She was modern – and disappeared nearly without a trace 40 years ago in a December hurricane in the Atlantic
December 12, 1978. The run-up to Christmas, typical dreary Hamburg weather. It’s still dark when the telephone rings at six in the morning at Hapag-Lloyd in Hamburg. The French coastal radio station Bordeaux-Arcachon communicates that the “München” made a distress call at 3.10 a.m. in the Atlantic Ocean and had been uncontactable since then. But it seemed impossible to imagine that something serious could have happened to the ship and its crew.
The “München” is no ordinary freighter. She is one of the biggest, most modern safest cargo vessels in the world. What could have possibly happened to this technically superb product led by an experienced crew?
In 1972, the “München” left the Cockerill shipyard in Hoboken, Belgium, near Antwerp: a whole 261 metres long, 32 metres wide, 37,134 GRT and fitted with a 26,000-horsepower engine, as well as the most state-of-the-art navigational and safety equipment. The maiden voyage sailed for 35 days from Rotterdam and Bremerhaven to Charleston, New Orleans, Houston and back.
This was followed by 61 journeys in liner service, on which the “München” repeatedly weathered strong storms unharmed – a ship, reliable and safe, that its crew trusted. And the 62nd, the Christmas journey of 1978, seemed completely routine. Under the command of Master Johann Dänekamp, the “München” left Bremerhaven in the direction of Savannah on 7 December. There were 28 people on board, 25 men and three women. The ship was fully loaded; the 83 barges were carrying 25,558 tonnes of cargo, mostly steel products.
Caught by the hurricane of the century
The weather was getting worse and worse. On the night of 12 December, just north of the Azores, the “München” fell into a storm area, which a British weather station called “monster of the month” and “hurricane of the century” – with wind speeds of over 150 kilometres per hour and 15-metre-high waves. There was no way to avoid it – the front extended from Labrador all the way to the Bay of Biscay. Nevertheless, the “München” radio operator Jörg Ernst wasn’t worried at all when he shared with his colleague from the German cruise ship “Caribe” around midnight that, “We’ve got bad weather. Bridge is damaged, portholes bashed in.” The two closed their small talk with “have a good trip and see you soon”.
Three hours later, everything is changed. At around 3.10 a.m., the radio operator of the Greek freighter “Marion” received a weak emergency call, more and more garbled by atmospheric interference: “SOS SOS SOS …“
Immediately early the next morning – led by British and French ports – began an impressive show of international teamwork and solidarity in the form of one of the largest search operations in the history of shipping.
Under the worst weather conditions, 13 planes and 110 ships from many nations combed through an area five times larger than Germany. But the “München” was missing without a trace. Her last reported position, as it turned out later, was wrong, so the rescuers first made it to the right accident area late.
Too late, because every hope of finding the ship still floating was shattered one day later, on 13 December, around 11 a.m., when the first signals from the EPIRB, the emergency position indicating radio beacon, were received. This buoy floats near a sinking ship and sends radio signals.
Rescuers have to give up their search just before Christmas
The „München“ is thought to have sunk about 30 hours after its emergency call. No survivors are found. All that can be found during the intensive ten-day search are three barges, four unused lifeboats, two life jackets and two life rings. The rescuers give up their search two days before Christmas.
“We can’t believe what fate has befallen us,” summarises the then Hapag-Lloyd speaker of the Board Hans Jakob Kruse of the public mood at a memorial ceremony in Bremen. “A big modern ship with an experienced, brave crew has sunk.” And the theme of all the resulting, comprehensive investigations and the Maritime Board’s inquiry are unanimous: it couldn’t have happened.
“It was impossible to explain the cause of the sinking with a sufficient degree of certainty,” judged the Maritime Board of Inquiry in Bremerhaven. “The cause was likely heavy sea wash, which led to the slow sinking of the ship and caused the loss of radio equipment and machinery.”
Was a “monster wave” to blame for the sinking? That, in the middle of the northern Atlantic Ocean, such an ancient force could simply smash the high-tech pride of the German commercial fleet remains the most likely explanation for one of the most puzzling losses in shipping history.