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Feather's Miscellany: Murmansk Pilot

...So dense was the snow outside, darkness began to fall early. They were sailing through a freezing maelstrom taken they knew not where by the sea and elements outside. They were in another world, a freezing hell set to claim them any minute...

Captain John Anderson and his crew, which includes his sons, are in deep trouble as they battle their way through an Arctic storm when they receive help from a surprising source.

John Waddington-Feather tells a satisfying tale.

A hurricane was blowing and the temperature was twenty degrees below freezing as the “Orlando” battled her way towards Murmansk through mountainous waves across the Barentz Sea in the Arctic. She was commanded by Capt. John Andersen, one of three brothers who ran the family freight line from Hull, where their fleet of three ships was based, trading across northern Europe.

John Andersen was powerfully built, of medium height, with a head of grey, short-cut hair. His face was lined through years at sea and his jaw hung in a determined set. Like his brothers and sons he had piercing blue eyes, genetic pointers to his Danish Viking ancestors who’d settled eastern Yorkshire centuries before. The sea was in his blood all right from birth and with his brothers he’d taken over the shipping line founded by their grandfather. They’d all been raised as sailors, rounding off their education on board H.M.S “Worcester”, the crack nautical training ship on the Thames, before returning to Hull to run the Andersen Line.

John was an experienced Captain and had sailed in ships across the world for over forty years, from a raw cadet to captain. Now in his early sixties he was on his very last run, looking forward to retirement and letting his sons and nephews run the freight line. On board were his two sons and a nephew; a family crew if ever there was, and that made him doubly troubled in mind, for in all his long life at sea he’d never sailed in conditions like those he was experiencing that day, and he realised now he’d made an error of judgement: he should have stayed in port instead of sailing in those conditions.

As he peered through the port of the wheelhouse, all he saw was a blinding, mesmerising whorl of snow. So cold was it outside that ice was forming thickly on deck and over the rigging of his ship. The heater in the wheelhouse could barely keep the port through which he peered free of ice. Even as he stared ahead, a mountainous wave loomed up before him and came down crashing on the deck. “More of those,” he thought to himself, “and we’re finished.” Then another waved crashed down and he felt the whole ship shudder and creak as it rolled to and fro helplessly.

Worse was to come, for minutes later the compass began playing up. Strange things happen in the Arctic to compasses; now was no exception. It began to spin and turn like a mad clock. They could have been heading straight for the North Pole – or the rocky coast of Finland – for all he knew. He was lost and in desperation he ordered the Radio Officer to send out a may-day signal seeking help; but worse than being lost, his ship was icing up fast; ice was thickening on the rigging and deck before his eyes. If they didn’t reach port soon, the ship and all on board were doomed. They’d simply capsize.

As he stood by the helmsman, Capt John Andersen began to pray silently, for sailors are religious men. They’ve faced danger too often not to believe in God and the hereafter. Now was one of those times for the captain of the “Orlando”. He was desperate and feared for the lives of the men under him.

The storm outside grew fiercer roaring like a demented spirit round the stricken ship, now covered in a shroud of ice. The “Orlando” was completely at the mercy of the waves and rolled from port to starboard more and more, till John knew it wouldn’t take on much more ice before the vessel keeled over. His son was at the wheel and sensed how fraught his father was each time he glanced across at him.

“You all right, dad?” he asked at length, after another glance at the pale tense face at his side.

John smiled back grimly. “What d’you think?” he asked; then said bluntly, before turning to his bos’n, “Much more of this and we’re goners. Make sure all the crew are wearing life-jackets; though God knows how long we’ll last out there if we have to take to the lifeboat.” He opened his speaking tube and ordered the Radio Officer to keep sending out the distress signal, hoping against hope that someone sailing nearby would pick it up. But the chances of that were slim indeed. Most ships would have sailed for the nearest port hours ago in this weather, but Captain Anderson had wanted to get this final trip over as quickly as possible, get back home put his feet up. Now he was paying for it.

So dense was the snow outside, darkness began to fall early. They were sailing through a freezing maelstrom taken they knew not where by the sea and elements outside. They were in another world, a freezing hell set to claim them any minute.

Louder and louder blew the wind outside as ice piled heavier on the ship. Night had fallen completely and the helmsman could see nothing ahead. It seemed like hours they’d been drifting, when suddenly directly in front a shape appeared and they saw the searchlight of a squat vessel, a pilot boat, probing for them through the curtain of snow. It fell on the “Orlando” and over the radio came a strange voice telling them to follow the pilot boat; a voice which spoke English with a heavy foreign accent. “This is Captain Leonid Bronski,” it said. “I am your pilot at Murmansk. Please to follow me to take you to port.”

Captain Andersen breathed with relief. He was nearer Murmansk than he’d imagined and thanked the pilot for coming out so far to meet them in such atrocious weather. He thought it odd, yet these Russians were brave folk. They might be a bit temperamental, but there was no doubting their courage. His dad had vouched for that during the war, when he’d freighted armaments for the Russians time and time again in convoy from Britain to Murmansk.

As they neared the coast the wind suddenly dropped and the temperature rose; the sea went calm and the snow cleared so they could see ahead. In a short while, John Andersen and the rest of his crew picked out the lights of Murmansk twinkling on the horizon and breathed with relief. They were safe and Captain Andersen sent up a silent prayer of thanks for the Russian pilot coming to their aid when all seemed lost and taking them safely into port.

Slowly the “Orlando” limped into port, following the pilot boat till Captain Bronski radioed directions for them to follow and sent a final farewell before disappearing into the night. Captain Andersen thanked him with all his heart. Without him they’d have been lost, and just before they parted, he said he hoped he’d meet Leonid Bronski on shore for a drink. “Perhaps,” said Capt Bronski. “Da sveedanya. Goodbye” and gave a warm, friendly chuckle before the radio went dead.

The “Orlando” docked safely and the Russian port officials came on board to make their routine inspection. The “Orlando’s” sudden arrival had taken them by surprise, as they’d assumed it had put into another port for shelter when the weather had deteriorated. They could hardly believe it when the “Orlando” limped in and docked. It was nothing short of a miracle that they’d made it Murmansk through the hurricane and the freezing night.

John Andersen knew them well and asked the chief officer where he might find the pilot, Capt Bronski, who’d brought them safely to port. The other stared back. “What pilot?,” said the chief officer. “None of our pilots has been out for the past two days. The weather’s been too appalling. In the past forty eight hours yours is the only vessel to come in – and how you made it here is a mystery, captain. In all the years I’ve worked here, nobody before has sailed to Murmansk in such conditions. It says much for your seamanship.”

“But your pilot…Captain Leonid Bronski…he guided us in. We wouldn’t have made it but for him. I sent out a may-day signal and he answered it.”

The chief officer looked hard at Andersen, then said quietly: “Leonid Bronski died in 1942, sir. He was a very brave man and is a legend here. He was the pilot who sailed out under fire to bring in the ill-fated British convoy PQ17, but was sunk by German bombers. Only 11 of the 35 British merchant ships made it here. Capt Bronski’s name is on the War Memorial in the middle of the city if you care to look.”

When he’d finished his business with the port authorities Captain Andersen made a point of visiting the War Memorial. As he looked down the long list of names, his eye fell on the name of Captain Leonid Bronski followed by his awards for valour; but as he read, he suddenly heard behind him the same warm, friendly chuckle he’d heard over the ship’s radio the previous night when Bronski had said farewell. He turned quickly. But there was no one there, only the warm laugh fading away.

John Waddington-Feather ©


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