Love affair with a tall ship

By Melanie Peters Time of article published Sep 7, 2008

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The first time young merchant seaman Gena Hrywniak saw the schooner Commodore II it was love at first sight, even though the ship was in a terrible state of neglect in Cape Town docks.

Now 90, Hrywniak's memories of his affair with the sailing ship came flooding back after he learnt a picture of the ship's wrecked hull had been published in the Cape Argus on Friday. The ship sank off Milnerton Beach in 1946, and recent stormy weather uncovered its remains.

On Saturday, sitting in his lounge in a Somerset West retirement village, Hrywniak, a Pole who settled in Cape Town, described her last voyage when he had been an officer on board.

He has newspaper cuttings showing how she was stripped and her skeletal hull allowed to run ashore between Woodstock and Milnerton.

"I was so surprised to hear of the remains. I remember my last trip on the Commodore as though it was yesterday," he said.

Hrywniak has penned his memoirs and an American film company has shown interest.

The Commodore was built in America and gained fame after the movie Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Clark Gable, was filmed aboard it in 1935.

Hrywniak came to Cape Town just before the end of World War 2 to wait for the British Admiralty contractors to install anti-aircraft guns on his ship the Kosciuszko.

"Nothing can be more boring than an inactive vessel in port. With time on my hands I strolled daily in the port," he said.

That was when he came upon the Commodore II. She had reached Durban just before the war but her owner and captain had died and she was left in the port until the end of the war.

The ship was then seized by the local authorities and towed to Saldanha, where she became a floating coal hull for local coal-fired port units.

In 1945 the Commodore was bought for a song by a syndicate led by Fanie Jacobsz, the grandson of former president Paul Kruger, to be repaired as the only privately owned four-masted sailing ship in the country.

Hrywniak forged a firm friendship with Jacobsz. "I quickly noticed the large four-mast sailboat. I was struck by her strong construction revealing large logs from north America.

"With each new day I liked the ship more and more. I had no doubt that the object of my admiration must have been a beauty, although her incredible state of neglect made it difficult to believe she could hoist sail and prove her worth."

But Hrywniak was soon to find out. In 1945 she finally set sail for Buenos Aires and Jacobsz made him second officer. Later he became chief officer.

The 201-day voyage from Cape Town to Buenos Aires and back "was extremely eventful".

Hrywniak wrote that from the moment they left Cape Town he was "dogged by ill fortune".

The ship was grounded on a mud bank going up the River Plate. The damage to the hull took 40 days to repair. The Commodore also caught fire but fortunately it was quickly extinguished.

When they finally set sail for Cape Town and home, they hit a storm that damaged the schooner so badly it was its last voyage.

He wrote: "I could sense the terror as we entered the tranquil eye of the storm. In a fraction of a second the hurricane came at us with such fury during our fight to survive we wondered how long this ship of ours could take such an onslaught all hell had broken loose."

The mast, rigging, sails, food reserves and cargo were all severely damaged. The carpenter and crew made what repairs they could and the ship limped home.

There was a severe shortage of food and water. "One day we managed to catch a 3m shark - the cook assured us that in the East shark's meat was a delicacy and most savoury."

Closer to South Africa the weather deteriorated again. Near Cape Town, Hrywniak was nearly washed overboard but two shipmates saved him.

Then Jacobsz grew very ill and rarely came on deck. Hrywniak believes his opium addiction, which he succumbed to after breaking his spine in a plane crash, had taken its toll.

"But we were delirious with joy because we were going home."

They could not enter Table Bay Harbour because of a broken rudder, so they finally anchored in Simon's Town.

Later the Commodore was towed to Table Bay where it was stripped and left to the mercy of Milnerton's breakers.

Hrywniak wrote that his memories of sailing on the Commodore and all the adventures "will stay with me forever".

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