S.S Erma

This is an extract of the true story of 16 exiled Estonians, adults and children that sailed 8000 miles from Stockholm Sweden to Norfolk Virginia, in a 70 year old, 36ft 6ins timber yacht in 1945.


 “ Bring the line,” Harry shouted.

Lembit was already in the after cockpit lifting the ninty-foot coil of rope that had been presented to us in Fraserburgh. In a matter of seconds Harry tied one end of it to the bridle of the canvas bag. Paul took hold of the coil and walked forward, Harry following with the sea anchor. They stooped over the forward cabin as a toppling crest shot across the deck, then continued forward and tied the line to the windlass. At the same time Arvid put the helm up.

“Go to the halyard,” he said to Heino, “and when she swings into the wind, lower the jib.”

The Erma pivoted on her broad stern and slung her bow closer to the wind just as the next sea hit us. The Erma’s bows pointed upward and she was hurled astern as the big seas rushed by, then she was wrenched violently to starboard by the rearguard of the attacking waters. But by that time she had topped the hump and was slipping down over the back slope.

As soon as the jib started to slat Harry cast the sea anchor overboard. Like an elongated serpent with an evil green head, the canvas bag dashed away with its long, yellow line trailing. The next wave snatched it and carried it towards us for a moment, then left it behind. The line yanked taut, jerking the Erma’s bows down so that a gurgling thin layer rushed over her decks. However small, the sea anchor was strong enough to make itself felt.

Arvid left the cockpit and joined the others around the mast.

“Not so bad, after all,” he said. Harry did not say anything. He just kept looking forward, following the small, scarcely perceptible green spot ahead, and then staring at the bow of the Erma, tearing at it like a frenzied animal, ducked her bow. She shook from side to side as a stream of water spouted over her bows, but she kept level with the water.

“If she only stays hove to,” Harry said. “With her shallow…”He did not get further. A vicious sea, a bubbling part of an overhanging breaker, hit the Erma on her port bow with a high, almost metallic sound, hurling us broadside. Instead  of swinging back into the wind, she immediately started to veer away to port in a wide circle, the sea anchor being the center of it and the lines its radius, until she floated lengthwise in the bottom of the trough.

We fell into frantic action.

“Hoist the jib,” Arvid shouted, as he leaped to the helm. Heino and Lembit pulled on the jib with desperate yanks. Harry and Paul were up in the bow, working hand over hand on the stubborn sea anchor.

We knew well enough that getting swamped when being broadside-to meant danger. And there it came, another huge hill, dark as night, streaked with a creamy net of froth, thundering and swishing.

“Watch out,” Arvid cried. Harry and Paul gripped the windlass. Frightened, I cast a quick glance at the crest above and noticed that it was not toppling over us. But anyway ….. We sidled up its steep side, the spray flew about us, the Erma heeled to starboard, whirled herself this way and that, and I hung on to the cabin top. Then it was gone, and we coasted down the slope.

“It didn’t break,” Lembit said with a sigh that sounded almost like a prayer. “We’re lucky.”

The jib was up and the boat under control again. The four men forward heaved on the last feet of the dripping rope and lifted aboard the sea anchor. So once again the Erma was sailing on her reverse course. Soaking wet, the five men stood in the cockpit eyeing the seas and clouds uneasily.

“It just didn’t work this way,” Harry said at last.

I looked at the big swell with something like relief. It didn’t seem half so perilous as it had before.

“I wonder how it would work from the stern,” Harry continued thoughtfully. “Although she’s a double ender, her stern is not as shallow as her bow. The keel has a depth of twelve inches right behind the rudder.”

“ But there is even less overhang than under her bow,” Arvid said. “The swamping might be more disastrous.” Both men were silent. Finally Arvid concluded, “We might as well try it.”

Harry tied the pointer to the middle of the main travellor, Arvid took the helm and steered the Erma before the wind, then Heino lowered the jib and Harry launched the sea anchor. This way was simpler and easier. The sack went dancing off over the wash of the waters. The line straightened out; every sea pulled the Erma deeper into the water, but the seas rushed by and did not come aboard. She did not go off broadside with every sideways push

For some time we watched the tug and tear between the boat and the sea anchor. After a while Harry said, “Seems all right” He sounded rather surprised.

Arvid nodded. He turned slowly away from the port railing.

“I think I’ll go below.”

“ I don’t know any particular reason why we shouldn’t all turn in,” Harry told us. We were soaked and cold, and as the Erma, secured by her sea anchor, needed no one at the wheel, we are glad to go. Harry cast one more look behind, then we all trooped down, and for the first time during the voyage the Erma’s decks were left alone.