This story is fictional, but the events portrayed are part of my family’s history.
In the early 1970s, my late Uncle John was involved in an accident at Whitby harbour similar to the one Johan had. The result was he lost his job as a stevedore on Whitby docks, a position he held since World War 2.
Later in the 1970s, my Uncle Len was involved in the rescue of a Polish ship at the mouth of the River Tees, North Yorkshire. My uncle was the man who boarded the ship and got the men to safety. The event is logged n the annals of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
Last year, I contacted the RNLI station at Teesmouth with the intention of finding some information about the incident. Our family had talked about the incident for many years, but details were scarce. The only information available at the time was to confirm the incident and my uncle’s actions. The station did say, if I got anymore information would I be willing to write an article for the web page? Last month (May 2014) my mother went into a care home, and the information about the information was passed to me. At some time this year, I intend to write the article.
The TSS Baltika was an old passenger ship. In June 1970, she took groups of schoolchildren on a Baltic cruise. She was an old ship and should have been making the trip to Sweden from Poland not crossing the North Sea in a gale force10 winds.
The port is Gdynia in Poland. The bulk carrier being loaded is the TSS Baltika, and her destination is the English port of Teeside. Her cargo holds are full with ore for the smelting works. This trip is one journey her crew will remember and one which they wished they hadn’t taken.
Her journey started in the Baltic Sea on a cold, October evening. The team waited on the dock, while the Captain and the terminal Master oversaw the loading. The loading was going slower than expected and the tide was on the turn.
Captain Karl Polchin called out. “Can’t you load quicker? We’ll miss the wave, and that’ll cost us wages and dock charges.”
Terminal Master Piotr Stallor replied. “If you they go faster, you’ll risk an accident, Karl.”
Karl called above the noises of the ailing cranes. “That is a chance we’ll have to take, this late in the season, Piotr. The weather is closing in, and we may not get another opening until next month, or even later.”
Hard as the stevedores worked, late hours and driving sea mists take their toll on your strength. Though against his wishes and company policy, Piotr realized Karl had a point and agreed to the faster loading. This practice would entail cutting corners and putting lives unnecessarily at risk. Tonight time and tide were against the Baltika.
On the dockside, Johan Ollivero and Ferenc Dessow glanced at each other. Tired faces showed fear. They knew cutting corners would cause an accident and they would be the ones who would risk being injured. The loading went well until Johan spotted one of the crates slipping from its packing.
Without thinking, he dashed at Ferenc and knocked him out of the path of the falling box. His brave and selfless act cost Johan a lot. He lay motionless on the ground. In saving his friend, he took the impact of the crate on his lower back. The emergency sirens sounded, but you didn’t need to be a doctor to realise the outcome. Johan’s back had been so badly damaged he couldn’t walk properly and be unfit for work.
Piotr glanced at the back of the ambulance as it took Johan to the hospital. With disdain in his voice, he said to Karl, “I warned you. By pushing the men and cutting corners, you would endanger the men. He is paying the price for your foolish pride.”
Through his tears, Ferenc said, “The voyage is cursed. You’ll bring the bad omens with you.”
Karl glanced at the crew and said, “I’m sorry for what happened. We need to get the ship out before the dock gets snowed in. Ferenc, I don’t believe in bad omens. They’re old wives tales.”
Ferenc glanced at the raging water and crossed himself, then said, “Time will tell.”
In solemn silence, the men finished the loading. She had the hatches battened down and were ready to leave. Karl called out, “We’ll be back at the end of the month.”
Piotr saw Ferenc’s worried look and whispered, “What do you think?”
With a sigh, Ferenc said, “There is more trouble ahead. I am worried they will not get to their destination. Karl is a good skipper, but also a very stubborn and proud man. These features are useful in times of peril at sea, but you need to accept help. That is Karl’s flaw, and he cannot accept help. I fear this will be bad for the journey ahead.”
Despite the setback caused by Johan’s accident and Ferenc’s concerns, the Baltika set off on time. From the outset the going was rough. The Baltic Sea in winter is no place to be; even hardened seamen avoid her if they can. This night was worse than any recorded with seas slamming the sides, making steering a true course impossible. Many times she was almost driven into the shore, to be saved by a sudden swell.
At the helm, Fiodr Checlow called to the Captain, “I can’t hold our course, Captain. We’re being driven inland, and the scans are showing heavy seas ahead.”
Karl glanced at his charts and replied, “Keep her steady, Fiodr. We can’t lose any on the trip.”
Fiodr glanced at his Captain. He was going to say something, but, he noticed a strange look on the Captain’s face and crossed himself, then said a silent prayer.
Karl’s heard the silent uttering, “What did you say?”
Fiodr realised he had little to lose and replied, “I prayed we would make it to England, Captain. There was a talk on the docks as we left. The men were saying this voyage is fated to end badly. I sailed with you many times. On occasions, we almost didn’t return home, but I never knew you to be careless. Today’s accident could have been avoided. Why did you push the men so hard?”
Without taking his eyes off the charts, Karl replied, “I had my reasons.”
A tired and terse Fiodr retorted, “And we’ll probably pay the price as Johan has!”
Silence passed between the men as Karl studied the charts and Fiodr’ stared at the seas. Ahead lay their destination; between them lay the North Sea. The Baltika took a severe battering as she departed from the Kiel Kanal. Her voyage across the North Sea had only started, and things were getting worse by the minute.
The seas raged, and the decks were awash on many occasions. The men tried to keep the water from breaching the holds. In the high winds and rough seas, even the safety lines were tested to their limits. Men had to be continually hauled back from sliding overboard. The crew glanced at the wheelhouse. Fiodr gave a shrug and a shake of his head.
In the height of a dangerous swell, a huge wave crashed down on the deck. Men ran as splinters of wood flew across the floor like spears. One man was saved when he tripped over a coiled rope, and a large splinter flew over his head. The man rose slowly and crossed himself in thanks.
The waves made making headway hard work, “How long before we’re in radio range, Fiodr?” called Karl. His voice was hardly audible over the roar of the waves.
Fiodr glanced at the chart and replied, “I would say about ten minutes. We’re going to require assistance getting her in with the storm blowing.” Karl didn’t speak, but he nodded, and Fiodr thought. “We will need the help, but he won’t ask.” As an after thought he added, “The weather report says a blizzard is due. Is anything more going to have to happen, before you realise this journey is doomed, Karl?”
Karl turned to face him and replied with icy coldness. “The journey isn’t doomed. You’re getting as edgy as old Ferenc.”
Karl’s words did nothing to calm Fiodr. His expressionless face was frightening. Sometimes people can foresee their future, had Karl seen his?
About ten minutes later, Karl picked the mike up and made the call. “Teeside, this is TSS Baltika inbound from Poland. Our ETA is about an hour. We are taking on water, but don’t require assistance, over.”
Phil Jones, head watchman at the Lifeboat station at Teesmouth replied. “We copy that TSS Baltika, but we’ll follow your progress. The storm’s building up; don’t cut your arrival too close, over.”
Phil kept a watch on the ship and her route. The winds had got stronger. The high tides in the last few days had moved the sandbar. The sandbar has moved and is a danger that would be unknown to the inbound ship.
Through the mist, Phil saw the Baltika appear. Without pausing to think he ran to the top of the tower fired the flare and sounded the siren to call the crew. The ship was sailing too far to the South and being pushed onto the sandbar in the blizzard which had arisen. Men dashed from their jobs and families. Nobody asked once the flare went up.
Len Moore, the boatswain, arrived first, putting his gear on he called out. “What have we got, Phil?”
Phil ran down to the boat and replied, “A Polish ore carrier, heading into the sandbar. The Skipper didn’t ask for help, but he’ll need it.”
Half an hour later, the boat hit the water and headed for the location of the Baltika. From the moment the lifeboat arrived, it was clear they needed help. Len kept calling and trying to get Karl to accept the offer of assistance, but Karl refused help.
Time and time again, Len circled the stricken ship as she floundered on the sandbar. The situation kept worsening, and he remained unable to help until asked. For an hour or more the lifeboat circled the bulk carrier. Out of desperation, Len said. “Joe, can you get aboard and try to convince him, he needs to abandon ship, or lose the crew?”
Burly Joe Peters replied, “We can’t do anything else, Skip, unless he requests assistance.”
In a lull in the storm, Len called over the speaker. “We’re sending a man over – you need to leave.”
One of the Baltika’s crew nodded and waved his agreement. The timing was vital, as the boat rose on a wave; Pete Marsh fired the hook across. The Polish sailor latched it to the deck and waved.
Len and Joe set the chair in motion. The journey wasn’t long. But above raging, icy waters, every minute seemed like an hour to Joe. On his arrival, the sailor helped unbuckle his harness. Len nodded a thank you and ran to the wheelhouse. Actions speak louder and are clearer than words when you have a language barrier. With no other way, Joe used hand signals. He needed to tell Karl the ship had been pushed on the sandbar and would soon be broken in two. Karl realised the danger and gave the order to abandon ship.
The men ran to the boatswain’s chair and waited as Karl and Joe buckled them in. Each time the ship rose, men from both vessels cranked for all their worth. The men gave their all in an attempt to get the man across. More than once a sailor got wet knees.
Joe stayed on board the Baltika helping the sailors get off safely, despite the creaking as she tore apart under his feet. Every time a sailor left, the ship heaved below him on a surge. There were moments when Joe thought he wouldn’t get off the ship. At moments like this, he thought “If he’d asked earlier this would be over.”
The crew got cranked across to safety. Joe was being landed on the lifeboat when they heard a thunderous roar. The crews turned to view as the Baltika tore apart in the blizzard and started to sink below the waters.
Len turned the lifeboat around and opened the throttle. With a backward glance, he said to the sailors. “We need to be away from here when she goes under.”
The frozen sailors nodded their thanks as they drank the coffee offered by the crew. An hour later, the boat docked and the men disembarked. Over a cup of tea and a bun, the crew readied their boat for the next time.
Weeks later a letter arrived from head office. The crew had been awarded the Gold Medal for bravery. The men were presented with the awards at a formal ceremony, with all the trimmings of heroes. The local paper put the rescue on the front page, and the men were interviewed. Just as welcome was the vodka sent by the Polish crew as thanks for being alive.