Gustaf Erikson was the owner of the last large fleet of commercial sailing ships. He was born in the Aaland
Islands of Finland
in 1872, and went to sea at the age of ten as cabin boy
. By the age of nineteen, Erikson had his master's certificate and became the captain of the full-rigged ship Albania
In 1913, Erikson retired from sailing to become a shipowner. His first ship, a German four-masted barque, was renamed Aaland and subsequently lost; Erikson never renamed another ship. By the early 1900's, commercial sail was a losing proposition. Steamships had proved to be far more efficient, and most owners of sailing ships were selling them off dirt-cheap. Captain Erikson began to build a substantial fleet of castoff sailing ships, operated out of the port city of Mariehamn.
In 1916, he purchased the full-rigged ship Grace Harwar, and in 1917 he purchased the four-masted barque Lawhill. The Lawhill, formerly a British ship in the Japanese oil trade, was an extremely lucky ship for Captain Erikson. In these lean years for commercial sail, there were far more ships on the ocean than available cargoes. A ship could be laid up for several years awaiting a cargo. Ships would sail halfway around the world in ballast in the hopes of securing a return cargo. The Lawhill was regularly employed in the Australian wheat trade, which would become the last bastion of commercial sail.
Captain Erikson bought some of these ships at prices as low as $20,000. One good voyage could make back the ship's purchase price. In the 1920's, Erikson bought many more large sailing ships, including the four-masted barques Herzogin Cecilie, Olivebank, Hougomont, Archibald Russell, and Pommern.
The Herzogin Cecilie was Captain Erikson's most famous ship. A large four-master of over 3,200 tons, she was built as a school ship for German owners in 1902. Captain Erikson bought her in 1921 from the French government, who had claimed her as a war prize, and put the Cecilie in the Australian wheat trade under Captain Ruben de Cloux. Every year, an informal race was held to see which sailing ship could post the fastest time from Australia to a European port (usually in England or France). The Cecilie won the "Grain Race" eight times before running aground off of the English coast in 1936. Captain de Cloux, one of the last great sailing-ship captains, may have won the "Grain Race" as many as ten times in the Cecilie, the Lawhill, and later in the Parma, which he also owned.
Captain Erikson continued to buy sailing ships into the 1930's. His later purchases included the American four-master Moshulu (which still survives to this day as a floating restaurant in Philadelphia), the Viking, and the German four-masters Pamir and Passat.
World War II dealt a serious blow to Erikson's fleet. Three of his ships were sunk by the Germans, and five others, including Lawhill, were claimed as prizes of war. At the end of the war, Erikson only had three ships left, and one, the Pommern, was not seaworthy. In 1947, Gustaf Erikson died at the age of seventy-five. His son, Edgar Erikson, took over ownership of the Erikson Line, and bought back two of the ships that had been claimed as prizes of war, but was unable to make a profit, and in 1949, began to sell them off.
It is important to note some of the reasons Gustaf Erikson had such success with his anachronistic fleet. He sailed his ships uninsured and understaffed. The typical crew of an Erikson ship was made up of teenage boys who were paid a minimal wage. This was normal practice among shipowners at the time, and British-owned ships were particularly notorious. The ship's master was often woefully underpaid, and the situation among the seamen was even worse. The master, in some cases, pocketed the money intended to feed the crew, with predictable results. Which is to say that conditions on Erikson's ships were no better and no worse than normal.
These Erikson Line ships still survive at present:
Moshulu, Philadelphia, Pa., USA
Pommern, Mariehamn, Aaland, Finland
Passat, Travemunde, Germany
Viking, Gothenburg, Sweden (?)
Alan Villiers, Falmouth for Orders, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972
Robert Carse, The Twilight of Sailing Ships, Grosset and Dunlap, 1965