One of the greatest trips I ever took for Get Lost Magazine was through the Northwest Passage aboard the infamous Akademik Ioffe research vessel. Such a unique trip kicking off from Sisimiut, Greenland, traveling through the frozen Arctic, navigating by the seat of your pants to eventually hit Northern Canada. Aboard you have a team of scientist, academics, and artists to help you understand and answer any possible question you might have about this alien world you call home for the next three weeks. It’s like sailing with a live wikipedia, that has a fully stocked bar and hot tub.
I was welcomed on board by the crew and my liason told me that if I had any questions whatsoever to not hesitate to ask, except, do not talk to the crew.
“I’m sorry, why am I not allowed to talk to the crew?”
The crew was Russian, from St. Petersburg. The ship itself was Russian, and commanded by a decorated Captain (who for various reasons will remain nameless), and I was instructed that I was not to interview or communicate with any of the staff. They were there simply to run the cruise.
Of course this became one of my main objectives.
Over the next few days I became friendly with a deckhand, a young kid named, yes, Sergei, who would eventually take me on a clandestine tour of the guts of the ship. The massive desiel engines, the hidden wheelhouse in the back of the boat, and of course the extrodinary sonar radio transmitters that made this vessel very unwelcome in American waters.
Not shortly after my liason knocked on my cabid door.
“The Captain, he, uh, wishes to see you.”
I wont lie, I was afraid. I’m from NYC. I’ve been to some very bad places (ever found yourself in Chatanooga after 9pm?) but this, this was different. At the same time I thought “if I were to die … it would be epic to be killed on a Russian spy ship in the Arctic Ocean” and would at the very least make a great opening to a euligy.
I dressed in my finest shirt, and even brought a small bottle of good Scotch I was saving for a father-son moment at the trip’s end. I knocked on the door and the Captain, in full uniform, opened the door.
“Please. Come in.” he said emotionless with an almost comical Russian accent. You may not believe this but he looked like a young Putin, put together perfectly and absolutely prestine in his navy blues. His stateroom wasn’t lavish, but it was a Captain’s room; lined with dark wood and a wall full of well read books that have crossed the sea many times.
Sure. Tea. Vodka would have been better for my nerves. I sat across from him as he served tea, we both declined sugar. I picked my poison and sipped, or at least pretended to sip. I’ve seen too many films.
Across from me the Captain stared. A blank page. He looked down for a moment, then gently began, “you are a journalist, yes?”
“I am, a travel writer actually.”
“Yes. From an Australian magazine, yes?”
“Yes. Get Lost Magazine.” I had written for years, and each time I said it out loud it always made me laugh.
“But … you are American?”
“Well, Italian,” I said … how many time’s I was Italian I could not say, but it was definitely more then I was American to foreign people. If that isn’t telling I don’t know what is.
“Ah. Ok. Yes. Italian. From America.”
There was a long pause. We both sipped the tea. For real this time.
“You wish to make interview with me?”
“Yes. Very much.”
“You wish to know if ship is spy ship, yes?”
My heart stopped. He asked with no emotion on his face. I couldn’t tell what was happening. Was he about to unload some secret information on me, was I about to have some Snowden-like, wikileaks madness come into my life? Was I ready for it?
Before I could reply his right hand slipped into his inner lappel, for a second I thought he was reaching for a gun, but then I saw it, the thin white envelope being retreaved from the deep blue wool of his jacket.
He put the crisp envelope flat on the pine table. His hand rested atop of it. He then slid it across the table, like a torpedo, directly at me. I reached out to take the letter, like a marathon runner being passed a baton. As I went to pull it towards me his hand came down firm and stopped the motion. I frose as he looked right into me.
Holy fucking shit. This was fucking happening. As a writer I’m always making shit up, always dreaming up stories always finding the way truth mirrors classic adventures, and amping up reality so that it electrifies and entertains. This however was the real deal and I had to do nothing to see that I was in way over my head.
Slowly I pulled the envelope to me without taking my eyes off the Captain. I hadn’t taken a breath in about 8 minutes and my forehead was more wet then the tea in my cup. I cautiously slipped a finger into the fold and pulled out a few pages of a stapled document. Unfolding it I clearly read the title “Akademik Ioffe: Fun Facts”
“Just kidding I pulled it off internet.” The Captain said with a great smile. That sonovabitch, wow did he get me. Played right into my little drama as if I had wrote him to do so. It was nothing less than fantastic.
The trip was one of the best of my life. The Arctic is unlike any place on the planet, and to see it surrounded by people who have dedicated their life to understanding it is an experience that resonates in every other experience you have after. What’s more, to have this moment happen on board a ship as amazing as the Akademik Ioffe with a crew so epic as this one, was just perfection at sea.
You can read the final article here, and get all the juicy inside information about this notorious Russian spy ship cruising through paradise on Earth.