You Don't Have to be James Bond to Sneak Aboard and Jump Off a Russian Freighter
Updated: Aug 6, 2021
TWO MILES OFF THE COAST of Turks and Caicos I swam, not a spit of land in sight, kicking through gentle waves toward a perilous destination — a Russian ghost ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
The current, deceptively fast, was threatening to carry me out to sea when I reached up and grabbed the rung of an old ladder dropping down the ship's port side.
Up I climbed in bare feet, one rusty rung at a time, until I was pivoting my legs over a railing some 20 feet above the postcard-turquoise waters.
Danger was everywhere as soon as my feet hit the deck, a carpet of razor sharp chunks of rust and glass. Unseen crewmen provoked an urge to duck and hide.
Suddenly, blood pooled on the top of my left foot. Had I been hit?
Enough of this, I said to myself. Time to get out of here.
But it would take a daring escape, at least from the perspective of a wannabe James Bond in my own version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
All I needed was some spirited encouragement from friends who cheered me on as I leaped off the empty ship and plunged back into the ocean.
JUMPING OFF A Russian freighter in the middle of the ocean was not on my summer vacation wish list when we visited Turks and Caicos, an archipelago of 40 low-lying islands southeast of the Bahamas.
But apparently it’s a thing, an adventure not advertised in official brochures but known among locals, daring vacationers and “ghost ship” bloggers as the “La Famille Express shipwreck.”
Built in Poland by the Russian Navy in 1952, the vessel was originally commissioned as an oil rig named Форт-Шевченко, or Fort Shevchenko in English, after the military port town in the Caspian Sea.
When it was decommissioned in 1992, the ship served as a regional freighter in the Caribbean under the name La Famille Express.
On Sept. 1, 2004, high winds whipped by Hurricane Frances dragged the unmanned vessel and its anchor nearly 12 miles, from the South Dock area of Providenciales island to its final resting place, in roughly 7 feet of water in the Caicos Banks.
Too big to be towed or salvaged from the shallows, it was abandoned some 2 miles off the southeast coast. Before long, the old rig took on a new role as an inviting tourist attraction accessible only by kite boards, jet skis and boats.
My vacation pals and I knew nothing about the old ship when we left Providenciales on a picture-perfect Sunday morning in June aboard a private charter crewed by two friendly locals, Josh and Lickson.
Our first stop was Iguana Island, where giant lizards roam a patch of land officially known as Little Water Cay.
Part of the Princess Alexandra Nature Reserve, the island is home to the few remaining Turks and Caicos Rock Iguanas that once ruled most of the islands. (The introduction of cats and dogs on the islands nearly drove the poor creatures to extinction.)
The iguanas we saw looked happy and healthy, even a bit curious as we made our way to their lizard lounge beneath a stand of Australian pines. The closer we got, the more the laid-back creatures stood their ground — unlike their skittish South Florida cousins.
Next, our boat ferried us to spots off the northeast coast. We snorkeled a sunken shipwreck and collected a pirate’s booty of sand dollars before dining on chicken and fish barbecued in the shade of whistling seaside pines.
The weather was perfect. My day felt complete.
Time to head home.
Or so we thought.
As our boat skimmed toward the turn for our dock in Providenciales, Captain Josh gunned the throttle and sped south into the open ocean.
Earlier, he’d vaguely mentioned something about jumping off a ship, which we all assumed meant snorkeling around another sunken shipwreck.
Boy were we wrong.
As the boat skipped across the waves, the shoreline quickly disappeared. The impossibly blue Caribbean water seemed to blend as one with the too-perfect blue sky.
Suddenly, a small object appeared on the horizon. It got bigger and bigger as we approached.
When our yacht bobbed to a stop some 30 yards away, we all stared in silence at the hulking “ghost ship,” red with rust, looking eerie and foreboding and entirely out of place in the otherwise empty blue shallows.
The name La Famille Express was visible on the bow, just above the faded letters of its Russian name, Форт-Шевченко.
It was not hard to imagine what it must have looked like in its heyday, with crewmen going about their business as the oil rig plied the Caspian Sea.
“Ready to climb aboard?” Lickson asked. And before anyone could answer, he dived off and swam toward the ship like a missile.
By the time I followed him into the water, he was already scaling the side of the freighter with the ease of someone who’d done it many times before.
As I climbed, the rickety ladder swayed sideways and felt like it might break off the ship’s railing at any moment. Brushing my foot against a rusted rung caused a minor break in the skin that soon pooled with blood.
The main deck wasn’t any safer.
Carefully placed steps were necessary to navigate bare feet across an unstable surface scattered with chunks of rust and glass.
Some spongy spots sagged from years of punishing exposure to the elements.
The air reeked of stale oil.
Spotting an empty beer bottle in the cargo hold below the main deck, I wondered how even a stone-cold sober person could get down there and back.
My more adventurous friend Eli braved the remnants of a crumbling staircase to the second and third levels. He yelled down after spotting an old television.
Standing shirtless in my bare bleeding feet, I saw nothing but problems in staying aboard any longer.
A week later, I would find an online video of the ship from someone with the foresight to swim over with a waterproof GoPro. In the video, the song “Sent by an Angel” plays as some dude in long hair walks to the ship’s uppermost reaches then leaps off into the blue.
There was no happy music playing as I worked up the nerve to jump off, only the cheers of my friends as I leaped from a distance much lower than the video jump.
Still, I hit the water with a splash and a sense of accomplishment. Then I looked up and saw Eli and Lickson together at the edge of the ship's third level.
On a countdown of one-two-three, they leaped into the air like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, plunging 40 feet to the water.
As we swam back to our boat, some folks on water scooters rode up to the side of the old freighter. They studied it for a minute, then sped off without trying to climb up.
Unexpected and exhilarating, the ghost ship adventure was the highlight of our day excursion. But in hindsight it's not something I'd recommend. The ship will only continue to crumble and deteriorate. Exploring it is a natural urge, but too much can go wrong.
We enjoyed the rest of our week in Turks and Caicos, and the excitement of the ghost ship faded away by the time we headed back to South Florida.
As our plane lifted off the runway at Providenciales International Airport and climbed into the sky, my seat by the window offered one final reminder.
I looked down and saw it clear against the water: the ghost ship, haunting me one last time.
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