Pamir was one of the famous Flying P-Liner sailing ships of the German shipping company F. Laeisz. She was the last commercial sailing ship to round Cape Horn, in 1949. Outmoded by more modern bulk-carriers, and having severe technical difficulties after her shipping consortium was unable to finance much-needed repairs and recruit sufficient capable officers, on 21 September 1957 she was caught in Hurricane Carrie and sank off the Azores, with only six survivors recovered after an extensive rescue effort.
She was the fifth of ten near sister ships. She was commissioned on 18 October 1905 and used by the Laeisz company in the South American nitrate trade. By 1914 she had made eight cruises to Chile, taking between 64 and about 70 days for a one-way trip from Hamburg to Valparaíso or Iquique, the foremost Chilean nitrate ports of the time. During World War I she stayed in port in the Canary Islands. Due to war conditions, she did not return to Hamburg until March 17, 1920.
In the same year she was handed over to Italy as war reparation. On July 15, 1920, she left Hamburg via Rotterdam to Naples towed by tugs. The Italian government was unable to find a deep-water sailing ship crew, so she was laid up near Castellamare, in the Gulf of Naples.
In 1924 the Laeisz bought her back for £ 7,000 and put her into service in the nitrate trade again.
She was seized as a World War II war prize by New Zealand on 3 August 1941 while in port in Wellington. She made ten commercial voyages under the New Zealand ensign: five voyages to San Francisco, three to Vancouver, one to Sydney, and one from Wellington via Cape Horn to London, then Antwerp to Auckland and Wellington in 1948.
She was returned to the Erikson Line on 12 November 1948 at Wellington and sailed to Port Victoria to load Australian grain for England. On her 128-day journey to Falmouth she was the last commercial sailing vessel to round Cape Horn, on 11 July 1949.
In 1950, Pamir was saved from the scrapyard by a German consortium who bought her and the Passat (thus often erroneously referred to as a sister ship). She was somewhat modernized, retrofitted with an auxiliary engine and used as both a cargo and school ship on the route to Argentina. However, the attempt to combine both functions and also to use the ships as maritime symbols of Germany failed. The ships were no longer profitable as freighters, and Pamir had increasing technical problems such as leaking decks and serious rust. The consortium was unable to get donations or increased funding from German governments or shipping companies, and thus let the ships deteriorate.
There were also serious difficulties in getting officers - Johannes Diebitsch, the captain of the ill-fated last voyage, had no experience in command of a large sailing ship. His first officer, Köhler, was only 29 at the time of the last voyage, and wrote that he was "getting thin with anger" over the state of the ship and that he was intending to quit the ship's company after arriving home from the next voyage. Diebitsch was much criticised by his own crew for being a very harsh officer, and apparently tried to hide his inexperience in handling the ship by being very inflexible and uncaring of his crew's concerns and well-being.
On August 10, 1957 the Pamir left Buenos Aires for Hamburg with a crew of 86, including 52 cadets. Her cargo of 3,780 tons of barley was stored loose in the holds and ballast tanks, secured by 255 tons in sacks stacked on top of the loose grain. Records indicate that this was one of the major mistakes implicated in the sinking of the ship - she had been held up by a dockworkers' strike, and Captain Diebitsch, under severe pressure to set sail, decided to let the trimming (the correct storage of loose cargo so that it does not shift in the hold) be done by his own untrained crew. It was later found that he also had the ballast tank filled with barley. Even though testing of the roll period (the time the ship took to right itself after load transfers) showed that the ship was dangerously unsafe, Diebitsch decided to sail.
On the morning of September 21, 1957 the ship was caught in Hurricane Carrie before shortening sails. It was later considered that because the radio officer had also been given substantial administrative tasks (to save the money required for another officer's position), he had likely not received any of the radio storm warnings. Pamir had also not responded to radio hails by ships that had sighted her earlier in the voyage. She soon listed severely to port in the sudden storm. As hatchways and other openings were not closed at once, they probably allowed considerable amounts of water to enter, as found by the commission who examined the probable causes of the sinking. The shipping company's lawyer at the investigation claimed that the water entered the ship due to a leak. According to the commission, the water caused her to list further and the grain cargo to shift, which aggravated the list.
The captain did not order the flooding of her grain-filled ballast tanks, which would have helped her to right herself again. Once she listed severely, the lifeboats could not be deployed anymore because her port side was under water and her starboard side was raised to an angle that did not allow use of the boats.
Pamir was able to send distress signals before capsizing at 13:03 local time, and sinking after drifting keel-up for 30 minutes in the middle of the Atlantic 600 sea miles west-southwest of the Azores at position . Three damaged lifeboats that had come loose before or during the capsizing and the only liferaft that had been deployed did not contain any provisions or working distress signal rockets were drifting nearby. Many sharks were later seen near the position.
A nine-day search for survivors was organized by the United States Coast Guard cutter Absecon, but only four crewmen and two cadets were rescued alive, from two of the lifeboats. It was reported that many of the 86 men aboard had managed to reach the boats, but most died in the next three days. Cadet Eckart Roch, a member of the crew on the outward journey to Argentina, did not sail because a severe fall forced him to stay behind in a Buenos Aires hospital. As none of the officers nor the captain survived, the reasons for the capsizing remained uncertain.
The shipwreck was perceived as a tragedy around the world and received extensive but not always accurate press coverage. For example, the The New Zealand Herald reported the following fabrication mixing the real event with imagined details, supposedly directly based on the survivor "Gunter Hasselback" (his real name was Günther Haselbach):
The facts as reported by the survivors and established by the Seeamt Lübeck, the German authority that investigated the sinking, are that Haselbach was the only survivor rescued from the second lifeboat, not one of the five survivors found together as the article suggests; Pamir had a barley, not wheat, cargo. It is not certain when the grain cargo shifted; the official opinion of the investigation indicated it was early in the storm, but others have suggested it shifted only at the very end; the cadets had already gone from Hamburg to Buenos Aires before they started the return trip.
The survivors reported that crew and cadets stayed very calm until close to the loss of the ship because the ship was not believed to be in difficulties - cadets were still taking photographs, and supposedly some complained when ordered to put on life jackets. Even at the very end, there was no panic. Pamir was not going head into the wind at any time, and her engine was not used.
She was mounted more and more to the wind, with waves, which were coming somewhat more from abaft (behind), hitting roughly from the side. Radio contact was maintained until the end. She sent her last audible SOS call at 12:54 and an indecipherable one at 13:03; she was capsizing around this time. At least one lifeboat broke free before the capsize; others detached briefly before or during the capsizing and sinking. Nobody boarded a lifeboat before she capsized, and nobody jumped overboard: when Pamir capsized, all 86 men were still on board.
Pamirs masts did not break nor did any yards or anything else fall down, so nothing was dragging to the side. Some sails were left until they were blown out, but others were shortened or cut off by the crew; the headsail had to be cut with knives before it would blow out. The boat that Haselbach reached was badly damaged (as were the other two that were salvaged) and almost entirely submerged when he was rescued. When she sank Pamir still had set about a third of the mizzen sail and some tarpaulin in the shrouds of the mizzen mast.
Nothing indicates that four boats were manned - the existence of a third manned boat is only assumed, mostly on grounds of survivors' reports of seeing flares one night. Of the 20 or 22 men who were originally on Haselbach's boat, ten were still on board 24 hours before he was rescued, after the hurricane dissipated. The rescue aircraft could be deployed only after the storm had calmed down. The official documents, including a report by Haselbach during the hours after he was found, say nothing about people screaming when they left the lifeboats.
In addition, Pamir was not last of the ‘P’ Line, as the subtitle suggests. Passat was still in service, and other ‘P’ Liners still existed but not under sail, including the Kruzenshtern (ex Padua) (the only ‘P’ Liner still under sail (again) as of today), the Peking and the Pommern.
Some accounts of the loss of the Pamir, mostly online, are based on earlier false coverage.
In a tragically ironic twist of fate, the last voyage of the Pamir was the only one in her school ship career during which she made a profit, as the insurance sum of about 2.2 million Deutschmarks was sufficient to cover the company losses for that year. While there was no indication that this was the intention of the consortium, which was never legally blamed for the sinking, it was considered much later by researchers that through its neglect it was at least strongly implicated in the loss.