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Birk and the 1926 North Atlantic rescue operation

In most of her 22 year working life for Odfjell, SS Birk was a working horse that did not cause much attention. Except for the winter of 1926, when the actions of ship and crew created headlines far beyond shipping circles.

The SS Birk, acquired by Odfjell (then named AS DS Storli) in 1920, had a long life in our service. She never generated vast profits but certainly was a faithful work-horse throughout the inter-war period. When Birk met her tragic fate in 1942 after a torpedo attack, she had sailed for 22 years without any major incidents. Except one.

In the winter of 1926, on a voyage carrying coal from Antwerp to Philidelphia, Birk encountered a midwinter gale of the kind that only the North Atlantic can produce. Underway, Birk discovered Brask, a ship drifting helplessly with a broken rudder shaft and in desperate need of help.

The crew on Birk managed to place lines onboard Brask in an attempt to salvage and tow her to the Azores. But due to extreme headwinds and hurricane-force weather, the attempt was unsuccessful.

It took 25 days of dramatic salvage operations before the Brask was brought to safety in Dublin.

Behind this brief incident summary lies nearly one month of blood, sweat and tears for the crew on board both ships.

Shipping history: The Birk was acclaimed far beyond shipping circles after a rescue operation in 1926 ⎮ Odfjell

Birk. Photo from the Norwegian Maritime Museum

Day and night, the crew on both ships tried to secure both ships and bring Brask to safety. The extreme weather conditions caused the tow-lines to snap several times. The first tow-line consisted of two Manila ropes 11 inches in diameter, each 120 fathoms long. Then they tried two steel wires 4.5 inches in diameter and the same length as before. These broke as well, as did the two 2.5 inch wires.

In the end, both ships ran out of rope and wires that could be used as tow-lines. The only solution left was to use the Brask’s anchor chains, but the only way to get these onboard the Birk rapidly was to maneuver her alongside under extreme conditions. At times, the distance between the two ships was less than 25 feet. Upon arrival in Dublin the crews of both ships were completely exhausted.

In Odfjell’s records it is stated that:

“The Birk’s salvage operations were known and acclaimed far beyond our borders. The public at large followed the salvage operations from day to day via the media and newspapers. Our brave seamen were admired as heroes in their fight to save lives and cargo at sea”.

Birk was awarded a salvage fee of £6000 and the British judge “regretted that he was not empowered to raise the salvage even higher. He had never before heard about a more tiring and skillfully executed salvage operation”.

Based on excerpts from the book “Odfjell”, written by Atle Thowsen and Stig Tenold. 

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