Night came early on Sunday, August 21, 1983. Somewhere in the middle of a stormy Black Sea, three Romanian fugitives—Radu Codrescu, Florina, his wife, and Iulian, their friend—held onto the sides of their deflated orange boat, riding up and down strong waves, wind buffeting their faces, dark skies closing down on them. They called to each other, laughing and saying silly things to each other, trying to stay together and alive.
“When we were at sea and I was sure that I was going to die, the only thing I was sorry about was that she was there with us,” Radu Codrescu said in 2006, talking about his wife, Florina. “We knew that we were going to die, and I knew that she was going to die because of me. The grief I felt in those hours was deeper than the damn sea we were floating on, hanging for our lives. The guilt I felt in those hours was the heaviest burden I’ve ever carried. In those moments when I knew we were going to die in the middle of the sea, in those hours, I wanted to cry and scream because she was there. But I didn’t. I didn’t want her to see my despair. I was afraid of dying, but that didn’t hurt. What hurt was her being there with us, in those merciless waters. It hurt that she was there with us and that she was dying because of me.”
They didn’t know where they were, no shore, no light to guide them. The brine was cold, but not too cold on that August night, and it kept them afloat even though they had no lifejackets. Their muscles were weak from not standing up for days, their sense of direction gone inside the rollercoaster of that storm.
“People think courage is the lack of fear. People think you are brave if you’re not afraid while doing dangerous things. That’s not the case. Not for me. In the middle of that dark water, I realized that courage meant to be afraid and to keep going. But that was not my case. I had no choice. I was stuck in a bad place and I was terrified and I was waiting.”
At 11 p.m., they saw a light breaking through the darkness. They couldn’t tell how far they were from it or how long would take to get to it, but they knew it was their only chance to get out of there alive. They climbed back into their boat, glowing oars in hand, and started rowing toward the light. For a while, they couldn’t tell if the light was coming or going, couldn’t tell if they were making any progress toward it. But they kept their eyes on the light and kept rowing. Their muscles were strained with effort, but they kept pushing themselves.
After a while, they could tell they were rowing toward a large ship with its front lights getting brighter and closer. And not only were the lights getting closer; the lights were now upon them. In their confusion, they let the raging sea deliver them into the path of the ship. As desperate as they were to get to the ship, now they were desperate to get away from its path before they were sucked underneath it and crushed to bits.
The sea was pulling them closer to the ship. They rowed and rowed, as fast as their drained arms could row. The lights grew taller and taller and the ship got closer and closer. And they had no way of telling that huge monster that they were in its path.
At the last moment, they slipped away on the back of a wave and kept rowing. When they got far enough not to be crushed, they stopped rowing and began screaming from the top of their lungs. And they screamed and waved their cigarette lighters and screamed and cried. It seemed like a long time until a huge searchlight turned on and began sweeping the water. All that time they heard the engines humming. And then the engines stopped and then they started again. The ship changed direction on them, and they were in its path now. They stopped yelling and started rowing again.
A huge ship has huge momentum. It can’t stop in the middle of the sea, especially during a storm. Everything it does it does while it floats. Once the orange boat showed up under the ship’s searchlight, a large diesel-powered wooden boat was lowered in the water with a rescue crew on it. Radu and Iulian began rowing again, toward the rescue boat, but the waves were against them and they didn’t have much control over their trajectory. They needed to hook up with their rescuers somehow, but the sea was pushing them every which way.
“When we were between the waves, they were riding them. When we were riding the waves, they were in between. The sailors didn’t want to get too close to our boat for fear of crushing us under their heavy boat. Imagine their falling from the fourth floor of a building onto our boat—an open shell lost in the middle of the sea. At least that was what it seemed like then, in the middle of the night, under that bright searchlight.”
Radu kept his eyes on the rescue boat. Water was boiling all around them and the searchlight painted everything outside its bright center pitch black. And when Radu looked back at his own boat, he froze. Iulian was gone. Florina didn’t see what had happened either. They started calling his name—nothing. They couldn’t see anything down in the choppy waters. Even if they had to, they couldn’t swim anymore—they were too exhausted. They called for Iulian and kept searching the waters for him. And when they looked up again, they saw the big rescue boat barreling down toward them.
“I thought they were going to crash into us. But before I could do anything, something lifted me up, as if I were a feather. A sailor’s arm grabbed me and threw me in the rescue boat as the boat was riding the wave again. And then I saw our boat below, down between the waves. And I was up there, in their boat, looking down in the abyss at Florina who was now alone in our orange boat. [Iulian] was next to me. The rescue crew picked up Florina during their next swing and so we made it. All of us. They also moored our boat to theirs, and we all went back to the ship.”
When the rescue boat reached the ship, everybody had to get off and climb a rope ladder hanging down from the deck: one of them, then a sailor, then another one of them, then a sailor. Radu’s knees were shaking. His hands had lost their grip. He couldn’t climb the ladder. The sailor who had saved Radu nudged him to go first. The rope was wet and Radu managed to go up a few rungs. The ship was steadier than the rescue boat, but the ladder was swaying in the wind. Radu’s hand slipped and he went down. Before he could hit anything, the sailor behind him caught him, lifted him back up, and stuck him onto the ladder with a heavy blow on the back. After that scare, Radu rushed up the ladder like a squirrel, and when his feet reached the deck, he collapsed.
“I was at my worst, impossible to explain. All three of us made it to the deck and when I raised my head for the first time I saw that all the sailors were on deck too, all in line, looking at us, and nobody was talking.”
It was a Bulgarian ship. Many of the crew had been sailors for thirty years, but they had never rescued anybody before. They took their new passengers to the kitchen and gave them—of all things—whiskey and cigarettes, which were hard currency in the countries of the communist bloc. But they did all that in perfect silence.
The kitchen was warm and bright. Radu, Florina and Iulian sat on a long bench at a long table, drenched and quiet. None of them knew Bulgarian. They were too tired to talk anyway. Then the sailors who were still staring at them parted and in came their captain. He introduced himself in English. Captain Nicolai of the ship Sunshine coming from Marseille, France, on its route to Varna, Bulgaria. Then he asked them who they were and how they ended up in the storm.
Radu answered in English that they had gone out fishing from Mangalia, on the Romanian shore and that the storm had taken them all the way out there. Captain Nicolai didn’t buy that. He pointed to a map. The storm had only started on Sunday, and Mangalia was 200 kilometers up north. They were in the Bulgarian Gulf, 200 kilometers east of the Bulgarian shore. Radu had a sinking feeling. If it hadn’t been for the storm, they would have made it to Turkey that day. From where they were, had they rowed directly south for another 40 or 50 kilometers, they would have landed on Turkish soil.
The captain asked them to write down their names, and left to call Mangalia, to let the Romanian authorities know that he had found their three missing fishermen, in case the Romanians were worried about them. Once the captain had made that phone call, Radu knew, the Romanians were going to treat him, his wife and his friend as fugitives, and arrest them upon their return.
“We looked at one other and all said in one voice: ‘Let’s go after him.’ We stood up from the table and followed the captain.”
Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.