Toftevaag’s journey to Ithaca

Written by Ricardo Sagarminaga

Pictures by Ants Lepson

Written by Ricardo Sagarminaga

Pictures by Ants Lepson

In our expedition North we are investigating the story of Ants Lepson, our first skipper on board Toftevaag for Alnitak. Ants Lepson was 14 when his family escaped from Stalin and sailed across the Atlantic to America and freedom, on board the Prolific.  

In 2022 we started our research after talking to Ants Lepson about this amazing story of 69 refugees sailing aboard a 70ft boat for two months. We interviewed two witnesses of when the Prolific found shelter in the port of Marin (Galicia – Northwest Spain). We found several old photographs of the Prolific and the port of Marin of 1948. We walked down the old dock where the Prolific was berthed and the small streets of this beautiful small port, imagining how it must have felt for these 69 Estonians to step on safe ground after nearly going down in “la costa da morte”. 

After arriving in America Ants Lepson became a sailor and later in life also a famous painter. His brother Indrek also became a sailor and writer, and we recently managed to contact him. Indrek sent us a beautiful article that he wrote about their adventure crossing the Atlantic. 

We invite you to get a quiet reading place on your yacht, a bottle of good rum and read this amazing article that goes from the night of the escape under fire of the Soviets, to the arrival at Ellis Island in New York. 

Here’s how the story starts … 

“In the still evening air, the sound of the tractor struggling to get the boat afloat was deafening, and echoed through the forest like gunshots, and for all I know, some may have been, as there were partisans in the forest, whose purpose was to eliminate any Russians who might venture too close. 

The intent was to board, and silently row out of earshot, and then start the engine. Estonia was basically occupied, any activity that caused suspicion was harshly dealt with. People simply disappeared. It was impossible to keep our actions unobserved for any length of time. As we started to board, mother took her shoes, and handed them to me and told me to hold onto them. As I was the fat one, father picked me up and placed me in the boat, and my brother, being the skinny one, was put in the boat by my mother, and others started to climb aboard. It was an orderly, though anxious process as people started to climb on board and take their places. (The boat was 27′, with a partial deck covering the front half, with thwarts, or “benches” going side to side. On the deck were lashed two drums of fuel, and a short mast in the middle, near the coaming, the purpose of which is a mystery to me. 

Then it happened. A red flare ascended into the darkening sky. We had been discovered. Caution gave way to panic, as people scrambled on board. Shouts mingled with gunshots, a desperate push, and we were off the beach. Father started the engine, and at full throttle we pulled away. Soon a Russian vessel gave chase, and it would have been a short journey into oblivion had they been able to apprehend us. By then evening had become deep dusk, and as we were heading toward a dark horizon, we were a difficult target to hit, or catch, as, in spite of being dangerously overloaded with 33 people, we had a lot of power, and speed. Too much of both, as that nearly accomplished what the Russians could not.” 

Extract of “Escape from Estonia” by Indrek Lepson 

 

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