By Captain Henry N. Helgesen, US Coast Guard (Ret.)
Captain Nels Helgesen was inducted into the National Maritime Hall of Fame in 1989. The only other Norwegian immigrant found in the National Maritime Hall of Fame is the Norwegian immigrant Andrew Furuseth. Some other famous names found in the Hall of fame are greats like Nathaniel Bowditch, Robert Fulton, Charles Morgan, John Ericsson, Captain William Madson, Henry Ford and Henry Kaiser. They were the giants of industry and one can, therefore, appreciate the magnitude of the honor that an induction into the Maritime Hall of Fame carries.
He immigrated to the United States as a young man to sail on American ships and became one of America’s most famous sea captains. He lived in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, NY during those brief moments when he was ashore. Those moments were precious to him. He lived there with his wife Helene and two children Henry and Grace Marion. His other favorite place was their summer home at Wanaksink Lake, Rock Hill, NY. But there really was not enough time for him to enjoy either because of the call of the sea where he was most of the time.
My father was born on January 2, 1888 in Haugesund, Norway. His parents were Lars and Anne Marthe Storesund Helgesen. His father operated a sailing ship on the North Sea and later he owned a book store in Haugesund. Nels Helgesen, actually his name was Nils which he later “Americanized” to Nels, was better known as Captain Helgesen, since there were not many folks around who ever knew him as anything other than a sea captain. He emigrated to the United States in 1905. In 1911 at the age of 23 he became a naturalized US citizen. In 1912 after attending navigation school in New York he received his first deck license. All of his service would be with the New York and Porto Rico Steamship Company. In 1918 during World War I at the young age of 30 he was given command of the first of many ships of which he would be master for the next 25 years. The vessel was the captured German merchant ship SS Watauga which he would master for the next 25 years.
During the course of his career Captain Helgesen commanded every ship the company operated during this time, which were the SS Watauga, SS Huron, SS Manta, SS Porto Rico, SS Choctow, SS Montoso, SS Marianna, SS San Lorenzo, SS San Juan, SS Ponce, SS Borinquen, SS Puerto Rico, and the SS Coamo. Most were passenger ships that were familiar to all on the island of Puerto Rico and the east and Gulf coasts of the US. He was a licensed pilot for all of the ports in Puerto Rico and many of the ports on the East and Gulf coasts.
It is difficult to piece together, but on November 16, 1922 my father married my mother Helen Sorhaug from Haugesund. Her father, a Storhaug, was also named Nils and her mother was Gurine. Nils Sorhaug was a farmer, landowner, and a ship owner during World War I. (There is a Sorhaug Street named after him in Haugesund.) My mother came over to the US to marry my father and things must have happened fast, since he was captain of the SS Ponce at the time and in port only for a couple days. Everything was done during that short port of call. No fancy weddings in those days. It was a marriage by the Clerk at City Hall downtown Brooklyn. The brief honeymoon was at a Catskills hotel, and, can you imagine, the hotel burned down during the night. They had to get out through the window and climb down a fire escape to safety, with mother clinging to her new hat bought just for the occasion.
Living in Bay Ridge was wonderful for my mother. There were so many Norwegians living there at the time that it was called “Oslo Heights” since it was said that there were more Norwegians there than in Oslo itself. Most of the ladies were married to sea captains and were alone most of the time. They spent many happy times together and then there was the Haugesund Club, Norwegian Lutheran Church and the Norwegian Children’s Home that brought them all together. Mother was a volunteer at the home for 30 years. During the early years of the Porto Rico Line when smaller ports were opened to trade it was Captain Helgesen’s role to evaluate those ports for the line’s operation. He won fame in 1928 while master of the SS San Juan when he rushed to the rescue of the British vessel SS Vestris which foundered off the Virginia Capes with a loss of 130 lives.
For many years he dodged the hurricanes in the West Indies, set speed records, was the preferred captain for the traveling passengers and navigated his ships with the precision of a railroad. By the time World War I started Captain Helgesen had gained his place as number one master in the roster of Porto Rico Line’s roster of very talented sea captain, having become the Commodore of the line. At the outbreak of World war II while on his regular run to San Juan, Puerto Rico with his ship SS Coamo he rescued 74 persons from the sunken Canadian SS Lady Hawkins which suffered a loss of 350 lives. The SS Coamo which was a passenger ship was shortly thereafter taken over as a troopship. A first trip as a transport took the Coamo to South America and Africa. Then the next trip the Coamo took part in the African invasion. After the invasion the British Admiralty ordered the ship back to the US for more troops. In December 1942 while enroute the Coamo and Captain Helgesen and all hands were lost when sunk by a torpedo from a German submarine in the icy waters of the north Atlantic. Following his rescue of the Lady Hawkin’s survivors a reporter asked Captain Nels Helgesen how he felt. He replied, “I was there for them and when my time comes, I hope somebody will be there for me.” Nobody was. He is remembered in the National Maritime Hall of Fame.
Henry N. Helgesen Captain, US Coast Guard, Retired
141 Olde Point Road
Hampstead, NC 28443
March 16, 2000