Kolinski in the water

[Kolinski is a Bolshevik terrorist, who has just made his way through Germany and is going to Sweden to return to Russia]

Buying the ferry ticket had been no problem, but even the slight swell in the harbour had upset his stomach and made him feel queasy. When the ferry had put to sea, he had been forced out of the saloon where he had been sitting, onto the deck, to a chair conveniently close to the lee rail. He decided it was now safe for him to remove the bandage and sling. He was, after all, now on a Swedish ship, where the German authorities had no jurisdiction. It was a clear cool moon-less night, with what would have been excellent visibility if there had been anything more than starlight to see by.

He looked towards the bow, where he could just make out some lights of an otherwise darkened ship sailing a kilometre or two ahead of them. Without any warning, there was a flash of brilliant light, followed a few seconds later by another flash. The sound of the two explosions followed a few seconds after that.

Immediately there was a shout from the ferry’s lookout to the bridge. “Mines ahead!” Almost immediately, the ferry turned hard to port, away from the stricken ship in front, from which flames now appeared to be leaping.

In a minute or so, the deck beside Kolinski was filled with passengers who had heard the noise of the explosions and felt the ship turning, and had made their way on deck to see what was happening.

One woman close to Kolinski seemed to be convinced that it was the ferry that was sinking, and kept hysterically asking her husband when the lifeboats were going to be launched. Though no-one else seemed to be suffering from this delusion, there were many anxious faces, and there was an almost palpable feeling of unease among the passengers.

Half a dozen sailors came through the crowd, headed by one of the ship’s officers.

“We’ve received an SOS from the ship ahead. They believe it was not a minefield, but torpedoes from a British submarine,” he told the passengers. “We are perfectly safe,” he reminded them, pointing to the large Swedish flag, picked out by searchlights, floating from the main mast. “The British do not attack Swedish ships. We are perfectly safe,” he repeated.

“So what is the ship ahead?” came a voice from the crowd.

“She’s a German Imperial Navy destroyer of the Baltic fleet. We’re going to take our boats and take some of her men off. Apparently most of her boats were destroyed in the blast. So I’m looking for some strong able-bodied volunteers to man the lifeboats and help save the lives of those men.”

Several passengers stepped forward, but Kolinski stayed where he was.

“Excellent,” said the officer. His eyes met Kolinski’s, and he looked Kolinski up and down. “We need a big strapping fellow like you,” he said. “Come on.”

“Can’t swim,” mumbled Kolinski.

“Doesn’t matter. You’ll have a lifejacket, and even if you do fall in, we’ll have you out of there in no time at all.”

Kolinski still hung back, and a woman’s voice cut through the crowd. “It could be you in the water. Shame on you for refusing to help those poor men in there.”

“Shame, shame,” came the murmur from the crowd. Kolinski flushed. “Oh, very well,” he muttered, and stepped forward.

“Good man,” said the officer. “We’ll get you fitted up with a lifejacket. Come with me.” He led his party, including Kolinski, to one of the ferry’s lifeboats, and instructed them where to sit, giving basic instructions on how to row the boat. A sailor passed out lifejackets.

“Lower away,” called out the officer, when they were all seated in their places and wearing their lifejackets. The davits creaked, and the boat was slowly lowered towards the water. Even before the keel of the lifeboat started to touch the surface of the water, Kolinski started to feel miserably sick.

“Cast off,” called the officer in the stern, “and then all of you good fellows pull at my command.” The lifeboat, accompanied by the other lifeboats from the ferry, likewise crewed by a mixture of professional and amateur sailors, slowly made its way, with a lot of splashing, towards the burning ship. “Well done, men. Any of you want to sign on as permanent crew?” joked the officer in Kolinski’s boat.