Pilot Steamer S/S Orion
The last remaining Swedish Pilot and Salvage Steamship
In the spring of 1928, Beacon Engineer J.A Hultman presented the drafts for the new Service Steamship S/S Orion to the Royal Swedish Pilot Service.
The Steamer, which was commissioned by the Swedish Parliament, was built at the Helsingborg Wharf in 1928. The ship measures 32 by 6 metres and has seven cabins, two salons, three mess halls, a galley, shower facilities and a cargo hold which have all been built to high specification.
Enginewise the ship was (and still is) fitted with a coal fired boiler and seven steam engines, all of which are still in mint condition. Apart from the main engine which is of the compound type, there are steam engines for the operation of the generators, the pumps and the anchor capstan. The ship, which is classified as a Salvage Steamship, remains the oldest of its kind in Sweden today.
Serious incident at sea trials.
The first testing was done at Öresund, outside Helsingborg Row. This included performing a stability test. When swung portside the ship lay on its side but did not rise again. The vessel was proven unstable with insufficient ballast and was towed back to the yard lying on its side and nearly sinking. Parallels can be made with the warship Vasa which of course proved a disaster. On April 10th, 1628, on her maiden voyage she capsized barely 1,500m into her journey close to Beckholmen in Stockholm. Vasa was also unstable in the same way and the whole thing was exacerbated by the open gun ports.
Both at sea and in the lake
S/S Orion was stationed in the then Eastern Pilotage District which ranged from Karlskrona in the south to Trosa in the North, also including Lake Vättern. She serviced that district from 1929 to 1956.
Her purpose was, amongst others, to retrieve and deploy buoys in our shipping lanes during spring and autumn, to supply gas to gas driven lighthouses and execute hydrographical surveys as well as servicing the general shipping with for instance, towing and icebreaking.
A strict class community
The ship’s Commander was a Director of the Pilot Service or Pilot Inspector.There also served a First Mate, an engine-man, a stoker with his aid, a cook with mess hall duty and four men served on deck.
In the Swedish seafaring newspaper “Svensk sjöfartstidning“ of 1928, in which the ship was introduced for the first time, there was an article done on the S/S Orion and in it you could read how the cabins were outfitted depending upon the intended users social status aboard the ship. The Commander’s cabin was designed in Mahogany, the officers cabins in polished Oak, while the crew would have to make do with Pine.
The Captain alone used half of the living space aboard the ship including a private mess hall. The officers and crew shared the other half, positioned in the bow of the ship and was completely separated from the Captain’s quarters. For instance the front cabin staircase, which was constructed with a partition built into the centre so that the men and officers didn´t have to meet going to and from their respective cabin sections. In addition they had separate mess halls where they took their meals.
The ship’s hierarchary meant that the Commander didn’t communicate directly with the men, only through his officers and he was an absolute, sovereign ruler and very close to being a arbiter of life and death aboard.
Trapped in Lake Vättern
S/S Orion is only 6 metres wide. The reason being that the ship was constructed to be able to steam up into to the Göta Channel, through the sluice-gates and into Lake Vättern. The ship performed missions in Vättern at several occations.
After the ship at one time had been trapped in the lake because of a malfunctioning sluice-gate, the routines were altered and the service was offered to a private contractor. Luckily for the S/S Orion and the Royal Pilot Service there was a “back door“ from the lake. Via the lake of Vänern, the Göta Channel, Gothenburg and the Swedish West Coast the ship managed to return to its home base in Kalmar.
Close to disaster during wartime submarine manoeuvre training
At the end of World War II, the Royal Swedish Navy exercised manoeuvres in the Stockholm archipelago.
For unknown reasons S/S Orion happened to be in the restricted area and found itself in the middle of a submarine exercise.
According to a former Commander in the Royal Navy, who at the time was a Captain onboard a submarine, a serious incident happened. A violent explosion, which was presumed to have been caused by a torpedo, caused the S/S Orion to heel over dramatically and disaster was imminent. The ship pulled through however and was able to carry on of its own accord. Some of the crew had lighter injuries but were deeply shocked. Due to the damage onboard there was a lot of work to do to clean and repair the ship.
The reason that the Commander of the S/S Orion was not informed of the restriction is still unknown and the incident file is sealed to this very day. The Commander who reported this incident remains anonymous.
Inspection of light-ships and pilot stations
The deck-hand Lars Boman in his memo notes from the end of the 1930s describes how an inspection of a pilot station could be carried out.
The pilot officer gathered the crew on the cargo hatch. Orders had earlier been issued that coveralls and uniforms should be impeccable, that is newly laundered and ironed. The inspection of the pilot station was the event of the year. The pilot foreman had well in advance lined up his personnel, who, in honour of the day, were dressed up, uniforms newly ironed and hair newly combed. The pilot officer began his visit by ceremoniously greeting the crew. After this, installations, storage facilities and living quarters were inspected. If short-comings were found criticism was ungracious and could in some cases end in immediate dismissal. It was essential to be prepared and to see to it that everything was in order and meeting with given inventory lists.
One of our visitors who had been doing research in the history of the Pilot Service told of a named superior pilot officer who had served as commander on the ship. He spent more time drinking coffee with the pilots’ wives than inspecting light-houses. We let him remain anonymous…!
Wrongly designed chain pipe
A deck-hand was always positioned in the chain box when the anchor chain was winched aboard. The chain pipe was incorrectly designed and the chain positioned itself like a cone under the pipe until it became jammed. One man therefore had to at all times help press the chain sideways in the chain box. It sometimes occurred that the heavy chain came to position itself on his chest and then his high-pitched voice would reverberate in the chain pipe: “Bloody hell, stop it” at which time the winch was stopped.
The cook’s status aboard
To keep in with the cook is a well documented strategy among crews on ships. Aboard the S/S Orion he was treated with respect and according to the crew next in rank after the captain. Maintaining a good contact with him could result in getting extra rations in the form of a sandwich or coffee between regular meals, which of course was very welcome. One of the more legendary cooks, “Stor-Erik” who served aboard the ship at the end of the 1940s was so fat that he more or less was wedged in in the galley/kitchen. He therefore very seldom or never left his post to the delight of the rest of the crew.
Staking their lives at the job
The development of buoys and their subsequent marking out and deployment made the old steamship, with time, more and more obsolete. Heavier buoys showed that the ship was too tall, slender and therefore too unsteady for the job, which occasionally became dangerous for the crew.
The winch boom was constructed to lift three tons with a single cable block. To increase the winch’s capacity in accordance with the growing weight of the buoys, the winch boom was reinforced and the wire was fitted with several more blocks and the lift capacity was increased to five tons. This had dire consequence for the stability of the ship.
Olle Petterson, former Chief and boilerman aboard the S/S Orion, has told of incidents when a buoy was being lifted, the ship leaned over to such an extent that the deck was awash with waves. It meant that the ship was at an almost 45 degree tilt and was in very critical position.
Out of steam
The steam driven winch, due to the increasing size and weight of the buoys, became out of date, literally it ran out of steam
A serious incident happened in the spring of 1955. The crew were working on putting out buoys in the harbour of St Anna. A buoy which was hanging in the winch boom suddenly began to slide downwards uncontrollably. A crew member realised what was happening and threw himself at the winch boom’s brake to control the fall. The brake didn’t have enough capacity to control the heavy buoy and in a desperate attempt to stop the fall of the heavy buoy they used a winch latch that normally was only used to latch a non-moving winch drum. What happened afterwards that four of the cast iron teeth in the drum literally were shaved off before it finally stopped. Another example of how out of date the equipment was on the steamer as it just couldn’t handle the demands of the modern era.
Evil-minded tongues said that the Royal Pilot Service had two accounts. One account dealt with maintenance and renovation, that account was holding an abundance of funds, the other was intended for new purchases and investments – that account was always totally void of funds! Maintenance was carried out in absurdum.
A floating government scandal
Life on board was not only characterized by the strict division of the officers and men, but it was also an environment with working and living conditions that were heavily criticized. Living conditions were very confined and the sanitary facilities were of very poor standard.
In the early fifties one could read in the papers about “the scandal ship of the Swedish State”. The writings dealt with the inferior quality of the living quarters and sanitary facilities on board the S/S Orion.
It all finally led to that the Minister of Transport and Communications brought the matter before the parliament which led to a decision being made concerning replacing the ageing steamer S/S Orion, with a modern ship. This was carried out in 1956.
A new career as a lighthouse builder
When the new service ship was taken into active duty, the old steamer S/S Orion went into the Reserves until 1961. This meant being put into temporary active service as a substitute when other ships were taken out of service for repairs and maintenance.
In 1961 the S/S Orion was rebuilt. The open bridge was roofed over and the ship was lengthed with 3 metres so as to be used as a lighthouse construction vessel in the service of the new Swedish National Administration of Shipping and Navigation. The S/S Orion’s task now was to transport building material for the new landbased lighthouses that were being built to replace the old lightships along the Swedish coasts after a ruling by the Swedish Parliament.
Life after the Royal Pilot Service
The Salvage steamer S/S Orion did its last workshift in the autumn of 1979, after which she was finally decommissioned from active duty. Few ships, if any, has remained in active duty as long as the S/S Orion. She was built in 1929 and taken out of duty fifty years later. The ship was by then hopelessly outdated and the intention was to cut her up for scraps.
Instead the ship was bought by a private citizen / entrepreneur in Gothenburg who intended to use her for cruises along the Norwegian coast. Poor profitability and wanting maintenance led to further decay.
After ten years on the Swedish West Coast the ship was rescued by a non-profit museum organization and a grand project of restoration was initialized. The work, which is based upon the original blueprints from 1929, is done in close cooperation with the Archive of the Swedish National Administration of Shipping and Navigation in Norrköping. The administration of the Stockholm quays has endowed S/S Orion with the most beautiful of the Skeppsholmen quay-berths. The ship is today moored 50 meters north of the Skeppsholmen bridge and has through this excellent maritime position become a new popular feature in the cityscape and a meetingplace for strolling local residents and tourists.
In the archives of memories
Among the visitors to the ship who have made great impressions was among others an elderly lady who visited the ship in the spring of 1995. Suddenly, she just stood there, balancing on the gangway. The lady was helped with caring hands onto the ship. Everyone could be forgiven for assuming she was a confused old lady,however, she was soon to tell a story about the S/S Orion. The almost 90 year old lady told of how she on several occasions had sailed on the S/S Orion as the wife of the Commander of the ship. She spoke with great awe and enthusiasm of her experiences around the Swedish coastline onboard the soundless and vibration free journeys.
She also told of how bad the new ship was that replaced the S/S Orion. She said it was so smelly because of the diesel fumes and very shaky and how she refrained to ever again sail with the replacement ship.
Another visitor who has made a great impression is Sven-Bertil Taube who had stories of his own that he shared and instilled enthusiasm in us all. Further we can also mention Agneta Lundström of the Royal Palace who honoured us with her visit.
His Majesty The King Carl XVI Gustaf with his aide-de-camp, The Marshal of the court, and the chairman of the Stockholm Seaspace, Gustaf Taube made an official visit onboard the steamer on the 12th April 2003 in connection with the Skeppsholmen Day of the Sea Scouts. The king was only supposed to be onboard for 5 minutes, however the king’s interest in the project made him stay onboard for 15 minutes.
The Governor of Stockholm County, Mats Hellström, visited us on the 17th April 2004. He became so enthusiastic about the project he chose to become a member of the organisation.
The 16th April 2005 we were overjoyed to receive an official visit from the Speaker of the Swedish Parliament, Björn von Sydow onboard the ship.
The 5th June 2007 the ship was visited by the Minister of Culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, departmental secretary Erik Wahlström as well as the Director of Enterprise Christer Asplund. The Minister of Culture was very positive to the organisation’s actions to secure the maritime legacy.
In the spring of 2009 we were visited by the municipal leaders for Stockholm City. We were also happy to receive a visit from the opposition party Carin Jämtin.
The crew believed the ship was being haunted by a deceased captain who had served onboard the steamer at the end of the 1930′s. At night time it was said that his footsteps could be heard on the bridge. Even weak noises from the ship’s telegraph machine have been heard.
There have also been rumours that one of the cooks died onboard the ship under mysterious circumstances. Clanging from copper pots have been heard at night and some of the crew have also reported they could feel a faint smell of food in the air.
The historic fleet, still afloat
The Royal Pilot Service’s steamer S/S Orion has for 50 years serviced the Swedish shipping and is today an important part of the Swedish historic fleet, still afloat today. She is also a unique representative of the industrial heritage of Sweden.
The Swedish Maritime Museums Ships Council decided, in the spring of 2003, that the S/S Orion is culturally and historically valuable.
Orion according to greek mythology
According to Greek mythology, Orion was a skilled hunter, son of Poseidon, god of the seas. Upon his death, the gods asked Zeus, the king of the gods, to honour his memory by placing him among the stars as the constellation of Orion. The constellation of Orion is easily recognized by Orion’s belt, three stars which form the belt around the hunter’s waist. In Sweden, Orion is only visible during the winter.
In the year of 2013 the S/S Orion is intended to be reinaugerated as a cole-stoked steamer and will again be steaming from its moorings, in its former glory.