A dangerous passage
The seemingly unstoppable countdown to destruction was rapidly drawing to a close, with barely four months left. The short trip between the Dnieper delta and the old port of Odessa was made in the moonlit early hours of the last day of August 2012. Victor steered as close to the shoal waters of the coast as he dare.
Odessa is still a major Black Sea port city. It had been settled in 1240 by the Tatars under the leadership of Haci I Garay – the Khan of Crimea. The city is the fourth largest in Ukraine. It was won by the Russians in the Russo-Turkish war of 1792. There are two ports; one taking the name of the city, and the relatively new port of Yuzhne, a vast internationally important oil terminal situated in the city suburbs.
The old port was the destination for the former gunboat and its motley crew. Kolya endlessly droned on about Odessa like a tourist guide, regaling his audience with its history and relevance to the Ukraine over the years, especially since it had fallen under Ukrainian control once more after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He hardly drew a breath as he spoke of it having once been an ancient Greek colony, and how its population in the middle nineteenth century comprised Albanians, Armenians, Bulgarians, French, Germans (including Mennonites), Greeks, Italians, Jews, Poles, Romanians, Russians, and Ukrainians. He spoke of the worker’s uprising in 1905, when the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin lent their support to the worker’s cause, and how the old port was destroyed by retreating Red Army troops during the Second World War, when the city briefly fell into Nazi hands before finally being regained during the Red Army’s siege in 1944. With the exception of Kolya, all aboard would be glad to see the back of the Ukraine. They were fed up to the back teeth with his constant flow of facts about his homeland.
Victor brought the former gunboat quietly alongside the rusty hull of the old Black Sea freighter Midnart, barely nudging her in the process. With the exception of Victor’s crew and a tearful Katya, everyone quietly climbed aboard via the slippery wooden ladder slung over the freighter’s side. After paying off his crew, Victor gave them specific orders to take the old vessel back out to sea and scuttle her before they headed home, taking Katya back to her uncle. Nick and David remained hidden from the freighter’s captain and crew, temporarily locked in a stuffy inner cabin by Victor, while he and Kolya went to check on the ship’s much needed refurbishment. All was not well. The captain hired for the voyage to Turkey – Pyotr Mishkin, was permanently drunk and incapable of controlling his crew. He had recruited them from the dregs of Odessa’s streets, drunkards like himself, unwilling to do a day’s work. Without a word from Kolya, Victor immediately took charge of the situation, beating some sense into the crew and Pyotr, reminding them that their paymaster was the most feared man within the Ukrainian mafia, and that their lack of enthusiasm for the task ahead would be made known to Nicolai by him personally at the earliest opportunity.
Over the next ten days Midnart was slowly transformed by her suddenly enthusiastic crew. Her tired hull was eventually made watertight. She now proudly displayed her new livery of white superstructure, bitumen painted hull above the waterline, with matte ochre coloured antifouling below it. Her ancient pre-war diesel engine was completely overhauled under Victor’s sometimes brutal supervision, until eventually the day arrived when the old ship was ready for sea once more.
From their hiding place inside the cabin, Nick and David felt the old ship’s beating heart quicken as Midnart headed out of Odessa under the Ukrainian flag. She steamed for a point twenty miles south of the Crimean city of Sevastopol on a carefully plotted course, designed to avoid the main shipping lanes. At barely eight knots, her slow passage would take just over four days. On the evening of the third day, dense clouds of fog rolled seaward from the Crimean peninsula. Midnart had no radar, so a constant watch had to be kept on deck by Victor and his surly volunteers. For reasons of stealth, Kolya took the very risky decision to turn off the old ship’s navigation lights to make use of the cover of the thick fog banks, and to reduce her already slow speed to a crawl at dead slow ahead, in an effort to hide her engine noise from inquisitive ears. He calculated they were approximately ten nautical miles off Sevastopol, not realizing that in fact they were directly in the main approaches for all shipping entering and leaving the Crimean port.
In the mist and gloom, the old ship wallowed barely moving now that her speed had been severely reduced. Kolya’s bad decision was suddenly exacerbated when Midnart was struck violently on her bows by a much larger vessel, outward bound from Sevastopol. He quickly rang for full astern on the old ship’s engine telegraph, impatiently waiting for what should have been the engineer’s instant confirmation on the wheelhouse repeater. Getting no response, he frantically slid down the handrails of the communication ladder between the bridge and the main upper deck, running towards the watertight door leading down to the engine room, situated aft of the funnel. The door was wide open. The vast space below was now empty of all life. Victor also found himself alone on deck, deserted by his unwilling volunteers.
Kolya slammed the old engine into reverse and climbed back up to the main deck before returning to the now empty wheelhouse. In the initial panic of the collision, Pyotr and his mutinous crew seized their chance and stole the only serviceable lifeboat aboard, vanishing into the thick sea mist never to be seen again. Victor hurriedly unlocked the door to Nick and David’s hiding place, and together they ran to the bridge. By now Midnart was slowly taking on water from the damage she had sustained in the collision. Something had to be done and fast! Nick immediately saw the cause of the collision. “Kolya you bloody idiot, turn the damned nav-lights back on right now! Ring full ahead and head out to sea. Then work out a course for the approaches to the Sea of Azov, while Victor and I check out the damage. David, get below to the engine room fast!” he angrily ordered, taking control of the situation.
“Why Sea of Azov Nick?” Kolya sheepishly asked, still smarting from the rebuke over his stupid decision that had caused the dangerous situation they were all now in.
“We need to beach her somewhere temporarily to make repairs. Meantime Victor and I will have to go below to shore up the damaged hull.” Kolya swung the ship’s bow south heading for open water, hoping to clear the thick bank of sea mist.
“Much damage I think,” Victor stated gravely, as a look of deep concern spread across his normally placid face. They quickly surveyed the paint locker, situated directly below the compartment that housed the old ship’s anchor chain. Fortunately its sprung plates were still held in place by their rivets. But for how much longer, neither of them were prepared to hazard a guess. The good news was that the slowly flooding paint locker was relatively small, and its watertight door was still sound. The bulkhead it was situated in ran from bilge to upper deck, meaning that if necessary they could seal off the compartment if needs be. However with the ship’s forward motion and the incoming sea water, the old freighter would soon be down by the bow. Between them, the pair dragged all the wooden shoring wedges and struts they could find into the small compartment, and began the process of trying to seal the leaks. Once again Victor proved his worth as he tirelessly worked alongside Nick, plugging the worst of the damage with wooden wedges and tarred canvas, all held in place by wooden struts jammed against the repairs, giving the tiny compartment’s interior the look of a jumbled pile of timber. By the time the two men had exited and closed its watertight door the damage was contained. However, should they run into bad weather their repairs may not hold.
Back in the wheelhouse once more, Nick studied the chart of the area south of the Crimea. Victor pointed out the Cape of Sarych at the southernmost point of the Crimean peninsula. “Russian Navy base is there,” he began with a worried look on his face. “They keep watch. Not good for us. They run many patrols from there to Georgian waters. We need to sneak past when patrol is out of sight,” Victor suggested.
Nick acknowledged his concerns. “The other problem we have is the shallowness of the Sea of Azov. If we go too far into the channel, we run the very real risk of running aground permanently. We need to find a spot on one side of the channel where we can keep Midnart’s bow on soft sand while leaving her hull still afloat. Somehow or other we have to keep her out of the outflow from the channel. If she is pushed too hard by the tidal movement in the channel she could very easily run aground.”
Victor studied the chart for a long time before once again stabbing it with his large finger. “Fedosiysky Bay is deep enough and out of main channel flow!” The big man grinned in triumph as he slapped Nick on the back, pleased about his discovery.
Nick nodded his head in agreement. “Fedosiysky Bay it is then my large friend.”
Victor went below to join David in the engine room, leaving Nick to work out the next move with the still deeply ashamed Kolya at the wheel. “Take a break my friend,” Nick said placing his arm around Kolya’s shoulders, attempting to reassure him as he stood beside the wheel. “We have to be very careful not to attract the attention of the Russian Navy patrols as we slowly close with the channel to the Sea of Azov.” Kolya’s shame increased as Nick’s reassuringly friendly gesture did nothing to relieve his guilt, which still prevented him from looking him directly in the eye. He went below after Nick had assumed control of the wheel.
Midnart’s heart faltered and stopped. The whistle on the engine room communication pipe blew. “Nick the engine has just cut out!” David shouted. Now she was adrift without power.
Nick’s brain went into overdrive. “God almighty, what else can go wrong?” He yelled for Kolya to come back and take the wheel while he disappeared rapidly below. Trusty Victor had already spotted the problem. The main fuel feed from the oil bunker had sheared. Fuel oil was spilling out and worse still, air had been allowed to enter the fuel line. Nick and David quickly shut off the flow from the fuel tanks before too much air entered the fuel line. They immediately sprang into action removing the broken feed pipe, replacing it with a temporary one, made from the pipe work of a desalination pump that had long ago ceased to work. The hard part would be the slow process of bleeding the entire fuel injection system – not the kind of process that could be done in five minutes.
Meantime Midnart was still drifting, caught in the currents, and barely fifteen nautical miles off the Crimean peninsula. She was steadily being pushed by the onshore breeze from the south towards the rocky shore. She was bound to be noticed at any moment by any vigilant radar operator worth his salt. The one single comfort they could take from their perilous predicament was that the sea was relatively calm – at least for now. Nick left the job of bleeding the system in the capable hands of Victor, with David acting as his assistant while he returned to the wheelhouse.
“Nick – look!” Kolya’s voice trembled in fear as he pointed towards the shore when Nick reappeared in the wheelhouse. From the direction of the Russian naval base, they could clearly make out the shape of a gunboat steadily heading directly towards them.
“Oh bloody great, just what we need!” Nick muttered under his breath. “Kolya, call Victor, get him up here while I go below and help David bleed the fuel system. When the Russians come alongside, it’s up to the two of you to stall them from coming aboard. Tell them the truth that our engine has stopped and that it’s all under control. Tell them that all hands are below making repairs. Tell them that you are merely a delivery crew, taking Midnart to its new owners in Turkey. Above all stall them, do you understand?” Kolya vigorously nodded, happy to be doing something useful once more. He would not let his friends down a second time. Victor passed Nick as they swapped places. David and Nick continued the agonizingly slow process of bleeding air out of the fuel lines. Their lives and the future of their quest were in the hands of Kolya and Victor now. Nick prayed that the gods were smiling on their little band.
The Russian gunboat hove to alongside Midnart as its commander pick up his loudhailer. “Ahoy Midnart, what is the problem?”
Victor went out to the bridge wing. Cupping his hands he replied, “fuel line sprang leak tovarich commander. We’re fixing now. All available hands are on the job. Only I and helmsman are on deck. We’re trying to keep the bow into the wind. We need your help. Can you throw us a line and keep us to windward while we fix the leak?” The commander nodded and issued the order to throw a line aboard, which Kolya and Victor quickly secured to the anchor winch drum on the old ship’s foredeck. At least with the Russians at the other end of the temporary line, they couldn’t board. Kolya winked at Victor and returned to the wheelhouse to pass on the message to Nick and David below in the engine room, and to keep watch from his position at the ship’s wheel.
Three hours later Midnart was back on course, this time heading southeast, bound for the small Turkish coastal town of Rize, with all thoughts of beaching her for repairs now abandoned. Underway again, Nick and Victor began pumping water from the sealed compartment, aft to the tiller flat beneath the steering gear to trim the old freighter. From there the water could be pumped overboard. Careful to avoid any brushes with Turkish naval patrols by keeping well clear of the coast, Midnart eventually ground to a halt half a mile off Rize, stuck fast on a long forgotten wreck as dusk turned to night. The four immediately abandoned ship after opening Midnart’s sea cocks to scuttle her, and swam the short distance to the beach where their arrival had not gone unnoticed by inquisitive eyes ashore. Soon they were all drying off and being fed by their Kurdish guide Esrin who would take them across country to Göbekli Tepe. Ithis’ large hypnotic eyes were filled with tears of relief, glad that they were all safe once more as she watched from the safety of the walls of Esrin’s home.