Monday Dawn, September 4
Even though he was tired, eleven-year-old Russell Park had not slept since his lifeboat’s near miss with the rescue ship Knute Nelson. Splashing oars, constant efforts to bail out the boat, and spray from the white-capped waves kept sleep at bay. At least the misty rains had stopped and the half-moon, now in the western sky, was a more constant companion, only occasionally ducking behind fast running clouds.
Driven by the rising wind, the ocean’s swells had steadily grown. Each time their boat started up another wave, Russell worried that the wall of water might throw them over backwards. Yet somehow they always gained the crest without anyone falling out. He would feel the boat come level briefly before sliding down the back of the wave at such a steep angle the bow seemed to fall away below his feet. In the trough between waves, passengers resumed their efforts at bailing or working the oars to align themselves for the next wave.
Over and over the routine repeated itself until Russell forgot his fears and began to watch the distant rescue operations with greater interest. Each time the boat topped a wave, he looked to the west for the Nelson’s lights and to the southeast where a second, brightly lighted ship sat like a large white seabird on the ocean. Once when they came to the crest of a wave, he noticed a distant red light in the east that he hadn’t seen before. It was still there when they rose on the next swell. Two waves later a second red light appeared on the water. Soon he could make out two dark shapes moving with the lights.
“Are those rescue ships?” he asked the steward, who was the only Athenia crew member in their lifeboat.
“Why are they so dark?”
“Maybe they’re worried about German subs.”
“But the ships with the lights aren’t worried.”
“No they ain’t. That big ship we slipped by, that’s from Norway. Norway’s a neutral country. She’s not at war with Germany, so she’s not worried about being sunk. The other one with the bright lights is probably a neutral, too. So I’m guessing those dark ships way over there are our navy. Of course, they could be German raiders.”
The steward gave Russell a long look and smiled.
“Nah, more ‘n likely they’re Royal Navy. At least I hope so, for our sakes, laddie.”
The man gave Russell the task of tracking the movements of the dark ships with the red lights on their sterns and reporting to him if one of them veered in their direction. For an hour, he dutifully watched the ships, and noted they were making a large circle around the rescue operations. When a third dark ship arrived, he reported one of the ships entered the circle and was using its spotlight to find lifeboats and pick up passengers.
“Now we’re getting somewhere, laddie,” the steward said. “Let me know if she keeps coming closer.”
Russell had been so intent on following the ships he hadn’t noticed the clouds in the eastern sky brightening to a pearl gray. When he realized dawn was about to break, his fears began to retreat with the night. In the morning light the boy thought the rescue ships would have a better chance of seeing their disabled lifeboat.
“They have to come for us now, don’t they?” he asked the waiter.
“Aye, it’ll be our turn soon enough.”
Russell waited for the next swell to resume his lookout duties, but when they rose to the top of the wave he was surprised to see a third large rescue ship that he hadn’t seen come up in the night.
“Where did that ship come from?”
“That’s Athenia, laddie.”
“But I thought it sank last night.”
“And so did I. Probably her generators shut down and all the lights went out so we couldn’t see her anymore. But she’s still there.”
If Athenia didn’t sink then Mom and Dad had time to get off the ship. I could be with them later today.
“I’ll tell ya something else,” the steward said. “Those ships with the red lights you been watching? They’re definitely Royal Navy destroyers.”
Realizing he was about to be rescued and reunited with his parents, Russell’s outlook brightened with the eastern sky. His spirits lifted even more when one of the destroyers methodically made its way toward them, picking up survivors from two other boats before finally coming alongside.
Sailors aboard H.M.S. Escort threw down a line to secure the lifeboat’s bow along their ship’s hull. Next came a rope ladder and several safety lines. Someone put the loop of a safety line under Russell’s arms and helped him onto the ladder, where he was practically lifted aboard the destroyer. Standing on Escort’s deck, he felt heavy and unsteady, unexpectedly overcome by the weight of the sleep that eluded him for most of the night. He wanted to search for his parents, but when a sailor asked if he was tired, all Russell could do was respond with a nod. The sailor took him forward below decks, to a narrow room where several hammocks swayed lazily with the motion of the ship. He helped Russell into one of the hammocks where the boy quickly fell asleep, unaware of the snoring presence of other Athenia survivors.
In our next blog: Russell searches the ship for his parents.
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