A boat named Arrakis

This is the beginning of a story I started, and so far not completed, in the Summer of 2012 as I was travelling on France’s Atlantic seaboard. I acknowledge Frank Herbert’s estate’s ownership of the names Arrakis, Caladan, Atreides, and others, drawn from “Dune”. This is an entirely fictional story, and the characters are unrelated to those of “Dune” in the story. By naming Paul’s boat Arrakis I wish to honour one of the great Sci-Fi novels of the 20th century.

An Auction

The small port of Sovetskaya Gavan’ has little to attract attention from anyone but the most informed observer of the Russian Navy’s Pacific Fleet, or Russian Far-East history. For it is an important outpost and harbour for the supply of the Fleet. The bay of Khadzi was only discovered in 1853, the year Lt. Nikolay Boshnyak – its discoverer on behalf of the Czar – became the commander of the settlement that was to become Sovetskaya Gavan’ in 1922.

I walk slowly along the harbour front: this is a deep water port, and the reason for my interest. The object of my attention lies a little aside from the other boats at anchor in the harbour, and is guarded by four Russian marines, recognisable by their badges and the striped vests that identify them, from the Black Sea to the Pacific seaboard, via Sebastopol and other places of legend. I get a little closer, smile to the marines, who ignore me. The Aurora – soon to be renamed The Arrakis, if I achieve my objective – hardly emerges above the calm water, a grey flat ray-like fish with hardly any structure visible on deck: yet this marvel of maritime technology has the capacity for a crew of six and up to twelve passengers.

Tomorrow the auction takes place. I know the chief auctioneer, and my hand is strong: there is only one other serious bidder. The Aurora cannot be just another amateur yachtsman’s object of desire! Its previous, and single, owner, a Russian oligarch now writing his memoirs in the Federation’s deepest dungeon, commissioned the boat from the very finest shipyard in Russia. And spent just above $80 millions on it. That was ten years ago. Since the demise of its owner, the Aurora has been in the safeguard of the Navy, hence the marines guard. For it is a very special boat: Aurora is powered by a good size nuclear turbine, capable of giving her a speed well above the average coastguard vessel, and an autonomy of at least six months at sea. Furthermore, the boat is submersible, and its stealth abilities are without comparison with any other civilian boat. The oligarch wanted it to be his escape salvation. But the Navy had him in their sight. I want the boat in order to satisfy my appetite for solitude – relatively – and be the stage for my friends, my writing, and my ambitions as a modern day captain Nemo. If I win tomorrow, it will be the result of several years of research and careful lobbying of the right – and dangerous – people. The Navy’s stewardship has added a few useful features – at a price. Aurora is equipped with six 20mm guns, and has two surface to air missile launchers. So the auction is not what it looks like on the face of it: a deal had to be done with the Navy, and this, yours truly has done.

So I am now sitting in the auction room, a sober space within the administrative buildings of the harbour. A platoon of marines guards the building, and an NCO stands guard in the room itself. The chief auctioneer, my friend Joseph, opens the proceedings. There maybe a dozen people in attendance. I cannot spot any journalists. I can spot a couple of FSB goons, and a Navy officer who, though in civilian clothes cannot hide his origin. The opposition is an American, much younger than me, who sits with a retinue of two women on the front row. Crew cut, straight back, I believe he’s a member of the American-Russian Economic foundation, which has local connections here in Sovetskaya Gavan’. His two women companions look like academics or Mormon missionaries.

The opening price is $100 millions. Which cleared the floor from passers-by. The bids are open: the opposition bids $120M. Joseph’s grey eyes survey the audience, then looks at me. I smile: $150M. A dead silence reigns in the room. Seconds tick. I wear a cool linen suit, a pale blue shirt. Joseph restates the bid. The opposition blinks: $160M. Of course the winner will have to foot the bill for maintenance and refuelling at a couple $M a piece every six months. Plus the crew. Haha: the crew, there I am proud of my work. From my seat I can watch the Navy officer, who smiles. I signal to Joseph: $180M. That’s a big jump, designed to discouraged my opponent. But of course I do not know what his resources, or backing, are. But I do know something he does not: that the Navy has done a deal, with me, and no-one else, I will win this auction, and pay only half the price. Of course there is a catch. This I will tell you later. But I bet my American friend will run out of steam before I do…

Well, he does not. The bid now stands at $190M. I take a deep breath. A uniform Navy officer joins his colleague in civilian clothes. Joseph is watching me. Grinning: $200M. Even for the Aurora, this is a bit steep. A weird shiver shakes the audience: there are now a few more people in the room, which surprises me, as the door should have been locked when the proceedings started. Have I been framed?

No, and $200M was the threshold. Whatever his backers and resources, my US opponent has thrown in the towel. The hammer hits the desk. Joseph smiles broadly. The audience stands and claps. As I move slowly towards the door, I am aware of a change in the configuration of uniformed personnel in the surroundings. Joseph is in deep discussion with the civilian-clad Navy officer. The other guy is talking to me, in perfect English. “Congratulations Sir, if you don’t mind following me for a few formalities”. But this is not an invitation, it is an order. Armed marines are surrounding us. The door is wide open in front of me, and a car is there outside, waiting, with a Spetnaz escort.

The car is a Mercedes S-class. The uniformed officer, Joseph and the “civilian” join me. The driver wears a Navy uniform. Behind us are two 4×4 full of Spetnaz soldiers. We reach the harbour, turn around the gates of the shipyard, stop near a building which appears to be Navy property, closed to the public. I spot a marine platoon guarding the entrance. I am invited to follow my escort inside the building.

“Well done , friend”, the old admiral is standing in front of me. “Please pardon us this cinema, we don’t intend our colleagues, over there – the old face grins – to believe one instant, that this was a real auction!” I smile. We sit around a large table, a marine at each of the four corners of the room. The senior officer, I know, he’s the one who decided I was, after all, trustworthy and genuine. I owe him my victory. “As you know, we now have a contract with you” I acquiesce, silently. The recording equipment on board the Arrakis will remain switched on at all time. The boat’s automatic reporting system will be left working at each port of mooring, and observation signals from Navy’s satellites will stay enabled and the boat’s beacon unscrambled. This means that my position will be known to the Navy at all times. It also means that the Navy will be able to annihilate the boat at the flick of a switch. And I don’t mind. I trust the Russian Navy, because I have no quarrel, and hence nothing to fear from them. I have enemies elsewhere, and they happen not to be their friends either, despite the old admiral’s joke. I am presented with a contract. A stern looking document with the Navy’s emblems and watermarks. The boat will remain registered here, in Sovetskaya Gavan’. There is also a sweetener, an upgrade to the missile launchers, and four brand new missiles. I smile, sign, stand up and toast, the attendees stand up, and we sing: the Russian marines hymn. The old admiral shakes my hand, and so do Joseph and the two officers. I hand over to Joseph a cool check for $100M. I am the owner of the Arrakis.

The Crew

The Chinese authorities have authorised our mooring in the port of Dalian. There we will complete our crew, and then we will start our first long voyage through the China Sea, the Philippines, Viet-Nam, and finally a restful stay in Brunei. I have planned this as a way to get the crew settled, and also to get my wife, Katrina, and the other ladies on board, accustomed to living on board the Arrakis.

And this takes me to the point where it may be helpful to say a few words about us: Katrina and I, Paul Atreides. I see, you’re smiling. Paul Atreides is the main character of the novel Dune by Frank Herbert – well, and of course Arrakis is the planet where the young Paul, son of Jessica the witch, made his name, as Muad’Dib… In order to satisfy your logical thinking, I’d say simply that Paul  – the Emperor of Dune – has not been reincarnated in me, a very ordinary, if wealthy, citizen of 21st century Earth, and a Greek-  American national. Nothing glamorous, really. And the fictional character I wish to emulate is Jules Vernes’s Captain Nemo, rather than the son of Jessica and Duke Leto, he of the hawk’s crest!

Katrina, my wife, is a native of Leningrad, now back to being Saint-Petersburg. She’s a doctor, and our chief medical officer. She’s also an officer in the Russian Navy, now retired. Katrina speaks German, English, Italian and Mandarin, Japanese, and Russian, obviously. We met in Vladivostok, when I was researching the history of the Aurora. Curiously, she knew a lot about the boat, although she’d never been on board. Acquiring the Aurora, now our boat Arrakis, is also thanks to her knowledge of the boat’s history, and her contacts in the Navy. She and I have recruited our crew over the past two years and through some patient searches.

Piotr, our captain and master navigator, was the skipper of the Aurora, under her original owner, the oligarch now deep down in the FSB’s caverns. Piotr is an expert sailor, with years of experience in the Pacific and China Sea. His second in command is his wife, Lara, a former colleague of Katrina in the Navy. Lara worked for the Navy and the High Command of the Russian Eastern Coastguard. Katrina and Lara are very closed friends.

The third pair on board is Werner and his wife Francesca, our electronic and nuclear propulsion experts. Werner holds a PhD in Nuclear Physics and Engineering from Heidelberg. His wife Francesca is a PhD in electronics and guided weapons from Siena. The two of them are keen sailors and alpinists, a rare combination that immediately suggested to Katrina they were prime recruits for Arrakis.

In Dalian we are picking up the last pieces in the jigsaw of the Arrakis crew: Lin, our chef cook and marine biology expert, and his wife Katsumi. Katsumi is our second medical officer and chief nurse, a personal friend of Katrina and Lara. She’s also an unarmed combat expert, and a haiku poet. She will be responsible for the crew’s mental and physical fitness.

A fine rain is falling on the harbour, so we stay indoors. The Arrakis is remarkably spacious and comfortable, her sober luxury a credit to her designers and the Russian, Italian and Chinese craftsmen who furnished and decorated her. She’s a beauty. Below “deck” she feels and looks like a conventional, but spacious, pleasure sailing boat, just a little wider. Judging from outside, as an observer standing on the quay would, it’s hard to guess at her size.  Katrina and I are talking about our arrival in Dalian. We left the most conspicuous components of the boat’s weaponry, in good naval hands, in Sovetskaya Gavan’. The boat approached the harbour, which is huge and busy, at its lowest speed and with minimum electronic emission. In fact only the low level scrambled beacon back to the Russian Navy was on. The port authorities found our documents in order. Two inspectors boarded the Arrakis and were welcome by the captain, Katrina and myself, and spent only twenty minutes on board, courteous and almost smiling.

We have moored in a quiet corner of the harbour, next to a myriad of yachts, flying mainly Chinese, Japanese, US and Russian colours. The Arrakis can be set to look much like a sailing boat, albeit a fat bellied one, when at port. This is less conspicuous than the ray-like flat look of the “beast” at rest, all structures hidden. So it is this evening, as Piotr, Lara, Werner and Francesca join us in the dining room. This is a spacious space in the centre of the boat, with comfortable seats and wide window-like screens that show us the world outside. We talk about the days ahead. Piotr has a few slides on our projected itinerary, with shots of the various ports we will stop at. Katrina gets a message from Katsumi: she and Lin are on their way, fighting the traffic in central Dalian. When they arrive we celebrate, French champagne and Russian caviar was stored in the boats’ huge refrigerator for that occasion. We all know each-other, but Werner and Francesca have only talked to Lin and Katsumi so far over a video link. Soon the introductions are done and the atmosphere warms up a few grades. I say a few words of thanks to all, and summarise the outcome of the auction. Then Piotr gives us all a pep talk about the do’s and dont’s on board the Arrakis, soon complemented by Werner and Lara who explain the rules regarding security aboard, and the duties resulting from the “deal” with the Russians. Francesca explains the communications particulars of Arrakis, and how we should conduct ourselves when at sea.

To conclude Katrina and Katsumi brief us on the sobering fitness regime they have already planned for us. We all smile broadly.

We then retire to our respective berths to change: Lin has planned an evening of entertainment in the best club in Dalian. When Katrina and I emerge, in our best attires, the rain has stopped and a full moon has risen above the dark waters of the harbour. We sit on deck waiting for the others. When we are all there, I take a deep breath: this is the culmination of years of work, and our women are stunning. I say so, and Katrina smiles: they all clap, and at Lin’s signal we leave the Arrakis to the safeguard of her very advanced self-defence system. Lin has hired a chauffeur driven limousine who takes us to the club.

The club is one of the most select in the city, situated on top of the tallest commercial building in Dalian. The settings are exquisite, the staff an impeccable mix of Chinese, Russian and European men and women. Lin is welcome as a VIP and I notice a slight change in attitude towards us when one of the managers comes in to talk to him. Katrina is all ears. We are guided to an open room, beautifully decorated in classical Northern-Eastern Chinese style, secluded and yet close enough to the live Cuban band playing latin jazz tunes. This is a big place, and very busy, but the custom is evidently up-market too. We order wine from the Caucasus and Chinese beer. The ice melts rapidly with the Nevelskoy’s and Leoni’s proposing a dance straight away, while Lin and Katrina concentrate on the restaurant menu among laughter and jokes about priorities. Katsumi is briefing me on the place, its ownership, its famous customers and habituées. Soon she and I join the others on the dance floor, trusting Katrina and Lin with planning dinner…

There are three separate dance floors with distinct vocations. Being close to the Cuban band we start with latin dances. Katsumi is a consummate and graceful dancer, and I try to make her proud of her partner. Once we are closer, thanks to the tunes, she says how happy Lin and her are to be with us and the rest of the crew. She talks about the situation in Asia, the increasing tension between China and some of her neighbours, and between some of the neighbours. Then she talks about how close she wants to be to us, Kristina and me. I smile. Later, at the table, Piotr leads a discussion on maritime design, and we all join in. Francesca talks of the various attempts at building solar powered boats. Then the story moves to travel and countries. At one point Katrina and I are dancing, a little away from the others. “You know Paul”, she says, “I feel this is our leaving Caladan: we have worked to arrive here, gathered our friends, but what is in front of us is not visible to us.” I hold her tight.

Later, after a wonderful dinner, and some fine drinking, we are back on the deck of Arrakis. We thank Lin and Katsumi for organising the evening, and then we stand and we sing the marching anthem of the Soviet naval infantry, our voices deep into the night.

Before dawn the following day, the Arrakis leaves the harbour of Dalian, at low speed, her deck now low over the waves, a sharp hardly visible knife slicing the grey water of the Yellow Sea. Her radar is turned on.

Yellow Sea

 From grey the water has turned golden yellow, coloured by the sands of the Gobi desert. The Arrakis progresses north-south first, set on a course of some four hundred nautic miles, to avoid the territorial waters of both Koreas. Francesca has radioed our course to both Korean Navies, and of course to the Japanese Naval Defence Force, since our next stop will be on Shikoku, exactly on Takamatsu, where we have a pilgrimage to make to a cherished place.

Piotr and his wife have organised the quarts. We are all engaged, in pairs, which gives all of us plenty of time for rest and leisure. Piotr has set the time to Tokyo’s clock, which gives us scope until we reach Indonesia, but that will be in several weeks. Our speed is a tenth of that the Arrakis could achieve at full power. Piotr explained that on our way we will cross the path of the Lioning, the Chinese Navy’s first aircraft carrier, on her way to the port of Dalian. He knows the boat very well, as she used to be part of the Soviet, and later Ukrainian, Black Sea fleet. Piotr has already spoken with the captain who was interested to hear of Piotr’s experience in the fleet.

The eight of us are gradually settling down in our routine. The day starts at six am, just before the night shift hands over to the morning crew. We meet in the lounge for morning exercises, ten minutes meditation, and then breakfast. By vote the shifts have been fixed, and individual couples’s preferences somehow accommodated. The shifts will rotate one hour every month. Katrina and I have chosen the morning shift, which for some reasons the others shun. Work on board – cleaning, routine engine and weaponry checks, radio logs – is between nine and eleven. We meet for lunch at one, and then people are free until the evening shift at six. At six we meet in the lounge for singing. This choir exercise is the height of our day. We dress for it, and the repertoire is wide and varied, ranging from navy songs to ariae, classical opera, jazz tunes and rock n’ roll. The Arrakis music library is immense. During the day the crew has decided by vote to have a day playlist, but of course individuals may want silence, so that the playlist is “on tap” via the onboard wireless system.

Lin and Katsumi have engaged Katrina and myself as kitchen hands. Dinner is at eight and is taken in the lounge, with the exception of Werner and Francesca who are then on duty at the command post and whose meal is served by us.

Training and lectures are organised in the evening. Lara leads a series of navigation lectures, assisted by Katrina. Katsumi is giving us Japanese and Chinese literature as well as language lectures. I have taken on board a series of talks on the history of world religions.

In the intervals people read, individually or in pairs. Katrina and I are reading 1Q84. Haruki Murakami’s seventeen books are all in the Arrakis library. His status on board is close to a domestic deity. Our pilgrimage at the Komura Memorial Library is expected by all of us to be one of the defining moments of our becoming a genuine community.  And for Katsumi, in her own words, Miss Saeki should be asked to become the patron Lady of the Arrakis.

We take part to the morning gym session before taking over from Katsumi and Lin. This is for me another moment of sheer admiration for Katrina, and looking at her supple and slim body I count myself as the happiest of living men. As we complete the circuit we shake hands, as is the custom, with Katsumi and Lin. Katrina kisses Katsumi on the lips, as I move swiftly to the little shower adjacent to the command post.

Refreshed, I take my seat in front of the large screen, adjusting the comfortable armchair. Katrina is already checking the radar controls. The Arrakis is set to medium stealth, invisible to the naked eye, but still identifiable on navies’ radars. A portrait of young Kafka Tamura is on the pinboard, as well as the lyrics of Norwegian Wood. We set the audio system to listen to the day playlist: it is Bach concertos for now. The room is small but comfortable: as we work we can touch each other. Katrina smiles: “captain, keep your fingers on the pulse!” We sing:

“I once had a girl

Or should I say she once had me

She showed me her room

Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?

She asked me to stay

And she told me to sit anywhere

So I looked around

And I noticed there wasn’t a chair

I sat on the rug biding my time

Drinking her wine

We talked until two and then she said

“It’s time for bed”

She told me she worked

In the morning and started to laugh

I told her I didn’t

And crawled off to sleep in the bath

And when I awoke I was alone

This bird had flown

So I lit a fire

Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?”

Our watch is drawing to an end, soon it will be lunchtime. Katrina has been helping Francesca with deciphering a stack of messages from the Navy, the two of them working quietly in a corner of the control room, exchanging observations and the occasional jokes. The boat is remarkably quiet, with a very low humming from the turbines, at times almost inaudible. I keep marvelling at the work of her designers: the Arrakis is a marvel, entirely comparable in its originality and beauty to the venerable Nautilus of Jules Vernes’ s imagination. I hope naturally to become a worthy successor to the captain Nemo of the legend!

Katrina comes to me as I do a last scan of the Arrakis surroundings: the Navy has requested us to make adjustments to the duration and frequency of our reports, less frequent and more detailed. Those reports comprise snapshots of radar traces, weather information, photographs, as well as logs of various radio sources they have asked us to monitor. I tell Katrina that we have to discuss this request with Piotr and Lara, respectively our commanding officer/skipper and his second in command. Katrina and Francesca smile, they know Piotr is our formal link back to the Russians. Katrina goes on to ask me if I would mind swapping the next watch with Katsumi, with me seconding Lin on the night shift, the one between 12 and 6 am, and thus letting her, Katrina, have a little time with her friend tonight. Of course I have no objection, I know those two are very close, and if my observations are correct, getting closer in the confined world of the Arrakis. Besides, Lin and I have plenty to talk about, as I have been nominated third cook – a title at present more honorific than fully practical!

Outside, the main screen shows us the prelude to a Pacific storm: massive waves submerge the structure of the Arrakis as the boat disappears from the surface for longer and longer periods of time. We can even switch on outer microphones to hear the water symphony… Soon we will enter the East China Sea proper, leaving the golden waters of the Yellow Sea, as we adopt a north-eastern direction some five hundred nautical miles east of the city of Shanghaï. The Arrakis will then start her southern approach to Kyüshü.

Lara and Piotr walk into the room. Francesca and Katrina brief Lara on the Navy’s communications. I summarise the watch observations for Piotr, though he will of course have access to all the log details. Piotr looks at the log of radar traces taken closer to Korean waters. He says the Navy – that is the Russian Pacific fleet – is concerned about the noises around the desolate islands that have recently caused a flurry of nationalist demonstrations in Japan, Korea and China. He will update the Korean navy and the Japanese self-defence naval force about our course, as I have suggested a slight adjustment to our route to Japan. As he and Lara get ready to take their watch the three women discuss a change to the watch routine: how about all female shifts? Piotr and I laugh as I admit that I may have started an irreversible trend! But it will be soon lunchtime. I am staying in the control room while the other three leave for the dining room, that is the common room which can be configured for various usage. As I look at the soft lights on the large screen I am thinking of the two moons: Katrina and I have reached the stage in our reading when Aomame discovers the small green moon. We have discussed the significance of the discovery, its symbolism as well as the reality of it. We have differing interpretations! Half an hour later I hand over to Lara. She says she’s glad I have agreed to Katrina’s request, and I realise that from now on there will be very little that is not shared in our small community. But is this not what Katrina and I have looked for all along? Still I am wondering how this elite group is going to evolve. We have much in common: a deep interest in naval lore, a strong scientific background and curiosity, invaluable complementary technical skills, beloved musicians and authors. And a strong loyalty to the country that has made our voyage possible…

I meet Piotr on his way to the command post, he says that he agrees with my recommendations on the course to take to get to Japanese waters: he has a good contact with the NSDF and will speak with them later today: we are, after all, on Tokyo’s time… As I take a seat at the lunch table, next to Katrina, still in deep conversation with Francesca, I think of Piotr. He’s the most experienced sailor of us all. I know that in the dark days, before Aurora, when the Federation had plenty of worries on the Caucasus front, he had volunteered for combat duty in the South. There, for two years, he had commanded a regiment of naval infantry. Several of his officers and soldiers got decorated. He, Piotr, got promoted and given a command in the East. Later the Navy instructed him to take control of the Aurora. Officially he was hired by the boat’s owner. In reality he had not left the Navy’s service. Sometime I think that Piotr is still getting his orders from them! But I don’t mind: for the time being this order of things is in our interest. I am also a believer, like Piotr himself.

Lin and Katsumi have retired to their cabin. Katrina tells me she wants to do the same, once we have cleared the dishes with Werner’s and Francesca’s help. I say I will join her a little later: I promised to Piotr to look up some geological details on one of the disputed islands. Unanimously the crew has voted to have the playlist piped live on board this afternoon, today’s selection is largely the work of Lara and Katsumi, an elegant mix of medieval European tunes and avant-garde jazz.

In our cabin Katrina makes clear how she’s planned to spend the next two hours, and she succeeds.

4 thoughts on “A boat named Arrakis

  1. Pingback: #WritersWednesday: August 29, An Auction | Of Glass & Paper

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