- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 1, 2006


By Frank Delaney

Random House, $24.95, 336 pages


How’s this for coolness in the face of extreme danger? A severely damaged and listing freighter wallows alarmingly in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, blasted by freezing hurricane-force winds and tossed about by 40-foot seas, yet the captain has remained aboard alone with little food or drink or communication or light.

While awaiting the uncertain arrival of a salvage tug, he lays himself down to sleep in one of the few dry spots he can find — an angle between the steeply slanting walls and floor — but not without first changing out of his waterlogged clothes into dry pajamas.

In this book, Frank Delaney, a long-time broadcaster in Britain now living in the United States, gives us countless examples of the determination, self-possession and strength of mind and body of Capt. Henrik Kurt Carlsen, master of the freighter Flying Enterprise, but for pure sang-froid, that one takes the prize. It alone would justify his title, “Simple Courage,” if that quality weren’t exhibited over and over again by Carlsen and his fellow mariners.

In the depths of the winter of 1951-52, the saga of the American-registered Flying Enterprise captured the world’s attention with its elements of peril at sea and a captain who refused to abandon his floundering ship. Fifty-five years later it has lost little of its capacity to enthrall.

The excitement begins on Dec. 26, 1951, and, like the foul weather all across the North Atlantic, scarcely lets up for another two weeks (and 200 pages). After picking up cargo and 10 passengers in several European ports and heading for the United States, Flying Enterprise and its crew of 40 sailed into the teeth of an unrelenting storm bearing Force 12 winds (highest on the Beaufort Scale) and waves up to 60 feet.

Even Carlsen, a 37-year-old Danish-born American citizen and seaman of impeccable credentials and experience, was hard put to deal with the continuously deteriorating conditions. Slammed by one, and then another, “rogue” or “freak” wave, Flying Enterprise developed two fractures.

Though the crew was able through superhuman efforts to lash the fractures together to hold back the seas, the ship listed to 65 degrees. With the hurricane-strength storm persisting, Carlsen reluctantly sent out a distress signal.

From here it became a race with time and the raging Atlantic. Several vessels came to the rescue. Carlsen got the passengers and crew off — they had to leap into the mountainous waves and be plucked out by rescuers risking their own lives — but he resolutely remained, “the last man standing in a wintry, violent, and inundated prison.”

Carlsen believed that Flying Enterprise could be salvaged. Even after he knew a salvage tug was on its way, he declined pleas to transfer to one of the ships standing by.

Once the press got wind of the story, Carlsen, “a clean and gallant hero,” took over world headlines, somewhat in the mold of an earlier “one-man news story,” Charles A. Lindbergh. The story got even better when a crewman on the salvage tug leaped across the waves to Flying Enterprise to assist Carlsen with the tow hundreds of miles into port.

It goes almost without saying that, since we always turn on our heroes, the press eventually began to question its “Stay-Put Carlsen,” its “Captain Courageous.” Why wouldn’t he leave? Did he have something to gain financially? Did he have some super-secret cargo to guard? Did the shipping line order him to remain?

Mr. Delaney, now in his 60s and the author of the novel “Ireland” and other books, admires Carlsen tremendously and says he has carried this story around in his head ever since he followed it on the news when he was a boy in Ireland. He weaves his own thoughts and memories — including what Carlsen means to him as a father-figure — into the narrative, an addition that frankly is of marginal value to the subject and occasionally cloying.

Partly because of that, the last 40 pages or so, after we have learned of Carlsen’s fate, are a bit of an anticlimax. In general, though, the research — including the assistance of Carlsen’s widow and two daughters — is solid, and the writing maintains a tension appropriate to the tale.

Did Flying Enterprise make it into port? That is a matter of historical record, of course, but to reveal it would spoil the suspense for you. As to Mr. Delaney’s explanation of why Carlsen wouldn’t abandon ship, suffice it to say that he makes a good case for its being “a story of familial love.”

Roger K. Miller, a newspaperman for many years, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.

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