Detained Estonian captain: Why do they need me here?

An Estonian fishing boat captain detained in a Kaliningrad hotel. PHOTO: Jaanus Piirsalu

An Estonian fishing boat captain detained in a Kaliningrad hotel cannot understand why the Russian border guard is keeping him after the company that operates the vessel posted bail of €700,000 and the boat Roxen and three other crewmen were allowed to leave.

“I keep hoping,” he said last week when asked whether he believes he will be allowed to return home. “They’ll let me go eventually. Why do they need to keep me here? I never thought they would detain me for so long. At first, they said we would be home in a week or ten days at the most.”

The worst time in the 54-year-old captain’s life began on May 10 when the Russian border guard detained his vessel, accusing Estonian fishermen sailing under the Finnish flag of fishing in Russia’s economic waters without a permit. After bail of €700,000 was posted for potential damage to Russian fish resources, the ship Roxen and three members of its crew were released on June 25, while the court has ordered the captain to be detained in a hotel until the end of July.

Prison in the middle of an elite neighborhood

I found the Estonian captain in a small hotel four kilometers from downtown Kaliningrad, surrounded by expensive private residences. We will not be disclosing the captain’s name as per to his wishes as he is not a well-known person in Estonia. The captain has also asked us not to describe the details of the case as it might jeopardize his position in Russia. The Estonian captain is fully at the mercy of Russian authorities.

The captain, with 20 years experienced as a fishing boat captain and eight years on Roxen, seemed to be in relatively good spirits: he cracked a few jokes and was lively in his presentation, but one could still feel the effect two months spent basically as a hostage has had on his health. The captain’s nerves are taut and his blood pressure occasionally spikes to 170, even though blood pressure has never been a problem for him.

The Estonian captain’s days all look the same. Breakfast at 8 a.m., with the menu having stayed the same for the past two and a half weeks: pieces of wiener with omelet, pancakes, yoghurt and coffee. The captain does not like yoghurt but has consumed everything else so far.

After that, he has to phone the detective in his case to tell them he is still at the hotel at precisely 8.50 a.m. Another phone call like that is expected at 5 p.m. sharp, when the detective leaves work.

The captain must also make the call every time he wants to leave the hotel; for example, to go to the store.

He does not go out much: he is hardly ever in the mood and the detective has his passport. Any Kaliningrad policeman could detain him for 72 hours for the purpose of identification.

“I don’t do much of anything,” the capital admitted and waved toward the TV, running another typical Russian cops and robbers series, and his desk that supported a few books in Estonian he managed to grab from the ship.

“I also read case materials and sometimes visit agencies with my lawyer,” the captain added. He smiled and said: “I suppose they will be letting me go soon.”

The man said that he would definitely show up for his trial if the authorities released him in exchange for a signed promise to appear. He believes that a fitting punishment for fishing in Russia’s economic waters by mistake would be a fine.

Stifling heat and eye-watering stench

The captain lives in the only suite-sized room in the hotel that has two rooms, a king size bed and a relatively accommodating bathroom. Before that, the four-men crew of the Roxen was detained on board their vessel at the Kaliningrad port for five weeks. Their life was made a living hell by heat and 300 tons of fish that had started to rot (it had been caught in the North Baltic) after Russian officials told them they couldn’t unload it.

“The smell of rotting fish permeates everything and is utterly inescapable. The stench was such that the men couldn’t sleep and developed strong headaches,” the captain said. “Because the weather was hot, we sat around in 40-degree heat. I saw 43 degrees in the wheelhouse. I was sweating just sitting around.”

The heat and the stench were accompanied by having absolutely nothing to do.

“You just sit around like a log with nothing to do!” the captain said. “The rotting fish attracted swarms of flies. We are tough guys for holding out. It’s a wonder none of us ended up having a heart attack.”

Still, an ambulance had to be called for one of the crew.

Grateful to owners and the consul

The captain said he feels he has not been left alone. He had nothing but good words for the fishing vessel’s owners Raivo and Aldona Baum who have been tireless in trying to help him.

“I am very grateful. I think such support is hard to come by in Estonia. Usually, it’s every man for himself,” the captain said. “I can see how much they’ve done for me and the crew. Work at the company has been put on hold.”

The captain also praised the Estonian consul in Moscow Kirsti Anipai-Tõniste who has paid several visits to Kaliningrad. The consul’s help was especially welcome during the first week of detainment to keep the men’s spirits up.

“She came to the ship. Spent several hours surrounded by that rotting stench and did everything she could for us. We all thought the world of the consul,” the captain said and added that it was diplomats’ work that led to the Russian authorities releasing the vessel.

A new captain flown in from Estonia took the Roxen to undergo inspection in Denmark once it was released on June 25. That is where the ship could finally get rid of its cargo of rotting fish. The ruined cargo was worth an estimated €80,000.