The White Pearl of Bergen

Her elegant lines and proud history make the sailing ship "Statsraad Lehmkuhl" a gem in the Port of Bergen. Few of its ships are more photographed than this fine lady. But it is far more than a tourist attraction: every year hundreds of young people are trained in seamanship aboard the vessel.

All ships are ladies – even if she is named after the man who was responsible for bringing her to Bergen in 1921. After the First World War, Kristofer D. Lehmkuhl, a former Norwegian cabinet minister dedicated to the training of Norwegian seamen, saw that the city needed a new training ship to replace the workhorse “Alfen”. A few years later, when he came across the spoils of war vessel Grossherzog Friedrich August in England, he acted swiftly and the magnificent sailing ship was transported to Bergen in 1921. It then took on the name of its rescuer. 

In fact, “Statsraaden” has been used as a training ship ever since – except for an interruption during the Second World War and some years during refitting. Thousands of young Norwegians have had their first encounter with the wide open sea and maritime vocational studies at sailing cruises on board "Statsraad Lehmkuhl". It is education for life – about seamanship as well as self-discipline.

3-month Cadet Training

As you are reading this article, the elite of Norway’s sea cadets have just returned home after a 3-month sailing cruise across the Atlantic Ocean – a round-trip to the USA. The Norwegian Naval Academy organises this cruise every autumn and the cadets return home as able-bodied seamen. It is a major event each year to witness the joyful scene as the ship comes gliding into the Port of Bergen in the early days of December. The Chairman of the Statsraad Lehmkuhl Foundation, Helge S. Dyrnes, is fully aware that the ship for which he is the top leader sets hearts ablaze and brings tears of joy to many an eye in Bergen.

It means something special to the city. People support it and embrace it with real passion, 

Dyrnes says. Keeping the ship in operation and imparting valuable knowledge to young people is a very conscious decision made by the foundation. They have never even considered the alternative: docking permanently as a museum ship, as has been the fate of many other sailing ships around the world.

Our core activity is to provide sailing training for young people, and we are the sailing ship that provides this type of training to the greatest number of people,

Dyrnes points out. This is due to the fact that "Statsraad Lehmkuhl", as opposed to many of its “colleagues”, is not a military vessel, but operates as a civilian ship and completes numerous sailing cruises in the course of a year for various schools and groups of students. “For the three months the Norwegian Naval Academy conducts its sailing cruise aboard the vessel, the ship changes its name to “KNM Statsraad Lehmkuhl,” Dyrnes adds. KNM stands for The Royal Norwegian Navy. “According to feedback we receive from The Naval Academy, this is one of the very best leadership training concepts. Here, education and practical training are combined. Everyone must take responsibility and work as a team. The ship cannot make headway unless everyone pulls in the same direction,” Dyrnes affirms.

A Challenging Voyage

The young trainees are challenged on a number of levels – both in purely practical terms in the form of duties on board, but also mentally because they must overcome personal limitations in given situations, such as daring to climb to the top of the rigging. “Using these sailing ships – Norway has three such training ships – as a part of the seamanship training is very positive. We focus on basic seamanship, and the trainees work closely together. Everyone must do their share. The Norwegian Naval Academy is right up there at the top among the world’s providers of this type of education specifically because they use sailing ships as part of the learning process,” Dyrnes says to Network.

Preservation Through Use

With 97 years under her keel, “Statsraaden” is an elderly lady, but the ship is in impressive condition. “The best way to take care of these ships is by using them. We completed a major refurbishment of the ship between 1994–2004. We invested around NOK 80 million. This was done after performing thorough measurements and scanning of the hull, which proved to be a solid framework on which to build further. This is presumably a ship that could not have been built today, quite simply because we don’t have the dimensions and quality of steel that was used back then.

This was Emperor Wilhelm’s flagship, built at the peak of the German shipping industry. It represents the finest German shipbuilding expertise and quality,” the chairman of the foundation emphasises. When the sailing ship returned to Germany in 1990 in connection with a major ship-related anniversary, everyone were equally proud – the Norwegian crew and their German hosts. “This clearly showed the cultural bonds such a ship can form,” says Dyrnes, who was present at the anniversary.

Winds of Change

However, "Statsraad Lehmkuhl" has not always had favourable winds in her sails. In the 1960s, after 40 years of continuous operation as a training ship, some difficult choices had to be made. The demand for seamen had decreased, and the sailing ship needed a more thorough maintenance regime. The foundation lacked funding for further operation. “Statsraad Lehmkuhl” was in danger of being sold away from Bergen when the major ship owner and Bergen citizen, Hilmar Reksten, purchased the ship. After being part of Hilmar Reksten’s non-profit foundation for some years, ownership of the “Statsraad” was transferred to the current foundation in the mid-1970s. “Thus began a grand collaborative effort on behalf of the sailing ship and a great many people, organisations and businesses made contributions that resulted in a financial boost totalling NOK 80 million.

Norwegian Hull Club has also contributed to the ship’s preservation, and continues to do so as one of the main sponsors of “Statsraad Lehmkuhl”. The sailing ship is currently in extremely good, authentic condition. “But it will not be long before we must start a new round of maintenance. After all, the ship sails in harsh weather and through hurricanes,” he adds.


In 2008 "Statsraad Lehmkuhl" was awarded the Boston Teapot Trophy – a prize awarded to the training ship that sails the longest distance in 124 hours (i.e. five days and four hours). 1,118 nautical miles was the result, which equals an average speed of 9.02 knots. The longest distance covered during a 4-hour period was 60 nautical miles, and the greatest speed registered over a shorter period of time was 18 knots. Two years later, the prestigious trophy was once again awarded to “Statsraad Lehmkuhl”. “The record that was set in 2010 was 1,454 nm, which equals an average speed just below 12 knots,” Dyrnes informs Network. There is a good chance that the "Statsraad" beat one of these records itself, as she returned home from a sailing cruise in early December this year. At the time of writing this article, we do not know for sure, but Helge S. Dyrnes made the following statement in advance – in characteristic Bergen modesty: “We’re likely to set a new world record across the Atlantic this year – this tends to be the case!”

Shiver Me Timbers!

“All hands on deck!” The captain’s deep voice booms out, commanding us to fall in by group. Straight lines, if you please. “Today we’re going to polish the brass,” he says. No one told me that life on the ocean waves would be so unglamorous. “But we have a fair wind today, so first we’ll set the sails.” We learned the drill the day before. Fall in and then, “Heave-ho! Heave-ho!”, rhythmic chants that make the back-breaking work a little easier. My palms sting. The thick rope slips. Sweat pours. The ship rolls. A deck hand dashes out of line and vomits over the side. Breakfast comes back up. “If you have to throw up, think about whether you’re heading to port or starboard. Whether it’s the windward or the leeward side. Otherwise you might find the whole lot blowing back in your face,” the Captain laughs.

We sit on deck. There is a slight swell. Polishing cloth in hand. Brass just starting to shine. Watch change. I look out over a mirrored sea. Man overboard? Still no. It is 4 o’clock in the morning and the sun has begun to work its way above the horizon. I glance over my shoulder and see a deck hand, his heavy eyelids almost closing. Ten minutes left of the watch. A few hours of oh-so-longed-for sleep in the gentle embrace of a hammock are tantalisingly within reach. A woman calls us to the galley. It’s time to ‘mess’, as they say in sea jargon. It tastes unbelievably good. Especially now, as the first rays of dawn are beginning to break.

Watch change. It was my own choice to try life as a deck hand aboard the “Statsraad Lehmkuhl” for a few chilly days in June. I even paid for the privilege. The experience? Priceless. I would certainly do this all over again. Now where do I sign on?


Kristine Gabrielsen

1. Dec. 2011