Three Norwegians in Witsieshoek were homesick and probably horny. They longed to go home to Norway, so they rode their horses to Port Natal, bought a ticket on a sailing ship and off they went, right? Actually not.
They decided they would build their own ship in the veld on their farm Bluegumsbosch in the shadow of Qwa Qwa mountain, load it onto an ossewa, trundle it to the coast and then sail themselves to England, seeking – and finding – huge publicity all the way. The huge publicity was because everyone knew it couldn’t be done. They were going to drown in a watery grave and everybody TOLD them so.
As always: pinch-of-salt alert. This is me talking about history I have read a bit about. A little bit of knowledge . . . you know. For actual facts and a lot more fascinating detail, including how their boat amused the Laughing Queen (Victoria herself, who actually ended up buying it), rather read Harrismithian Leon Strachan’s highly entertaining book Bergburgers which illustrates clearly that Harrismithans are amazing and wonderful people. Amazingly, some people apparently are unaware of that fact.
For starters, hello! what do you build a ship of when you’re living on the vlaktes un-surrounded by trees, just grass? Grass is no good, mielies are no good and ferro-cement has not been invented yet. The few trees you have are the bluegums the farm is named after and some small poplars you planted yourself on the bottom end of your werf ; and poplar wood is no good for keeping water out for long enough to do the Atlantic. And these okes want to do the Atlantic. Now I’ve no doubt they were drunk. I mean, join the dots: Three males, tick; Norwegians, tick; in the Vrystaat, tick; lonely, tick. They were drinking alright. They were a bit like ignoring the perfectly good bus that runs from Pietermaritzburg to Durban and running there instead; Wait! Some fools did do that some thirty years later and called it the Comrades Marathon.
Turns out there are trees in the Vrystaat if you know where to look: In the shady, damp south-facing kloofs there were some big old yellowwoods, excellent wood for ship-building if you’re inclined to build ships. So they didn’t use those. They ordered wood from America. I know! Mail order! But apparently this is true. Somewhere in America a pile of pitch pine beams and planks got addressed to c/o Ingvald Nilsen, farm Bluegumsbosch, foot of Qwa Qwa, Witsieshoek, near Harrismith, Oranje Vrijstaat and put on a wooden ship. Which crossed the Atlantic, got loaded onto an oxwagon in Port Natal and schlepped across Natal, up the Drakensberg, turned left at the bustling regional centre, transport hub and rooinek metropolis of Harrismith and were delivered: ‘There you go, sir. Please sign here that you received in good order.’
So how big do you build a boat you want to sail 10 000km in, knowing the sea can get lumpy at times? Are you asking me? 362m long, 23 stories high, 228 000 tons, sixteen cocktail bars, a massage parlour and better airtight compartments than the Titanic had, please. No, but seriously, this is twenty seven years before the Titanic set sail, and you’re building it in your farmyard in the Free State. Like this:
Now hey! Don’t laugh. Read on to see how the Harrismith-built boat fared, and read up how the Belfast-built Titanic fared! Both were trying to cross the Atlantic – just wait and see who did it better!
The Nilsen-Olsen craft was 6,7m long and weighed about two tons. They called it Homeward Bound, though they were actually aiming for England. Seems Nilsen had become very British. He had signed up with Baker’s Horse and fought for Britain in the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879. He knew all the hoopla would be in English language newspapers in Harrismith where the Chronicle was already chronicling, Pietermaritzburg where the Witness was witnessing, Port Natal / Durban and in England, so shrewdly, he capitalised on that publicity.
All along the route people would look in amazement and offer advice (‘You’re never gonna make it’) but whenever he could – in Harrismith, Estcourt, PMB and in Durban – Nilsen isolated the boat and charged people a fee to view it and offer their opinion (‘You’re never gonna make it’). He raised so much money this way that in PMB he wrote: ‘. . had not the weather been unfavourable, we should very nearly have cleared our expenses, so general was the interest in the boat.’
In Port Natal the coastal people really REALLY knew these inland bumpkins were never going to make it and made it so plain that it gave Nilsen great pleasure some months later to enter in his log: ‘ . . sighted Ascension; this we found, in spite of what people said in Durban, without the least trouble and without a chronometer.’
Long story short – we won’t bother about details like navigating, surviving, hunger, etc now that the Harrismith part is over – they made it to Dover in March 1887 after eleven months, a journey that took passenger ships of the day around two to three months*. Nilsen sold the boat to the queen, who displayed it in the new Crystal Palace exhibition hall; he wrote a book with the natty title, ‘Leaves from the Log of the Homeward Bound – or Eleven Months at Sea in an Open Boat’, went on speaking tours where he was greeted with great enthusiasm, married a Pom, became a Pom citizen and lived happily ever after. I think.
Greeted with great enthusiasm, yes, but this was after all, England, so not all were totally enamoured. One commentator harumphed: ‘ . . Their achievement is a magnificent testament to their pluck and endurance, and one can only regret that such qualities have not found some more useful outlet than the making of a totally unnecessary voyage.’
What’s 362m long, 23 stories high and weighs 228 000 tons? – That’s the Symphony of the Seas, biggest passenger ship afloat as at Feb 2019
veld – savanna; no place for a sea-going shiplet
bergburgers – citizens of the mountain; Harrismithians
ossewa – ox wagon.
vlaktes – plains; not where you’d sail a 2-ton wooden boat
mielies – maize; corn
werf – farmyard
Oranje Vrijstaat – Orange Free State, independent sovereign state; President at the time was Sir Johannes Henricus Brand, Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George, abbreviated GCMG ***
- Bergburgers by Leon Strachan; Tartan Boeke 2017 – ISBN 978-0-620-75393-7
2. Martin Hedges’ blog actonbooks
3. A Spanish blog with pages from the book dealing with their tribulations in Spain – a month on land which was arguably the toughest part of their journey!
4. Nilsen’s book ‘Leaves from the Log of the Homeward Bound, or Eleven Months at Sea in an Open Boat’. Here’s a reprint with a snappier title:
Two pages from the book: Arriving in Spain and walking in Spain looking for food or money or any help!
*** Enlightenment from the satirical British television program ‘Yes Minister’ season 2, episode 2, ‘Doing the Honours’:
Woolley: In the civil service, CMG stands for “Call Me God”. And KCMG for “Kindly Call Me God”.
Hacker: What does GCMG stand for?
Woolley (deadpan): “God Calls Me God”.
* The Lady Bruce, one of the twenty ships that brought Byrne settlers from the UK to Natal, arrived on 8 May 1850. The record says ‘their passage was a speedy one of 70 days.’ – Natal Settler-Agent by Dr John Clarke, A. A. Balkema, 1972. By 1887 the average time may have been shorter?
Amazingly, ferrocement boats had been invented forty years earlier, in France!