‘Adolf Vinnen’ – Last great Sailing ship Wrecked on Cornwall’s Coast

“There is no sight like a sailing vessel ashore, nothing so eloquently tragic . . . Mechanically propelled vessels have not the personality and even when stricken upon the rocks they do not make an appeal to the heart as do their more graceful sisters of the wind.”

Western Morning News, 27th April 1936

When the Adolf Vinnen set sail on her maiden voyage from Bremen to Barry in 1923 she was in many ways already a relic. The age of sail, the time when the empires of Europe ruled the waves and world through the power of the wind and canvas, was pretty much a bygone era and the rise of the combustion engine was making sailing ships of her calibre obsolete. And unfortunately for the Adolf Vinnen her first voyage would also be her last.

A Disastrous Night

On the night of the 9th/10th February 1923 gale force winds and “deluges of rain” battered the entire United Kingdom. The next morning a number of wrecks and missing ships were reported. The trawler Britannia had sunk in Plymouth Sound, the trawler Premier of Grimsby was wrecked at Scarborough, the Swedish schooner called Mangen sank in the North Sea and the steamer, Diane, returning to harbour full of fish was wrecked at Aberdeen. But the one shipwreck that really made the headlines over the next few days happened close to Lizard Point. The Adolf Vinnen, a magnificent five-masted sailing ship, had come to grief on the rocks at Bass Point. The battle to save her crew had the nation’s newspaper readers holding their breath over their boiled eggs and soldiers.

Western Gazette, 16th Feb 1923

The Adolf Vinnen

The Adolf Vinnen was one of five identical ships (the Carl VinnenAdolf VinnenChristle VinnenWerner Vinnen and Sussane Vinnen) built by Friedrich Krupp Germaniawerft of Kiel for the F. A. Vinnen & Co. The ships were intended to replace the fleet the company had lost during the war. She was 79m long, weighed 1525 tons and was propelled by sail and two 350 horsepower diesel engines (a hybrid!).

The Werner Vinnen – identical sister ship to the Adolf Vinnen

Friedrich Krupp Germaniawerft were one of the largest and most important shipbuilding and armaments companies in Germany, producing hundreds of U-boats in Kiel during the First and Second World Wars, while F. A. Vinnen & Co are a cargo shipping company founded in 1819 that still exists today.

The company that built the Adolf Vinnen was named after Friedrich Adolf Krupp who had inherited the business in 1887 from his father. F. A. Krupp & Co had complete control over the manufacturing of all the warships and much of the armaments in Germany in the early 1900s and Kaiser Wilhelm considered Friedrich indispensable.

Friedrich Krupp Germaniawerft

(I went down a MASSIVE rabbit-hole while researching Friedrich Adolf Krupp and his connections to Kaiser Wilhelm, and Krupp’s daughter Bertha who owned the firm in 1923, but I feel to include the various scandals here might distract from the main story . . .)

Maiden Voyage

When the Adolf Vinnen left Bremen under the command of Captain Muller she was empty and heading to Barry in Wales to pick up a cargo of coal. The weather deteriorated dramatically as she sailed down the English Channel and by the time she reached the Lizard she was in trouble. The ship was being driven ashore by a strong south-westerly wind and heavy seas. As the tragedy slowly unfolded, I always think of a shipwreck as a disaster in slow motion, a crowd of onlookers gathered to watch from the clifftop and seeing that the ship was now bound to run onto the rocks the Rocket Apparatus was sent for. At around 5pm the men at the Lloyd’s Signal Station also set off a rocket flare to call out the Lizard lifeboat.

adolf vinnen
View of the Lloyds Signal Station

Sadly the inevitable happened and the Adolf Vinnen hit the same stretch of rocks that three other ships had also found in the past few months – the SS Patrice, the Nivelle and the Clan Malcolm had all strayed to close too the shore with the same tragic consequences.

The Rescue

Because of the terrible, towering seas the lifeboat took more than half an hour to reach the ship despite the fact that she was on the rocks at Bass Point just a short distance from the lifeboat station.

“Mountainous seas were running and time after time the lifeboat was driven back. So high were the seas that on two occasions the lifeboat was almost hauled on to the deck of the Adolf Vinnen.”

Western Daily Press, 12th Feb, 1923

The coxswain that day was R. Stephens of Cadgwith, I believe, with Richard Roberts as 2nd coxswain and William Stephens and George Roberts from the Lizard as mechanic and 2nd mechanic. The lifeboat tried repeatedly to get near enough to the ship to save the crew but was repeatedly driven off. Eventually, despite the horrendous conditions, a line was successfully passed from the shore using the Rocket Apparatus and 20 of the crew were brought safely to land that way.

adolf vinnen
Postcard image from the 1920s

However, Captain Muller and four officers were at the aft of the ship and unable to reach the rope. On the Lizard Lifeboat Coxswain Stephens was starting to fear for the safety of his crew and was forced to retreat. They were unable to return to the Lizard station because of the “terrible seas” and made a run for Falmouth where the badly battered boat limped into port. Onboard the Adolf Vinnen the situation had worsened for the captain and remaining crew members.

“The gale increased in intensity, the captain and the officers lashed themselves to the mizzen rigging and their shouts for help could be heard from the shore.”

Western Gazette, 16th February, 1923

The sailors who had been rescued were taken to local homes for the night to rest, where they were given dry clothes and warm food. It is perhaps important to note here that this was a German crew just a few years after the end of the war, so the kindness they were shown is perhaps all the more remarkable.

The captain and the remaining crew stayed tied to the rigging all night but fortunately by morning the conditions had dropped enough that they could be winched ashore. In the end miraculously all of the Adolf Vinnen‘s crew were saved but the brand new ship was declared a total wreck. She was sold in April 1923 to the Western Marine Salvage Company of Penzance for just £41.

Captain Muller Tribute to his rescuers

In the aftermath of the wreck an enquiry was held at the Bremenhaven Maritime Court in May 1923. The court concluded that the disaster had occurred in part due to a faulty rudder but also because of the strong onshore current that no one could have foreseen. Captain Muller was cleared of any responsibility and the court praised the conduct of the crew and the bravery of those involved in their rescue. A small cash reward was paid to the men of the Lizard lifeboat.

adolf vinnen

On the 2nd January 1924 the Cornishman newspaper reported that Captain Muller and his new command, one of the Adolf Vinnen‘s sister ships, regularly sailed passed the place where his life had hung in the balance. The captain, the paper wrote, would show his gratitude in a rather unusual way . . .

“A striking instance of the gratitude of a German sea captain to the Cornish folk who rescued and befriended him and his crew when shipwrecked is reported from the Lizard . . . The captain, named Muller, has now been given the command of the sister ship of the ‘Adolf Vinnen’ and has since frequently passed the scene of his earlier disaster. On such occasions he brings his schooner as close inshore as possible and dips his flag in appreciation of the warm-hearted hospitality and kindliness of the Cornish folk to men who were their enemies a short time before.”

The Last Sailing Ship Wrecked on the Cornish Coast

In the Western Morning News in April 1936 there was an article mourning the loss of the romantic age of sail. In the piece the reporter cites the Adolf Vinnen as the last great tallship to be wrecked on Cornwall’s coast.

“And so the numbers decrease. Whether it is to the shipbreaker’s yard or to the shipbreaking rock, the result is the same. One by one these few ships are being taken from us, and it will soon be left only to the yachtsman to spread sails to the wind . . .”

The wreck of the Adolf Vinnen may have marked a kind of end of an era in Cornwall’s maritime history. A romanticised age of adventure which saw the loss of literally thousands of ships and men, that saw the Cornish reap the rewards of salvage but also risk their own lives again and again to save strangers in peril on their shores. This disaster, by no means, marked the end of shipwrecks on our coast or indeed the heroism of the men and women of the lifeboat crews. The sea will always claim her dues.

Further Reading

The Disastrous Final Voyage of the Cromdale

Cavalla Bianca – an unusual wreck in Penzance

Shipwrecked on the Cornish Coast

Cornwall’s Storm finds – Shipwrecks, Flotsam, Jetsam and Contraband

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