Author: Tony Griffiths
The Duke of Edinburgh, writing from Buckingham Palace, was one of many to recognise the romantic and economic importance of the Gustaf Erikson fleet. Little remains of the seafaring tradition in the Swedish speaking Åland islands, a short ferry ride from Stockholm. But in its heyday, the little port of Mariehamn was home to the world's largest fleet of sailing ships, engaged primarily in the grain trade between South Australia and Europe. One of the most important vessels owned by Erikson was the Albert Rickmers. When Erikson bought it for 540,000 Finmarks in 1923 it had not celebrated its twenty-first birthday. Christened Penang when it flew the Finnish flag, the name of a beautiful island in South-East Asia was deliberately chosen by Erikson because of the signal importance of Malaya in the stragtegic thinking of the Nordic entrepreneurs. Penang remains a safe and central haven for those making passage from Adelaide to Stockholm, although there is now a new alternative, Malaysian Airlines www.malaysiaairlines.com. Malaysian Airlines started company life more or less at the same time Gustaf Erikson gave up the unequal struggle to compete with sail on the world's trade routes. Gustaf died just before his 75th birthday in 1947. The Duke of Edinburgh, visited Marienhamn on a State visit a year later in 1976 could not see the Penang, which went missing after leaving Port Lincoln in 1940, but its sister ship the Pommern still lies at anchor as a physical reminder of the strength and beauty of steel barks. As he sailed back to London in the royal yacht, the Duke, a fine seaman himself, ruminated on what he has just experienced, saying
There have been several other instances of relatively small communities becoming exceptionally successful and prosperous as trading and business enterprises. Each had their own key to success, but what they all seem to have had in common apart from the human qualities of hard work, shrewd common sense and the willingness to cooperate, was an economic system which gave full play to these qualities and actively encouraged the natural enterprise and will to adventure of their people.
The Duke could have been speaking of the Malaysian people who, like the Swedish speaking Finns of Åland, are an astonishing social and economic success story. When the chocks were away in Kuala Lumpur for the inaugural MH flight to Stockholm in 2004, an innovative and enterprising new service was on track to continue from Stockholm's Arlanda Airport and opening a new service to New York. This was not the first time Nordic travellers had visited America, as the Vikings are credited with beating Columbus by several centuries, but it certainly set new standards in the passage from Oceania through Malaysia to Europe and the new world.
While the last of the tall ships had vanished from active service by 1975, the Master of the Penang, Maurtiz Mattson was still hale and hearty in the mid 1970s. Like the other sea captains in the Gustaf Erikson fleet, he was given care of crew, cargo and the occasional passenger early in his professional life. The combination of a tough life at sea ,and a hard life on land, with the self confidence that stems from having the awesome responsibility of command, is shared today by the Malaysian Airlines flight crew, now flying 39,000 fleet above the old sailing ship routes taken by the Penang.
The Penang was the baby of Erikson’s fleet of 46 sailing vessels. It was a three-masted steel bark, built at Bremerhaven by Rickmers, not at Seattle by Boeing. It could carry a cargo of 3,250 tons and it was a little over 80 metres long, more or less the same length as a Boeing 777. Although, of course, Captain Mattson could not do a walk-around inspection to examine the marine equivalents of the nose wheel, the fuselage or check the hull for surface damage. Most of Erikson’s fleet had four masts, but the Penang was not outperformed in the annual grain race between Spencer Gulf in South Australia and the European ports where cargo was unloaded. Pommern made the fastest journey in 1933, but Penang took only a day longer. Travelling sometimes at an average speed of 14 knots it took Pommern 97 days, and Penang 98 to travel from South Australia to Europe with the bagged wheat. Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, is the first destination in the Malaysian list of global destinations and with an normal cruising speed of Mach 0.84 the Boeing 777 can shift passengers and a palletised cargo much faster to the Baltic than Gustaf Erikson's Pamir, Passat, and Herzogin Cecilie ever could. Mauritz Mattson faced the same elemental problems on his bridge travelling by sea as the captains and first officers on the flight deck do by air, headwinds and tail winds having considerable influence on routes and arrival times. With following winds, and all square sails set, the Penang could average 300 miles a day. Airline pilots have to deal with ice but not icebergs, and never have to completely change their flight plan, as the deep water sailing ships often had, to return to Europe via the Cape of Good Hope not Cape Horn when faced by "a nasty dead muzzler". There are no nasty dead muzzlers on Malaysia’s new route to the watery capital of Sweden. Stockholm still preserves in the Vasa Museum its ancient maritime history. But to sniff the breeze and feel the tar of the Penang, best to take a ferry to Mariehamn and visit the Pommern and the Åland Maritime Museum (http://www.maritime- museum.aland.fi/) where you can still walk on the deck of a sister ship to the Penang, mayby flying into Stockholm on a Boeing 747 also named Penang.