Russia: Gyatso crew cancels plans to visit Russian Black Sea coast after learning that foreign yachts are still not welcome

News Update

Date: 16 July 2010

We cancelled plans to visit Russia today after learning that a European-flagged yacht was denied entry to three separate Black Sea ports in Russia in early July, despite having all paperwork in order and a fluent Russian speaker onboard. We had hoped that things would change when Sochi, Russia won the bid for the Winter Olympic Games in 2014 earlier this year, but apparently this is not the case.

While planning a circumnavigation of the Black Sea, we wanted to visit all six countries bordering the sea. Having visited Russia and other former Soviet Republics several times in our work with international organizations, we are perhaps more familiar than most about entrance formalities. Although we could obtain the necessary advance tourist visa to visit Russia, we could get no assurances from officials that an American-flagged yacht would be allowed entry into Russian territorial waters.

Further complicating matters, Russia briefly waged war in Georgia just two years ago, and the two countries have an ongoing dispute over the Abkhazia region in Georgia. At present, Georgian officials informed us that foreign yachts are not allowed to visit this autonomous region of Georgia nor are they allowed to visit Russia if they have been to Georgia first, a fact we learned from Russian officials.

By sailing in a counterclockwise direction around the Black Sea, Gyatso’s voyage follows the prevailing wind and current patterns, a path which has been used by sailing and rowing vessels since ancient times. However, with the modern bureaucratic requirement of visiting Russia before Georgia, this would require a several hundred mile detour in our already ambitious itinerary with no assurances we would be allowed to bring our 37′ sailboat into a Russian port once we arrived. We did not think this was the sort of decision a prudent mariner makes.

Along with our ongoing interest to observe the environmental conditions and research ancient maritime history while sailing, we are also preparing an update to the cruising guide for the Black Sea while making this particular voyage. In addition to five cruising guides covering the Black Sea, we interviewed previous sailors and collected dozens of written accounts from magazine articles, sailing newsletters, website blogs and email updates in preparation for the trip. The experiences covered the period from 1991 to 2009, including detailed accounts by yachts traveling in the company of or sharing experiences with others in 2006, 2008 and 2009.

We know of no foreign yachts who have been able to visit Russia in the past five years without a lot of hassle. Not all of those who have tried in recent years have been denied entry by Russian officials. In fact, the barrier is more a bureaucratic and financial one than an outright ban. Upon arrival, the owners of foreign yachts face things like hostile officials looking for bribes, threats of arrest and impoundment of their yachts, enormous harbor charges and requirements to pay large fees for agents to enter each Russian port on the Black Sea. This is not a game we wish to partake in, nor could we recommend it to others. Although we were disappointed to drop one country from our itinerary, we were not sad about avoiding the expense and hassles to do so.

This is why we decided not to visit the Russian Federation. We will proceed directly from Turkey to the Republic of Georgia where officials have assured us that foreign yachts are welcome.