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“Feuerland”, a piece of Falklands' history returns to Germany

Thursday, April 6th 2006 - 21:00 UTC
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The Feuerland, a small ship with a great history in Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia and the Falkland Islands, finally is returning to Germany, where she was built in 1927.

The Auxiliary Ketch Penelope, for over seventy years a familiar sight around the Falkland Islands, has spent the last weeks in Stanley being re-painted and repaired before embarking on the third stage of a remarkable life story, encompassing a German war hero and explorer, the pioneering days of Tierra del Fuego and much of the Falkland Islands recent history.

This week, the 60ft ketch, now officially registered in Germany as a ship and reverting to her original name of Feuerland (Tierra del Fuego) will chug sedately out of Stanley's harbour bound for Büsum in the Baltic, where she was built in 1927 by Krämer, Vagt and Beckmann.

Described by her current owner and skipper, Bernd Buchner as "massively constructed" with oak planks and oak ribs and with an inner-lining for extra rigidity, Feuerland was built first to make the long sea journey from Germany to the Southern tip of South America and then to provide the floating headquarters and principal support for an extended expedition in that region.

The Feuerland's owner and the leader of the expedition was Gunther Plüschow, sometimes described rather misleadingly as a German First World War flying ace, a term which summons up pictures of the Red Baron tangling with the pilots of the Royal Flying Corps over the fields of France.

German Navy pilot in China

Plüschow was, indeed, a flier, but in the German Navy, and not in Europe. He was based in Tsingtau in the Northern Chinese province of Kiautschou, a German island naval base, which was being attacked and over-run by the Japanese and where pretty soon Plüschow's slow Taube reconnaissance plane was the only means of receiving intelligence of the enemy's movements.

When defeat was inevitable, Plüschow, variously known at this time as 'Dragon Master' by the Chinese or the Kaiser's One Man Air force, was ordered to attempt to escape with some secret documents. He took off in November 1914, heading for neutral mainland China where he crash-landed in a field.

Abandoning his wrecked plane, Plüschow began an epic journey, which took him at one point to the United States and then to Gibraltar where he was arrested after a chance inspection of the ship on which he was traveling. Taken under arrest to Britain, Plüschow became a prisoner of war at Donnington Hall near London, but later escaped.

After some weeks hanging around London Docks, disguised as a dock worker Plüschow managed to get a berth on a ship going to Belgium and from there back to Germany, the only P.O.W. to do so in the First World War.

Resuming his military service in July 1915, Plüschow appears to have spent the rest of the war, uneventfully, as a flying instructor. After the war and after writing two books about his adventures so far, Plüschow brought his twin passions for flying and adventure together in a project to conduct the first ever aerial survey of Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia, still, at that time, a land hardly known by Europeans.

The Feuerland had a central part to play in this as the tender to a small Heinkel float plane, Silberkondor (Silver Condor) which Plüschow had shipped out to South America from Germany. The idea, as explained by Bernd Buchner, to whom we are indebted for his account of this stage of the Feuerland story, was that at the end of the day's aerial survey work, the Silberkondor would find a beach by which to moor and wait for the arrival of the Feuerland with supplies of fuel and other essential stores. On board, also, was a dark room for the on-the-spot development of the day's film footage.

Death in Lago Argentino

The project, which was described by Plüschow himself in his book, Silberkondor über Feuerland, worked well technically and succeeded in getting the first film footage ever of many now famous landmarks, such as Chile's Torres del Paine. However, in the end funds began to run out and Plüschow eventually had to sell the Feuerland in order to return to Germany to try to re-finance the expedition.

Returning to South America in 1931, Plüschow resumed his aerial survey work, without boat support, but died with his cameraman, after a wing collapsed on what was otherwise a normal approach to a landing on Lago Argentino. The plane suddenly inverted and witnesses saw the cameraman fall first from the plane, clutching his parachute, which was torn from his hands when it opened. Plüschow was to follow, wearing his parachute, which sadly caught on the tail plane and dragged him down with the falling plane into the shallow lake.

During Plüschow's two years of absence the little seaplane had been stored in the warehouse of a freezing plant and it is thought that the wing's integrity may have been reduced by the un-noticed attentions of rats.

The second and longer phase of the Feuerland's life began when the ketch was acquired by John Hamilton, owner of farms in both Patagonia and the Falklands and brought over to Weddell Island, where his Falklands operation was based. Although now renamed Penelope, after Hamilton's daughter, the former Feuerland was still sailed for a long time by Paul Christiansen and Seppel Schmidt, who had been part of Plüschow's crew.

It was at this early stage of her long connection with the Falklands that Penelope went again to Patagonia at Hamilton's instigation to bring back to the Falklands an extraordinary Noah's Ark cargo of strange birds and animals, including skunks, rheas and otters, of which only the foxes and guanaco survived.

Skipper and new owner

From her arrival in the Falklands in 1929, this sturdy little vessel, Penelope, has taken part in many different episodes of the Islands history. She has known many skippers and crewmen, some of whom have been in their own way every bit as colourful as Plüschow. She has shifted sheep and horses to and from islands, carried evacuees from the Argentine invasion and taken whole settlement populations on picnics in the summer. Her foc'sle was where the writer first saw a boiled penguin egg and where many a young islander has sat wide-eyed around the stove listening to the salty tales of old hands, while the roaring forties screeched through the rigging outside.

Skipper and new owner Bernd Buchner is aware of the fact that while his ship's relatively short life as the Feuerland has been well documented, her many more years as Penelope have not been. This is evidenced by the fact that one of the most comprehensive accounts of the Falklands history of the vessel was written by an 11 year old, Megan Middleton, as part of a school history project. (Falkland Islands Journal 2001)

Bernd hopes that news of his journey and of Feuerland/Penelope's new lease of life will inspire people, who may have any stories, memorabilia or photographs connected to this gallant little ship to show them to the museum in Stanley so that its history in the Islands can be better documented.

While it is easy to see that Plüschow has been a hero of Buchner since boyhood, and that it is this connection which gives the boat a special place in his affections, he is also very aware of Feuerland/Penelope's place in the affections of many Falkland Islanders and of the important role it has played in the maritime and social history of the Islands.

Buchner, who is First Officer on the cruise ship Clipper Adventurer, first saw Penelope moored at West Point Island in the Falklands during a visit to land tourists to see the penguin and albatross colonies there. Although he says that at the time, "I just wanted to have an old boat for myself" he was not particularly sure what he was looking for.

However, when Bernd Buchner learned the vessel's identity from a fellow officer and particularly of her connection with Plüschow, a project began, which has already led him to make one long ocean journey from Germany in a similar small wooden boat, Condor, now owned and being used as a replacement by Penelope's former owner, farmer and sea-farer Michael Clarke.

Buchner's intention, once his prize is back in Germany is to restore her as far as possible to original condition and then use her. He is at pains to insist that this is not the end of Feuerland /Penelope, but the beginning of a new phase in her life. He even harbors dreams of a return, one day to the Falklands. Whatever happens, he says, "She is not yet ripe for the museum."

John Fowler (Mercopress) Stanley

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Categories: Falkland Islands.

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