Gringo trapped on Russian vessel in Ensenada

Ship of fools

Gillenberg sped back to Chuy’s Bar and told his story to his buddies
  • Gillenberg sped back to Chuy’s Bar and told his story to his buddies
  • Image by Randy Hoffman

The letter, postmarked from Mexico, arrived in last week’s mail: This incident took place in Ensenada, Baja California, in late 1990. Richard, an American from La Mesa, was invited aboard a Russian ship & detained on board by the Russians.... Richard says the Cold War is far from over, hatred of America is very strong. Richard would like to tell his story to any paper willing to print it. Richard Gillenberg sits in the kitchen of his Ensenada vacation home, a small-frame cottage perched on the southernmost tip of the crescent of Todos Santos Bay. He’s 61 years old, ruddy-faced, with 290 pounds packed onto his 6’2” frame.

“The whole thing started the afternoon of Tuesday, October 9. I dropped into Chuy’s Bar on Avenida Macheros around 3:00 p.m. and had three or four drinks with my friends. My accordion was out in my truck, because I like to play Mexican music with Chuy sometimes. Accordion or guitar, I play both.

“This particular afternoon, some crew members from a Russian merchant marine ship wandered in. Couldn’t speak a damn word of English or Spanish. One of them was a woman, young, good-looking gal of about 34 or 35; she was the ship’s doctor. We’re using pantomime to communicate, see? Finally got it out of her that she graduated from the University at Kiev. Her husband was the second engineer. I bought them a couple of rounds, and they were real friendly as hell. It was the first time I met a Russian in my life. I’d heard they were real bastards, real brutish and pushy, but God, I thought these two were great!

“They asked me to play some music, so I brought in the accordion from my Mitsubishi. I remembered one Russian folk song, ‘Da-da-da-da ... ’ like that. It’s a Ukrainian song. Jesus Christ, they went crazy! Everybody was clapping along, buying drinks, and these two were the center of attention.

“Now it’s around 5:00 p.m. and they have to leave. They wanted me to go back to the ship with them as a guest. I remember saying, ‘Is it okay ... do I need a permit?’ And they communicated to me it was fine, they do it all the time. My buddy Don said to me, ‘You’re not going aboard, are you?’ I said. ‘Hell, yes, I am!’ I’m a pretty adventurous guy. I figured it was the opportunity of a lifetime — my chance to do something in the spirit of the new detente and all.

“Looking back on it, I realize how stupid of me it was to go on board a foreign vessel. I knew damn well it was like going aboard Mother Russia herself.

“The Mexican guard at the muelle [pier] gate waved us through. I drove down and parked about 60 yards away from the gangplank leading to their ship.

The stem was in, bow facing seaward, parallel to the dock. Now, I’ve been around boats and ships my entire life, but I’d never seen one quite like her. Sort of a tanker, with a superstructure at the stern and a long, flat deck, but small — maybe only 5000 tons. She was called the Ahoma or something like that.

“We went past a sentry into the superstructure and up two sets of ladders down a corridor 50 feet or so to their quarters. They had their own cabin. Very spartan quarters, with bunks folded up on the bulkhead, a little refrigerator, a cassette player, and a small library shelf with some dog-eared magazines and books on it. We all sat around a table, and they opened the icebox. They brought out a quart jar of pickled salmon — called it ‘redfish.’ God, it was really good! Big goddamn chunks of salmon, just done to perfection. The doctor went out and came back with a fresh loaf of bread straight from their bakery. A big, two-pound loaf, with a great yeasty smell and a thick crust. Goddamn, it was good.

“They brought out some chicken wings and brandy too. The doctor gal pulls out a calendar with pictures of ships on it, about 15 or so, and tells me this is a calendar of all the ships owned by the line. They’re from Vladivostok, she says. So we’re eating and drinking and making toasts to Gorbachev — hell, I’m all for glasnost and all that! I think that guy’s done more for bringing down the Iron Curtain. So we’re toasting him, toasting perestroika, younger crew members coming in, friendly as hell, shaking my hand.... I felt really good about the whole thing.

“Then this older guy walks in. I’m assuming he was their political officer or something. Very strict looking, very mean looking. He wasn’t happy at all to see me there. I could tell he was pissed at the two who had brought me aboard. She was sober as a judge, but her husband was snockered. This new guy barks out some orders in Russian to him and they both leave. Now I’m beginning to get worried, see? I’m motioning to her, ‘Maybe I should leave.’ She got two more calendars and put them into a plastic tote bag, along with two loaves of bread and another whole jar of salmon. I’m set to go.

“But now the political officer comes back in. He has two books for me; one’s a book of Russian poetry, and the other is titled Why the Russian People Don‘t Want Another War. Propaganda stuff, I guess, both written in English. I thanked him profusely and stuck them in my goody bag. I’m figuring I’m going to leave now with my stuff. He leaves the cabin again, but no one makes a move to show me out of the cabin. Now I’m getting real edgy. I know something’s wrong.

“He walks back in with two seamen, strapping young fellows. He motions, ‘You’ll come with me.’ They get on either side of me and grab my elbows and hustle me out of the cabin, past the ladder we came up on, and down another corridor. I gathered it was the first engineer’s cabin.

“This place is twice as big as the second engineer’s and the doctor’s. A TV, 28 inches or so, a leather or Naugahyde couch, couple of matching chairs, and a huge desk against the outside bulkhead. There was another door leading to the head. A Russian flag on the wall, but no pictures of Gorby.... I remember that distinctly, because I was looking for one.

“Now the seamen are flanking the door, like they’re standing guard. The first engineer’s sitting behind his desk, very officious. The political officer’s sitting in a chair in the corner. And on a two-seat settee behind me, to my left, a new guy. He’s a real slobbish-looking guy, speckled white T-shirt. Real ugly-looking guy. And they’re all yelling at me! They sat me down on the couch and started interrogating me like I was the damn CIA or something. Loud? Man, they were screaming at the top of their lungs in Russian!

“Sometime during the preliminary yelling, another officer came in. Three stripes, must have been the first mate or someone. The slobbish guy gets up and starts hugging and kissing him, saying to me in broken English, ‘Good officer. Good officers in Russian Navy.’ They obviously knew more English than they let on. I thought this fucking officer was my salvation.... I thought I was saved. I got up, stuck out my hand: ‘Hi, I’m Dick Gillenberg....’ That asshole didn’t even look at me. Walked right past me. Nothing.

“Now the ugly guy behind me has got a dumbbell in his hand, one of those little solid weights with the bulbous ends? And he’s pounding that dumbbell on the arm of the settee BANG! BANG! BANG! Spitting and yelling. I’m looking around for something to defend myself with. This goes on and fucking on for two hours!

“The doctor came in at one point with some wine and stemmed wine glasses. She was acting real cold toward me then, wouldn’t even raise her eyes to look at me. I was hoping for a sign, you know: ‘Don’t worry, we’re just trying to get the ideologies straight’ or something. Nothing. It was like she had served me up to them on a fucking platter! So she poured wine for all of us, and I figured I’d try again. I picked up a glass and raised it in a toast and said, ‘Nostrovia ... Gorbachev... Nostro-via.’ The place erupted. The damn first engineer comes over and grabs the glass out of my hands and shatters it on the deck. Glass and wine all over the damn deck. The ugly guy, he finishes his, holds out the glass in front of my face and SMASH! crushes it in his hand. I don’t know if he cut himself or what. I didn’t care at that point.

“I’d already stood up several times and asked to leave. ‘You not to go. No, not to go,’ they’d say. I thought, man, these bastards are gonna shanghai me. Finally they let me go to the head. It had a porthole, but it was too small to crawl through. I was trapped. Believe me, if it was humanly possible to get through that porthole, I would have, and dove into the water. I spent a long time in there, about five minutes. I kept thinking, hell, my wife, what’s she gonna do? I thought for sure they were gonna take me with them. What if they thought I was a spy or something?

“When I walked back into the cabin, the crazy asshole, the ugly one, had pulled the settee up behind where my right ear was going to be. He’s still pounding that goddamn weight on the chair, and now he’s gonna be right next to me. I was certain he was gonna clock me with that thing! When I started to sit down. I’m telling you I could feel the hair standing up on my arms.

“Started to sit down and then I yelled, ‘I gotta get the hell out of here!’ and hit the fucking door. I gave this seaman standing guard a goddamned straight arm with both hands and knocked him flat on his ass. I ran down the corridor and got to another one crossways, and there’s another guy blocking the way. Not really menacing me, but not moving either, so I give him a shove too. Ran down two levels and came out on deck forward of the gangplank. There was another fellow at the top of the gang, and I was set to knock him on his ass too, but he stepped aside. All the time I was running down the gang to my car, I was thinking, they’re gonna shoot me in the fucking back.

“I thought my heart was gonna give out. I’ve already had a couple of attacks — that’s why I retired early. Right then it was going POW! POW! POW! in my chest, and I was having some angina, so I took a couple of nitroglycerin pills right then, even before I drove away. When I got to the gate, the Mexican guard, real friendly, asks me where I’m coming from. ‘The Russian ship,’ I says. ‘And they’re having a hell of a party.’ ”

Gillenberg sped back to Chuy’s Bar and told his story to his buddies. Shaken, fearful because he had earlier drawn a map giving directions to his house for the doctor and her husband (“I told them to come on out for a cookout the next day”), he spent the night at a friend’s house. The next morning, he made the rounds of various Ensenada authorities and attempted to report the incident. Cesar Meza, attorney general for the protection of tourists, referred him to the port captain, Capitano Marco Antonio Vinaza Martinez. Gillenberg says Vinaza, after consulting a book of maritime law, directed him to have his story written up in Spanish and return to the office with seven notarized copies. He warned the American he’d have to hurry: the Russian ship was due to weigh anchor at 3:00 p.m. and sail by 5:00 p.m. that evening.

The captain’s translator, Wilfred Graham Corral, referred Gillenberg to a lawyer cousin of his. “I went to his office and the gal says he’s out to lunch, but he’s due back any minute,” Gillenberg recalls. “I waited an entire hour, and the guy never shows up. Now it’s one o’clock.” He spent the next 45 minutes tramping into three more law offices, with similar results: everyone was at lunch or siesta, not due back until late afternoon.

Gillenberg next tried the offices of the town’s only English-language newspaper, the Ensenada News & Views (now the Baja Sun). He had read somewhere that they offered a document translation service. “No job too difficult, perfect Spanish, blah, blah, blah,” says Gillenberg. “When I got there, the editor, Mike Bircumshaw, says he’s awful busy right now. I explained what happened, the time factor and all that, and said, ‘You’d be doing me a great service if you could just write this up and make seven copies.’ ” Gillenberg’s still steamed about Bircumshaw’s refusal to get involved. “What really pisses me off is that they had a thing in there, page 24 of their October edition, ‘The word “impossible” is not in our vocabulary.’ I thought at the time, it pretty fucking much is in their goddamn vocabulary.”

Bircumshaw remembers the red-haired American coming in that day. “Sure, we do translations, better than the Mexicans. But I told him, ‘you go get an official seal first, then I’ll be glad to help you.’ ” Bircumshaw remembers Gillenberg also thought the story deserved to be covered by the newspaper, if only to warn other tourists of the folly of boarding foreign vessels. “I told him if he wrote it up himself, I’d take a look at it.” An editor assigning a story to the story subject himself? “I didn’t have time to write that story,” Bircumshaw snaps. “I’m trying to publish a newspaper!”

After the aborted attempt for help at the newspaper offices, Gillenberg went to two more lawyers’ offices but received the same answer. “By then it was 2:45, and I said, ‘Screw it.’ I went home.” He sat in his kitchen and through a pair of field glasses watched the Russian tanker steam out of port. “I could see her sitting out in the Roadstead [area adjacent to the harbor entrance] for a while, bringing her engines up, and at 5:00 p.m. exactly, she was underway. I felt just horrible. I felt I really goofed up by not nailing those bastards.”

The bartender on duty at Chuy’s on October 9 confirms that Russian sailors came into the bar and Gillenberg left with the husband and wife. Likewise, a half dozen patrons saw Gillenberg leave with the pair and witnessed his dramatic return several hours later.

According to all, the big, jolly American was “literally shaking. Very agitated, very nervous.” Don Jacobsen, the friend at whose home Gillenberg spent the night, says flatly, “Dick’s not that good an actor.” The Registro de Embarcacion in the Ensenada Port Captain’s office shows that a Russian tanker named the Rauma arrived in port on Monday, October 8, and departed Wednesday, October 10. She was captained by an Aleksandr Shmelev.

An editor with Lloyd’s Register of Ships, New York City, confirms that the Rauma is a 5000-ton motor tanker owned by the USSR-Primorsk Shipping Company out of Nakhodka, Soviet Union.

Nakhodka lies just a few miles east of Vladivostok.

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