The Isle of the Tsar of Russia

The slow stuttering trip out of the current and into the island’s lee took less time than it seemed it should because of the back current. Dutch had held to a dogged steady pace, stroke after slow stroke, swimming out in front of the Zodiac. Without warning, the boat had run right up over his shoulder, as the wind, in concert with the current, exerted a suctioning pull back into the lee of the island. I had replaced the wetsuit gloves on my hands, and, as with the water-filled dry suit, they responded warmly to the insulating properties of only a thin layer of liquid.

I was not warm, but I had feelings to my body. We pulled Dutch aboard as the Zodiac moved sideways toward the cove, which served as the innermost point of the lee of the island. Waves pounded onto the small rocks, appearing to run in on swells only four to five feet in elevation. I looked up at the small chunk of water-isolated land. It was a kidney shaped piece of rock about eight hundred feet high. The only landing spot possible, at the base of the cliff, was a narrow cove the boat was being sucked into. Huge pines appeared to cover the flat top of the quarter mile wide body of gray rock, high above.

There was no attempt on our part to manage the Zodiac’s direction or lessen its impact when we went over the falls of a wave. The boat’s soft-bodied hull was made of a hard rubber called Hypalon. When the hull struck, the resulting sound was a huge flat crack. The twenty-foot vessel bounced and flew. I flipped out in mid-air, landing on the rocks, my back down. The rocks, which had appeared so substantial from a distance, proved slippery and full of giving. The dry suit, in its water-filled state, protected me. I was uninjured.

The boat, however, was high and dry, wedged into a pliable rock base. I grabbed a hull line and climbed to my feet. Don and Dutch were doing the same on the far side. We looked at each other. Jokingly, in imitation of The Three Stooges, we all slapped our foreheads in unison. The reaction was automatic. It had happened to me many times before. The elation of survival, under the difficult or impossible circumstance, forced an appreciation for simply being alive. That feeling overcame all other emotions. I understood what it was. It’s a rare emotion, not experienced or understood by ‘normal’ people.

Nothing was said for a full minute as we stood by the Zodiac, breathing hard. It had been a close call. I re-engaged with both men and waited, but neither wanted to be the first to speak about the ordeal. And what was next.

“Don,” I finally said, “grab the canvas sack out of the boat. Dutch, get the top off the outboard. We’re going to need the cover if we want to hear something.” Both men clambered aboard the beached craft. Neither seemed to mind being ordered around at all. Dutch looked more comfortable than Don, which surprised me. I had expected some macho trouble from the mercurial, alcoholic young man. I pulled out the knife I’d strapped to my calf. I removed the screw top with some difficulty. The gloves gave me warmth, but not manipulative ability. I dumped the Bic into my hand. I opened a waterproof zip pocket on my thigh, the tang of the zipper huge and convenient for my gloves. I popped the Bic in and re-zipped before approaching the rubber hull.

“Here, Dutch,” I gestured with the knife. “Cut the gas line and squirt some gas into the handle. Screw it down and we’ll have some great accelerant for a fire.” I knew that our survival for any extended time was not going to be dependent upon either food or water. It was going to be a direct function of how good we might be at building and maintaining a source of constant heat. Don and Dutch came over the transom of the boat. I helped them land on the rocks without causing damage to any of us.

“Anything else you think we can use on this thing?” I asked, looking over the top of the big rubber-tubed siding.

“Use for what, Arch? To do what? To go where?” Dutch replied, looking all about the rocky shore. There was nothing at all on the shore, not even wet washed up wood. There was no vegetation. Rain began to fall softly, as all three of us absorbed our surroundings.

“Up there,” I said, pointing toward the top of the escarpment eight hundred feet above. Then I pointed at the steep slide of riprap, which had fallen through a cleft in the face. The cleft angled upward, then switched back and went on. We all stared at the incline together. I could not see, from our bad angle, if the cleft made it all the way to the pine forest above. But I also realized that we had little choice. We wouldn’t last twelve hours on the brutal rocky shore. Not with the rain, the wind, and unknown surf conditions.

“We can’t make the climb wearing this stuff, and I don’t have any boots,” Dutch complained. I pulled out my knife.

“You’ve got that right. Let’s cut and paste!”

“We can’t destroy the equipment…” Don began until I held up the knife and pointed it at him.

“We just saved the company almost a hundred grand, Don, and the First Mate his job, I think we can sacrifice a few thousand bucks to stay alive.” I began working on the bottom of my suit, cutting the booties free. Then I sliced around the waist. I tossed the knife over to Dutch. “Cut. We’ll do some better tailoring up on top.” I looked up then, to examine the likely course of our climb. I had sounded a lot more confident than I really felt.

“I’m getting wet,” Don whined. “You guys are waterproof, at least.” I sniffed but said nothing. I was wet to the bone but it hardly seemed worth mentioning. Why belabor the obvious? Dutch finished cutting, then handed the knife back to me, butt end first, almost subservient in his manner. I was surprised, yet again.

“Forgot my own knife aboard,” he confessed, then climbed back aboard the Zodiac. He rummaged around for a few minutes before rejoining us. He held a folded knife out for us to see. We moved toward the cliff face, Dutch carrying the outboard cover. Don hauled the canvas sack. I replaced the knife in my sheath, curious about why Dutch had felt it necessary to show us that he had found his knife. That was a ‘tell,’ in my business. The ‘tell’ was not in his going back for his knife. It was in displaying it to validate his public explanation.

People seldom do things which are truly meaningless. They almost never throw up evidence for things that appear to require none. I did not know what Dutch had been doing, while he had been bent down on the boat. Almost certainly, though, it was not what he had purported it to be. I banked his insincerity and started the ascent. I’d think about it later.

Although the dry suit booties were not the best climbing boots ever designed, they did the job. The riprap was easy but tiring. Our feet sank deeply into the thimble-sized stones, which then rolled down the steep slope behind us. Step by slow agonizing step we made it to the area where the cleft changed direction. There was a small flat clearing there, with the first sign of vegetation covering it. Short wild grass covered rock and thick mud.

“Don, the sack,” I said, holding out my hand. I squatted while he settled onto his haunches. He tossed the sack gently to me. I pulled out the large chunk of tin foil wrapped sandwiches. “Eat. Fish. It’s protein. We need the warmth and the energy. Eat it all, we’ll find other stuff later.” I handed out sandwiches. Two for each of us. They were gone in no time. I crumpled the tin foil into a ball and put it back inside. Don grabbed up the sack. We started off toward the top. Looking ahead I realized that we had lucked out. The cleft went all the way, at a much more gentle angle than it had started out at, and the narrow surface was grass covered rock. We might just be alive when the ship came back. If the ship ever came back, I thought sourly, hating Captain Borman without ever really having met the man.

We stepped up over the last ledge onto hard packed earth, which was covered with pine needles all the way to the edge. The pine trees were so close together that they seemed impenetrable. “White Pine,” Don said, in his professor’s lecture voice. “Circumboreal….some Black Spruce, the tall ones, which will have a look out if they get real tall, are Black Spruce, and that’s about it.” We stood in the rain, now coming down harder, and looked at the wall of pine branches. I broke the silence.

“Well, Botany Bay, it’s your call. What do we do?” Don rubbed his chin.

“How are your knees?” he asked, then sank down and crawled forward on all fours, satisfaction on his face. Dutch and I looked at one another, agreeing to follow the big Canadian’s lead. Don burrowed in and under the lowest of the branches, moving faster than I thought possible. He snaked deeply into and under the bottom foliage. He finally stopped under what had to be a huge pine or spruce. There was enough room under the lowest branches for him to sit and lean his back against the trunk. It was thicker than he was. “Check the needles,” he suggested, holding up a handful. I stuck my hand into the heavy layer of light brown needles. Right away I understood.

The needles were bone dry, even with rain falling heavily just above. None of it got to the base of the huge pine. Water ran down and off the waterproof living needles. It ran in runnels around the trees but not to the bases. “Desiccation,” Don observed, smiling, “many of the pines here die of it, while it’s raining right overhead.” Dutch slumped down, lying on his stomach, “how the hell do we build a fire in here?” Yes, it was dry, but it was still frigid.

I reached for the canvas bag and pulled out the tin foil. Carefully, I smoothed it flat on top of the dry needles, then began working it up under the bottom of the lowest hanging branch, about shoulder height.

“We’ll just clear the pines to ground below and then let the tin foil diffuse the heat above,” I said. I pulled the knife out and handed it to Dutch. “Go cut some low hanging limbs, dry ones, or find some dead ones while I get things ready here.” Dutch crawled away, looking like a huge baby bear foraging for food. I pulled off my gloves and then finished fastening the foil into the tree. “That radio will work better from up here. What’s the range?” I asked Don, as I worked, my mind more on getting warm than on his answer.

“That radio will work better from up here. What’s the range?” I asked Don, as I worked, my mind more on getting warm than on his answer.

“About five miles on the surface. Probably more like ten from up top here,” he replied. There was something in his voice that caught me, however.

“What’s on your mind?” I challenged him.

I watched Don think for a moment, bringing the radio out to set at the base of the tree. He pulled a pack of cigarettes out and looked at me as if waiting. I shook my head in negation, then unzipped my thigh pocket and took out the used Bic. I tossed it over. Don flicked once. He got a strong flame and then lit the cigarette.

“I know, I know, you don’t smoke,” I offered. He blew a big exhalation at me. “Didn’t myself, really, but then I met you. You’ve changed everything.” But he smiled when he said the words. It vanished with his next question. “Who did the anchor in?”

It came out of him so softly, and out of place, that I did a double take. I didn’t say ‘say what?’ but I thought it.

“What’d Ya see down there?” He dug deeper, pursuing the subject. I still said nothing. Instead, I cleared the pine needles in order to have a base for the

I still said nothing. Instead, I cleared the pine needles in order to have a base for the fire’s foundation. When done, I relaxed back on one elbow and resumed my talk with Don.

“The link was sheared, but it wasn’t distorted, as if from being taken to its tensile strength and failing. The ends were shiny. It appeared to have been filed or cut. But it would have taken a lot of work, and somebody with access to do that. The chain locker is secured.” I hesitated, and then went on. “It would’ve taken somebody with motivation. Somebody who understood where we might lay-up, and what might happen to the ship if it broke loose from the anchor too close to this island. It was just a stroke of good fortune that the engines were still running when that link went. We’d have been on the rocks within a minute with that current.” I finished my analysis. He stared back, inhaling a few more tokes.

“Somebody like maybe an Assistant Cruise Director who drinks too much?”

I thought about his conclusion, with surprise. I could place everything but motivation. Drinking didn’t seem to be an issue, although I was dead sure that Dutch was out under the pines somewhere drinking from the bottle he’d reclaimed from his trip back aboard the Zodiac.

Right at that instant, the Easter Islander appeared back under our giant White Pine. He had no branches or firewood. In his hand was a half empty bottle of Bacardi Light, the cap off. He crawled to the base of the tree, and then leaned his back into it, holding the bottle out, as if offering us a drink.

“I did it. I cut the chain,” he announced and then started to cry.