Olaf, the Viking Cat

An old maritime superstition was that if a mascot was lost at sea, a member of the crew would be lost shortly thereafter. Even worse, a lost mascot on a maiden voyage spelled constant disaster for the ship in the future. That is why when Olaf the cat fell overboard on the Sud Americano’s maiden voyage from Kiel, Germany, to Brooklyn, the captain and crew did not hesitate to attempt a daring rescue.

Olaf was described in The New York Times as a “blond Viking” who attached himself to the sailors of the South American liner, Sud Americano. The twin-screw steamer was built in Kiel, and was scheduled to go into service as an express passenger and freight liner out of Brooklyn to Rio de Jeneiro, Montevideo and Buenas Aires. Sud Americano and its sister ship, Sud Expresso, were operated by Garcia & Diaz, of Pier 44 in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Redhook, Brooklyn, Piers

The Dutch established the village of Red Hook (Roode Hoek) in 1636, making it one of the earliest areas in Brooklyn to be settled. The area was named for its red clay soil and the hook shape of its peninsular corner that projects into the East River. By the 1850s, Red Hook was one of the busiest ports in the country.

On the morning of July 2, 1929, Olaf fell overboard while sunning himself amidships. According to the August 1929 issue of The Lookout, which was published by Seaman’s Church Institute of New York, the watchman cried out, “Cat overboard!” and Captain Boettger ordered an immediate rescue. The chief officer and six seamen manned a lifeboat in record time and pulled at the oars hard, turning the boat toward the small dark object bobbing up and down in the waves.

In spite of the heavy seas, Olaf swam courageously until his rescue. Upon returning the waterlogged Olaf to the ship, two “hefty Norwegian sailors,” under the direction of the second mate, T. Anderson, started pumping air into his lungs and salt water out, following instructions for humans in the ship’s first-aid manual. After resuscitating the cat, the sailors wrapped Olaf in a blanket and brought him to the engine room to dry out.

International Lifeboat Race New York

The annual International Lifeboat Race in New York featured 8-men crews in lifeboats that weighed about 5,500 pounds or more.

Several days after the rescue, the Sud Americano steamed up to Pier 44 at the foot of Conover Street, with Olaf reportedly standing in the bow, head and tail up, purring. Following a few days in Brooklyn, Olaf and his crew sailed off on July 12 for Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, and Buenos Aires with Captain Anders Nielsen at the helm.

Pier 44 Red Hook Brooklyn

Today Pier 44 features a waterfront garden and Waterfront Museum. For more information, click here to take a tour of the Red Hook Pier 44 Waterfront Garden with the Flatbush Gardener.

Rescue Prepares Crew for Lifeboat Race

Two months after Olaf’s rescue, the crew of the Sud Americano took part in the third annual international lifeboat race on the Hudson River. The race was sponsored by the Neptune Association, an organization of shipmasters and dock officers who recognized the need for better lifeboat skills for rescue and emergency work at sea.

On September 2, 1929, crowds of people lined up from 86th Street to 126th Street to watch the crews from various passenger ships compete in the two-mile race. As reported in The New York Times, the Garcia and Diaz lifeboat crew from the new motor freighter Sud Americano pulled to victory against seven competitors, with a winning time of 17 minutes and 11 seconds.

Sud Americano twin-screw motorship

The Sud Americano was a 7,000 gross ton twin-screw motorship built by the Deutsche Werke, Kiel, in 1928, for the Norwegian A/S Linea Sud Americano.

On September 6, William H. Todd of the Todd Shipyards Corporation presented the Todd lifeboat racing trophy to the crew at a luncheon aboard the ship at Pier 44. Captain C.A. McAllister, president of the American Bureau of Shipping and referee, inferred that the crew may have won because they were all under the age of 30 and “they were Norsemen whose ancestors were rowing boats while some of ours were shooting bows and arrows.”

Perhaps the crew of the Sud Americano won because they had recent lifeboat practice with Olaf the cat?

The Sud Americano Meets German Sub U-558 in 1941

Shortly after the Sud Americano went into service, she and her sister ship were returned to their builders in Kiel for failure to reach the contracted speed. The ship was renamed Schleswig and some time later, was under charter to the Blue Star Line of London as Yakima Star. In 1934 she was re-engined and lengthened; her two funnels were replaced by a single one, and she renamed Weser for Norddeutscher Lloyd, Bremen.

In October 1940 she was captured while attempting to run the British blockade by HMCS Prince Robert. The Weser was taken over by the Ministry of War Transport, handed over to Merchant Marine Ltd, Ottawa, and renamed Vancouver Island . This was to be her last name.

On October 15, 1941, Vancouver Island was torpedoed by German submarine U-588 under the command of Günther Krech. The ship sank in the North Atlantic west of Ireland. On 31 October, a lifeboat with the bodies of two officers from the ship was found by a British warship. Master Eric Lacey Roper, 64 crew members, eight gunners, and 32 passengers were lost. There was no mention of a mascot.

Günther Krech

Kapitänleutnant Günther Krech sank or destroyed 19 ships during World War II, mostly in the Atlantic and in Caribbean waters. U-588 was sunk by US aircraft on 20 July, 1943, in the Bay of Biscay. Krech was one of only five men to survive the sinking, but he spent several years in Allied captivity.