Beware of Russian Wardrooms

Beware of Russian Wardrooms

The Captain and I left his cabin and proceeded to the wardroom. My boarding party was there along with Russian officers including two I had not met before. All were standing behind their chairs. The Captain took his place at the head of the table and indicated the chair at his left for me.

I turned to face the shoulder of the giant officer next to me. I tipped my head back, took in his scraggly face, large nose, and unkempt black hair that hung a little over his ear, and smiled hello.
“Gentlemen,” the Captain spoke the single word of greeting as he took his seat followed by all others. At each place was a dessert-sized plate with cut fruit and a small stack of neatly quartered cold-cut sandwiches. There was a large filled water glass to the right of the plate, and next to it an empty one about the size of an I-Hop juice glass. A single line of Pepsi-Cola sized bottles extended the length of the table. They were clear glass, clear liquid, tops off, standing shoulder to shoulder, like a centerpiece of crystal towers. I couldn’t read the label, but, I figured that the bottles didn’t contain water.
For a few moments we engaged in a babble of awkward introductions, struggling with unpronounceable names. But, congenial sign language set the atmosphere for a friendly meeting.
Before long, the Captain stood in place, everyone pushed their chairs back in unison and stood at attention. He reached for his juice glass and the closest bottle of vodka. He filled his glass, a good four plus ounces, set the bottle back on the table. Extending his arm in front of him, elbow straight, he said, “Gentlemen!” Everyone followed his lead. Lifting his glass as if it were an Olympic torch, he intoned in a solemn bass voice, “A Toast. To all the men who go down to the sea in ships.”
“To all the men who go down to the sea in ships,” we echoed like a practiced chorus, we all raised our glass high. Then with a single bend of the elbow, heads tossed back, the Russians drained their glass to the bottom in nearly one gulp.
Pre cold war briefing notes warned that the Russians might try to get you drunk. So, in a perfectly polite gesture, I took a small sip from my glass, smiled, and returned it to the table to await the inevitable next toast. The boarding party followed. Then, from the corner of my eye, I saw the bear paw of the giant officer next to me, long hair on the back of his hand, a finger twice as big as my thumb, pointed at my glass.
“Vat is dat?” A heavy accent, but I understood.
I turned, faced his blue shoulder, glanced at his unsmiling face, and continued with my prepared speech. “Sir, in my country, when we are honored to share such fine whisky, out of respect for its quality, we sip it to insure its endurance.”
“Bull Shit!”

The bear was roaring now! “In my country we drink like this!” Refilling his glass and inhaling it in one tipping, he then ceremoniously slammed it upside down on the table, rattling the centerpiece, bottles clinking in tones like wind chimes. “That’s the way we drink to honor a country! You drink like the stuffy British!”

Oh Crap!

“What do I do now,” I thought, “Dètente—first American boarding— what could happen? International incident?” So I raised my glass with equal flourish and drained it to the bottom, then slammed it upside down on the table to great cheers, applause, and laughter of the Russians as I choked back an embarrassing cough, my throat burning. My team gave me a questioning glance, then dutifully followed my lead.
It became obvious that protocol dictated, unlike at casual dinner parties at home, no drinking during the conversation. I began to fear interspersed bottoms-up chug-a-lug moments.
I was right. A little business…a little toast.
At one lull in the proceedings, the Captain turned to me, placed his elbow on the table, open hand pointing straight up, pushed his coat sleeve back and poked repeatedly at his wristwatch. He said, “Do you know Ratti? Coast Guard Ratti?”

“Yes,sir. I do know Admiral Ratti. Not well, but I know of him.”
Now a Rear Admiral, stationed in Washington, I knew he had once been the CO of the Storis, out of Kodiak, and he was surely a veteran of fisheries patrols.

“This Ratti’s watch! I beat him.” He chuckled, slamming his closed fist to the table. So, they had been in an arm wrestling contest and the Russian captain now wore the prize. I could not get into this. I turned to Fin and Feathers, “Sid, are you comfortable with what you have?” When he nodded, I rose and charged my glass. Everyone followed.
When all glasses were filled, arm extended, I said, “Gentlemen, we thank you for your hospitality. Our business is done. We appreciate your cooperation. We must return to our ship. But first, a toast.” With all arms raised to the overhead, I continued, “Gentlemen! A toast. To all the mariners at sea working hard to bring food to their countrymen.” God! That really sounded stupid! But the vodka went down the same. This time, however, it only warmed my throat. No burn.
As we emerged onto the bright open deck which had been cleared of the small mountain of crabs, I began thinking that the climb back down the pilot ladder was going to be more dangerous than the climb up. The Captain must have had the same thoughts as he motioned with his arms and yelled something in Russian.

The cargo crane whirred and swung toward us, expertly placing a large wicker fish basket on the deck in front of us. “This will be easier,” the Captain said as he shook all our hands and assisted everyone into the clean basket.
We shot straight up, a rocket-like takeoff, then swung quickly across the deck like a giant pendulum. A crowd of factory women, gathered for a last glimpse of the Americans, laughed and waved to us as we flew over them. Then, a Coney Island parachute drop to an abrupt hover, and we were over our small boat which had been standing by.

The boat crew, grabbed the tether which dangled beneath our gondola and guided us to an easy landing. The carnival ride over, we all got out of the basket, without incident, and returned to the Resolute.
I made my way to the bridge and reported to the Captain. “Sir, the boarding went well; Sid has all the information. I’ll get together with him and prepare a report.”
He leaned close to me, smiled, and quietly asked, “And how are you doing?”
“Actually, Jack, I’m good right now, but I could use a little cabin time. The full force of that vodka hasn’t hit me yet.”
“Yeah, I agree. You better get some sack time, because we’ve got another boarding about five hours over the horizon.”

The Russians Are Coming

The tall Russian captain, his four gold stripes tarnished by years of salt air, smiled at our Coast Guard boarding party. I was on a factory vessel in the middle of the Bering Sea. It was my thirty fourth birthday, July 20th 1969. The four of us had just made the long climb up the pilot ladder, and stepped through the bulwark of the four-hundred-foot converted cargo vessel. Now we stood before the Captain and two civilian men who greeted us. The Captain smiled, saluted, then shook hands all around, stood back then pronounced, “Gentlemen. Congratulations! Your man has landed safely on the moon.”

This was our first news of the success of the U.S. Appolo Eleven Mission.

From a Russian!

The USCG Cutter Resolute was mid-tour on a sixty-day Alaskan fisheries patrol. We knew this one would be different. The U.S. may have entered an official period of détante with Russia, but that didn’t mean we were all that trusting. We suspected that Russian factory vessels, with far beyond typical antenna arrays, were engaged in electronic eavesdropping. Their gear obviously beat the fickle communication Gods of the Bering Sea; we had received nothing.

Sid Morgan, an agent of the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game, (our Fin and Feathers Guy), was part of the boarding party. We counted on him for the details of the treaties and, above all, identifying the various species.

The captain introduced himself as the ship’s master and the heavy-set civilian next to him as the fleet commander. The thin man in the background was not introduced, but also never went away. I presumed he was the ever present party representative that I had been briefed about.

My beautiful picture

The open deck amidships was piled high with squirming Red Alaskan King Crab.

Their smell filled the air. We watched the ship’s crane swing overhead, the operator expertly lowering a large net to the catcher boat alongside. It soon reappeared, dumping a new load of live crabs atop the pile already struggling to regain their freedom. The purple and white crabs, which can reach twenty-five to thirty pounds, with a leg spread of as much as six feet, their shells encrusted with sharp spiny bumps, tumbled over each other like bizarre outer space creatures playing king of the mountain.

We observed the sorting operation for a while then the Captain gestured us toward a door inviting us into a narrow, dimly lit passageway that led to the wardroom. As a crew member held the heavy steel door, I noticed that Sid, just before he stepped over the shin-busting threshold, caught a glance back at the crab pile. He made mental notes of the size, species, and estimated numbers of the catch.

As we snaked out way to the wardroom, the Captain suddenly took my elbow and quietly said, “Come with me, please.” The rest of the party moved on while I turned to follow the Captain down a side passageway and up to the next deck. Stopping at a beautiful mahogany door with a polished brass name plate, he turned and said, “Please step into my cabin.”

My mind struggling for a scenario, I stepped inside. He followed and closed the door. Before I could say anything he pointed for me to sit in a small leather chair at the side of his desk and, in perfect English, he asked, “Do you own a car?”
“Do I own a car?” I had no idea where this was going.
“Yes, do you have an automobile?
“Yes, Captain, I do.”
“What kind?”
“A Toyota Corona.”
The Captain leaped out his chair, a huge grin on his face, extended his hand to shake mine, pumping it vigorously. “So do I!” I got the feeling he now saw us as some sort of kindred spirits. He sat down and leaned back in his chair.
“How long did you wait?” He steepled his hands, tapping his fingertips in anticipation of my answer. I must have looked confused. I had no idea what he meant. “You know. How long did you have to wait to get your car?”
“I’m sorry Captain. I don’t understand.”
“Well, in my country, as Captain of a fleet factory vessel, I am highly ranked. I got my new car after waiting only three months. How long did you wait?”
“Captain, in my country anyone who wants to buy a car makes a trip a car store. There are usually several in a row on the same street. When I bought mine, I knew I wanted a Toyota, test drove a few models, decided, then bargained for the best price. I drove the car home the same afternoon.” From the look on his face I feared I had embarrassed him. Damn!

He said nothing for awhile, then, “I like the U.S. Coast Guard. They are not like the Navy or Army. You and I are just men who go to sea.” After a slight pause, he added, “ I don’t like our Army or Navy either.” Before I could recover, he placed both palms flat on his desk, pushed out of his seat and pointed to his cabin door.

“We should probably be joining the others in the wardroom.” To this day, I imagine an old Russian sea captain sitting around a fire, stoking his pipe, downing a vodka, dramatizing this same event to his grandchildren, “….yes, that’s what that crazy American tried to get me to believe—he buys his cars in one day!”