Peter Olander (1942-2022): ‘a 17th-century swashbuckler’ and ‘fieriest captain in Persian Gulf’
A master mariner who steered ships through war zones and had a reputation as “the fieriest captain in the Persian Gulf” was a natural teacher who shared his skills with many of the island’s charter boat captains.
Peter Olander’s seafaring life was so colourful that some likened him to “a 17th-century swashbuckler”, his wife, Jeannie, told The Royal Gazette.
An expert fisherman and two-time winner of the of the World Cup Billfish Tournament, Mr Olander was known on the island for his business, Albatross Charters & Fisheries.
But his globe-trotting career, which took him through conflicts in Vietnam and Somalia as well as the Persian Gulf, included taking fire off the Somalian capital of Mogadishu and getting trailed by unfriendly Soviets off Norway during the Cold War.
Captaining fuel tankers in the Gulf during both Gulf Wars came at great personal risk – and Mr Olander’s security clearance with the United States government was so high he had shore access at the tightly restricted UK territory of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, where the Americans kept a fleet stationed.
A world map on the wall of his home in St David’s, where Mr Olander marked off his voyages, eventually became so complicated that he no longer recorded them on it.
He kept meticulous sailing records, however.
His wife said: “He was respected, and a lot of people thought he was really hard and tough – but inside he really was not.”
Although he was at home on the ocean, Mr Olander loved time with his family, threw himself into household chores as a way of unwinding, and enjoyed keeping animals such as geese and goats.
Mr Olander, who was of Swedish descent, was born in Cleveland, Ohio. He came to Bermuda at the age of two and began fishing and working on charter boats at age 11.
His father, Edward, was stationed at the US Naval Operating Base at Morgan’s Point in Southampton, and Mary, his mother, worked as a nurse.
As soon as he could, the young Mr Olander was making his way from the family’s home in Flatts to go out on fishing boats from St George’s.
He also worked as a teenager on the US Base, but his wife said he was “destined to go to sea”.
“He loved it, even though he got seasick at first,” she added. “He would prefer to be on the ocean than on land. He was at home on the ocean.”
Bermuda’s strategic prominence during the Cold War made the island a point of interest for Soviet submarines – and meant the US was keen to map the ocean floor using sonar equipment.
Mr Olander’s chance to take on more ambitious sea assignments came when he worked for the Sofar Station on the East End base.
The name came from “sound fixing and ranging”, and it was Columbia University’s geophysical field station from 1949 into the 1970s.
Mr Olander signed on as an ordinary seaman aboard the RV Sir Horace Lamb, a science vessel, and began climbing the ranks.
Assignments followed on the USNS Robert D Conrad, another ship scanning the sea floor for the US Navy.
In 1975, he obtained his captain’s licence as a US Merchant Marine Officer.
Mr Olander had joined the Merchant Marine as an alternative to getting drafted into the Vietnam War, although Vietnam was his first assignment.
His tales included the tremendous fires ashore during the First Gulf war and the difficulties of getting a converted oil tanker close to shore for loading, where the vessel would roll on its side to take on fuel.
During the US military operations in Somalia in the early 1990s, Mr Olander was aboard a ship anchored just offshore that took several hits from rocket-powered grenades.
His son, Hans, said: “Fortunately for them, the RPGs turned out to be duds.”
Mr Olander captained ships during a different sailing culture, his son said: many sailors were “rough” and as a result, Mr Olander “fired a lot of people”.
But those who feared Mr Olander’s wrath never knew his other side, which included doting on Abdul, a Persian cat that he brought to Bermuda from Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.
His wife said some of his stories were so colourful that people struggled to believe them.
The couple met in their teens at the old St George’s Grammar School and married in 1963.
They had two children, Hans and Louise, and three grandchildren: Luisa, Pansy and Eliza.
Mrs Olander said her husband was often out at sea for long spells, but “you sort of got used to it – that was the way it was”.
She was able to accompany him on some lengthy trips, including one to the West Indies on a vessel towing an array of equipment.
“The office forgot to send a memo telling us not to go there, that there was a Nato training submarine below where we were,” she recalled.
“We were told quickly that we should perhaps go somewhere else.”
His charter fishing career started when he was just out of boyhood, and Mr Olander had a sequence of vessels named Albatross.
He got a commercial fishing licence and embarked on his charter business from the early 1990s, although he continued going to sea for the Merchant Marines.
Hans Olander said: “He was a good teacher and enjoyed teaching – there were a number of charter boat captains that he tutored to help them get their sea licence.”
His granddaughter Luisa said his knowledge of Bermuda waters was formidable.
“My husband and I went out last summer on a boat and we called him when we were coming in.
“From the shore he explained the route – he knew every single channel, exactly where to turn.”
• James Peter Olander, a Merchant Marine captain, was born on June 27, 1942. He died in November 2022, aged 80.