The Tall Ship Silva – a brief history of Halifax's signature ship

Historic photo of the Tall Ship Silva
M/S Silva was built on the shores of Lake Vanern – Karlstad, Sweden in 1939

M/S Silva

Built: 1939 at Karlstad Sweden

Length: 31.7 meters

Beam: 7,3 meters

Draft: 3.1 meters

Area of sails  (5 sails): 227 square meters

The small coastal cargo fleet of Sweden was largely comprised of wooden vessels leading up to WWII. Silva was the first of a series of seven steel sailing vessels built in an attempt to modernize the small ship fleet. These seven became the last ships in the Swedish merchant marine built as sailing vessels.

Tall Ship Silva keepsake
In 1945 Silva was engaged as a coal carrier on behalf of the Swedish Navy

Silva sailed in the Baltic throughout the war years. And these were not without drama. The lack of bunker fuel forced the Silva and others to use their sails only. A trip from the Northern part of the Bothnian Sea to Denmark could take a month.

On one trip Silva encountered inclement weather outside of Landsort. Turning in heavy seas she was caught in a beam sea. Unfortunately the weather had changed quickly and caught the crew off guard. The ship had gone to sea in advance of fully securing all her hatch covers. The cargo of coal shifted in the large seas – and the Silva sank in 50 meters of water.

Black & white photo of two crew looking through a life preserver while aboard the Tall Ship Silva

Her role as a supplier of coal to the southern portion of Sweden during the war was essential. As a result the ship was salvaged immediately and found to have sustained no major damage. The main engine was dried, grease pumped into the bearings and cylinders, and then it was started anew. The same engine served the Silva for another 33 years.

The balance of the war was not without its challenges. The Southern Baltic was inundated with mines. Silva, like many other vessels of the time, traveled in narrow mine-swept channels, poorly marked by small light buoys, which quite often did not work. Drifting mines were often reported .

Silva spent the majority of its career trading general cargo on the coast of Sweden, the Baltic countries, and throughout Scandinavia. She traded with internal cargo loads as well as deck cargo such as lumber.

Silva traded year round when the occasion permitted. She was a motor sailer – yet due to fuel costs (and often shortages) the sailing rig was an important feature of her design. Winter often meant breaking ice to get in and out of port.

Photo of the original Tall Ship Silva wheelhouse

To be iced over was not an uncommon problem. On one occasion, in the southern part of the Baltic, Silva became heavily laden with ice. She had a load of wood piled high on deck at the time. The crew were forced to chop off the halyards to the sails with an axe to get the sails down.

In the summer of 1949 Silva made a trip to Iceland as a supply ship for the herring fleet. The voyage was made expensive by some unforeseen mechanical repairs that arose. As a result the “Icelandic Experiment” was abandoned for the regular trade of coasting back at home in Sweden.

Silva was a sailing cargo vessel from 1939 until 1960. In 1960 she was purchased from interests on the west coast of Sweden at Bohuslan (north of Gothenburg). The new owners down rigged Silva to a motor vessel. Silva’s original Bolinder Munktell main engine served the ship until 1978 – when it was replaced by a more modern Volvo diesel engine.

The record shows that Silva traded grain and fish throughout the 70’s and 80’s. By 1993 she had stopped trading and was purchased by the “Association for m/s Silva” at Mossholmen, Tjörn. The association had in mind to restore the vessel under an employment creation plan.

Canadian Sailing Expeditions first stumbled upon Silva in 1998 when they were searching Scandinavia for ships that would make suitable restoration candidates.

In the spring of 2001 CSE purchased the Silva and was now faced with the task of getting her home to Halifax. The ship had no rudder and the engine did not work. She could not sail to Canada on her own.

Three people photographed beside the Tall Ship Silva

With another project on the drawing board, CSE purchased a north sea trawler in Scotland and modified it to tow Silva back across the Atlantic to Halifax. After an adventurous crossing via the North Sea, English Channel, and the Azores the Silva arrived at Halifax under tow in July 2001.

Canadian Sailing Expeditions then undertook its 5th historic sailing ship project as the next 9 months witnessed a complete restoration of one of the last sailing cargo vessels built. Fortunately CSE’s efforts were assisted by efforts taken much earlier.

In 1974 the Sjöhistoriska Museum (Maritime Museum) in Stockholm published a complete set of drawings of Silva. According to the Museum:

“Silva has been chosen partly because she represents an often forgotten era in the Swedish Merchant Marine, partly because she as a motor sailing vessel may give model builders the opportunity to practice on a modern hull but also on a simple rig.”

Silva was used at the model building classes at the museum. Today one can see exhibits of the Silva both as a sailing and a motor vessel. There is also a model of Silva at the Sjöfartsmuseum (Seamanship Museum) in Kalmar.

Photograph of a 1:50 scale model of the Tall Ship Silva

Since 1939 Silva has been making a living on the sea. And she continues to do this today.

If you stand on the shore and look at Silva on the water – her profile is identical to that of her launch date in 1939.

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