A quiet, cloudy day on Boothbay Harbor and a light, southeasterly air, barely enough to fill the sails of our Friendship sloop EASTWARD but enough to please our one passenger, who was now at the wheel. She was a durable-looking lady, perhaps in her 50s and she spoke with a strong European accent, which I will not try to reproduce in English letters. Her name, Tatiana Bogolubksy, sounded like a mouthful of pebbles but she added, “Just call me, ‘Mrs. B.’ ”
“You handle the boat very well in a light air. Where did you learn to sail?” I asked.
“My cousin taught me in Baltic Sea. My father insisted that I learn to swim, row and sail.”
We slipped along in silence for a while under a lowering sky. The surface of the water began to freckle with a light shower and the wind dropped off to a breath. I suggested we start the engine and give up for the morning. No charge.
She luckily vetoed that. It wasn’t raining much, she said. She was waterproof. She had come all the way from Brooklyn, N.Y., to go sailing. She was not going to quit now.
“Well, let’s pick up that mooring over there and go below until it breezes up enough to go sailing.”
“And perhaps a cup of tea,” she said.
I took the wheel. The mate roused out, took in the headsails, gaffed up the mooring and ducked below out of the drizzle. I fired up the Primus stove, put on some water to heat and invited Mrs. B. below. She tried, but she had a game leg and the ladder was short, vertical and without hand rails. She sat on a seat in the cockpit next to the hatch.
“At least we will have some hot tea,” she said. The water boiled and we did.
I noticed she wore an enameled flag pinned to her jacket, a flag I did not recognize.
“That,” she said proudly, “is the flag of the Imperial Russian Navy; not the red navy. I wear it because my father was an Admiral in the Imperial Russian Navy.”
“Was he at the battle of Tshushima?” I asked.
“Yes, he was, but he wasn’t an admiral then. He was a Captain of a small supply ship.”
Sitting aboard a Friendship sloop in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, in 1983 with rain dripping into her tea, the daughter of a Russian Admiral told us of the Battle of Tsushima off the coast of Siberia in 1905.
In 1904 a Russian army was fighting a Japanese army in Siberia. The Japanese cut the Russian supply line, the Trans-Siberian Railway. To supply his troops by sea, the Czar had to use Port Arthur on the Pacific side of Russia and accordingly on October 14, 1904, sent from the Baltic Sea a hastily-assembled fleet of 53 naval vessels – battleships, cruisers, destroyers, auxiliaries, supply ships – to reinforce Port Arthur and to supply his army. However, on Jan. 2, 1905, while the Russian fleet was making the long voyage around Africa, India and Asia, the Japanese took Port Arthur. When the Russian fleet arrived in the strait of Tsushima near Port Arthur, it ran into a well supplied and well trained Japanese fleet. There followed a two-day-and-night battle with both sides badly confused but with the Russians in far the worse situation at the end of a long voyage, low on coal and supplies, with no base and without time for proper training. They took a bad beating. Of the 53 ships that had left the Baltic, a cruiser and two destroyers reached Vladivostock. Five battleships were sunk and the rest of the fleet was sunk, captured, run ashore or interned in a neutral port.
But what of Captain Ponareff and his small supply ship, having made the long voyage from Russia to reinforce a port that had surrendered before he arrived? His business was not to fight the Japanese Navy but to get his little ship and cargo back to Russia and as soon as possible and intact. In the confused last hours of battle, he headed eastward as fast as he could go, flying a variety of signal flags in the hope a Japanese pursuer would think he was signaling units ahead. This device has been used by other ships before, but it got this little ship through the night.
During the night, Captain Ponareff set all hands not stoking the boilers to painting the little steamer white. In the morning, he had his people dress in vacation clothes, lounge about on the decks, and set up a game of shuffleboard. At least one Japanese destroyer engaged in mopping up the remains of the scattered Russian fleet showed no interest in an excursion steamer and passed her by.
At last, after a long and difficult voyage, Captain Ponareff came home, the only one of the 53 to return to the Baltic.
“Hey, Cap,” hailed the mate from EASTWARD’s foredeck, “the wind has shifted.” The daughter of an Admiral who had flown the flag of the Imperial Russian Navy took EASTWARD’s wheel.