Gustaf Erikson and The Windjammers

The Aland Island’s Shipping History

For hundreds of years, the shipping trade has been inextricably tied with the economic and cultural history of the Aland Islands. Since gaining autonomy in 1920, the Aland Islands became a base for the largest oceanic commercial sailing ships in the world that embarked on the wheat route, often coined ‘The Great Grain Race’. The final, iron-hulled iterations of the sailing ship, informally known as ‘Windjammers’, were used to transport wheat from Southern Australia, across the Atlantic, to Europe.

The Windjammer

The production of sailing ships can be traced back to as early as 3000 BCE, but it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that we began to see ‘Windjammers’. Primarily manufactured between 1870 and the early 1900s, the iron-hulled Windjammers were the last evolution of the classic sailing ship. They had between 3 to 5 masts, and with capacities reaching 5000 tonnes, they were the largest merchant sailing ships of their time, purposefully built to carry huge quantities of cargo.

It was also during this period that the development of steam-powered vessels slowly began to drive the sailing ship towards extinction. Steamships had existed since the early 1800’s, but the amount of coal required to make long distance journeys meant that they were never commercially viable. In the 1860’s, innovations in fuel efficiency allowed steamships to make Trans-Atlantic voyages with enough room for both fuel and cargo. The classic tall sailing ship was gradually becoming obsolete.

However, there was one man who still believed in the utility of the sailing ship.

Gustaf Erikson – One of the Last Tall Ship Sailors

Gustaf Erikson was born in Lemland, a municipality of the Aland Islands, in 1872. He was a born and raised sailor, first working as a cabin boy on the barque Neptun at the tender age of 10 years old. A decade’s worth of nautical experience was put to good use when he captained his first ship, Adele, in 1893 at just 20 years old. Under Erikson’s command, the sailing ship made two voyages to Morlaix.

His sailing horizons were broadened further in 1900 when he went on to obtain his licence of high sea-going master, which gave him free reign of the world’s oceans. That same year Erikson took command of a barque named Southern Belle, closely followed by a square sail ship called Albania in 1906, and then another barque (and former square sail ship) named Lochee in 1909.

By this time, society had well and truly entered what is considered to be ‘The Age of Steam’. The years prior, spanning from 1571-1862, were a period often referred to as the ‘The Age of Sail’, denoting an era in time when international trade via sailing ships and naval gunpowder warfare was at its peak. However, due to vast industrialisation across Europe throughout the 1800’s, by the end of the century things had changed drastically.

One Man’s Belief

Nonetheless, Gustaf Erikson affinity to the sailing ship pervaded all obstacles. He couldn’t shake a lifetimes worth of sailing experience, and in 1913 he made the decision to invest in sailing ships and become shipowner in the nearby capital Mariehamn. It was this year that Erikson bought his first ship, Tjerimai, a wooden three-masted barque. He also purchased Renee Rickmers which he renamed Aland. Tjermai served Erikson well until 1925 when she was lost in the North Sea, Aland on the other hand, was stranded in front of Wellington just a year after its purchase.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Erikson’s livelihood was at grave risk but he was incredibly lucky, losing just a few of his ships. Over the next few years, he added to his beloved collection, buying the majority of the Professor Koch and Grace Harwar in 1916, the biggest sail ship in Finland named Lawhill in 1917, and the legendary Herzogin Cecilie in 1921.

Perhaps his most well-known investment, was the four-masted barque Pommern which he bought in 1923. This ship was previously owned by Ferdinand Laeisz of Hamburg, a seller Erikson often gravitated towards as he knew he owned very well kept ships. The Pommern was categorised as a ‘P-liner’, a type of sailing ship usually deemed too expensive for Erikson’s tastes, although he did go on to own the Pestalozzi, the Pamir and the Penang. The Pommern remains intact to this day, however, some of Erikson’s P-liners didn’t fare so well. Sadly, the Penang was reported lost at sea in 1941, and it wasn’t until 1971 that it was discovered the ship had been torpedoed by a German submarine.

Erikson’s ever-growing catalogue of ships toured the world, mapping various different routes across the oceans. However, his fleet was no match for the rise of motor ships, and by the 1930s, the only high sea course sail ships could complete was the Australian grain trade. Over time, this course became a race from the Spencer Gulf in Australia to Lizard Point in the United Kingdom; any voyage lasting less than 100 days was considered a ‘good’ time. In 1935, Erikson purchased his final sail ship Moshulu. Moshulu won the last ever grain race in 1939.For a conclusive record Erikson’s fleet, see links on the right side.

Erikson’s Legacy

The Second World War took its toll on Erikson’s fleet, with a large quantity of his sail ships getting blown up, sank by Germans or seized by foreign governments. After the war was over, Erikson’s ships, the Viking and the Passat made two last voyages for the grain trade whilst he made efforts to regain his seized vessels. Unfortunately, Erikson was never successful and died in 1947 at the age of 75.

After his death, his son Edgar attempted to follow in Erikson’s footsteps but was forced to sell the sail ships once they were no longer profitable. Nonetheless, Erikson’s impact on the shipping trade and significance to the Aland Islands culture is irrefutable. The Pommern can still be viewed today at the maritime museum in Mariehamn, where Erikson’s legacy will live on eternally.