Here’s Hoping Russia Will Allow Cruising Sailors a Chance to Realize Their Sochi Dreams, Too

Photo: Tayana 37 Gyatso offshore on Black Sea. Credit: L. Borre.
The closest we were able to bring Gyatso to Russia was 30 miles offshore. Photo by Lisa Borre.

By Lisa Borre

Watching the Olympics this year, I envy the athletes, but not just for their incredible athletic achievements at the world’s premier international sporting event. My added envy is because they’ve done something else I haven’t. They’re in Sochi, a place my husband David and I were not allowed to visit just a few years ago.

This is a first world problem, I admit. But Russia isn’t a third world country either. And yet that’s what it felt like when we tried to visit Russia’s Black Sea coast aboard our American-flagged sailboat.

I’m a big fan of the Olympics, especially the winter games. I grew up watching the Hamill camel and Miracle on Ice. I played women’s ice hockey in college and even skated for a Team USA travel team that promoted the sport through competitions in Europe before it became an official Olympic event. I’m thrilled to see the women’s competition is now a mainstay in the winter games.

When I see the footage of the Black Sea during the Olympic coverage, I’m immediately transported back to one of the highlights of an eight-year voyage David and I took from 2005 to 2013. We sailed from our homeport on the Chesapeake Bay to the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Black Seas.

Gyatso's route around the Black Sea in 2010.
Gyatso’s route around the Black Sea in 2010.

In 2010, we sailed from southwestern Turkey to Istanbul and around the Black Sea. We were treated to incredible hospitality and experienced relatively few problems, all things considered.

Of the six countries on the Black Sea, Russia was the only one we could not visit by boat, and not for a lack of trying. We sailed to Turkey, Georgia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria and back to Turkey again, experiencing only minor bureaucratic (but necessary) hassles that usually go along with bringing an American-flagged vessel into foreign waters.

We had hoped that in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics, Russia would change its ways and begin to welcome foreign cruising boats to its shores, but this was not to be.

Prior to our visit to the Black Sea, we did a considerable amount of research into the reasons why no foreign-flagged yachts had been able to visit Russian ports in recent years. Skippers who tried reported being turned away and/or threatened with serious fines or impoundment of their vessels. At the time, Russia only had procedures for commercial ships, a big hurdle for us. There were also well-founded rumors of corruption of port officials. These were the main reasons we canceled plans to visit Sochi.

Even though we exhausted all options for gaining entry by sea to Russia, we did learn that we could get permission to visit, as long as we left our boat behind and took the ferry from Trabzon, Turkey instead. But that wasn’t the point for us. We had sailed thousands of miles and visited more than a dozen countries on three continents in our own boat. We hadn’t gone all that way to hop on a ferry instead.

Photo: common dolphins in Black Sea. Credit: L. Borre.
Common dolphins on the Black Sea during our passage from Georgia to Ukraine. Photo by Lisa Borre.

The closest we came to the Russian coast was 30 miles off. I could hear the radio calls into Sochi and Novorossiysk, but we were not among the approaching ship traffic. Instead, we were escorted by schools of common dolphin and sailed directly from Georgia to Ukraine, eventually gaining entry to the latter in Yalta on the Crimean Peninsula.

Another reason we were disappointed about not being able to visit Russian ports was because we were gathering information for an updated cruising guide while sailing around the Black Sea. We needed the first-hand experience of navigating to the ports we were writing about. For Sochi in particular, we wanted to see for ourselves how the development surrounding the Olympic games had changed the port and surrounding area.

Unfortunately, we were only able to include information from previously published notes and guides in our book, The Black Sea, published by Imray and the RCC Pilotage Foundation in 2012.

Based on our experience, we also delineated a “yacht caution zone” near Russian borders on the Black Sea. It’s an area we do not consider safe for navigating private, foreign-flagged vessels.

Having not been able to visit Sochi myself, I was glad to find a National Geographic article “What You Don’t Know About Sochi” with an interactive graphic showing how the resort town was transformed for the games. It’s a perspective you won’t get from watching NBC’s coverage of the 2014 Olympics.

A bird caught a ride on Gyatso while on passage from Georgia to the Crimean Peninsula. Photo by Lisa Borre
A bird caught a ride on Gyatso while on passage from Georgia to the Crimean Peninsula. Photo by Lisa Borre

The Black Sea is a great place for a sailing adventure, and problems with Russia aside, it is possible to plan a safe voyage there. Yesterday, I tweeted from @syGyatso: “We’re hoping the ‪#sochiolympics will change Russia’s policies and make it possible for foreign cruising sailors to visit ‪#Sochi on the ‪#BlackSea.”

Last year, Russia adopted new regulations for private vessels visiting ports on inland waters, but it is not clear if this will extend to the Black Sea. Procedures or not, legitimate concerns remain about corrupt officials in Russian ports. Until both change, we will continue to caution visiting foreign yachts.

I’m holding out hope that sailors like us who want to visit all six countries on the Black Sea will be able to realize their sailing dreams just as the Olympic athletes in Sochi are able to realize theirs at the 2014 winter games.

9 thoughts on “Here’s Hoping Russia Will Allow Cruising Sailors a Chance to Realize Their Sochi Dreams, Too”

  1. Lisa, thanks so much for posting this. It’s another reason why Ukraine should align with the EU not Russia.

    1. Daria, Thanks for your comment and advocacy for Ukraine. When we visited, they didn’t really have procedures for yachts either, except they do have a law on the books regulating how much an agent can charge (~200 USD) to clear in a foreign yacht. This makes all the difference, but in Sochi, even local yachtsman have reported difficulties entering the port. Some foreign yachts that have tried to enter Russia were sent back out to sea, rather than being allowed safe harbor. For me, it’s just an indicator of much larger problems if a nation (Russia) can’t perform this most basic function. If they can host the Olympics, surely they can fix this and other problems. For the issue you raise, it probably would have been better for Russia to invest in a Navy base in a Russian Black Sea port, rather than hosting the Olympics. I suspect that as long as they use the one in Sevastopol, they’ll keep a pretty tight grip on Ukraine. Do you have any update on that?

  2. Thank you for this article. It was interesting for me to read as I’m almost (I’m Georgian, used to live in Sochi, but now I live in Moscow) from Sochi and trying to observe what is going on in Sochi yachting development.
    You know, probably, that there is now contemporary marina for 300 berths made in Sochi. It is really good! But now after reading your article, I do not understand how they are going to payback that investment if they do not allow foreign yachts to enter. There are not 300 yachts in Sochi for being accommodated in this marina (especially for such huge prices). Moreover there is going to be another marina for 800 boats which is to be built by converting freight port in the Olympic park.

    I have some friends in Sochi Yacht Club and every time one leaves the harbor for some cruise nearby there is need to call local guard to request permission (formality, of course, but pretty inconvenient). Also the Sea «closes» at 21.00 and all yachts shout be back in their ports. There are many other stupid procedures (yacht is treated as a commercial vessels) when leaving or entering Russia by sea.

    Really strange, why not do things like in Rep. of Georgia when they quickly streamlined these procedures? I’ve read your article about Batumi (thank you for this! I felt proud for Georgians – their procedures and hospitality).
    Hope you will visit Russia someday entering Sochi.

    1. Georgy, Thanks for your comments. We have heard the same kinds of stories about how local yachts are treated in Sochi. In addition to the inconveniences you mentioned, foreign yachts have been threatened with port fees as if they were a commercial ship fully loaded with wheat or other valuable commodities. Last year, I read reports of an “international” rally organized from Ukraine to Sochi, Russia. This was supposed to promote yachting in Sochi. The reports indicated that the only boats were Russian and Ukrainian, but when I wrote to learn more information, the organizers never replied. It seems difficult to bring private boats into Russia, even with an organized international event.

      I was not aware of the plans for another 800 berth marina in Sochi, but until Russian authorities put proper procedures into practice and deal with corruption of port officials, you’re right, the development doesn’t have much hope for success. This requires leadership at the highest levels, which has been absent to date. And boats won’t come if the port charges “huge prices.” It’s hard enough to reach the Eastern Black Sea.

      I must say that we have had nothing but good interactions with fellow Russian sailors, too, who seem just as frustrated as foreigners with the situation in Sochi (and other Russian Black Sea ports). Russia could learn from both Rep. of Georgia and Ukraine in this regard. Maybe by bringing attention to this issue, the situation will improve for sailors on the Black Sea. I look forward to the day boats like Gyatso will be welcomed in the port of Sochi. Thanks again and please keep in touch.

  3. Lisa, Got to your blog eventually and have so much enjoyed reading the entries. Looks as though we will not be making our way to the black sea this year with the political climate but your guide is well worth reading. I still don’t really understand why so few boats ever concider going there.
    We are in Marina Di Ragusa as you were and we have really enjoyed winter here. It is a good place to decide where to go next as all options are open.
    Thank you for the post

    1. Thanks, Mark. And yes, this year is not looking like a good one for cruisers who want to include Ukraine in their cruising itinerary on the Black Sea. We’ll be issuing online updates to the guide, including an extension of the “yacht caution zone” to include the Crimean Peninsula now that it has come under the control of Russia.

      We, too, didn’t understand why more boats don’t go there but believe it had something to do with people running into difficulties with outdated cruising information and a rather gloomy description of the Black Sea as a destination in the Turkish Waters Pilot. A brief war between Russia and Georgia in 2008 and now the conflict in Ukraine doesn’t help either. While we were planning our trip, most cruisers who had never been there thought we were crazy, based on what we found to be a commonly held misperception. That being said, we regularly advice cruisers that the Black Sea is not for everyone, mainly because it is underdeveloped with facilities catering to yachts.

      Even with the updated information in our guide, it is important for cruisers to remain up-to-date, like you, about the political situation and to plan accordingly.

      You’re in the perfect spot to make alternate plans for this year, including positioning yourself for a cruise there next year, if possible. The Turkish-Georgian coast and/or Bulgaria-Romania are still great options.

      Fair winds and keep us posted if you do go to the Black Sea at some point,
      Lisa

      1. Thank you for the reply Lisa. With the problems we will be going around sardinia and Corsica this year but we will be going to Turkey next year.. we will look at the situation again then..

  4. Bringing over a comment from Marjorie Brower and our reply:

    Submitted on 2015/01/05 at 1:39 pm
    Currently our boat is in Didim Turkey and we are planning on sailing the Black Sea clockwise to Sochi- with some of our party flying out of Sochi and a few new crew coming on in Sochi. Are we being unrealistic, is Sochi still unapproachable ? Any advise you can provide us ?

    thank you
    Marjorie

    Submitted on 2015/01/12 at 10:17 am | In reply to Marjorie Brower:

    Hi Marjorie, I’m guessing from your question that you do not have a copy of the Imray Black Sea cruising guide nor have you seen our latest supplement to the guide. You will find information about purchasing/downloading both here: https://www.imray.com/Publications/Imray+Pilots/Pilots+and+Cruising+Guides/IB0191/. The reason I say this is because we advise against a clockwise circumnavigation of the Black Sea because you will be sailing against the prevailing winds and rim currents. We have also delineated a “yacht caution zone,” advising yachts to remain well off the Russian coast, which now also includes the Crimea (but excludes Odessa in the Ukraine).

    Since writing this blog post, Russia has taken control of the Crimean Peninsula, which is why we have included it in this caution area. Russia has no procedures for privately owned foreign yachts entering ports on the Black Sea, an this includes Sochi and now extends to Yalta, a former Ukrainian port that was suitable for yachts clearing in and out. I would say that Sochi is now even more unapproachable due to the conflict in the region.

    If you’re looking for an alternative plan for visiting the Black Sea, cruisers are still reporting good experiences along the Turkish coast. One option would be to remain in Turkey to Samsun or Trabzon, the latter can be reached by rental car, too, which gives you the opportunity to travel inland in this beautiful area. Both ports are convenient for crew changes.

    If you really want to visit Sochi, there is a ferry and tour companies to organize this for you from Trabzon (all of this is described in our guide). Be sure to have visas arranged in advance because consular services are limited in Trabzon. Another alternative is to explore the Bulgarian and Romanian coasts to Odessa, Ukraine. Again, sailing instructions are included in the guide.

    An additional note will be included in this year’s supplement: cruising sailors should expect to show official papers to authorities frequently, but this should not discourage you from visiting the Black Sea, as long as you keep a respectful distance from the current area of conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

    Additional information and links to our logbook of sailing around the Black Sea can be found on this site. I will also forward this information to the email address you provided. Feel free to contact us with any questions and/or updates if you do visit the Black Sea.

    Fair winds,
    Lisa Borre

  5. Bringing over another comment from Alex and our reply:

    Submitted on 2015/01/17 at 7:25 am | In reply to sygyatso.
    Hi Lisa,

    Thank you for the post about visiting Russia and great pilot book – I used it extensively while my summer cruising north coast of Turkey from Sinop to west.

    Checking in/out if Russia is complicated but definitely possible and there are some good blogs on it. I have had an experience to check in/out on sailing boat in Russia, Greece, Turkey, US and some Caribbean countries and you are right process in Russia is the most complicated (this is the same for Russian citizens and Russia flagged yacht – there is no difference). And here is why:

    1. As you stated there is no formal difference between private yacht and oil tanker, so it means almost the same paperwork, BUT authorities check it much more quickly because they understand that most of papers are useless :-).

    2. Because of #1 you cannot just notify about your arrival, you are supposed to do it in advance and notify many officials (book slip at customs dock, arrange appointment with customs, immigration etc) and you are not allowed go a shore until clearance is complete and at the same time you cannot make all arrangements until you go a shore – this is a dead loop.
    The only way is to use agent services (which is not forced by law). In this case the experience will be very smooth – you send him copies of passports, ships docs and some others. Then call 24 hrs in advance about arrival and that is it. Connect on arrival and pilot boat will meet you and in 2 hours clearance is done. The only issue is what you have to pay agent (he then will make all official payments and fees).

    3. Having someone who speak russian helps dramatically.

    Using agent can be avoided, but only locals who have a lot of time can do it (locals means living in the same city as port of entry) there are success stories, but it can take a week 🙁

    PS. Lisa, please feel free to give my email address to the author of previous post, so we can connect and I will help as much as I can!

    Thanks, Alex
    Tayana 37, 385 happy owner

    Submitted on 2015/01/21 at 11:45 am | In reply to Alex.
    Hi Alex,
    Thank you for the feedback about The Black Sea guide and for information about your experience with entering Russia. Was the latter in a Black Sea port? The reason I ask is that we know of foreign-flagged private yachts/crews entering Russia in St. Petersburg but not Black Sea ports (only Russian-flagged,-owned or -skippered yachts have the local knowledge and language skills to navigate the process, including finding a reliable agent).

    I’m also curious when you were able to enter Russia because our reports from local sources in Ukraine indicate that no foreign-flagged yachts are using the ports on the Crimean Peninsula as of last year. We assume that this conflict has made it more difficult to enter Russia.

    We would be very interested in information about ship agents in Sochi who might be willing to help. I will contact you via email and also share your contact details with Marjorie with a copy to you.

    It’s nice to hear from another happy Tayana 37 owner. We are now happy former owners (Gyatso was sold at the end of last year).

    Thanks again,
    Lisa

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