Escape from Estonia

By Indrek Lepson
(Excerpted from Messing Around In Boats)
(click here for more information about MAIB)

Writing this was an ordeal, I lived through it all again, as if watching a movie. Man, it was surreal. It left me drained, just thinking of the agony a man must go through to tell his children that they are about to die, and how brave of him to take a young wife and two small kids on such ajourney, and if not, what would have been his options.

They're rolling out the guns again, arrooo, arrooo. The enemy's on the march again, arroo, arroo.
   They've taken our boys and men.
   Will I ever see my love again.
God grant eternal' rest to those who fought, and died, in freedom's quest.

Once again the whirlwinds of war had engulfed us. After a long bloody struggle, from 1918 1920, the War of Independence culminated in a free Estonia. We had cast off the oppressive yoke of Russian domination, and enjoyed freedom, and rapid prosperous growth. It lasted less than 20 years, and as the Titans clashed, we were trampled under their feet. Hitler's army being defeated, was in retreat as Stalin's hordes poured across our borders, creating a wasteland of death and destruction. Russia's cruelty to those they vanquished was legendary, we knew our fate.

Those who could, fled with the retreating Germans, and the survivors entered refugee camps there. Those who were cut off from that route of escape, either by choice or necessity, remained, or sought the only other route of escape; by way of the sea. The boat by which we escaped had been in preparation for this journey for some time.

When all was in readiness, word was sent to those of us who were in hiding that the moment had arrived. From different points the escapees materialized on the beach. It was getting on toward evening before all was in readiness to move the boat from the forest to the water. She was a refurbished coastal fishing boat, called upon to undertake one final journey.

The cradle was on top of several logs, which acted as rollers, and a tractor was used to pull the boat towards the water's edge. The weight of the boat and cradle forced the logs into the sand, nearly thwarling the efforts of the tractor, but at full throttle, the was boat moved, and as a log became free behind, it was carried to the front, and thus, slowly, frustratingly slowly, or so it seemed to us, the boat neared the water. The driver drove the tractor as far into the water as he dared, then backed up, and positioning it behind the cradle, pushed, until the boat was afloat. It was a terrifying space of time.

Then it happened. A red flare ascended into the darkening sky. We had been discovered.

In the still evening air, the sound of the tractor struggling to get the boat afloat was deafening, and echoed through the forest like gunshots, and for all I know, some may have been, as there were partisans in the forest, whose purpose was to eliminate any Russians who might venture too close.

The intent was to board, and silently row out of earshot, and then start the engine. Estonia was basically occupied, any activity that caused suspicion was harshly dealt with. People simply disappeared. It was impossible to keep our actions unobserved for any length of time. As we started to board, mother took her shoes, and handed them to me and told me to hold onto them. As I was the fat one, father picked me up and placed me in the boat, and my brother, being the skinny one, was put in the boat by my mother, and others started to climb aboard. It was an orderly, though anxious process as people started to climb on board and take their places. (The boat was 27', with a partial deck covering the front half, with thwarts, or "benches" going side to side. On the deck were lashed two drums of fuel, and a short mast in the middle, near the coaming, the purpose of which is a mystery to me.

Then it happened. A red flare ascended into the darkening sky. We had been discovered. Caution gave way to panic, as people scrambled on board. Shouts mingled with gunshots, a desperate push, and we were off the beach. Father started the engine, and at full throttle we pulled away. Soon a Russian vessel gave chase, and it would have been a short journey into oblivion had they been able to apprehend us. By then evening had become deep dusk, and as we were heading toward a dark horizon, we were a difficult target to hit, or catch, as, in spite of being dangerously overloaded with 33 people, we had a lot of power, and speed. Too much of both, as that nearly accomplished what the Russians could not.

As Sweden was a scant 300 miles away, we were hoping to be there the following evening, and therefore little if any provisions were taken along. People sang and laughed in the elation of having escaped, mindless of the dangerous situation that we were still in. An aging shell of Baltic pine, called upon to undertake one more, and final, desperate journey. Sometime in the night the starry sky disappeared, and a fierce storm engulfed us (the ferry Estonia, that sank with several hundred passengers a few years ago was on the way from Tallinn to Sweden, and was overcome by a fierce storm. Human error contributed to that disaster).

Dawn brought light, and a scene of utter human misery. The elalion of successfully eluding the pursuing Russians was replaced by dread. We were dangerously overloaded, and had a scant 18" of freeboard, causing a continuous influx of seawater over the rail. The bilges filled to the floorboards, from where it was constantly scooped and tossed back. Seasickness affected everybody, to a lesser or greater extent. Those who were near the rail were able to vomit overboard. Those under the deck, among them my brother and me, did not have the access to the rail. For us, there was a chamber pot and a sea boot, which was passed around, and emptied overboard.

A small motorboat, with three or four people kept pace with us for a while, we waved and exchanged greetings, and then were separated in the storm. What their fate was is unknown, they were so small. Our craft was taking an enormous pounding. We had too much power. We were too overloaded. Baltic storms are more treacherous than storms on other oceans, due to the shallowness of the sea. Instead of having rolling waves, there is created a short chop, steep waves close together. We had but one thought, get away quickly, before another Russian vessel sights us.

With the engine at its maximum rpms, we had too much speed. We overtook the waves, and slammed into them with enormous force, as if hitting a solid wall. The boat was too old, too tired, to take such punishment for long, and soon the floorboards were awash, and the water was rising faster than could be bailed. Everything had already been tossed overboard to lighten the craft. Even a pair of binoculars that one of the men had around his neck went over. Desperation supersedes reason. The water rose, despite the desperate bailing, using the chamber pot, the boot, hands, anything that would scoop water. The engine sputtered to a halt. We were wallowing in the seas, and slowly sinking.

Father reached under the half deck and pulled my brother and me out and placed us on the edge of the deck. With our feet dangling down, we held onto the mast with one hand. Then Father said, "Look at the world for the last time, for we will soon sink." I don't remember if my brother said anything, but I whimpered "Must we die now?" I was scared, terrified at the sight, and sound, of the enormous seas cresting around us. Then father saw something floating, grabbed it and tossed overboard, like a wet towel, trailing water.

As it plopped into the water I saw that it was my coat, which had been overlooked during the jettisoning of everything that was loose. My coat! I stared at it transfixed, I followed it as it rose and fell with the waves, and slowly drifted away. It was the only thing that I cherished. During the war, a new item of clothing was almost impossible to acquire. How mother was able to get that for me I don't remember, but to me it was a treasure. I did not have to share it with my brother, it was not someone else's passed down. It was mine. One can not understand the joy of having a simple item as that unless one has suffered the deprivations of a war torn country.

Then Father said, "Look at the world
for the last time, for we will soon sink."

As I watched my treasure disappearing, sadness overpowered me. I was oblivious of the fact that soon I too would be in the water. I only thought of my coat, the only thing that I had in this world that was mine. Then father thought that if he is going to drown, it mattered not whether it occurred inside or outside. Frantically he started to tear up the floorboards, and by divine luck, came upon the place where a plank was stove in. He hollered that he had found the leak.

Like a Tesla Coil, an electrifying spark of hope surged through the people. They tore off clothing and handed them to father. He pushed and pounded the rags into the hole, and managed to staunch the inflow of water to the point were we were able to toss out more than came in, and eventually the water was once again merely sloshing around the floorboards. We were afloat, but our condition was desperate. The storm had abated some, but while we were out of imminent danger, we had no way of knowing how much longer the boat could hold out after such punishment.

By now it was dark, and it was decided to make a distress signal. Rags were stuffed into the chamber pot. I can't imagine anything being dry, but it's possible to wring cotton to semi dryness. Gasoline was poured into the pot. How a dry match was found is beyond my recollection, but the pot was lighted, and the surrounding area was bathed in orange light. One man stood up on the deck, and with arms around the mast stump, he took the pot and held it high. Shortly thereafter it burned his hands and he dropped it. It fell on top of the engine, and flames engulfed much of the immediate surroundings. Nothing caught on fire (how could it?), and although the burning gasoline floated about, it was soon extinguished, and once more we were in darkness.

Bailing and praying, we waited for the dawn, which was not long in arriving. The storm was over, but the weather was still leaden, with threatening waves. Then someone shouted, "A boat!" With apprehension and hope, we strained to see the flag. We feared that the storm may have pushed us back to Estonia. As the boat got closer, we could make out a cross. "Finnish," someone shouted. Thank God, we at least got to Finland, we were safe. As the boat neared, the flag turned out to be Swedish. Instead of pushing us backward, the storm pushed us toward Sweden. Our flare had been sighted, and this boat was already searching for us.

We were towed to an island, and allowed to go ashore. No one could stand, for having been jostled about for so long at Sea, the ground seemed to sway and move as if one with the ocean. We stumbled about as if drunk, much to the amusement of the Swedes, and ourselves. After this ordeal, I was able to salvage a small victory. I had stashed mothers shoes between the bench and the hull. One shoe still remained, and I was able to give that to mother.

We were then taken to Stockholm, where we were scrubbed and deloused (standard practice under these circumstances), given fresh clothing, oh how wonderful that felt, and then taken to a military base in the harbor, where we were housed in barracks, and fed, and fed, and fed. Our bodies rebelled at such rich food, with the result of intestinal mutiny. Most of us suffered from diarrhea. Being a military base, and somewhat primitive, there were several two or three hole latrines, which were in constant occupancy.

After a few days, I don't remember how many, we were taken to a refugee village, with a post office, a small store and a school house. To us kids life could not be better: eat, sleep and play. I had had a small pocket knife in Estonia, with which I used to carve little pine bark boats, or make whistles and squirters, out of bamboo. I lost it, probably in the woods. While walking along a street, I found it again. I knew it was mine, because I just knew. Whoever found it had also made it to safety, whether one of us, or on another boat.

In due time, after the winter, work was obtained by the adults, and as the earlier arrivals vacated the camp, new ones took their place. A new life, and the start of a new adventure began, which eventually culminated in a clandestine departure from there.