A Tribute to the Swedish American Line
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Carl-Otto Claesson
A Mate in the White Fleet

By Göran C-O Claesson ©


Having passed his sea captain exam with lowest possible grade Carl-Otto Claesson was hired in 1923 by the Swedish American Line, the most prestigious shipping company of Sweden . He started as a mate in the lowest of the eight grades among the deck officers. He started while emigrants to the USA still formed a major category of passengers, climbed slowly while transatlantic travelling grew, even tourism, and cruises became vital to the company, and he was only two steps from the commander insignia when World War II stopped the SAL traffic.

This period is covered in Chapter 3, Styrman i den vita flottan (A mate in the white fleet). The sources are archives, private and public, as well as interviews. The following are abbreviated excerpts from different sections.



Swedish American Line

When the following excerpts from the section Svenska Amerika Linien starts the reader has been informed that the founders of the Swedish American Line were supported by three hundred prominent persons from different parts of Sweden in order to give the company ”a national character”.

The national character was emphasized by the fact that Dan Broström, who belonged to the cabinet at that time, and the wholesaler Axel Carlander, both on the SAL board, told the news to king Gustaf V in a proud telegram. In his answer, signed ”Gustaf”, the king expressed his good wishes for the new America line which he hoped would be ”fruitful not only for You but also as a new essential part in the development of Sweden 's shipping to the benefit of the fatherland”.

This exchange of telegrams became the first of many between Gustaf V and SAL, particularly between his summer residence in Nice and ships in the Mediterranean . After thirty-one years it would be the duty of captain C-O Claesson to send the last telegram from the Drottningholm to the king in Nice.


White Fleet or Floating Palaces

In the previous part of this section the reader has been informed that the Swedish American Line used the expression The White Viking Fleet when addressing the American market and De Flytande Palatsen (The Floating Palaces) in Sweden .

The luxury and the comfort have increased enormously. Even ferries today are tempting with a spa onboard. The departments for children are much bigger and much more inviting. In their own time, however, the Gripsholm and the Kungsholm were a sensation to the Swedish passengers and the crew. The SAL ships were using the latest technique in the kitchen as to machines and storage for refrigerated and frozen food, in the telegraph cabin as to radio telegraphy and on the bridge as to all technical devices that could be bought. When the autopilot arrived in the 1930's, at that time called gyrocompass as it was coupled to one, Carl-Otto Claesson was one of the first officers of the Swedish merchant fleet who was trained in its use.

If 3rd Officer S:r C-O Claesson of 1938 would emerge again and visit the Jutlandica or the Serenade it is probably not the luxury, the numerous restaurants and bars and the spa-life that would astonish him most. He had always used every opportunity to visit large passenger liners. His only directly astounding observation concerning the passenger spaces is probably the shopping street inside the Silja Serenade, longer than the Gripsholm from stem to stern.

What else would astonish C-O most? To him it would probably be another world to see cars driven onboard and all other cargo rolled onboard in trailers or containers. For long he was the mate in charge of the cargo. That meant problems with the handling of the cars as they were hoisted onboard by crane and lowered down in the hatches. It happened that they ”calved out” of one of the supporting slings and fell, causing damage on them and on other cargo.

Another mate duty was to shout in a megaphone. In order to leave or approach the quay the Gripsholm needed at least three tugs, which had to be instructed by megaphone from the bridge and from one mate in the stern and one in the stem. Today's large vessels do without tugs, thanks to their bow propellers. The faster communication now, even transmitting pictures, the more exact and easier navigation thanks to the satellite technique and the radar, which was unknown in the 1930's, would also have astonished him as well as the fact that even ferries for day distances may carry many lifeboats, a special rescue-boat and liferafts for thousands of people.


Cruising Life in the Eye of Others

  This section is preceded by Kryssningsliv enligt Signe Berlin (Cruising life according to Signe Berlin), an abbreviated version of a diary written on the Gripsholm's first long cruise. It started in February 1927 and went to cities all around the Mediterranean as well as to Madeira . Carl-Otto Claesson was not only a mate during that cruise — he was on honeymoon with his bride Gudrun. An officer onboard was allowed to bring his wife now and then as a stowaway, which did not have to be concealed.

The diary was written by one of the rare globetrotters of that time, Signe Berlin, a distant relative of Carl-Otto Claesson. The excerpts below are taken from the subsequent section Kryssningslivet i andras ögon ( Cruising life in the eye of others).

Signe Berlin's diary illustrates the status, which the Swedish American Line had during the interwar period. The Gripsholm exchanged telegrams with the Queen when in the vicinity of her summer residence. In Monaco the commander of the ship together with the CEO of the company and one of its other top leaders obtained an audience with Gustaf V. The interplay with the top of the Swedish society was also demonstrated by the fact that the Gripsholm was detained for five hours in Constantinople , enabling some passengers, among them probably the SAL top leaders, to give a dinner for the Swedish ambassador, if the language use of today is allowed.

On the other hand, the interplay between passengers and crew was minimal. Signe Berlin mentions in the beginning that ”Karl-Otto and Gudrun” had arranged it well onboard for her and her husband. After that the young mate is mentioned only when she tells about a shop promenade with him and when she reports something he has told second-hand from the audience with Gustaf V. The main rule was that passengers should have no private contacts with members of the crew.

It is striking that Signe Berlin does not devote any attention to the hardships the seamen often had to endure when they transported passengers between the Gripsholm and land. Once she mentions how difficult it was for her ”in spite of the fact that I had six men to help me down” but obviously finds it self-evident that members of the crew should cope with that work.

It is the interplay between the passengers, which has caught the attention of Signe Berlin most. She tells for example with distaste that wicked nicknames such as ”The Crow”, ”The White Jew” and ”Schabelhans”, were conferred on certain passengers. Nearly all these wealthy passengers had passed secondary grammar school, and there German was the first foreign language. Thus many of them knew that ”Schabelhans” alluded to cockroach, skinflint and miser. The nicknames onboard are as wicked today as then but that does not mean that the participants in cruises were particularly wicked for their time. Derogative nicknames and anecdotes were still very common in the 1930's.

The stories, which Signe Berlin reports about co-passengers usually, describe spoilt people in a superior position who believe that they understand something when they do not. Those who belong to the ”upper ten”, she wrote, behave well but those ”who believe they belong to them” do not.

At home Carl-Otto Claesson often talked about odd individuals among the passengers. In the beginning it happened that some emigrants were poor and badly dressed. Most Swedish-Americans visiting were prosperous but a few were poor and had used their last money to visit ”the old country”. It happened that one or another member of the crew helped them with alms or a garment.

The young officer Claesson got into a personal conversation with one of the passengers. This was unusual so he admitted that he could envy the passengers sometimes. The man answered that the company people believed that he was leading was on the brink of ruin. Those who really run the company had sent him on the cruise in order to help the company keeping up appearances and avoid panic among the creditors. The young mate understood why just that man had got through the invisible wall.

Precisely as Signe Berlin had done he told about a clear difference among the Swedish passengers. He expressed it like this: I have never seen one of the Wallenberg's or a famous professor behave snotty against anyone on the staff but I have seen upstarts doing it.

He compared the nationalities and paid attention to how they reacted to changes in the program, mishaps and other unforeseen incidents. Americans usually showed best patience and a smile at the earliest. Britons were more formal but reasonable, making them easy to have to deal with. There were Swedes and Germans who could be very troublesome in such situations. He felt a ranking order between the nationalities.

The cruise passengers, mainly Americans, could afford to choose. Americans crossing the Atlantic could choose. Why did they choose the SAL? This question came back now and then in the circle of acquaintances. The answer Car-Otto gave was that the American passengers felt comfortable with the service they got and felt safe onboard. They had good reasons for that. The SAL was leading as to technical equipment.

To me it seems probable that two other factors were important. The marketing in the USA was very skilful and the care onboard included a good news service. Towards the end of the 1930's it had developed into a newspaper, Radio News/Radionyheter, on topical events from all parts of the world. One issue told for instance that the leadership of Japan was split as to the question whether the country should enter an alliance with Germany/Italy and Leopold Stokowsky for the first time is conducting in Europe . There was also a considerable reports, e.g. on Scandinavian celebrities and the well-developed air connections in the Western Hemisphere.


The Interplay Onboard

Gudrun and Carl-Otto Claesson 1939.

Abbreviated excerpts from the section Samspelet ombord (The Interplay Onboard).

As our father could not spend much time at home when his ship was staying in Gothenburg our mother and we boys were allowed to call round on him onboard. During departures we were even allowed to travel with the ship from the America quay at ”Betongskjulet” (The Concrete Shed), the name of the terminal at that time, out to Röda Sten (Red Stone) where Älvsborgsbron (The Älvsborg Bridge) now is the mighty portal. Out there we were set ashore together with the harbor pilot on one of the assisting tugs. We got many opportunities to see our father at work.

It happened sometimes that one of us was allowed to walk along with dad the multifarious ”round” around the ship. We understood that, strictly speaking, ”the round” amounted to control: everything should be according to the rules and nothing was allowed to be dangerous. It was clear, however, that the atmosphere nearly always was positive between dad and the people he met, and on a big passenger liner there are many people with very different duties. Dad was interested in them all and showed it. When he came home he always told about his colleagues, others in the crew, contacts in other ports and passengers of all different kinds. He enjoyed the contact with them. It was obvious that he rated people very differently but not according to their rank but according to how well each person did his job and how he behaved as a fellow being.

All who travelled over the Atlantic at that time hade to go by boat and for that reason there were often very prominent persons among the passengers. My father once told at home that he had been disappointed in a younger colleague. Greta Garbo often wandered around the decks in the night-time and could go up to the bridge, looking at the sea together with the helmsman and a lone mate. The colleague came up to take over from my father. In that moment Garbo stumped her cigarette. The colleague picked up the stub and put it in his cigarette case, obviously aiming to use it as a souvenir. Garbo got stiff, left the bridge and never came back that voyage. Dad was sad about the fact that his colleague had done like that against a shy and hunted human being.

When I began to call round onboard on my own my father was the cargo officer. I could see him in action with his megaphone. For one moment he hanged on the edge of the hatch, for another on the gunwale towards the quay. The SAL ships took a good deal of mixed cargo, and everything was hoisted onboard by the quay cranes or the booms of the ship. A good cargo officer saw to it that the goods were arranged in the right order on the quay, that they were hoisted onboard in the right order to be fetched in the order that would facilitate the unloading and that everything was stowed with less possible gap between the different cases, bales, sacks, barrels and cars. It happened that the ships made a detour to Copenhagen or Halifax , requiring extra forethought during the stowing in order to minimize the puzzling during the unloading.

Dad felt happy as a cargo officer, that was clear. What I did not understand until a couple of decades later was that this work requires a combination of talents which is not evenly spread in the population. A good cargo officer has to be a good arbiter of space and imagine consequences of many moves forward. In addition he must be able to interplay smoothly but distinctly with the foreman of the stevedores and the boatswain in the hatch in such a way that the megaphone shouting is minimized. Then I also understood why dad could be upset about colleagues that did not cope with their jobs or generated friction — and lyric when he talked about a certain boatswain who was both capable and positive.


Childhood and World War I

A Mate in the White Fleet

From Prisoners of War to War Brides

The Drottningholm Turns Italian

M/S Stockholm - A Capricious Beauty

Serving under the Most Forcible Captain

The Fourth Stripe off and on.

From Roosevelt Hospital to a Building Site



Oct 15
Kjell Smitterberg

Claes Feder
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C-O Claesson
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