I was eleven, just into my second term at grammar school, when the saga of Captain Kurt Carlsen dominated the headlines for days on end. He was the Danish-born captain of the Flying Enterprise, a ship that under a previous name had seen service in World War II. The ship's cargo shifted in an Atlantic storm, causing the ship to list heavily, in danger of sinking. With his ship at an angle of 45 degrees, Carlsen had evacuated his passengers and crew, but opted to remain and attempt to save his ship. Over the days we all saw front page photographs and newsreel footage of the ship leaning at an ever-increasing angle, making it only about 10 degrees over the water. We later read that it had been carrying, amongst other cargo, 5 tons of zirconium intended for the world's first nuclear powered submarine, the USS Nautilus.
A tug went alongside and managed to attach a tow line, and Carlsen's first mate opted to rejoin the ship to assist his captain. The saga dominated our school conversations as well as the news headlines. Would they make it? For 13 days we all held our breath. He made it into the Channel, with the ship practically on its side, but a fierce storm caused the tug to separate its line to avoid both ships being sunk, and the Flying Enterprise went down only about a mile from safety.
Carlsen was the stuff that heroes are made of. He declined £100,000 for his story from the Daily Express, and half a million dollars from Hollywood, saying, "I don't want an honest seaman's attempt to save his ship used for any commercial purposes." His first mate seems to have been less fastidious, because newspaper advertisements appeared showing him endorsing a brand of woollen cardigans.
Carlsen himself was awarded the honour of a ticker-tape parade through New York, an unheard of honour for a merchant sea captain. He went back to sea, and when he died in 1989 in comparative obscurity, his ashes were scattered, as he had requested, over the spot where the Flying Enterprise had found its last resting place.