Remembering Denmark's “Titanic”
MS Hans Hedtoft was a Danish liner that struck an iceberg and sank on January 30, 1959 on her maiden voyage off the coast of Western Greenland. The only piece of wreckage ever found was a lifebelt. She remains the last known ship sunk by an iceberg with casualties.
Hans Hedtoft set sail from Copenhagen on January 7, 1959. Her voyage to Julianehaab, Greenland, was made in record time. She called at Nuuk, Sisimiut and Maniitsoq before returning to Julianehaab.
On January 29, she began her return journey. The 83-meter (272-foot) ship had 40 crew, 55 passengers and a cargo of frozen fish on board. The next day, she collided with an iceberg about 35 miles (56 kilometers) south of Cape Farewell, the southernmost point of Greenland.
A distress call was made at 13:56 (local time) stating that the ship had hit an iceberg at 59°30′N 43°00′W. The call was answered by USCGC Campbell, the West German trawler Johannes Krüss of Bremerhaven and another West German trawler. Within an hour, another message was sent stating that the engine room was flooded. At 15:12, it was announced that the ship was sinking. At 5:41 p.m., another message from the Hans Hedtoft said, "We are sinking slowly. Need immediate assistance." At 6:07 p.m., the Johannes Krüss picked up the faint traces of another SOS. The message was: "We now fall." No further transmissions were heard from the vessel.
Aircraft in Newfoundland were grounded by the weather and unable to assist in the search. On January 31, USCGC Campbell reported that conditions were the worst seen, and there was no sign of Hans Hedtoft or her passengers and crew. The search was called off on February 7.
The only piece of wreckage ever recovered was a lifebelt which washed ashore on the Faroe Islands some nine months after the ship sank.
As a result of the sinking, the airfield at Narsarsuaq, Greenland, which had closed in November 1958, was reopened.
Hans Hedtoft had been the Royal Greenland Trade (KGH) largest and newest ship. Like the RMS Titanic, she was said to be the safest ship afloat, being described as "unsinkable" by some. Like her more famous predecessor, she was state-of-the-art with a double steel bottom, an armored bow and seven watertight compartments. She also carried the latest navigational instrumentation and radio-equipped life rafts.
Some commentators have asked: Why did the passengers and crew not make any attempt to evacuate the doomed ship? The Hans Hedtoft carried three metallic lifeboats that could carry 35 people each, two 20-man lifeboats and four self-inflated rudder life rafts with automatic distress beacons. Perhaps they had hoped help would arrive. Perhaps the captain decided to keep everyone aboard until the last possible moment because the seas were too rough to attempt launching the lifeboats. Some have hypothesized that the ship capsized after being struck by a rogue wave.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.