By Ove Haxthausen
“Just like the movies,” I thought as my guard urged me out of the car.
Through the drizzle and darkness of the chilly October morning, I could make out the gloomy iron trusses of the Glienicke Bridge. But this was no film, it was the culmination of my three years in Soviet captivity. In a few minutes I would walk across the famous Bridge of Spies to regain my freedom.
Suddenly large spotlights illuminated the bridge from both sides, reflecting their glare on the wet asphalt. I saw my old boss at MI6, Trish Green, standing on the other side of the bridge. A few officials were with her, as well as a man in handcuffs, presumably my counterpart in the exchange. Despite the dazzle of the lights, I also spotted snipers, positioned in watch towers on both sides of the bridge, just in case.
At exactly five o’clock, the guard unlocked my handcuffs and instructed me to walk across the bridge. I noticed my counterpart starting to walk towards me, he too free of his handcuffs. In three years, I had never felt more hopeful and excited. Freedom was only a few steps away.
Just as I had passed the Russian spy, I heard a loud voice from behind me: “Stop! The exchange is cancelled. Mr. Jones, turn around and walk back!”
At that moment, I started running as fast as I could towards Trish. The Soviet snipers opened fire. Soon I collapsed, hit by their shots.
“No! No!” I shouted, as I sat up in the bunk, drenched in sweat.
“Bill, sweetheart, calm down, it’s over. Was it the bridge again?” Whispered my wife Virginia as she gently caressed my chin and gave me a kiss.
Of course, it was. More than thirty years later, I was still haunted by that early morning in Berlin back in 1987. It was such a crucial moment of my life. If all went well, I would be able to resume a normal life in England. If not, I would be doomed to rot in a Soviet prison.
Unlike in my recurring nightmare, chance was on my side. The swap went as planned and that evening I was back in London, among family and friends. The relief was indescribable. It almost numbed me. I was free. I could start over again.
And start over I did. Less than a year later I resigned from MI6, bought a one-way ticket to New York and reinvented myself as an advertising executive on Madison Avenue. When I sold my agency five years ago, Virginia and I moved to Newport, while keeping a small house in Nini’s native Charleston for the winter months.
“Thank you darling,” I said once I had regained my composure. “The odd thing is, I think it’s the first time I have ever had that nightmare on a boat.”
“You’re right. Usually, you leave all that behind when we are sailing,” replied Virginia in a drowsy voice, already half asleep again.
But this was not the usual summer cruise with George and Camilla aboard our Alden 44 sloop Brisk. This year, we had left Brisk at her mooring in Newport to embark on Frou-Frou, Igor Dobrynin’s 115-foot Swan maxi sailing yacht.
My friend and fellow Englishman George Newby was to thank for the upgrade. George had a passion for racing classic sailboats. In Newport, he was a partner in a New York 40 – one of the famous “fighting forties” from 1916. He was also part of a syndicate that owned Iona, a Fife designed Eight Metre from 1910, based in Antibes.
Four years earlier, on a trip to the South of France to sail on Iona, George had met Igor Dobrynin. Iona had entered the Régates Royales in Cannes and the Voiles de Saint Tropez the following week, both major events on the Mediterranean classic yacht racing calendar. Unfortunately, a last-minute problem with Iona’s rudder prevented her from sailing in the Régates Royales. The rudder had to be looked at, which meant hauling the boat at the yard in Antibes. Depending on the findings from the inspection, Iona would hopefully be ready in time for the Voiles.
Meanwhile George found himself with a week of free time. Rather than hanging out in Cannes like most of his crewmates, George decided on an impromptu road trip along the Côte d’Azur. Actually, it wasn’t his decision at all. His wife Camilla had insisted on it, so off they went.
While catering to Camilla’s desire to go sightseeing, George managed to squeeze in a visit to the Monaco Yacht Show. The event was known for its lavish display of mega yachts, and this year the famous Finnish sailboat builder Nautor would be launching its all-carbon fiber Swan 115 maxi yacht at the show. George was keen to see it.
While touring the incredible Swan 115 in Monaco, George and Igor met. They bonded over the deceptively simple deck layout. George remarked how radically different it was from Iona’s, and it turned out that Igor too had raced Eight Metres some fifteen years earlier when he lived in Helsinki.
With a few of the crew dropping out because of the repair uncertainty, Iona needed additional hands. Before they parted ways, George invited Igor to sail with him in Saint Tropez the following week, provided the boat would be ready.
Igor accepted, and Iona’s rudder problem turned out to be a quicker fix than feared. During the week of racing in Saint Tropez, Igor and George cemented their friendship and became racing buddies. The following year they crewed together on various classic boats in the Mediterranean, in the Baltic, and also in Newport. Meanwhile, Igor had been unable to resist the attraction of the Swan 115 and had ordered one for himself. It was delivered in Saint Petersburg the following fall.
Igor wanted to spend more time on the water. While remaining majority shareholder, he reduced his day-to-day involvement in his energy holding company, ID Invest, to the strict minimum. Now he could work remotely from his new Frou-Frou, anywhere in the world.
After a few years of familiarizing themselves with the boat and assembling the right professional crew, Igor and his wife Irina embarked on a transatlantic crossing. They followed the trade winds from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean where they spent the winter cruising. As they began to sail north in late spring Igor and Irina invited George and Camilla to join them for a week of cruising in New England in August. Since August was when George and Camilla would usually go cruising with us on Brisk, George asked if Virginia and I could come along. Igor graciously accepted.
We had left Newport the previous day around noon and sailed to Cuttyhunk. The weather was perfect: Warm with clear skies and a light breeze. We anchored in the outer harbor, feasting on local oysters and lobster for dinner while enjoying the spectacular sunset over the island.
The nightmare had woken me up at about half past five. Unable to fall asleep again, I changed into my swim trunks and got up on deck. I lay down on the foredeck to relax in the morning twilight, waiting for the sun to rise on another perfect summer day. Cuttyhunk’s outer harbor had always been one of my favorite cruising destinations. The large bay surrounded by low lying islands with barely any signs of human settlement produced a feeling of remoteness, of being away from it all, which I had always cherished.
As I was lying on the deck gazing at breaking dawn, I heard Russian emanating from a forward cabin hatch left ajar. The muted voice sounded like Captain Voronov. From my days in the Soviet Union, first as cultural attaché at the British embassy in Moscow, then as prisoner, I had a fairly good command of Russian. I could make out fragments: “Yes Sir, no traffic observed. Will continue to report through the usual channel.”
The conversation seemed unusual for a private yacht captain. Igor had told me Boris Voronov had served as lieutenant commander in the Soviet navy before falling victim to post Soviet navy downsizing and remaking himself as a professional yacht captain. His naval background would explain his formal communication style. Yet, something about it seemed strange. What “traffic” was he observing? Who was he reporting to? What “usual channel” was he referring to?
As I lay there pondering, I was interrupted by a voice behind me: “Good morning Mr. Jones. Up early I see.”
It was Yuri, one of the crew, doing his dawn deck inspection.
“Yes,” I replied, “I woke up about an hour ago and couldn’t fall asleep again, so I decided to get up and enjoy the sunrise.”
“Do you have the aft swim platform lowered? I may go for a morning swim,” I inquired after a brief reflection.
“Of course, Sir. Jump in whenever you like!”
“I’ll take that as an order!” I joked as I got up and dove in.
Although it was August, the water felt chilly at first. But after a few strokes I was fully enjoying it. I swam around the boat as I always did on my morning swims, but this time, it took a lot longer. Frou-Frou was almost three times as long as my old Brisk. After the effort, I floated on my back, letting the cool water caress my body while enjoying the serenity of the moment. I winced at the twinkling reflections of the sunrise off the water. Then I noticed a stray seagull in the sky, on the hunt for its breakfast. In the distance, I could make out the faint humming of a lobster boat at work. I loved these peaceful morning swims off the boat at anchor.
Suddenly I was startled by a splash. I turned my head, and there was Igor who had just dived in.
“Ah! I see you also enjoy a morning swim,” I exclaimed.
“There is nothing like it on a perfect morning like this.”
Igor clearly had his own morning swim routine, and I had already been in for quite some time.
“I will leave you to it then,” I said as I stepped up on the swim platform where a fresh towel had thoughtfully been placed, presumably by Yuri. Igor had really put together a first-rate crew!
As I was resting on the foredeck, Igor soon joined me.
“I must congratulate you on your fantastic boat,” I said when he sat down next to me. “I have never experienced this level of comfort and luxury on a sailboat before. Your crew is top-notch too. Experienced sailors while under way, they become flawlessly attentive waitstaff once we arrive at destination. It must not have been easy to find them.”
“I know,” Igor replied. “It did take some time.”
Then he added with a smile, “and some training.”
We chatted for what must have been at least an hour. Igor explained how he outfitted Frou-Frou, found the right crew, and learned to sail her well. Then he told me about the transatlantic crossing and the cruising in the Caribbean. I was impressed by the extent of his nautical expertise and his in-depth knowledge of all aspects of his boat. He had clearly been involved in every decision regarding the boat’s outfitting. As we talked, I realized the depth of Igor’s passion for sailing, to the point where he had begun a whole new chapter of his life with Irina aboard Frou-Frou. Given my own background, I could very much relate to that desire for a new start in life, regardless of one’s age or position. At the same time, I couldn’t help wondering if he was trying to get away from something.
Maybe that was how my slight unease towards Igor started. He was the perfect host. He was erudite and fascinating to listen to, as well as gracious and attentive. At the same time, I sensed a slight reservation towards me. Or maybe it was me who was being reticent. There was something about him that gave me an odd feeling, and I couldn’t quite place it. He was clearly pulling out all the stops to put his guests as ease, and his invitation had been very generous in the first place. My skepticism left me uneasy. Then I wondered: Was I jealous of him?
“Oh, it’s nearly nine,” I observed as I checked my watch. Virginia had just emerged from the companionway, in conversation with Irina. “Please forgive me for a moment so I can get ready for breakfast.”
“Good idea, I will do the same,” remarked Igor as we both got up.
Breakfast in the large cockpit was nothing short of sumptuous. Yuri’s wife Tasha was both a competent sailor and an accomplished cook. Her culinary prowess was on display: fresh baked bread, an assortment of home-made jams, and the most delicious eggs benedict; all complemented by a selection of tea, coffee, and freshly pressed juices. Good thing both the morning swim and my conversation with Igor had stimulated my appetite.
The conversation was lively, focused on the plans for the week ahead. We were all enjoying this first morning together. Eager to join in the camaraderie, Virginia asked Igor about the name of the boat.
“Ah! You could not have asked a better question, Nini,” exclaimed Irina with a slight wink. “This is Igor’s favorite topic.”
“Well… Maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement,” remarked Igor with a slightly sheepish smile. “But it’s true, I am very fond of that name. Since my teenage years, I have been a big fan of Tolstoy, and in particular Anna Karenina. One of the main characters in the novel is Anna’s lover, Alexei Vronsky, a cavalry officer. Frou-Frou is the name of his horse. It’s the rustling of a woman’s skirt, a bit like the sound of a boat’s wake. I thought it would be the perfect name for the boat. Without being too presumptuous, I think it has a certain allure to it.”
“At least to you it has,” remarked Irina, who clearly didn’t seem as thrilled with the name as her husband.
Soon it was time to get underway. The destination of the day was Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, a sail of about thirty nautical miles.
As we rounded the Sow and Pigs Reef at the southeastern tip of Cuttyhunk, it was time to set the gennaker for the run through Vineyard Sound. Looking for a bit of a thrill, George and I were manning the gennaker sheet. George was holding the sheet while I was at the winch. On Frou-Frou that simply meant pushing a button, since the winches were all hydraulically powered. Once the crew had hoisted the sail, George started trimming the sheet. Quickly he needed the help of the winch, given the loads on the sail, even with only seven knots of breeze. We could feel Frou-Frou accelerate, creating her own wind in the process and making us trim the sheet more.
“She is amazingly lively for such a big boat.” I remarked as I turned my head towards Igor at the helm.
“Yes, she is. That’s the benefit of carbon fiber: She is much lighter!”
Boats large and small crisscrossed the surrounding waters as we made our way through Vineyard Sound. Suddenly I noticed the profile of a classic yawl in the distance. I wondered if it could be Wings, the Concordia whose mooring was just next to Brisk’s in Newport. As we passed the yawl, sure enough I noticed Patrick Sullivan, the owner, at the helm. I couldn’t help smiling at the expression of surprise on his face when he recognized me on Frou-Frou. I would have some explaining to do next time I saw him.
Soon we were approaching West Chop Light at the northern tip of Marth’s Vineyard. It was time to douse the gennaker before the close reach over to Edgartown. The crew unfurled the jib and Igor turned a bit more downwind as the crew executed a perfect takedown.
Just as the gennaker was down, Tasha had lunch ready for us in the cockpit: lobster rolls followed by freshly made chocolate chip cookies with the coffee. That explained the enticing whiff of chocolate I had caught by the galley earlier in the day as I took a quick break from the winch.
After lunch, I went down for a nap. The sea air, sail handling and delightful lunch had really tired me. Before finding my berth, I went forward to the galley for another cookie. As I passed Captain Voronov’s cabin, I noticed the door was uncharacteristically open with nobody inside. Unable to hold back my curiosity, I took a peek inside. I was surprised by the amount of electronic equipment. Next to Voronov’s bunk was a desk with three full flat screens. One displayed our position on a chart plotter together with that of other boats in our vicinity, another was a dashboard of boat data: Boat speed, boat course, water depth, wind speed and direction, systems status, etc. The third screen looked more like a typical computer screen, with some sort of email or messaging software open with everything in Russian. There was also a handbook on the desk with “Naval Communications Procedures” written in Russian on the cover. As I wanted to take a closer look, I heard a stern voice behind me: “Mr. Jones, can I help you?” It was Voronov, of course.
“So sorry to intrude,” I replied, trying to keep my composure, “My curiosity got the better of me when I saw the open door and noticed all the equipment. It’s quite a command center you’ve got here!”
“I see, yes. The idea is to be able to oversee everything without having to leave my cabin,” replied Voronov tersely. Then, with a gesture towards the door: “Now, if you will excuse me, I have some work to do.”
“Something odd is going on,” I confided to Virginia as she entered our cabin and woke me up from my nap. “I am becoming more and more convinced that Captain Voronov is carrying out some sort of surveillance mission for the Russian navy. Igor must be involved too, it’s his boat after all. That would explain his slightly reserved demeanor, behind the surface of his affable manners. Come to think of it, what better cover for a naval surveillance operation than a rich man’s yacht crisscrossing the oceans?”
“Bill, could you just for once let go of this spy business? The Cold War has been over for more than twenty-five years now, yet you persist in seeing spies at every turn,” Nini replied. “And by the way, Igor is a most charming and attentive host. He has only just met us, yet he is going out of his way to make sure we are enjoying ourselves. You should be ashamed for being so ungrateful!”
Virginia had a point. She always did. Maybe I was paranoid. Captain Voronov’s navy communications handbook didn’t prove anything. He could have saved it from his days as a naval officer. As for the fragments of Voronov’s conversation I had overheard that morning, I may very well have taken them out of context. It was all circumstantial at best. Yet something didn’t quite seem right.
We were approaching the outer harbor of Edgartown. Given our size, the Harbor Master had advised us against entering the inner harbor, and instructed us to moor outside. Fortunately, Frou-Frou had a very comfortable inflatable tender located in the “garage” behind the aft swim platform. Soon we were anchored, with the tender ready to take us ashore.
George had made dinner reservations at his favorite Edgartown restaurant, The Burling. But first, Igor invited us for drinks in the cockpit. What a perfect way to end a day on the water: Sipping cocktails with friends in the late afternoon sun on the deck of a maxi yacht at anchor off Martha’s Vineyard!
“Sweetheart, aren’t we lucky?” Nini whispered in my ear as everybody else was engaged in a spirited conversation about the early history of Martha’s Vineyard. “Just relax and enjoy it,” she continued as she kissed me on the chin.
Edgartown offered a nice break from the boat. The Burling lived up to its reputation as the top restaurant in town and regaled us with expertly prepared fresh seafood. It was also fun to check out the dinner crowd of mostly out of towners on vacation. After dinner we took a stroll on Main Street to stretch our legs in the warm evening.
As we walked along, I felt drawn in by the light summer vacation atmosphere of the town. Virginia was right. Why had I been so suspicious? This was a time to relax and enjoy friendships old and new. What could be better than a weeklong cruise in New England aboard a luxury sailboat?
On our way back to the harbor, Igor dashed ahead of us to make sure Yuri was at the right dock with the tender to take us back to Frou-Frou. After a moment of absence, we noticed him returning towards us smiling. He must have found Yuri.
I watched Igor walking in our direction under the dim glow of the street light. Suddenly something seemed so familiar about him. Was it his burly silhouette, or the vaguely awkward gait? As he approached, I observed him more closely.
When his piercing gray eyes met mine, it all came back. I had caught a glimpse of those very same eyes years ago, on that fateful morning on the Glienicke Bridge.
Igor was the spy my freedom was exchanged for.