ESBJERG, Denmark Crowds lining the harbor of this western seacoast town waved Danish flags and white handkerchiefs, shouted "Farvel" and sang "God Be with You Till We Meet Again" as the Sea Trek 2001 flotilla of eight ships departed Aug. 7 on the first leg of its 59-day voyage around Scandinavia, Germany and the British Isles and across the Atlantic to New York.
Sponsored by the private Sea Trek Foundation, Sea Trek is celebrating the 19th Century gathering to Zion of European converts and specifically 150 years since the first converts from Scandinavia emigrated in January 1852 under the leadership of Elder Erastus Snow.
In a festive spirit a brass band played "Anchors Aweigh," and a group performed Danish folk dancing just before the largest ship, the Statsraad Lemkuhl, pulled away from the dock.
The departure ceremony began with a narration by Paul Smith, an instructor at the Salt Lake Institute of Religion and one of the scholars on board the Statsraad Lemkuhl. Recalling the 1997 Pioneer Sesquicentennial commemorative wagon trek, he said: "The wagon train helped many hundreds of thousands of people to remember the 85,000 pioneers who crossed the American plains. The wagon train was also a commemoration of a journey that, for many, began on the high seas. 'Before the trail was the sail.' Now, in the spirit of that trek, we have gathered together on eight tall ships to follow a trail marked by chart and compass. But whether by compass or by trail, the saints eventually found their way home to Zion."
The previous evening, in the neighboring town of Ribe, oldest city in Denmark, Sea Trek participants and local residents gathered inside a cathedral dating back to the 12th century. There Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Seventy invoked a blessing on the voyage and the ships.
"We pray that a missionary spirit will prevail over the trek as it did in the original crossings," he said. "We pray for the desire for all to share experiences and testimonies with all that we come in contact with. That like our pioneer forebears, we will be a light unto others of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, which drove these early saints on in great faith."
Elder Rasband, with his wife, Melanie, is participating in the Sea Trek leg going from Esbjerg to Copenhagen. He said six of his great-grandparents participated in the early gathering, four from England and two from Denmark.
On board the ships, participants are experiencing somewhat Spartan conditions, in some cases sleeping in hammocks strung closely together. But among the voyagers is a feeling of adventure and gratitude for the privilege of honoring their pioneer ancestors.
As they get to know one another, a feeling of unity ensues. In one case, two of the participants, previously unknown to each other, found a family history connection. Eleanor P. Pocauk, Oakton Ward, Oakton Virginia Stake, and Sherry Cawley, Centerville (Utah) 6th Ward, determined through genealogical information that Sister Pocauk is related to Sister Cawley's husband, Dick, on two sides of his mother's family.
The ships were scheduled to arrive in Copenhagen Aug. 9 and in Gothenburg, Sweden, Aug. 11. From there, some ships proceed to Greenock, Scotland and Liverpool, England, while the rest sail to Oslo, Norway, and Hull, England. The ships meet in Portsmouth, England, on Aug. 24, after which four of the ships will depart Aug. 27 for New York via the Canary Islands and Bermuda, concluding the voyage on Oct. 4.
Missionaries of the Denmark Copenhagen Mission who helped at the Esbjerg celebrations said that it was a creative way to open doors for the Church.
"Half of Denmark was down there," said Sister Sarah Plasse of Rolla, Mo. Most of the people were unaware of the purpose of Sea Trek, but when the bands played, band members introduced themselves and explained the purpose of the voyage. Many people interested in family history came to use the computers at the family history tents, she said.
"The people are really open and curious," she said. "I talked to more people about the Church on that day than I have on any other day."
She said that the members were very active in preparing for the event and many felt comfortable about inviting their friends to the dockside events.
"It has been a huge help for the members," she said.
Elder Tim Odland of Park City, Utah, who is stationed in Esbjerg with his companion, Elder Michael Blasi of Davenport, Iowa, said missionaries used their preparation day to help move the bands around and translate at the family history tents.
"A lot of Danes are interested in genealogy and they know we are really big in that area," he said.
After their volunteer work ended, they went back to knocking on doors in the city.
"It was a giant party," he said. "Everyone was down at the harbor. We were struggling to [find people to talk to]. We could see the masts over the rooftops, and hear singing and music. At 11 p.m., [after retiring for the night] we could hear the fireworks."
He said the event will make their work easier because people will know who they are and it will "help with something to bring us into the gospel conversation. The Church is part of the history here."