A Bohemian History

La Bohème - Historic Swedish Schooner

Skipper Fredrik Holm, owner Frans Holm
and wife Hilda, 1913.

La Bohème was launched as ‘Tärnan’ (Swedish: Arctic Tern) in 1913 from the Sternö Skeppsvarv (shipyards) in Karlshamn, on Sweden’s south-eastern bight, commissioned by local merchant Frans Ferdinand Holm.

She was built for moving heavy freight, specifically 30-ton loads of famous Karlshamn granite from Sweden to Germany for the building, paving and monument trade. Hence her powerful construction of massive oak frames, covered with 3” x 9” planks of long-lasting pine on her hull, and oak on her topsides.

The Karlshamn region became Sweden’s in 1658 with the Treaty of Roskilde, and on inspection, Sweden’s King Carl X Gustav declared it ‘a tremendously beautiful and incomparable harbour’. DNA accounts for everything, and such a royal overview no doubt ensured that boats from Karlshamn, including ‘Tärnan’, were imbued with an elegance befitting the King’s beloved harbour in which they were crafted.

Inland from the shipyards rose the unique Karlshamn granitic pluton, dated at 1.35 billion years old, and famed for its pink megacrystals. It was first quarried by Olaf Berg Gummesson in the 1800s and when faced and polished soon appeared on classic buildings from Stockholm’s City Hall to New York’s Empire State Building. Such were the cargoes borne across the Baltic to the wider world by this beautiful ship, and like the permanence of pink granite, she has endured to this day. Actually, she is as old as the buildings she helped create, and every bit as beautiful: inextricably woven into the stories of cities across Europe and America.

1913 was a year of paradox when a line was drawn through history. Henri La Fontaine, President of the International Peace Bureau, won the Nobel Peace Price the year before the Great War began claiming 37 million lives. Swedish engineer Gideon Sundback patented the first zipper while Danish physicist Niels Bohr first described atomic structure. In Paris, writer Marcel Proust published his quiet meditation ‘In Search of Lost Time’ while in New York artist Marcel Duchamp scandalised society with his work ‘Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2’. In America, Henry Ford started the first mechanised production line, creating the transport of the future, while in Sweden, Tärnan quietly slipped into the Baltic to signal the end of the epoch of sail-only freighters. She was the last big schooner to be launched without machinery and an enduring symbol of how the simplicity of wind on cloth had opened up the known world to the riches of trade, culture, religion and art.

La Bohème - Historic Swedish Schooner

In 1922 a 25HP hot bulb engine was installed
to aid harbour manoeuvres.

At the end of WW1, in 1918, she was acquired by Karlshamn shipowner O.E. Lundstrom and in 1922 sold again to Reinhold Holm of Höganäs. Congested harbours and expensive tugs forced him to install a 25 horsepower hot bulb engine. Höganäs, 160 nautical miles to the northwest of Karlshamn, past Copenhagen and facing the stormy waters of the Kattegat, is famous for its ceramics industry. Tärnan was employed in transporting crushed pottery (destined to be ground into ‘grog’ for use in pottery glazes) from Höganäs to the Hanseatic city of Lübeck, in northern Germany, today a World Heritage site. Midway through WW2, in 1942, around the same time as the Royal Air Force bombed Lübeck destroying three of the main churches and great swathes of the city area, Swedish trader Erik Nestorssen bought Tärnan and armed with only the flag of Swedish neutrality sailed east to Danzig in Poland, to collect cargoes of coal – ferried down the Vistula River in barges from the Silesian mines – for shipment to southwest Sweden. In 1947, Nestorssen – originally from Hamburgsund – headed north from the Baltic to the shipyard at Skärhamns to install an 80 horsepower Seffle ignition bulb engine and reduce Tarnan’s rig to a galeasse – with the mizzen slightly smaller than the original mainmast – to reduce the crew size and hence operating costs. Big sailing boats were no longer commercially competitive.

In 1960 Johan Martinsson bought her to move cargoes of calcium nitrate, or Norgessalpeter (Norwegian saltpeter), for use in fertilizers, cement and fireworks (and today, in Concentrated Solar Power plants). Norgessalpeter is also the principal ingredient of dynamite, which Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel patented in 1867, and that is possibly where some of Tärnan’s final cargoes were destined. Her new engine carried her through 180km of fjords from the sea to the Norsk Hydro saltpetre works at Notodden (90km over the mountains west of Oslo) and back again where she completed her deliveries under sail.

Tärnan began her commercial life as the last of the big sailing schooners, built for speed and strength. She sailed through two world wars, plying the Baltic with stone for building cities, coal for firing industry and saltpetre for reducing buildings to rubble again – a kind of historic commercial cycle. And all the while, she was the ultimate survivor, reminding us all of the sustainability of both DNA and the power of the wind. But more than that, she demonstrated that beauty is the key to survival because a ship with a beautiful soul will live forever.

La Bohème - Historic Swedish SchoonerIn 1966 her commercial life ended when she was plucked from the fleet by Gothenburg woodwork teacher Per Olav (Pelle) Warnholtz, for a new life as a family cruising boat. It was the beginning of a love affair that would last almost half a century. In fact, Pelle ‘married’ his boat before he married his wife, and that relationship continued throughout his ownership, with Tärnan claiming priority on his time, energy and money. Pelle wisely attracted a group of men of a similar age, calling them Friends of Tärnan, who were happy to do the annual light maintenance work of cleaning and varnishing in return for weekends of sailing, and an annual two week mid-summer voyage.

Pelle was a man with a fine eye for a ship’s lines, and in Tärnan he saw the beauty shining from beneath a work-hardened crust. From the outset, he resolved to tweak her back up to full rig, and level her decks to reveal her elegant sheer. The aft steering house went, a main topmast rose up and enlarged sails swelled to the Skagerrak breeze. Soon she had cast off her black working ‘overalls’ and donned her soon-to-be famous swan-white topsides, matched with cream sails and set off with varnished brightwork on transom, cap rails, spars and cabin roofs.

All the big restoration work was handled by classic shipyards, located around the Gothenburg area. More recently, major work was completed by historic yards in Denmark. Over the last 20 years, Tärnan, and now La Bohème, has been substantially rebuilt with half a forest of new frames, new bulwarks and stanchions, new waterboards, and extensive new decking and re-planking, from hull to topside and transom, as well as new coach houses and complete open-boat re-lining of the internal hull. She has been given two new keels, the latest in 2009, and new solid oak keelson. Add new spars, two wardrobes of sails, new craftsman-made standing rig with traditional running rig, and a new engine, and we can see just how much care has been lavished on her in recent years.

In 2009 she received a complete new laminated keel. Her old keel had lost shape and was hogged. The easiest solution was to shape the new keel and bolt it on, thus doubling her original keel strength. The fundamental hog remains, but has no affect on her strength, stability, sea handling or speed. Being a wooden boat, a rebuild would be relatively easy for a well-equipped yard and would give her another 100 years of life. Over the last 20 years, the investment in her upkeep has averaged 26,000 euros a year. This includes the complete re-caulking of her hull in 2013 by her current owner. This involved 700m of seams, requiring six processes for each, making a total of 4.2 kilometres of work.

La Bohème - Historic Swedish SchoonerThe intention of all this love and care has been to preserve the look and feel of the vessel as she was launched in 1913. She retains her first variable pitch two-blade propeller and gear machinery, her original 1913 see-saw pump action iron anchor winch driving the original timber drums and her open internal dimensions, with the saloon defined by original iron-edged oak cargo frames with embedded brass holders for hatch beams.

As she is, there is a huge amount of open space and significant opportunity to make better use of it to include more modern comforts and some privacy. But then again, her spirit immediately strikes you as one of openness, inclusion and generosity. Suffice it to say that new owners will have a blank slate on which to express their personalities and tailor her potential to suit their purpose. She has everything needed to accommodate 16 guests and crew, including everything required to cater for 20 people.

For her size she is remarkably easy manage, with easy access for sail handling, and responsive to a breeze. To say the least, she is very quick. With such a low aspect of sail, she is also very stable. In a sea, her helm is dry. In port, her huge two-blader kicks strongly to port, and she almost places herself alongside for you. Putting starboard side to, she is easy to warp across, in the traditional way. Coming aboard, deck access is free and safe, with a solid wooden boarding ladder carried. Everything about her is easy and open, with loads of room to move without tripping or being caught in sheets and rigging. Dockside, romantic dinners on deck by oil lamp will be the envy of all.

In 2010 Pelle Warnholz was diagnosed with cancer. Against doctor’s orders, Friends of Tärnan honoured his last wish and took him for a final cruise across the Kattegat to Denmark. There he effectively died and in a coma was returned to Sweden to quietly pass away amongst family. The dream was over and Tärnan, so full of family memories, was offered for sale so that Pelle’s family could move on.

La Bohème - Historic Swedish SchoonerThe advertisement appeared in an online yachting magazine. In Melbourne, Australian academic Dr Jennifer Gidley, saw the picture and was immediately smitten by her beauty, strength and some magical essence that spoke of romance and history. Dr Gidley, then President of the World Futures Studies Federation, a global research peak body and UNESCO partner, believed the vessel would be suitable for running adult development programs and scientific research.

Despite it being winter, she was soon in Sweden wading through snow to view the boat. What she saw impressed: everything from decks to saloon was exactly like the videos showed. Even the bilges were bone-dry, highly unusual for an old boat. After viewing the vast trove of historical material and photographic records of her sustained restoration, a deal was done. Tärnan, one of Sweden’s best kept maritime secrets, would emerge into the wider world and global appreciation.

With so many old boats disappearing from service at a rapid rate, Tärnan’s solid condition and beautiful handling would be a welcome addition to the greater European historic fleet. But to Dr Gidley, there was just one small issue to resolve: the name.

As many old sailors will attest, some boats have powerful souls: you can sense it a mile off and feel it as soon as you step aboard. Dr Gidley felt that Tärnan’s name belonged to Pelle’s heart, and that it should remain with him. To her, the vessel’s feminine lines and flirtatious sailing spirit called for a suitable new name: one that appealed to European romantic sensibilities and reflected her worldly essence. And so she became La Bohème, ‘The Bohemian’ (unconventional, artistic, creative, free of old restrictions), …an inspired choice for a new name, for a new life, and one which all have since applauded.

La Bohème - Historic Swedish SchoonerLa Bohème was taken to Denmark and slipped in Aeroskobing yard where she was surveyed and declared to be in fine shape with all her underwater pine timbers in excellent condition. A team of shipwrights worked through the Autumn of 2013 to fully re-caulk her. In Summer of 2014 she underwent further work in the classic yard in Svendborg, where she was fully re-fastened with galvanised nails and oak trunnails.

La Bohème enters a new future in great condition, and continues to become more valuable and unique with each passing year, as other classic wooden boats are withdrawn from service and the historic fleet slowly dwindles.

In the 108 years since she was launched, this historic boat has had something of an easy life, due to the extent of annual sea ice and the duration of early winter storms. During her working years, she would typically spend up to four months a year covered in her winter berth. As a private family boat, she was berthed for six months each year. Her owners usually sailed for about 40 days each year – weekends and a longer holiday. Over the last few years, she has only travelled for a few days.

La Bohème - Historic Swedish SchoonerUnlike most of her contemporaries, if they are afloat at all today, La Bohème has never been out of action or commission. For over 100 years, she has always been afloat, kept in working condition and ready for a new life.