Block Island, R.I. — ``It's a Russian spy ship,'' my wife said with alarm in her voice as she looked through the binoculars. A Russian spy ship? We were only 20 miles due south of restaurants that served baked stuffed lobsters caught in these very waters. But directly in front of us was the rusty hull of CCB 502.
Against my wife's wishes, I decided to aim our 35-foot sailboat directly for this forest of antennae and naval surveillance apparatus. Within 100 yards, the Russians blew their airhorn loud and clear. The blast had only one meaning: Don't come any closer. In the interest of d'etente, we fell off and circled the boat from a distance.
As it turns out, Soviet ships are out there all the time, floating in 200 feet of water. The Navy figures they are counting submarines (in a nonromantic fashion, we assume) heading out of Groton, Conn., and monitoring radar transmissions. Since they are past the three-mile mark, they are in international waters. According to a Navy spokesman, Lt. Russell Greer, ``It's no big deal.''
In fact, the Navy says the Soviets were within 12 miles of the East Coast 250 days last year. They spent 300 days off Hawaii, but only 75 days off the West Coast. A former submarine officer says most ships just go around them.
Navy Lt. Brian Cullin recalls sailing into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, off of Puget Sound, when a Soviet intelligence ship began sailing on a collision course with his mine sweeper. Despite repeated warnings, the Soviet ship continued to come closer, until at 500 yards both ships executed emergency maneuvers. ``Everyone got quite excited up on the bridge,'' Lieutenant Cullin says.
The Soviet ships are said to be able to intercept microwave (phone) transmissions. They also have extensive photography capabilities, sonar listening devices, and the ability to monitor and track US satellites.
Could be. But Comdr. Mikhail Popov, assistant naval attach'e at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, concedes nothing. He confesses that the ship's location is news to him. As to what the ship is doing, he says, ``Since it is in international waters, she could do whatever the commanding officer likes.''
Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of the Ocean State says he is not surprised the Russians are there. The senator, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, diplomatically notes, ``The US has sophisticated surveillance methods of our own, and I believe we are using them to protect our interests.''
While it may not be news to the Navy that the Russians are within sight of land, it is to Block Island. Told there are Russians 20 miles offshore, First Warden Edith Blane responds, ``You're kidding.'' An employee of the harbormaster asks, ``Have you reported it to the Coast Guard?'' Good question.
``Hello, New London Coast Guard? I want to report a Russian spy ship.''
``A Russian spy ship. Where?''
As it turned out, the Coast Guard is more than familiar with them. But Chief Joe Gibson, a Coast Guard spokesman, says, ``You're getting into an area I can't discuss.''