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Stowaways in the engine room28.12.2007

Tags: Rainbow Warrior       Comments: 0

The Solar Taxi is swaying with the "Rainbow Warrior" over the Great Barrier Reef. Louis Palmer has to keep watch and creep through the old ship’s bowels by night. Ship’s officer Dimitri whiles away the long hours on board with his guest by telling seafaring yarns.

After four days with no land in sight, we’ve rounded the northern tip of Australia and for the next five days we’ll be sailing along the east coast of Australia towards Brisbane. We’re sailing over the biggest coral reef in the world, the Great Barrier Reef. I’ve recently been ordered to keep watch on the bridge during the night from 12 until 4 am.

The navigation’s not hard for an experienced sailor like Dimitri because we have charts on which our route, a broad stretch at least a mile wide, is precisely plotted. Countless lighthouses on our left warn us of the vast, hidden coral reefs and to our right we have seen only dry, hilly, deserted country for more than 24 hours now.


I go on an inspection tour every hour during the night, first of all through the bows. The ship is 50 years old and rusty, so everyone’s greatest fear is a hole in the hull’s plating. I climb down several steps, torch in hand, then I crawl under a plate in the floor to check that the metal plates below are watertight. I make a quick check on the Solar Taxi, which is in the adjoining area. It slumbers like a vintage car forgotten in a garage.

I move on to the compressor and paint rooms, then past the cabins and into the engine room. I can only go in there wearing hearing protection, but even with the protection, it’s intolerable. It’s stuffy and hot and stinks of oil and grease and motors and machines. Here I have to check whether there’s a leak in any of the four engines.

Two little stowaways....

Next come the kitchen and storerooms. One deep breath and it’s into the fridge, between the yoghurts and the fresh salad, because the door to the freezer opens from inside the fridge. I have to take a reading on the freezer door to make sure that the temperature beyond it is a steady minus 20 degrees Celsius. Then I go up again through the dining area, right down into the ship’s stern, and then another two steps down into the steering room. Here too, I have to check again whether everything’s watertight, because there could be a leak in the rudder. After every inspection tour I’m always relieved that everything’s all okay.

After my tour of inspection I can go up and listen to Dimitri again. Nights are long up on the bridge, just the two of us staring out into the blackness, but Dimitri is the best storyteller the Russian Pacific island of Sakhalin ever produced. He is also the longest-serving crewmember on the "Rainbow Warrior", having been on board for seven years. Tonight I want to know what his best experience on this ship has been so far.


"We had just put out from East Africa five years ago", Dimitri starts straight into his story, "and our nurse Lesley had night watch on the second night. Every time she finished her inspection rounds, she came back to the bridge unnerved. Someone had been cutting themselves slices of bread in the kitchen and then leaving everything lying around. She was cleaning everything up again each time, but an hour later things were lying around again just like before." Dimitri smiles. "The next evening we all amazed to find a boy behind the bridge and then another one in the engine room. Our stowaways were aged 12 and 16 and were very shy."

...and their fate

"We washed them and gave them something to eat and some clothes. We were pretty shocked. Where should we take them? Who’d take them off our hands? We considered turning back, but decided not to, not into a war zone! So we started teaching them English. Communication is always the hardest thing in these situations. Eventually we found out that they hadn’t been drafted as child soldiers, they had just wanted to run away. They’d climbed onto the ship over the ropes during the night, independently of each other. They didn’t even know each other.

One of them had already stowed away on a ship before and had got as far as Germany, but had been sent back. We didn’t know what to do. We now had two passengers who we might not be able to get rid of! They stayed on board for five or six weeks and the two of them provided a lot of amusement for us on board. They cleaned and kept watch and we had a lot of fun with them. Luckily we were then able to hand them on to an aid organisation in Egypt."

And then?

"They were adopted and went to live in Canada. And you know where? In the same town where one of our former sailors lives. What a coincidence! She’s still in contact with them. I think both boys took a long time to get used to things, but now they’re doing really well! So it’s a story with a happy end."



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