Sunday, 8:15 – 9:10 p.m., September 3, 1939
One after another, Russell watched several lifeboats depart from Athenia’s Boat deck. Each time a boat descended, he moved to another station. He promised his father he would go once the boats were ready, even if his father and mother had not yet returned, but he couldn’t bear the thought of getting into a lifeboat without his parents. Russell was certain they would return at any moment, so he hung back in the crowd.
Once while moving to a new station he saw two men in the water swimming to a lifeboat that had already been launched. He noticed they were wearing lifejackets and realized with a start that he didn’t have one. Even though he couldn’t swim, Russell didn’t want to search for a lifejacket for fear he might miss his parents. With the crowd thinning, however, he was becoming more conspicuous.
Something else also was becoming conspicuous. Athenia’s deck leaned more and more down toward the port side of the ship. If it kept up, everyone would slide off the deck into the ocean. It had been an hour since his father left. Where could they be?
Finally, there was only one lifeboat left – number 7A on the starboard side. The lifeboat tilted slightly inwards and would not come off its blocks, despite the efforts of several crewmen pulling on the ropes to lift its bow and stern. They tried to rock the boat by leaning on its gunwales, but it didn’t budge. The delay in launching the stubborn boat gave Russell hope his parents would arrive in time to leave with him.
He watched three crewmen place a long piece of lumber under the boat and over the railing that separated the lifeboat from the rest of the deck. They tried to lever the heavy lifeboat with several men on the long end of the wooden beam but succeeded only in breaking the metal railing. In a final act of desperation, a few men grabbed fire axes and began chopping away at the blocks under the boat. After several minutes it seemed to come free, settling on its keel with a gentle rocking motion. As the men with the axes stood back in triumph, Russell was the only one on deck not cheering their accomplishment.
He watched the now familiar routine as the crewmen hauled on ropes at either end of the boat to raise it off the deck, crank the davits to swing it out over the side of the ship, and lower it level for loading. The surge of passengers carried Russell forward. He turned to search frantically for any glimpse of his parents, but they were nowhere in sight. To keep from being trampled, he stepped into the boat and found a seat on the far side behind the last cross-bench. Everything was happening too fast.
The Boat deck disappeared above him as 7A began descending, scraping down the side of Athenia’s hull because of the way the ship leaned to port. Three feet from the water, the boat came to an abrupt stop. Russell wondered if the ropes were too short, when suddenly the boat dropped into the ocean with a loud splash, accompanied by shouts from the people up on deck.
“See you in the morning.”
Russell wondered if his father and mother were among the people shouting. Maybe they came up on deck just as the lifeboat was launched. But this was the last boat and he felt guilty to be leaving his parents aboard, along with several members of Athenia’s crew.
“What about them?” Russell cried, pointing to people shouting and waving on the Boat deck.
“Don’t worry about them, laddie,” a man in a white coat sitting in the stern responded. “There are two motor launches to take them off.” The casual note in the man’s voice as much as the words themselves gave Russell hope that he would be back with his parents soon.
But as the lifeboat pulled away from Athenia, he began to have second thoughts about leaving the ship. First, the people in the lifeboat found only a few of the oarlocks needed to hold the oars for rowing, nor could they find the tiller that moved the rudder to steer the boat. Worst of all the boat was leaking because the wooden plug for the drain in the bottom had been dislodged when they hit the water.
Earlier in the afternoon, Russell had imagined commanding the sturdy little wooden boat on the high seas. Now it didn’t seem like such a good idea. The cold, dark night closed down around him and the boat didn’t feel so sturdy, leaking and bobbing up and down on big rolling waves. Athenia’s steel deck seemed much more substantial, no matter how awkwardly it was tilted. From a distance the big ship looked safe to him, with its emergency lights providing a haven in the darkness. How he wished now he could be back on board with his parents.
In our next blog: Russell’s quick action saves an oar and earns praise from his shipmates.
For all the blogs about Russell Park in this series, please visit www.thomascsanger.com