Monday, 27 June 2016

The Last Great Grain Race 1939

The port city of Klaipėda in Lithuania has a rich maritime history. Formerly called Memel, and part of the Kingdom of Prussia - and then Germany - until the end of the First World War, it had been a member of the Hanseatic League during the late Middle Ages and an important trading centre from its foundation in the thirteenth century.

In 2009 Klaipėda was one of the hosts for the Tall Ships Races that were held in the Baltic Sea that year. We were fortunate to have been there for a memorable weekend.

As well as inspecting the great array of tall ships and yachts we enjoyed visiting many of the special displays, including a well-presented series of municipal notice boards outlining the maritime history of the port. One in particular struck a chord as it mentioned that a Lithuanian seaman had been on the Moshulu's epic journey from Europe to Australia and back in 1938-39. The 30,000 nautical mile voyage on the four masted square rigged Finnish barque Moshulu was recorded by the British travel writer Eric Newby in his book The Last Grain Race (1956) which he later followed up with two photographic essays Grain Race: Pictures of Life Before the Mast in a Windjammer (1968) and Learning the Ropes: An Apprentice in the Last of the Windjammers (1999).

Having made its way to South Australia from the North Atlantic in late 1938 (the journey from Belfast to Port Lincoln took 82 days), the Moshulu was one of thirteen 3- or 4-masted vessels that anchored in Spencer Gulf over summer while waiting to take on grain for Europe. The 'Grain Race' was an annual competition between these great sailing ships to make the shortest passage back to Europe, and the 1939 race was to be the last one of that magnitude. The Moshulu won that race, making excellent time from Port Victoria in South Australia across the South Pacific and reaching Queenstown (now Cobh, Ireland) in 91 days.

Years later, Eric Newby wrote about the perils and difficulties of the voyage and about the Lithuanian, Vytautas Bagdanavičius, who shared that experience with him. The 1938 voyage to Australia on Moshulu was the second one for Vytautas; he had travelled with the ship "on the timber run from Finland to Lourenco Marques in Portuguese East Africa in 1937 before going to Australia for her grain cargo". Like Newby, Bagdanavičius had been taken on as an apprentice on the Moshulu; the two 18 year olds were to become close friends on the trip to Australia. Newby noted that "I had liked Vytautas from the start"; "he had a happy temperament that did not attract trouble"; and he was "by far the most resilient" in their small group of friends. Despite breaking his arm at the start of the voyage, Bagdanavičius continued and appears to have mentored Newby.

A recent (2015) publication from the Lithuanian Sea Museum in Klaipeda casts some more light on Vytautas Eduardas Bagdanavičius (born in Kedainiai in 1920). After serving on the Moshulu for two seasons, he studied at the Stockholm Maritime School 1939-40 before obtaining a position as trainee navigator on the Lithuanian steamship Šiauliai. Sadly, unlike Eric Newby, he did not go on to enjoy a long and successful career; the only further reference is that he disappeared in Leningrad during the Second World War, around 1942. Other sources state that Šiauliai was sunk in 1940 off the Estonian island of Hiiumaa (Dago island) but give no indication of the fate of the crew.

The Moshulu, however, survived the war. She is now enjoying her retirement as a floating restaurant in Philadelphia USA.
The Barque Moshulu pictured at Penn's Landing, Philadelphia.
Photo taken by N. Johannes, Groningen; public domain.

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