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.
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.
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.
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.