On October 27, 2013, after a long, productive and well-lived life as a highly regarded organic chemistry scientist, Heino Luts, our friend and long-time member of the Estonian Society of Central Florida (Kesk Florida Eesti Selts), passed away.
I was fortunate to meet Heino when both of us were young. I had just jumped off a Swedish merchant ship in New York. Heino was a seafarer of much greater caliber. At the end of World War II, he completed an epic sea voyage from Sweden to the United States in a 70-year-old 36-foot-long sailboat named Erma. This tiny boat was the home for several months for 16 Estonian modern-day Vikings whose goal was to sail to freedom.
They set sail because the Swedish government had turned over to Communist Russia exiled Estonian soldiers. This was a dramatic event: Some soldiers committed suicide as they were forced to transfer to the Soviet ship, others jumped overboard to drown themselves. The 16 who set sail decided they would rather face the stormy seas.
Once in the United States, Heino and I, together with his shipmate Voldemar Veedam, found a summer job in Vermont and became good friends. Veedam published an article about the voyage of Erma in Readers Digest and later also a book entitled Sailing to Freedom.
In his book Veedam described the initial dodging of Russian warships along the coast of Sweden, emergency repairs that had to be undertaken to keep the ancient Erma afloat, the horrible storms they had to endure and the many days of scant rations.
As they neared the American coast, after going for several days without food, they also ran out of drinking water. When things looked bleakest, when they thought they were about to perish, an American Coast Guard vessel spotted them. When the captain learned that this tiny boat had crossed the Atlantic, he generously provided them with all kinds of fancy foods and drinks they had forgotten existed. Their darkest hour was followed by a grand feast and realization that they had made it to freedom; they had made it to the land of their dreams. Veedam’s book became quite popular; it was translated into more than 20 languages. President Harry Truman realized that these 16 modern-day pilgrims were the kind of people that had contributed most to the greatness of the United States. He used his presidential powers to grant them legitimate immigrant status.
Heino Luts also wrote an autobiography but it has not been published. When Tõnu Toomepuu and I visited Heino during the last months of his life, he related to us parts of it. He told us about his narrow escapes from Soviet soldiers who were hunting for him, his miraculous flight to Finland, his extraordinary escape to Sweden. He also told us about the many medicines he produced in his laboratory and about his main hobby, deep-sea fishing, as well as all the Tampa Bay fishing boat captains he knew.
Heino is survived by his son and two daughters. I will talk to them about getting Heino’s book published. It would be good if we can be reminded of Heino’s life by the written word in addition to celebrating his life by the wonderful memories he left behind.
November 3, 2013