On the night of 4 March 1890, towering waves rose out of the murky sea and slammed the rocky coast as a frigid snowstorm from the south-west raged across the Baltic, battering Bornholm. A few days after the storm, a solitary life ring washed ashore on the coast of Sweden. On it was printed the word ‘Jarl’.
The S/S Jarl was a cargo and passenger steamship built at the Helsingør shipyards in 1885, commissioned by Østbornholms Dampskibsselskab in Nexø. The steamer was built to navigate the shallow and narrow ports of north and east Bornholm and conveyed passengers, cargo and livestock.
No one knows for sure what actually happened that night back in 1890 when the S/S Jarl vanished as it sailed from Allinge to Copenhagen, carrying 26 passengers, more than 100 pigs, 35 head of cattle and a load of general cargo, equivalent to 9 tonnes. No one could describe the scene that played out on the ship when the 39-metre steamship went down that cold night in March. No one knew the exact position of the ship when it foundered, and no survivors were ever found. The event has always been shrouded in mystery, and the S/S Jarl was eventually dubbed ‘Bornholm’s Titanic’.
For more than 120 years, the wreck lay undiscovered at the bottom of the Baltic Sea, a silent tribute to the dead, concealing the story of a tragic shipwreck that kept families in suspense for generations. It was not until 2014 that two local amateur scuba divers, Lars Philipsen and Jesper Munk, managed to find and identify it at a depth of 52 metres below the surface.
Thirty minutes before midnight on 4 March 1890, S/S Jarl from Østbornholms Dampskibsselskab sailed out of the Port of Allinge. Captain Davidsen and his crew had called at Gudhjem to load passengers and cargo earlier that evening. During the approach to Gudhjem harbour, the ship had scraped the bedrock a few times, due to both the shallow waters and its heavy load. As the ship did not appear to be damaged, it continued towards Allinge. After leaving Allinge, the S/S Jarl should have kept sailing down the west coast of Bornholm to Hasle to load more cargo, but the ports along the west coast were closed because of the high winds. As a result, cargo had to be conveyed overland from Hasle to Allinge, where 14 passengers and 12 crew boarded the ship.
As the ship was being loaded in Allinge, Captain Davidsen received a brief visit from shipping assistant Erik Bohn. They talked in Davidsen’s cabin, and later Erik Bohn would recount how the captain seemed preoccupied and nervous, as if he had an unsettling foreboding. The captain, first mate Karl A. Hansen and the rest of the ship’s crew had sailed the route from Bornholm to Copenhagen on countless occasions since the ship’s launch in 1885 – even in rough weather. And the blizzard raging from the south-west – pummelling the seas into ferocious, towering crests and deep troughs of foam during the evening – was apparently not sufficiently worrying to cancel the crossing. Perhaps this was because Allinge’s location on the north-east side of the island under the lee of land prevented anyone from predicting the strength of the storm that was lurking in the notoriously hazardous Hammer waters off the northern tip of Bornholm.
Floating dead pigs were the first portents of the terrible tragedy at sea. In the early morning of 5 March, local fishermen saw dead pigs, cows and wreckage floating along the north coast of Bornholm. About the same time, an SOS was sent from Copenhagen when the S/S Jarl did not arrive as planned. As a result of this SOS message, the Erna – another steamship owned by Østbornholms Dampskibsselskab – was dispatched from Nexø to the area north of Bornholm to search for the S/S Jarl. But on 9 March 1890, Erna returned to Nexø with its flag at half-mast and a box of dead turkeys on board. S/S Jarl had been swallowed up by the Baltic without a trace. The only evidence of the tragedy that had occurred in the recently so treacherous waters around the Hammer peninsula were lifeless animals bobbing up and down on the dark blue surface of the sea.
In late October 2012, two local amateur scuba divers, Lars Philipsen and Jesper Munk, donned their scuba diving equipment as they had done many times before in the Baltic Sea around the Hammer peninsula. After years of investigating, collecting data and perusing the surviving accounts from local fishermen and victims’ families, they dived into the water again, driven by an indomitable dream to find the S/S Jarl. In the turgid waters over the muddy sea floor, they approached the big steamer that day, but they were unsure of what they had found. The wreck was more damaged than they had expected, but most of all, it was difficult for the two seasoned scuba divers to believe that they had actually managed to find the fabled S/S Jarl steamer. They observed several details about the wreck which gave them hope that they had actually found it. One was the wreck’s unique hull structure: it was narrow and relatively long compared to the width.
The divers repeatedly returned to the wreck in the dark Baltic depths, 52 metres below the surface. On one dive, they found the hub of the helm wedged between the ship’s planks. They cleaned it off and discovered that it was engraved with the year in which the S/S Jarl was built: 1885. It is highly unlikely that other similar wrecks built the same year are lying on the seabed around the Hammer and, encouraged by the other objects they had found, they were convinced that they had found the S/S Jarl. Lars Philipsen remembers cheering as loudly as he could underwater – at the bottom of the Baltic, with bubbles coming out of his mouth: “Woo-hoo! We bloody did it!” Because even on the sea floor with its poor visibility and enormous waters overhead, it’s hard to hide your excitement.
The cattle that went down with the ship also turned out to help identify the S/S Jarl. “We saw the luminescent white cow skulls with cropped horns. Back then, cattle were packed tightly together in the hold to keep them from injuring one another,” Lars Philipsen explains. “Today it is unbearable to imagine the noise and commotion of the animals on board as the steamer was foundering in the towering waves off the Hammer peninsula.”
When Lars Philipsen and Jesper Munk found the S/S Jarl, they also discovered that the rudder was missing, among other things. They never found it despite persevering searches. “We don’t know where or how it fell off. Perhaps it was damaged when it ran aground earlier in the evening, which we know happened at Gudhjem,” Lars Philipsen says. “With a cracked rudder it would have been impossible to steer the ship in the storm, which proved fatal.”
The exact coordinates of the S/S Jarl’s location remain unofficial out of respect for it being the final resting place of those who went down with the ship. The steamer lies peacefully on the sea floor, surrounded by the fauna comprising the biological diversity of the Baltic Sea. But on the sea floor around Bornholm there are hundreds of other wild wrecks which, like S/S Jarl, have fantastic stories to tell. Due to the Baltic Sea’s particularly low microorganism content, most of the wrecks are unusually intact. This means that they are not overgrown with algae, the materials are well-preserved, etc. They lie there exposed and accessible to amateur scuba divers. Many are old wrecks – such as the 19th-century schooner, ‘Affaire’, just one nautical mile off the coast of Aarsdale, standing upright on the bottom like a decorative aquarium ornament. Or ‘Ada’ from 1867, lying only 0.8 nautical miles from the old merchant’s town of Svaneke, which sprung a leak with a hold filled with linseed, causing the linseeds to swell up, weigh down the ship and sink it. But a wide variety of more recently wrecked ships are scattered about on the sea floor around Bornholm, too. One of the most popular scuba-diving destinations is the 76-metre Soviet Whiskey class submarine, three nautical miles off Hasle. It sank in 1989 on its way to being scrapped in Nakskov. Later on it became known as the Whiskey Wreck, and, like many of the other wrecks, its complete structure is exposed as it sits there on the bottom.
The Baltic Sea around Bornholm has exciting experiences and stories to tell below the surface. By joining the local scuba-diving club Calypso or taking part in one of the island’s many scuba-diving courses, it is possible to dive down and explore the many wrecks around Bornholm. And if you ask Lars Philipsen whether Bornholm has some of the best scuba diving waters in Denmark: “The water around Bornholm is clear, with reasonably good visibility most of the year. No matter what the weather is like, you can always go diving somewhere along the leeside of the island.”