Blindfold Game

Blindfold Game - SmallGo here to read my underway blog, written during the sixteen days I spent on the USCG cutter Alex Haley in the Bering Sea in February 2004.

Go here to buy the paperback.

Go here for my Alex Haley photos Flickr gallery.

About the Dedication
For Catherine Ann Stevens
(she knows why)
(oh, all right, maybe a little for Ted, too)

I’ve been voting for Ted Stevens since I was old enough to vote, and that’s probably about as far down that path as either of us wants to go. His wife is truly Catherine the Great, but don’t let that scare you, because she’s as smart and funny as they come. He likes great wine, too, and he shares, which pretty much has my vote locked in for life. I’m easy, I’m just not cheap.

Book Excerpt

Note: The USCG cutter Sojourner Truth has caught the Russian vessel Pheodora with her nets in the water on the wrong side of the Maritime Boundary Line in the Bering Sea. Executive officer Lt. Commander Sara Lange has been ordered to lead a boarding party to seize the vessel.

By the time she got to the armory the rest of the team had donned their orange and black Mustang dry suits, Kevlar vests, helmets, life jackets, helmets, and sidearms. She jerked her chin at the rack of shotguns and said to Chief Petty Officer Marvin Katelnikof, “Break out the shotguns.”

He complied without comment. Katelnikof, a balding veteran with twenty-nine years in, had earned his cutterman’s pin before Sara had graduated from high school. Not a lot surprised him. She accepted a shotgun and headed below to the fantail where the rest of the BTMs were mustering, followed by Katelnikof, who was their designated Russian translator on board. The two Zodiacs had already been lowered into the water with their three-man crews and were now circling back to pick up the boarding teams.

Ryan saw her coming. “You’re stylin’, XO. Something about Kevlar that really does it for you.” He nodded at the shotguns. “The old man must really be pissed off this time.”

“The Agafia’s over the Line just south of here.”

Ryan whistled low and long. “Man, they’ve just got to push it, don’t they? You’d think they would have learned after the last time.”

Sara scanned the horizon. “Yeah, where’s the Russian Federal Border Service when you really need them?”

Ryan followed her eyes and stiffened. “Hey.”

“I see them,” Sara said, and keyed the mike clipped to her shoulder. “Captain Lowe, XO. I’m seeing a couple of other vessels approaching our location at speed.”

“We have them in sight, XO. There are three vessels, identified as the Nikolai Bulganin, the Nadeshda, and the Professor Zaitsev.”

“So, okay, this is new,” Ryan said. He cocked an eye at Sara. “Do we go?”

“Captain, do we go?”

There was a momentary pause. The wind bit into her in spite of the dry suit and her face was already damp with salt spray. “Go, XO,” the captain said.

“Yep,” Ryan said, “seriously pissed.” He grinned and climbed over the side to scamper down the rope ladder and drop solidly into the small boat. The rest of the first boarding team followed. “Rrrrrraaaaamming speeeeeeeeeeeed!” Ryan yelled at the coxswain in a passable ANIMAL HOUSE imitation. The Zodiac roared away and the second pulled up neatly behind it and Sara led the second team down.

Petty Officer Duane Mathis hated not to be first in line for anything and roared after the first boat. The hull thudded over the top of the chop in a bone-jarring but exhilarating ride. Sara looked over at the coxswain and he was leaning forward, teeth bared as if he wanted to take a bite out of the wind. Mathis was from San Francisco, she remembered, and he’d grown up off the coast of Peru on the deck of his father’s tuna boat. He and Sara had swapped a lot of lies about fishing over this patrol, although it seemed to Sara that the only difference between fishing off Peru and fishing off the Aleutian Islands was temperature and species of bycatch.

They stood off as Lowe goosed the Sojourner Truth to overtake the Pheodora, giving the Russian just enough sea room to slow down and no more. If you’re the captain of an ocean-going vessel in the middle of the Bering Sea, ninety miles from the nearest land and that land not under the flag of your own nation, there are worse things than having a two hundred and eighty-four foot Coast Guard cutter bearing down on your port side with no indication of slowing down before impact, but not many. When the distance between the two closed to two hundred yards the Pheodora’s skipper caved and pulled back on the throttle. A moment later a rope ladder was tossed over the lee side.

Sara was first on deck. The conditions of the processor were about what you’d expect, the deck slimy with guts and gurry, lines loose from gunnel to gunnel, and anything with a moving part so long overdue for an overhaul that it all probably ought to have been junked. Ten feet away the deck sported a jagged hole the bottom of which disappeared into darkness, whose edge had yet to be cordoned off and flagged.

Seaworthiness had two entirely different meanings on either side of the Maritime Boundary Line. Sara revised severely downward her estimate of how much the Pheodora might fetch at auction. They might just possibly be able to sell her for scrap.

“XO?” her radio said.

She keyed the mike clipped to her shoulder. “Code one,” she said in a mild voice. She didn’t like anything about this situation but as yet the boarding team had not been threatened, not counting the imminent peril everyone stood in of of breaking an ankle tripping over one of the loose lines.

“Code one, roger that,” the captain said. “Keep me advised.” She clicked the mike twice in reply. A man in a bulky sweater and stained pants stepped forward. In heavily accented English he said, “Vasily Protopopov. I am master of vessel.” It came out “wessel” and behind Sara there was a snicker, followed by the flat slap of a hand on someone’s helmet.

Ryan stepped forward. “Captain Protopopov, I am Lieutenant Henry Ryan of the United States Coast Guard. You have been stopped because you were fishing over the Maritime Boundary Line in American waters.”

Protopopov let his eyes slide past Ryan to Sara. He gave her a long, leisurely once over. Sara, crammed into her dry suit like chopped pork into a sausage skin, girded about with Kevlar like a medieval knight in his armor and feeling almost that seductive, felt like laughing in his face. Instead, she remained silent, keeping her expression calm and nonconfrontational. Protopopov waited just long enough to make his rudeness clear, and then shifted his attention to CPO Katelnikof, standing at Sara’s elbow holding the shotgun she’d handed off to him in the Zodiac. “No gear in waters,” he told Katelnikof.

CPO Katelnikof, a salty old fart and the last man on board the Sojourner Truth to agree that women on board ship were a good thing, was already stiff with outrage at Protopopov’s insolence to his executive officer. This blatant untruth did not soften his attitude. He dropped the shotgun from shoulder arms to cradle it in deceptively casual hands, the barrel now pointing at the deck between himself and the Russian captain.

Sara looked aft and saw that Protopopov was correct; the Pheodora’s gear had been reeled on board.

The captain’s voice came over her radio. “XO? Status?”

She keyed the mike. “Code two, captain.”

The codes were the captain and the executive officer’s way of assessing a boarding situation. Code one was standard operations, no threat. Code three was get us the hell of here. Sara didn’t see any weapons other than their own, but it was a big ship, the crew was obviously hostile, and there were too many windows and doors looking out on the foredeck in which someone with a weapon could be stationed.

Lowe’s voice was full of grim purpose when he responded. “Sta
nd by, XO, and we’ll fix that for you.”

Sara clicked her mike twice in response. Ryan looked at Sara. He was the boarding team officer and the person to whom Protopopov should be addressing his remarks, but the Russian captain had good instincts for spotting a superior officer. Not to mention which, it was the first time since Ryan had rotated on board that she’d come along on a boarding. She jerked her chin and he turned to face Protopopov.

“Captain,” Ryan said, “we have you, with your gear in the water, on videotape, a good mile to the east of the Line. As this seems to becoming something of a habit with your vessel, I’m afraid we are left with no option but to seize your ship and your catch and to place you and your crew under arrest.”

Protopopov looked at the boarding teams, now both fully assembled on the deck of his vessel. They each had nine-millimeter sidearms strapped to their waists, and half of them carried shotguns. He raised his head and opened his mouth. His eyes looked past Sara and his sullen expression lightened.

She turned to see what he was looking at, and found that while they’d been talking the three other Russian vessels had arrived on scene and were now circling the Sojourner Truth and the Pheodora about three hundred yards off.

“One boat it’s a Sunday sail, two boats it’s a race, three boats it’s a bloody regatta,” Ryan said.

Nobody laughed. Protopopov looked back at Sara with an expression that couldn’t be called anything other than triumphant. “Maybe you leave now.”

“I don’t think so, sir,” Sara said, who had been monitoring the activities on the deck of the Sojourner Truth out of the corner of her eye.

“Oh, yeah,” Katelnikof said approvingly, following her gaze, and Protopopov turned to look as one of his men let out a warning shout.

Lowe had closed to within a hundred yards of the Pheodora’s port bow without slowing down. The 50-caliber gun now mounted to starboard was manned, with a belt of ammunition already threaded into the magazine. In addition, Lowe had manned the starboardside .25-millimeter cannon, which Sara happened to know was the one of the cutter’s two that worked. The portside cannon had been waiting on parts for months. They were Navy guns, and the Navy had never liked the idea of giving weaponry they’d bought and paid for to another service.

Lowe gave the Russians a good long look as the Truth flashed by, to cut neatly across the Pheodora’s bow with what felt like inches to spare.

Somebody screamed. Sara hoped it wasn’t one of hers. Captain Lowe was doing the thing in style, and she had to repress a chuckle.

Ryan didn’t bother repressing anything. “Flame on, Captain Lowe.”

They all staggered as the Pheodora’s helmsman panicked and spun the wheel and the processor lurched abruptly to starboard. Protopopov let out a stream of Russian, face going from red to white to purple. He could have been yelling at his helmsman, but then he turned on Sara and pushed right up into her face, still shouting.

“I’m so sorry, captain,” she said blandly, ignoring the spray of spittle, “I’m afraid I don’t speak Russian.”

“But I do,” Katelnikof said, or so he translated for Sara when they were back on board the Sojourner Truth. “Don’t let this broad’s lack of balls fool you, captain. Given half a chance she’ll order our ship to run right over the top of this paddle wheeler of yours.”

Aghast and agape, Protopopov stared at Katelnikof, whose grin was wide and not at all friendly. The Russian captain rounded on Sara again. “Your captain crazy! What you do, ram us, sink us! Russian government will not stand for this! I lodge complaint!”

The combination of speed and the show of weapons, in addition, Sara believed, to the display of extremely able seamanship was enough to cause the other vessels to veer off and make best speed for the horizon. Besides, they all had catch quotas, which if not met might relieve the skippers of their commands.

And it wasn’t like there wouldn’t be another opportunity to yank the Coast Guard’s tail on the Maritime Boundary Line. Job security, she thought, for all of us, and turned to Protopopov, whose face had yet to regain any semblance of normal color.

“Captain Protopopov, I relieve you of command of the Pheodora. Chief,” she said to Katelnikof, “have Captain Protopopov identify the rest of his crew and place them under guard. Lieutenant,” she said to Ryan, “go below and tell the working folks that they’ve got an all-expenses paid trip to beautiful downtown Dutch Harbor.”

An hour later they were underway, following the wake of the Sojourner Truth as she headed south-southwest in pursuit of the Agafia.

The Pheodora’s bridge was in a little better shape than the rest of her, but not much. A large spoked wooden wheel reinforced with tarnished brass stood at the center, ranged about with a fathometer and radar and radios and a GPS. The GPS had been trashed but that was to be expected, the crew covering their asses. All Sara really cared about was that at an ambient temperature right around fifty-eight degrees Fahrenheit, it was warmer than the bridge of the last foreign vessel she’d had to board.

Ryan entered the bridge through the port wing hatch. “Ship’s crew all secure in the galley, XO, and the workers are getting out their party clothes. I put Katelnikof on watch in the engine room. Not that the Russian engineers want to miss out on a shopping trip in Dutch, either.”

Everyone laughed, a little giddy at the success of their mission. Their mood was hardly dampened when they saw the helo return and land on the Truth, which meant that the Agafia had slipped back over the Line before they could arrive on scene. Bagging the Pheodora was enough of a prize, and besides, they were headed back for Dutch riding on a white horse, in distinct contrast to their recent exit.

Sara couldn’t keep the smile from tugging at the corners of her mouth. Looking around, she saw that same suspicion of a smile on the faces of the rest of the other two boarding teams.

It was hard sometimes for her to believe her luck, that she got to whup bad guy ass on her nation’s territorial frontier. “Just another day at the office,” she told Ryan, a big fat lie if there ever was one.

“We are the defenders of the homeland,” Ryan said, dropping his voice to his best lower basso profundo.

“We are the shield of freedom!” Sara said, and the bridge exploded into laughter, in part triumphant because they were the prize crew of a seized vessel and because at heart every Coastie was part pirate, and in part relieved because no shots had been fired and everyone was going home alive.