- by Carol Standish
Hostile Waters by Peter Huchtausen, Igor Kurdin and R. Alan White (St. Martin's Press; 286pp; 23.95) is a hair-raising real-life thriller that rivals the fiction of such authors as Tom Clancy. Written in novel form, the book is a barely fictionalized account of a Russian submarine disaster which actually took place off Bermuda in 1986. The incident was largely covered up by both the U.S. and Russian governments and remained shrouded in secrecy until Huchtausen uncovered the story in the process of his researching for a larger volume on the demise of the Russian navy.
All of the Russian submarine fleet was outdated and in ill repair by the late '80s owing to the state of the Russian economy but the ships were still out there every day trying to keep the Cold War odds even. K-219 was among the most decrepit of a sorry lot. The sub was manned by a combination of youngsters fresh off the farm and seasoned submariners, the oldest of whom at 39, was referred to as "Grandfather." As the story unfolds, a small but toxic and potentially explosive leak in a missile tube grows and grows as the sub heads for the east coast of North America, its normal patrol area. The weapons officer discovers the leak while K-219 is barely out of its Russian home port. In the most human way, he decides to try to contain the leak instead of reporting it. The conditions in the sub deteriorate as the threat of nuclear melt-down grows. The Russian officers and crew are strong and sympathetic characters, more fully drawn than those in most plot-based novels.
In crisp, no-nonsense prose, Hostile Waters recounts the harrowing efforts of people you care about as they fight fire, flood, poisonous fumes and Moscow to keep their decrepit submarine, themselves and the population of the east coast alive. Bear in mind that this drama was actually taking place while we were all sleeping innocently in our beds! The men of K-219 are incredible heroes but to save political face, the Russian brass sentences the valiant, self-sacrificing captain to "twenty years of hard labor." You'll have to read the book to see if justice prevailed.
Captain Peter Huchtausen, USN (Ret.) enjoyed a long and illustrious career in the U. S. Navy which culminated in an appointment as U. S. Naval Attache to the USSR until his retirement in 1990. For this appointment he had become fluent in Russian and while serving in Moscow he made many friends among his counterparts in the Russian Navy, particularly men in the submarine service. Russian co-author, Igor Kurdin, was among Huchtausen's acquaintances. A Russian submarine officer who had served aboard K-219, Kurdin provided hours of interviews with crew members, myriad photographs and other factual material which Hucthausen translated and composed. Huchthausen made four trips to Russia and Kurdin came to Maine in the process. Novelist R. Alan White tightened up the story and polished the prose.
HBO has already made and aired a movie which is now available as a rental video. Its an exciting movie in a swashbuckling kind of way, full of fire and mayhem. The book is better, partly because it is so well-written. One small but essential detail after another builds a cocoon of tension. As conditions deteriorate, one agonizing decision after another is wrenched from the deliberate and intelligent captain and his loyal crew. Although Hostile Waters may seem a departure from the usual reading fare of working or recreational water people, don't dismiss it just because you may not be in the habit of reading military yarns. Facts aside, the story is all the more extraordinary for being completely devoid of boast and bravado, except from the politicians, of course. Be especially sure to take this book to sea if you're cruising this summer. You'll be grateful just to be afloat. A paperback will be out in July.