt. Stay Put, a model of courage and self-sacrifice.

Newspapers throughout the world followed the saga of Capt. Stay Put, a model of courage and self-sacrifice.

Carlsen sent an SOS when the heavy cargo–furniture, cars, coffee beans and pig iron–shifted and ripped holes in the keel. Meanwhile, two merchant vessels responded to the distress signal, but couldn’t get close enough for a rescue.

As the massive hull started to list, the captain ordered his crew and 10 passengers to abandon ship, while he remained aboard. One life was lost as the rescue ships picked up the survivors. Carlsen, firmly believing his ship could be salvaged, waited for a tugboat to arrive the next day. He was now on what one newspaper reported: “an endless voyage.”

Henrik Kurt Carlsen, "Capt. Stay Put," returns triumphantly after staying with his sinking ship for 13 days.

Henrik Kurt Carlsen, “Capt. Stay Put,” returns triumphantly after staying with his sinking ship for 13 days.

Aptly named the Turmoil, the tug maneuvered skillfully enough in the rough waters to secure a towline to the 395-foot-long freighter. The plan was to tow it back to port, but with the whole world now waiting and rooting for Capt. Stay Put, the best laid plans of skilled seamen failed when the line broke. In three days, the crippled Flying Enterprise and its escort had covered two-thirds of the distance to Falmouth, but had to give up when they were 40 miles offshore. The merchant ship was sinking. When it started to roll, Carlsen leaped into the icy waters and swam to the tug. Forty minutes later he watched as his ship went down.

Hero's welcome: Woodbridge, N.J. welcomes home Capt. Henrick Kurt Carlsen in a parade attended by 100,000. He was also honored with a ticker-tape parade on Broadway. (Sun File Photo)

Hero’s welcome: Woodbridge, N.J. welcomes home Capt. Henrick Kurt Carlsen in a parade attended by 100,000. He was also honored with a ticker-tape parade on Broadway. (Sun File Photo)

Heralded throughout the world for his grit and game, the courageous captain appeared in a ticker-tape parade on Broadway, but turned down all offers for fame and fortune. Henrik Kurt Carlsen, forever known as Capt. Stay Put, remained a model of courage and self-sacrifice as he commanded ships for another 24 years. He “crossed the bar” in 1989 at the age of 75.

High tech divers from Italy, Denmark and the United Kingdom salvaged some of the cargo from the wreck that rests in 280-feet of water. Its location, in a heavily trafficked sea lane on the western approaches to the English Channel, make salvage a hazardous operation. Details of the salvage and the story of the Flying Enterprise were featured in a 2005 PBS episode of the History Detectives.

7 Comments

  1. Dear Mr. Boyd,

    WOW! You have done it again!
    I love that name for the skipper….Captain Stay Put. It’s too bad that he could not have passed on that skill and “commandership” to another recent cruise ship Captain (whom I shall not name)! ……and Captain Stay Put turned down fame and fortune to continue being the competent, caring captain for years, on other vessels, after the sinking of his ship.

    As I have written before, keep these great articles coming!

    Dr. Robert J. Shockley

  2. Thanks! Good point–yes, a certain catain could have used Capt. Stay Put’s skill, knowledge and common sense in commanding his ship! I thought it was nice that he was given a ticker tape parade in New York! He truly lived by the saying, “Don’t give up the ship!”

  3. This is a very interesting story. It has a wonderful moral. I’m a teacher and I am going to read it to my children. I think they will love it. Thank you for sharing this fascinating narrative.

  4. Thanks again, Dr. Shockley. This was an interesting story to research. Not many people knew about it. The more I learned about it the more fascinating it became. Sometime I might write a longer version of it, giving more details of the captain’s trials and tribulaltions aboard his vessel.

  5. Many thanks for your nice comment. Yes, this is one of my favorite stories. Capt. Stay Put was quite a hero as evidenced by the ticker tape parade on Broadway. Cheers, E.

  6. To Julie Ross: As I find more information about Capt. Stay Put I will forward it to you. You MIGHT be able to make a reading lesson from all the material. I’ll let you know what else I turn up that might add to the story.

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