Episode 133: Survive the Comparatively Savage Sea
Suva was a trim little tropical town on the western side of a small peninsula,
next to a harbor of the same name. To the south, the ocean was a brilliant
blue mirror. To the northeast, cassava and sugar cane plantations sprawled
beneath the sun. To the northwest, the highlands of Vita Levu rose in a
succession of hills to the great green bulk of Korobaba Mountain, five miles
Suva's Air Station was modern and efficient -- a miniature version of the
big Royal Air Station at Cairns. It even boasted its own small task force:
a squadron of the ubiquitous Sea Scout blimps, two old but well-maintained
Wolseley class patrol vessels and the R-180 Bouadicia, a sister
ship of their lost R-212. The commander, Captain William Collins, was an
old friend of Everett's from their days in the North Sea Fleet.
Forewarned of the Flying Cloud's approach, he took personal charge
of the handling parties. This was fortunate, for ship and crew were nearing
the end of their resources.
They arrived on their last few gallons of fuel, running on a single engine
tuned to its leanest possible setting. A yawning hole gaped in their lower
fin, draped with blackened strips of fabric, and several control cables had
parted after the action. But Collins had trained his people to a very high
standard. Thirty minutes after the R-505 dropped her handling lines, she
was riding to a stub mast and stern dolly while the two captains and their
aides made their way to Collins' office.
Along the way Everett filled his friend in on all that had transpired over
the past five months. Collins listened with considerable interest.
"The fellows who attacked you called here two days ago to resupply," he
informed his guests. "They represented themselves as the new American
cruiser, ZR-57 Mansfield, but we sent a cable to Sunnyvale after we
received your message and it appears that the real ZR-57 is still in
California. I imagine their fuel requisition will turn out to be a
"Did you meet her captain?" asked Everett.
"Our dealings were all with the ship's purser. The rest of the officers
remained aboard. We didn't think this too terribly strange at the time --
they would have been busy with the problems of a new vessel on her first
long cruise -- but now this behavior assumes some significance."
"So we have no idea who these fellows might be?"
Collins shook his head. "The purser introduced himself as a CPO Waters. He
was an older man with a distinct Dutch accent."
"Wasserman, do you think?" asked Jenkins.
"This seems likely," said Everett. "What about the enlisted men?"
"They were a rough lot, and they didn't seem particularly competent," said
Collins. "This surprised me. I'd expected better of the United States
"They might not have been the vessel's regular crew," mused Everett. "They
could have been hirelings engaged for purposes of deception."
"This seems quite the tangled web," said Collins. "What will you do now?"
Everett glanced back towards his ship. Her damaged fin loomed like an
accusation. "We should get the old girl inside a shed so your people can
begin repairs," he decided. "Then we'll give the men liberty. I don't
anticipate any trouble here in Fiji, but we'll tell everyone to keep their
Iverson and Sarah had reviewed the ship's ballast log, arranged billets for
the crew, and visited the offices of Pacific Cable Company to send a coded
report to Cairns. Errands complete, they stopped at a café on Renwick
Street near the Nubukalou Creek Bridge. Like most retail establishments
in Suva, it was an informal place, with patrons from all walks of life, from
managers of the Bank of New Zealand to lowly seamen.
One of the latter tipped his hat to Sarah as he passed their table.
"Dobryi den, moya dorogaya."
"You're Russian?' asked Sarah.
"Da. I'm Dmitri, a deckhand on the Starshii Bogov here in
port. And if I'd known there were more devushkas like you in Suva, I'd visit
this port more often!"
Iverson glanced at the man, wondering at his intentions, but his expression
was so cheerful, his manner so artless, that it was impossible to take
offence. "Devushka," he remarked. "We've been looking for a ship
named the Ostrovnaya Devushka."
The Russian's eyes widened in surprise. "Ni figa sebe! I was her
Now it was Iverson's turn to be astonished. "Where is she now?"
"She sank five months ago! I was one of the survivors."
"How did this happen?" asked Iverson
Dmitri corralled a chair while the lieutenant poured him a cup of tea,
then began his tale. Like many Russian expatriates, his English was
excellent, if a little formal.
"We were bound for Tonga out of Broome with a load of grain and animal
feed. We also had a distinguished passenger, the Grand Duke Mikhailovich,
visiting from England. It was quite an honor for our vessel."
"A member of the Russian imperial family in exile? Whatever was he doing
in the South Pacific?"
"He came aboard with some personal cargo -- a great wooden box the size of
a small motorcar. We assumed this was some treasure he'd spirited away
after the Revolution.
"The Captain stopped at Port Moresby and Noumea. Then he set out for Tonga,
taking a wide loop to the south as if he didn't want to be seen. We were in
high spirits. Most of us were on shares, and if this was a smuggling run,
there'd be extra profits all around. Then, four days out, there was an
explosion in the engine room and we started taking on water."
"What caused the explosion?"
"We never found out. There was only time for one distress call before we
lost the generators. The Captain ordered us into the lifeboats. He and the
Mate were supposed to take one boat each, but in the confusion, they both
ended up in the starboard boat leaving with me with the port one."
Iverson frowned. Boiler explosions were not entirely unknown on tramp
vessels -- steam objected to being confined, and could express this
objection in a particularly violent fashion -- but he was suspicious of the
coincidence. "Were any other vessels about?" he asked, wondering about
"Nyet. But we did see a large airship pass to the north sometime later. We
signaled them with a hand mirror and they altered course, but then they
turned back to the west, as if they'd spotted something on the horizon."
Iverson and Sarah exchanged glances. They had few doubts who this `large
airship' might have been. "What did you do after that?" asked the island
"We tried to stay together, but we lost touch with the Captain during the
night. When the sun rose, we were alone at sea with no way to navigate and
very few supplies.
Iverson had heard many stories of voyagers in small boats. Some, such as
Bligh, had fared comparatively well. Others, such as crew of the whaleship
Essex, had been driven to cannibalism... or worse.
"However did you manage to survive?" he asked breathlessly.
"It wasn't easy," said the Russian. "Days passed with no sign of land and
we began to lose hope. The food ran low, as did the vodka. We were forced
to resort to bottled water!"
He shook his head at the memory. Iverson shook his head as well.
"At last we were rescued by a passing freighter. They took us to Fiji,
where we dispersed."
"What happened to the Duke's personal cargo?" asked Sarah. "Did it go
down with the ship?"
"Oh no, we unloaded that in Port Moresby. The Duke got off as well. This
happened the day after someone broke into the Captain's cabin. I always
wondered what was going on. Quite a few people seem interested in that
cargo. There was that Englishman here in Suva a week ago."
"Englishman?" asked Iverson, with a sinking sensation.
"Da, a tall fellow with scar on his forehead."
Next week: An Audience With the Queen...
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