Germans probe mutiny claims aboard death plunge naval ship
German defence officials have ordered its navy's prestigious three-masted training-ship to break from its round-the-world voyage and dock in Argentina, as ministry staff flew in to investigate reports of a mutiny after a female recruit plunged to her death.
The Gorch Fock, a traditional square-rigged sailing ship, is the pride of the German navy and has been used for training recruits since 1958. But a leaked parliamentary report has revealed that crew members mutinied against officers after the cadet fell 80ft from a mast and died from her injuries.
"These are grave allegations," a member of the defence ministry's naval staff said yesterday after investigators boarded a plane for Argentina. "We are doing everything humanly possible to clear this matter up."
The report by Hellmut Königshaus, the parliamentary liaison officer to the navy, said that after the 25-year-old's death in November last year, her shipmates refused to obey orders to climb into the rigging. "They did not want to go aloft after the painful loss of their comrade," the report said. "Others did not want to continue on the Gorch Fock."
The ship's captain, Norbert Schatz, was reported to have accused four officer-cadets of "lack of co-operation with the ship's command" and ordered them to be flown back to Germany claiming they had "mutinied and incited the crew".
The parliamentary liaison officer said the cadets were put under "great pressure" to climb the rigging of the ship to take in or set its sails. One instructor was alleged to have told them: "If you don't go up, you'll fly home the next day."
Captain Schatz was also reported to have commented about present-day navy cadets' reluctance to climb the rigging. "As a boy, I used to climb the cherry trees in our neighbour's garden but I was always down quick enough when he came out," he said. "Young people don't sit in cherry trees any more, they sit in front of computers."
The alleged mutiny is thought to behind the captain's decision several days later to fly the entire ship's company of 70 officer-cadets back to Germany from the Brazilian port of Salvador de Bahia. The Gorch Fock's cadet crew was replaced by professional sailors and the navy ordered all sail-training aboard the vessel to be suspended indefinitely.
The ship had been on a return voyage to Germany via Cape Horn when it was ordered to turn round and make for the port of Ushuaia on the southern tip of Argentina.
The Gorch Fock, which was built in 1958, replaced an earlier ship of the same name that was constructed and used by the navy of Nazi Germany. The vessel has an auxiliary engine but its whole ethos is sail-power.
Cadets spend three weeks learning to climb the masts and yards in harbour before doing so at sea.
They go aloft without safety lines, but wear harnesses which they clip on to the rigging once they are ready to take in or set the sails. A German navy spokesman said: "We teach them the old rule: one hand for yourself, one for the ship when going aloft. It's the only way of doing it."