To Porto Rico Line

Captain Nels Helgesen

Captain Nels Helgesen
A Legendary Porto Rico Line Master
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On December 2, 1942, while on her way back to the U.S. after having carried troops from Britain to the North African campaign, the U.S. Army Transport Coamo was sighted by a German submarine, the U-604. A torpedo sealed the fate of the Coamo. Although a few men managed to escape in lifeboats, none of the 186 onboard (133 crew, 17 Naval Armed Guard and 16 U.S. Army personnel as passengers) was ever heard from again. The sinking of the Coamo also brought to an all too early end the outstanding maritime career of her master, the Commodore of the Porto Rico Line, Captain Nels Helgesen.

The Coamo served the line from 1926 - Click image for larger view

Nils Helgesen - he later Americanized his Christian name to Nels - was born on January 2, 1888 in Haugesund, a small town on the southwest coast of Norway based on the fishing and shipping industries. At the age of 17 he emigrated to the United States, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1911. In 1912 Nels Helgesen received his first deck license and was employed by the Porto Rico Line, which he stayed with during his entire career. He became a very young captain when in 1918 he took command of an ex-German war capture, the Watauga. During his 24 years as a Porto Rico Line master, he commanded most ships of the line's fleet. Porto Rico Line normally rotated captains between the various ships at regular intervals and captains also had to relieve each other. Among the many ships he commanded were the Huron, Manta, Choctaw, Montoso, Marianna, San Lorenzo, San Juan, Ponce, Porto Rico, Coamo, Borinquen and Puerto Rico. As a senior captain he finally received a "permanent" ship in 1938 when Colombian Line's Haiti was transferred within the AGWI Lines group to Porto Rico Line to become the Puerto Rico. This ship was intended to draw more tourists to Puerto Rico; however, she soon lost money and just over a year later she was again transferred, now to Cuba Mail Line. Captain Helgesen now took the chance of becoming the permanent master of his favourite ship, the Coamo, on which he stayed until her final fateful voyage.

The San Juan was built in 1900 and sank after a collision in 1941 - Click image for larger view

In addition to being a popular captain, both with passengers and crew, Captain Helgesen was also a licensed pilot for all ports in Puerto Rico as well as New York and many other east coast ports. He enjoyed "a fine reputation for reliability, good judgement and for maintaining excellent discipline", quoting a 1939 article in the Brooklyn Spectator. He managed to avoid the worst effects of the many hurricanes that were so familiar to skippers bound for the West Indies. In November 1928, Captain Helgesen and his then ship, the San Juan, made the headlines when becoming the first to reach the scene of the Vestris disaster. The British ship Vestris of Lamport & Holt Line, on her way from New York to La Plata, had wired an S.O.S. but had sunk before any ship could come to the rescue in the stormy weather off the Virginia Capes. The San Juan didn't find any survivors, though 213 passengers and crew out of a total of 325 were many hours later picked up by other vessels.

The Coamo as the USAT Coamo in 1942

Shortly after the U.S. had entered WW2, Captain Helgesen made headlines as a rescue skipper once again. In January 1942 he and his ship, the Coamo, came upon an overloaded lifeboat with 71 survivors from the Canadian National liner Lady Hawkins, which had been torpedoed by a German submarine off Cape Hatteras, North Virginia. The lifeboat had drifted for five days and five persons had died of exposure. The dangers of war became apparent when the Coamo soon afterwards encountered a submarine. Captain Helgesen first tried to ram her by putting on full speed, then dashed away on a zig-zag course. The rescued crew and passengers of the Lady Hawkins were safely put ashore in San Juan, Puerto Rico. A month later, the Coamo was refitted as a troop transport for the U.S. Army. Captain Helgesen was still in command, also being a U.S. Naval Reserve officer. After a trip to South America, the Coamo headed for Liverpool to take on troops for North Africa. After her mission was completed she sailed in a convoy back to Britain. On December 1, 1942, when nearing Land's End, the British Admiralty wired the ship that she should proceed directly on her own to the U.S. Captain Helgesen had remarked after the rescue of the survivors of the Lady Hawkins: "I was there for them and when my time comes I hope somebody will be there for me". Sadly, nobody was.

Captain Helgesen's cap badge and band with citation in the National Maritime Hall of Fame

Since his early days in the U.S., Captain Helgesen resided in Brooklyn. For most of the time he lived in the Bay Ridge area, where many other Norwegians had also settled. In November 1922, Helen Sørhaug came over from Haugesund to marry Nels Helgesen. They had two children, Henry, born in 1925, and Grace Marion, five years younger. Many years later, in 1989, Henry and Grace Marion had the pleasure of seeing their father being inducted into the National Maritime Hall of Fame at the American Merchant Marine Museum of Kings Point, NY, in honour of his memorable achievements during nearly a quarter of a century as a Porto Rico Line master.

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Captain Helgesen on the bridge of the Coamo circa 1936

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Page 2:
More photos of Captain Helgesen and ships he commanded.

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(All information and photos/illustrations have been generously provided by Captain Helgesen's son,
Captain Henry N. Helgesen, US Coast Guard, Retired)

Please note that no photos on this page may be used without prior permission from their owner.

This page last updated April 14, 2007.