Yalta: Stiletto heels, sharky agents and mobs of tourists on holiday — welcome to Ukraine!

Photo: Gyatso in Yalta harbor awaiting clearance. Credit: Lisa Borre.
The border police erected a metal fence around Gyatso until we completed clearance formalities. Photo by Lisa Borre.

Black Sea Logbook Entry

Date: 8/1/2010
Distance: 72 nm
Sailed from: Feodosia, Ukraine
Lat: 44° 29.6’N
Long: 34° 10.3’E

Arriving just after dark, we couldn’t get any English-speaking replies to our calls asking for permission to enter Yalta harbor, so we took the previous night’s instruction from the Coast Guard as approval and entered the commercial harbor first. Although it is listed as the preferred port of entry in the pilot book, it looked dark and deserted to us except for two small tankers and a few local yachts moored inside with no space for us.

Next, we inched our way into the busy passenger port a mile away. Tour boats were zooming in and out of the harbor. Thousands of people were walking along the waterfront promenade. A dozen local sailing yachts rocked from side to side at their moorings on the far end of the harbor. Another dozen large motor yachts rocked at their moorings along the next quay. Two large river boat cruise ships occupied the main quays. Dozens of other tour boats and tugs filled up the rest of the harbor. We were about to give up and anchor outside when Lisa spotted a small space in the back corner near the customs building. We would have to squeeze in between a motor yacht and the stern mooring lines for the cruise ship. Other cruisers had referred to a customs dock, and we hoped this was it.

In we went, and before we could secure our lines, a police officer appeared with radio and cell phone in hand. While holding on to a large truck tire fender hanging off the high cement quay, Lisa suddenly felt like we had landed on another planet. The female officer was an attractive blond wearing a mini skirt and stiletto heels and talking on her cellphone. While David tried to secure the bowline, Lisa asked, “Is it okay for us to tie-up here?” She signaled that it was okay but that we should remain on the boat. David jumped back onboard.

Before we were finished tying up, Alexander, a private yacht agent was circling like a shark to solicit our business. We knew from our research in preparation for the trip that we would need to employ an agent to help us with the soviet-style clearance formalities in Ukraine . We also knew that some private agents, including the one standing on the dock, would try to extract as large a fee as possible from us. We were prepared with the names of two reputable agents. We gave the name of our first choice to the border police, and the situation changed immediately. It was like we had a secret soviet password. The officer had him in her speed dial and a little while later she handed a cell phone to us with him on the line. Volodymir informed David that he was not in Yalta at the moment (Sunday night at 10:00 pm ) and was in fact very far away. He would be there in the morning to help us clear in as long as we would be willing to stay onboard until he arrived. (Far away turned out to be “in transit” from the Netherlands!) We agreed, and he convinced the port authorities to make this special arrangement.

Once we had our preferred agent, Lisa took the opportunity to put the sharky, corrupt Alexander in his place. He was trying to bully the female officers into making us employ him for $500. We let him know that we knew exactly who he was and what he was up to. Word was out among the owners of other foreign sailing yachts that he charged fees higher than allowed by law. Since we were safe behind the heavily guarded gates of the Ukrainian border control, Lisa demanded that he be removed from the customs dock, repeating frequently, “He is not our agent. He does not represent us. Please ask him to leave.” After awhile, he was asked to leave and stormed away from the customs dock. All of the female officers acted like Lisa’s best friend the next day.

Another high-heeled officer and a border policeman came out and erected a metal fence around us, the kind they use to heard cruise ship passengers back onto the ship. We’re not sure if it was to keep us away from Ukrainian soil or to keep the re-boarding cruise ship passengers away from us or both. Along with our yellow Q-flag flying from the starboard spreader, it definitely reinforced the feeling that we were in quarantine.

Our fresh provisions were beginning to run low, but that didn’t matter because we were too tired to cook or eat much anyway. We opened our last bottle of Georgian bubbly and tried to get some sleep. Yalta ’s passenger port is the most uncomfortable harbor we have ever stayed in due to the constant swell which works its way in. We did our best to set spring lines to keep Gyatso from banging into the big truck tire fenders, but it was still a rough night. The surge would push us into the quay, and then the backwash would push us away. We thought we would bend several stanchions (the stainless steel posts that hold our lifelines in place), but in the end, no damage was done other than some blackened fenders and topsides.

Photo: Welcome to Ukraine, Yalta. Credit: Lisa Borre.
Welcome to Ukraine sign in Yalta harbor with temporary fencing around Gyatso while we cleared customs. Photo by Lisa Borre.

Ukraine has supposedly developed procedures specifically for foreign yachts, but in reality, it is not all that different a process than if we were bringing a large cargo ship which has traveled the world’s oceans into the country. We couldn’t just submit a “general declaration and crew list” as we did upon arrival in Georgia. Each bit of information requires a separate sheet of paper, signed and stamped in triplicate. Our agent’s secretary, Natalie, an efficient, 20-something Ukrainian, took charge with Gyatso’s boat stamp in hand. She neatly filled out all of the hand-written forms and prepared numerous other forms for us to sign and for her to stamp. We lost count of the individual pieces of paper and were lulled into a stupor by the sound of the stamp going “kachunk, kachunk, kachunk.” No fewer than six officials were involved – customs, immigration and health officers – all to determine that we did not have stowaways, rats, drugs, guns or anyone with the plague onboard Gyatso.

Next, we received a full briefing on the extensive procedures for clearing in and out of each subsequent port and a map of the restricted areas off the coast (top government officials are on holiday in the Crimea so we have to keep three miles off the coast near their summer palaces). The formalities were conducted in the air-conditioned office in the customs building, not onboard as others have described. The process did include a brief onboard inspection by two polite officials, a man and a woman, both of whom removed their black-soled and high-heels shoes respectively, and said how beautiful Gyatso’s cabin was. One of the customs agents noticed our USCG documentation number in the forward cabin. We replaced the black plastic numbers installed by a previous owner with decorative, numbered tiles. Lisa explained, “The tiles are from Portugal .” This brought a smile to their face, and they were back on the dock in less than two minutes. Our agent completed the process in what seemed like record time compared to the horror stories we’ve heard from other cruisers, and we received a much delayed and hard-earned “welcome” to Ukraine from the key officials involved.

Moments later, we were instructed to vacate the customs dock. Our agent arranged to allow us to stay until noon , but then all boats at the end of the harbor would have to clear out for the cruise ship to depart. He also arranged for his driver to take David with our jerry cans to get fuel. He got the port officer’s permission for Gyatso to med moor with our own anchor among the local sailing yachts, or if we wanted to go outside the harbor and wait for the ship to leave, we could return to the customs dock for one more night. Our third option was to proceed directly to Balaklava 35 miles away. The prospect of mooring in the uncomfortable swell without any security along the public quay where we had seen the hordes of tourists the night before was not an option.

We thanked our agent, left the harbor at noon and decided that we might as well push on to Balaklava since we’d have to wait a couple of hours until the customs dock was available again. We motored out three miles away from coast, rounded the point and found the wind building rapidly to 15 knots from exactly the direction we needed to go. On the Black Sea , this also means steep, choppy seas from the one knot current flowing in the opposite direction. We smashed into the waves for awhile before giving up and returning to the customs dock and its big black truck tire fenders in Yalta harbor. The good news was that we were given approval to spend the night (for free!). The bad news was that we had to vacate the dock again by 5:00 a.m.

The swell diminished during the day but returned in the night making it difficult to sleep. At least we were in a secure area and could leave the boat. Lisa was able to go ashore for some quick errands: ATM for local cash, cell phone shop to buy a SIM card for making calls, and a mini-market for much needed Ukrainian champagne. She called her family from the cell phone shop to let them know we were okay and returned to Gyatso with the bottle of bubbly (not bad for $6.50) which we downed before going to sleep again without dinner – the heat (90+ F) and excitement of the previous days had finally caught up with us.

It was not until the following day, when we reached Balaklava , that we could begin to relax and catch-up on much needed rest after two nights at sea, one night in limbo anchored outside Feodosia’s harbor and two more nights at Yalta ‘s customs dock.