Space: the final fron— WHOOPS! That line refers to a very different Enterprise from the ones I’m presenting here! Instead of the fictional Captain Kirk, Mister Spock, and Doctor McCoy, I offer the true stories of Captain Kurt Carlsen of the Flying Enterprise, and Chief Officer Leslie Sabel and Assistant Boatswain Mark Stanley of the Herald of Free Enterprise. Of the three men, one reached levels of bravery worthy of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, while the other two behaved in less than exemplary fashion. Though the actions of these men are decades past, the ways in which they performed their duties continue to serve as lessons for us all.
The S.S. Flying Enterprise was a freighter that largely sailed the waters of the North Atlantic. On December 25th, 1951, the vessel sailed through a raging storm and encountered a deadly rogue wave that rammed against it so hard, it caused her deck and steel hull to develop fractures. The wave broke the ship! Her captain, (Henrik) Kurt Carlsen, then took matters into his own hands. He repositioned the cracked ship such that the effects of wind and rain caused little additional damage, and he set a southerly course for a friendly port.
As the Flying Enterprise steamed toward safety, Carlsen knew the ship’s structure needed reinforcement, so he ordered his crew to patch the ship with cement and bind it together with cables. (On a side note, the ship had several passengers at the time, and I can only imagine the terror they felt upon seeing the ship held together by cables and patches while at sea.) Amazingly, all seemed to be working in Carlsen’s favor as the ship held together and drew ever closer to safety. Then came the morning of December 28th.
Incredibly, another massive wave, possibly another rogue wave, blasted against the ship with devastating force. The power of the enormous wave tossed the ship and its cargo to the left (port) side, putting the Flying Enterprise into an impossible 45-degree angle from which it could not recover without assistance. Faced with a crippled ship and its desperate crew and passengers, Carlsen radioed for help. The message that came back to him was grim: the closest ship that could help was approximately one day away.
Assistance came on December 29th, and nearly all passengers and every crewmember aboard the Flying Enterprise were safely evacuated. Carlsen believed the Flying Enterprise was not beyond saving, and in one of the truest exhibitions of sheer bravery ever seen, he remained aboard the ship fully aware that it could sink at any moment and send him plunging to his doom. His belief in his ship was unshakeable. All she needed, thought Carlsen, was a tugboat to pull her to safety.
On January 3rd, 1952, a tugboat arrived, and Carlsen tried to secure its tow line to the Flying Enterprise, which was then at a 60-degree list to port. He was unable to secure the line due to the ship’s extreme angle in the water, so Kenneth Dancy, the chief mate of the tugboat, bravely jumped onto the Flying Enterprise and worked with Carlsen to secure it. Success! Pulled by the tugboat, the ship again headed for safety. Then came January 9th.
Another storm lashed the ship and the towline snapped. Carlsen and Dancy made several attempts to attach another line to the Flying Enterprise, but nature’s fury defeated their every effort. Finally, on January 10th, the ship turned a full 90 degrees onto its port side and began to sink. Carlsen and Dancy jumped from the ship even as it started to disappear beneath them, and the crew of the tugboat luckily pulled the men from the sea.
For his exhibition of seamanship, leadership, and a never-say-die attitude that would not accept defeat until his ship met its tragic end, Captain Kurt Carlsen became a celebrated figure of heroism. He received many honors that included a ticker-tape parade along New York City’s fabled Canyon of Heroes and given command of a new ship, the Flying Enterprise II. After he passed away in 1989 at the age of 75, he was buried at sea above the wreck of the original Flying Enterprise.
Now it is time to move on to the stories of men whose actions were the polar opposites of brave Captain Carlsen’s. The men, Chief Officer Leslie Sabel and Assistant Boatswain Mark Stanley of the ferry Herald of Free Enterprise, were directly responsible for a maritime tragedy that caused the deaths of 193 people. The fact so many people died is horrible. That two men were largely responsible for those deaths is unforgivable.
Launched in 1980, the Herald of Free Enterprise carried people and vehicles across European waters largely without incident until the night of March 6th, 1987. On that date, she left a Belgian port en route to the United Kingdom, and she was laden with the 80 members of her crew, 459 passengers, and 131 assorted vehicles. As the ship proceeded through the waters of the Port of Zeebrugge, it became increasingly unstable and uncontrollable. The officers and crew struggled frantically to regain control but to no avail. They were unaware that the actions of two of their fellows were about to send the ship to a watery doom.
The Herald of Free Enterprise was a roll-on/roll-off ferry equipped with a cavernous interior and huge vehicle loading doors located at its front (bow). The doors were required to be closed when the ship was in motion, but on March 6th she traveled with her loading doors open. Wide open. Water poured into the ferry through the open doors and flooded the vehicle storage area, destroying the vessel’s stability in the process. The ship then rapidly capsized, and it was sheer luck that it did so while over a sandbar that kept it from fully going to the bottom.
So, what was behind this tragedy? What force caused such death and destruction? What turned a massive ferry into an unplanned artificial reef?
Assistant Boatswain Mark Stanley was the man responsible for closing the vehicle loading doors prior to departure, and Chief Officer Leslie Sabel was tasked with verifying the doors were closed. That’s what they were supposed to do. However, instead of doing their jobs, Stanley remained asleep in his quarters and Sabel failed to verify that Stanley’s work was done. Sadly, everyone aboard paid a price in terror, death, or both for Stanley’s and Sabel’s mutual lack of any sense of duty.
To his credit, Assistant Boatswain Mark Stanley admitted to maritime authorities that he slept through his duty period. Conversely, Chief Officer Leslie Sabel claimed he thought he saw a man dressed in crew clothing near the open doors that he believed was Stanley, so he assumed the huge vehicle loading doors were closed. That, dear reader, was his excuse.
The actions of Captain Carlsen and the above men of the Herald of Free Enterprise speak to us still. Carlsen was (and is) a person that parents, teachers, and counselors could use as a role model. Although his valiant efforts to save the Flying Enterprise were eventually met with failure, it was his courage and determination that still echo across the decades. Carlsen’s dedication is relatable to every struggling student, to every child trying to communicate through the difficulties of spectrum disorders, to every employee trying to advance in challenging workplaces, and more.
As for Stanley and Sabel, their failures to perform their duties also speak to us from across the decades. Like Captain Carlsen, they stand as enduring symbols, but in their case, they stand for everything to avoid when given duties to perform. Stanley and Sabel stand for laziness, presumption, arrogance, and the dereliction of duty. Their actions, or lack thereof, are lessons in the severe and wholly detrimental effects of moral failures.
Together, the stories of the Flying Enterprise and the Herald of Free Enterprise are a comprehensive treatise on human behavior and workplace performance. Both teach the lesson that success is not guaranteed and that achieving greatness or lasting infamy are reflections of the determination one exhibits. In all things, stay strong and stay true to your beliefs, the stories say. It is for us to listen.
All the best,
Bell, B. (2017, March 6). Zeebrugge Herald of Free Enterprise disaster remembered. Retrieved March 6, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-39116394
Chicago Tribune. (2012, January 21). Memories of a very different breed of ship captain. Retrieved March 5, 202AD, from https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-per-flash-freightersink-0122-20120123-story.html
Pickhardt, F. (2019, May 29). Flying Enterprise, a story of one man against the sea. Retrieved March 5, 2020, from http://oceanweatherservices.com/blog/2015/12/23/the-story-of-the-flying-enterprise/
Salguero, C. (2012, January 23). A captain who stayed with his ship, Captain Kurt Carlsen, FLYING ENTERPRISE. Retrieved March 5, 2020, from https://portsidenewyork.org/portsidetanke/2012/01/captain-who-stayed-with-his-ship.html
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Ten22, (2017, October 2). The Herald of Free Enterprise, a Tragic Lesson in the Assumption of Safety. Retrieved March 7, 2020, from https://www.rs-online.com/designspark/the-herald-of-free-enterprise-a-tragic-lesson-in-the-assumption-of-safety