Captain Oskar Laine could feel a slight chill in the early evening air as late summer began to give way to autumn. In a few short weeks, the Gulf of Finland would be frozen and the St. Petersburg ferries closed for the winter. Oskar looked forward to a winter break and time with his family. But the winter freezing was still more than 2 months away and for now, it was business as usual. Passengers were boarding and all was on schedule for the 7 PM departure to Helsinki.
With his brown hair and neatly trimmed beard, Oskar was at home on the bridge, admiring the late afternoon view of St. Petersburg as sunlight reflected off the buildings and made the city almost look almost cheery. Such a wonderful view for such a dreary place, he thought to himself, just as he had every time he saw this view for the past 20 years. He could speak passable Russian, but after dealing with more than his share of government bureaucrats and shipping officials, he no longer had any interest in disembarking and exploring this Russian city.
With the passengers loaded, captain and crew began their departure checklist and left the dock at promptly 7 PM, bound for Helsinki. Tonight would be a full moon and the weather forecast was clear with calm winds the whole way. Passengers should enjoy their overnight voyage across the gulf and eager sight seers would no doubt be on deck much of the night.
Less than one kilometer out from the St. Petersburg terminal, the routine was shattered when second mate Elias Ekola reported an unusual sighting to port. First mate Leo Mustonen trained his binoculars on the sighting. “My God,” he said. “We must report this immediately. Call the captain!”
“All Stop,” ordered Captain Laine. “Hold us in this position. Leo, Elias, I want you to lower one lifeboat and go investigate this. Bring whatever equipment and crew members you need.”
Now turning to his communication specialist, “Shipwide, please”
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain. As you may have noticed, we are stopped momentarily and are lowering a boat on the port side of the ship. Members of our crew spotted something, uhm unusual in the water and we are compelled to investigate. We are also notifying the authorities in St. Petersburg and expect to be back underway shortly. I will appraise you of our progress.”
In the passenger area, 10 year old Vika Kachan turned to her mother and asked, “Mother, what is the port side?”
It is the left side of the ship, which now faces back towards St. Petersburg.
“May we go up on deck and look?”
“Yes. I am also curious what they found.”
By the time Vika and her mother made it up to the outside deck, several hundred other passengers also watched as the lifeboat sped away.
Sightseeing was the last thing on Captain Oskar Laine’s mind as he tried to explain to the Russian authorities why his ship was stopped in the middle of a busy shipping lane, and why he was sending a lifeboat back towards St. Petersburg.
“Captain, you are blocking the channel. Other ships need to move in and out.”
“I apologize and am aware of the inconvenience I am causing. However, we may need your immediate assistance if my crew and I are correct.”
“What manner of assistance?”
“We believe we spotted a dead body floating in the water. We are attempting to retrieve it.”
“Please repeat – did you say you are dead in this body of water?”
“No. Please forgive me. My Russian is not perfect. We believe we spotted a dead body in the water.”
“We can tow you back to the dock if you are dead in the water.”
“No. I do not require a tow. I require help identifying this body.”
“Captain, this body of water is the Gulf of Finland. Do you require assistance, sir?”
“Again, please forgive my imperfect Russian. I am keenly aware of this body of water. My ship is functioning perfectly. We believe we found a dead human body floating in this channel near our ship. I am sending a boat to investigate and retrieve it.”
“Umm, sir, did you say a dead human being?”
“Yes, Da, affirmative. Yes. That is correct.”
“Please stand by.”
Over the next several minutes, Elias, Leo, and the lifeboat crew struggled to retrieve the body and pull it onto the lifeboat as hundreds of passengers watched from the port side of the ship. Shortly before sunset, another boat motored from the shipping terminal and met the lifeboat. Some of the passengers had binoculars and Oskar watched from the bridge as passengers with binoculars described the scene to passengers next to them, who described the scene to other passengers. “This could get out of hand quickly,” thought Oskar. Turning to his communications specialist, he said, “Please raise the lifeboat.”
“Leo, what have you found?”
“Sir, this is deckhand Niilo Ilvonen. Mr. Mustonen and Mr. Ekola are busy with the Russians who came out to meet us.”
“Thank you, Mr. Ilvonen. Please give me an update.”
“It’s definitely a body, sir. We’re pulling it out of the water right now. Not a pretty sight, I can tell you that. Sir, the Russians are requesting we come back to the port.”
“Very well. Thank you, Mr. Ilvonen.”
Oskar turned to his communication specialist again. “Shipwide, please.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen, by now many of you have seen the recovery operations currently underway with our Russian hosts. The object being recovered is, umm, a dead human body. Members of our crew initially spotted the body and we alerted the Russians. The Russians are now asking us to return to the terminal while they sort things out. Therefore, we will turn the ship around and stay a while longer as guests of our Russian hosts. As we return to St. Petersburg, I will ask every passenger to check-in at the registration desk so we can make sure all are accounted for. We have no reason to suspect anyone on-board is missing – this is just a precaution, given what we spotted in the gulf. Once we dock, please remain on-board because we do not know when we will depart. When we obtain permission to leave, we will depart with zero notice. Cellular phone service is available on-board and I suggest you call friends and family to let them know we will arrive late. I will ask all of you with cellular phones to share with other passengers who do not have phones so all on-board can apprise their families about our situation. And I apologize for the inconvenience.”
Five hours later, after dozens of conversations between Captain Laine and officials in the St. Petersburg terminal, multiple phone calls in Helsinki between the ferry company and Finnish government officials, international communications between officials in Helsinki and St. Petersburg and Moscow, the final conversation in the affair was between Captain Laine and the night manager at the Russian terminal.
“Vanya, we’ve known each other more than fifteen years. You’re ridden my boat to Helsinki. We checked and rechecked and have accounted for all our passengers. You have the lists. We only found the body in the water. We have no idea where it came from or how it got there.”
“I know all this Oskar. If it were up to me, you could leave right now. And take me with you. But I am but a lowly terminal manager.”
“Then make a phone call. We have 2000 people on-board who want to go home. And 2000 more waiting in Helsinki to visit St. Petersburg tomorrow.”
“Osker, I have made those phone calls. Stand by and I will make one more call.”
And after five minutes, good news finally came:
“Oskar, you have permission to leave. And now my boss asks me why are you still here?”
“Thank you, Vanya. I will talk to you again in a few hours.”
Oskar turned to his First Mate and said what everyone had been waiting for: “Let’s get underway. And this time we mean it.”
“Aye Sir,” said Leo. He gave the appropriate orders and the ship was soon underway again, bound for Helsinki and home for its passengers.
“Leo,” said Oskar. “Why did the Russians care so much about this dead body?”
“I don’t know. The body was badly decomposed. It had a bullet wound in the forehead and the left middle finger was missing.” But I don’t know why the Russians were so interested in it.