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Petropavlovsk, Russia, has been the one stop I worried about the most.
I confess to having an irrational fear of Russia. Roberta’s and my last trip to Russia was nearly twenty years ago, and happened to coincide with Russia’s transition from a communist to a more capitalist form of government. Russia was in the process of privatizing industries, and trying to create an economy. The process wasn’t pretty, and resulted in political instability, mass confusion and rampant poverty. Corruption, and crime were serious issues. Our travel agents at the time asked that we not walk the streets unescorted, and we agreed. It just didn’t feel safe.
For Sans Souci, Russia was not an optional stop. The distance from Adak, the western most fuel stop in the Aleutian Islands, and Hokkaido, Japan, is over 2,000 nautical miles. This is within Sans Souci’s range, but it would require slowing down to seven knots, and cutting directly across the Northern Pacific. We would have been required to make a twelve or thirteen day run across a part of the ocean known for its’ inhospitality, with no place to hide.
Although I was concerned about Russia, there were a lot of reasons for the stop:
2) It would allow us to break the trip into smaller segments.
3) It sounded unbelievably cool to go to Siberia.
To mitigate my concerns about Russia, I made some calls seeking a reputable agent. I spoke with a mega-yacht captain who had stopped in Russia a few years ago, and he recommended I speak with Sergey Frolov, of http://www.siberianadventures.com. Sergey was also highly recommended by Cruise-west, a Seattle-based cruise ship company that I spoke with. The word on Sergey was that he wasn’t the lowest cost provider, but that he could be trusted, and would deliver on everything he promised.
I knew that I would be arriving in Russia with inadequate fuel to reach Japan. This was making me nervous. I didn’t want to be in a position where I was in a ‘must have’ position for fuel, but there was no choice.
Sergey Frolov turned out to be a great find. We were welcomed to Russia by Sergey’s local team. Marina and Alexandra, from Sergey’s company, Pacific Network, are pictured above. They walked us through the entire clearing process, and made life in Petropavlovsk very pleasant. Pacific Network arranged our moorage, fuel, helped with clearing, called taxis, arranged tours, booked dinner reservations, and much more. Anyone heading to Petropavlovsk should contact Pacific Network.
One of the things I had feared most was encountering the local officials. However, there was no cause for concern. The officials were friendly, helpful, and couldn’t have been nicer. They did require a lot of paperwork, but we got through it fine. I use Adobe Acrobat, which allows me to easily edit PDF files. Pacific Network emailed me the documents for clearing, and I had everything typed up and printed prior to arrival. I even emailed the completed forms to Pacific Network so that they could review everything and let me know if I had completed the forms correctly.
DISCLAIMER: We were only in Petropavlovsk for four days. I have not studied Russian history, do not speak Russian, and am basing my commentary on casual chats with bartenders, taxi cab drivers, tour guides and personal observation. In other words, what follows may or may not be accurate. Form your own opinion.
The city that we visited in Russia is called ‘Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.’ It is on the Kamchatka Peninsula, a 900 mile long peninsula on the eastern coast of Russia.
Kamchatka is considered the boondocks, even by Siberian standards. There is some tourist activity, and there are some direct charter flights from the US, but generally speaking, it is tough to get to. I asked why tourists come to Kamchatka, and was told that most visitors come to fish or hunt. Others come to see the giant Kamchatka bears. And for others, such as ourselves, it is a chance to see a part of the world that few have ever seen.
Because of its position as the eastern-most outpost of Russia, on the Pacific, Kamchatka has strategic military importance. For decades, foreigners, and even Russians, were not allowed access to Kamchatka. This is the region where, in the 80s, the Russians sent a clear message about how seriously they take security, by shooting down Korean Air Flight 007, which had accidentally intruded into Russian air space. Kamchatka is home to Russia’s Pacific submarine fleet, and even today, there are places in Kamchatka that are off-limits.
As we approached Russia, we shut off Sans Souci’s Sonar. If there were subs in the water, I didn’t want the Russians thinking we were looking for them (which we weren’t). As far as I know, we were just being paranoid, but our assumption was that all of our communications between the boats was being monitored. Whether it was or not, who knows?
Near to where we moored the boats was ‘Lenin Square,’ a strong reminder that Petropavlovsk had been communist within our lifetimes.
We happened to arrive on ‘Navy Day.’ We moored next to a battleship, and Lenin Square was filled with various weapons and military vehicles. I didn’t have the courage to try taking pictures, but Jeff had no such hesitation and shot several pictures of himself posing in front of all the gadgets that were on display.
During the communist era, housing was provided by the government, in huge multi-family buildings. Petropavlovsk shows this heritage. There are hundreds of these buildings in every direction, and most of the locals still live in them.
We also saw some older single-family homes. These stumped me. They seemed poorly cared for, yet I would have expected these to be the homes of upper-income people, who wanted their own homes. Roberta and I walked many miles around Petropavlovsk, and never saw any newer single family homes. However we did see new multi-family homes under construction.
Petropavlovsk seems to have somewhat made the transition away from communism, to capitalism. There were stores everywhere, with the shelves loaded with products. We visited a modern department store, a modern super market, and more. Even in Moscow, twenty years before, the stores were practically empty and there was little sign of ‘entrepreneurial spirit.’ Entrepreneurial spirit seems alive and well now, at least in Petropavlovsk.
All of us really enjoyed the restaurants. Our favorite was called Korea House, and was outstanding. Another favorite was the Colluseum with its large dance floor. Above you see Braun showing the Russians that Americans DO know how to dance.
Overall, it felt a bit like we were in Europe, or maybe Eastern Europe.
I asked several people about the economy, and was told that poverty is a problem, but I personally never saw any evidence of real poverty. I usually look at the cars for some insight into the local economy. The cars I saw were newer models, in very good shape, and even included high-end vehicles such as BMWs. Most of the cars seemed to be Japanese, although most were larger cars. There were far more SUVs and vans than I would see in Europe.
Fishing is the primary industry in Petropavlovsk, primarily crab and salmon. That said, the town has 200,000 people, and I didn’t see a large enough fishing fleet to support a town that large. Something else is driving what appeared to be a healthy economy, and I don’t know what it is. Military perhaps?
One interesting side-note. Some articles about Russia attribute the economic success to the implementation of a flat-tax. In 2001, Russia adopted a 13% across the board tax, which resulted in a higher-than-anticipated tax revenues. Collections increased dramatically.
Being a curious type, I had to ask about home ownership and rents. The estimate I heard was that about 60% of residents own their own home (apartment). I asked about pricing, and pointed at a few different buildings. A one-bedroom unit in an older building goes for around $50,000 with the same unit in a new upscale building going for closer to $150,000. Rents average around $100 per month for a one-bedroom unit. It was mentioned that larger families tend to buy multiple units, and join them together to create larger units.
Prices in stores seemed comparable to prices in the United States.
Our first encounter with the local ‘vodka’ culture came when we stopped for lunch at a little lakeside café. We were surrounded by families sitting at picnic tables, enjoying a day in the park. At virtually every table, the diners had a flask, or bottle, of hard stuff, to spike their drinks. I did a little Googling, and found articles saying that alcohol consumption in Russia had tripled over the past decade. One article I found said that the Russian population is now declining, and said that alcohol is listed as a factor in nearly a third of deaths.
I was told that gambling has been a bigger problem. I saw no casinos, although they were apparently all around us, and have been closed down over the past month. On July 1st of this year, the Russian government shut down all gambling in the country.
I noticed that there was a giant two-story Gold’s Gym right in the center of town. The Russians take good care of themselves. Whereas we tended to wander around town in t-shirts and blue jeans, the locals, particularly the women, seemed to wander around town in dresses and high-heels.
I signed up for a city tour, which everyone else loved…
Our first stop was at a small, but beautiful, Russian Orthodox church. It was fairly small on the inside, with no pews. I would guess that it had enough space for perhaps fifty persons to worship. I asked how many other churches were in Petropavlovsk, and was told that there were a total of five, and that the others were of similar size. My ‘takeaway’ was that the population was not particularly religious. Churches were banned under the communist era, so this was not a surprise.
Our second stop was at a museum. It was a very nice museum, and gave an overview of the sea life, volcanic activity, and Indian history of the island. Unfortunately, I have a fairly short attention span, and the tour dragged. We went from display to display through two floors of the museum as a Russian lady gave a talk in front of each display, while our tour guide translated to English.
As part of the tour, Jeff, from our boat, dressed in native Indian attire.
After the museum, we went to a gift shop. I’m not much of a shopper and escaped with the same number of rubles I started with.
Part of our group took a tour into the country side, and visited the dacha (country retreat) owned by the mother of one of Pacific Network’s tour guides, Yelena. It was small, but very nice. Yelena’s mother fixed a traditional Russian meal for the group, and gave a tour of her gardens. There were hundreds of these small houses, about an hour drive out of town. Apparently, it is a part of Russian culture to have these cottages outside of town, and nearly a quarter of Russians living in cities have them. All of them have beautifully cared-for gardens, which seems to be very important to them – perhaps this is a throw-back to the communist era when food was rationed.
And lastly (on life in Petropavlovsk)….
Given all the talk lately in the United States about health care, I had to ask whether or not Russians have free medical care. To phrase the question I said, “If you needed an operation on your knee, would you be able to get it fixed for free?” The answer, “No. I would have to pay a doctor.” I countered with, “So, you are saying there is no free health care?” This time I struck a nerve. My respondent made a spitting motion, and said “The government gives free health care, but it is horrible, and only the poorest use it. It isn’t any good.”
And, on a completely different topic…
We’ve had a few injuries during the trip. Nothing serious, but enough that it is starting to add up. Here’s a brief list: fractured ankle, twisted foot, severe back sprain, banged nose, chipped tooth, bruised ribs, and even a dog bite. This may seem a lot, but to me it actually seems fairly light. Between the three boats, there are fourteen of us, and we’ve been doing fairly aggressive activities. We are constantly going up and down stairs on the boats, while the boats are pitching. We’ve been hiking on the islands, around towns, fishing, climbing, etc. Between the three boats we have enough medical supplies to stock a pharmacy. Everyone has had some first aid training, and during one incident when I asked who had stitched a wound before, three hands went up.
Probably the most dangerous thing we’ve done is climbing on and off of the boat. It has been about six weeks since we were parked at a normal dock. We’ve been climbing on and off each other’s boats, often having to cross gaps of three feet and more, while the boats are being bumped around by the water. The scariest incident was in Adak, where soon after Roberta, and Carol from Seabird, crossed a ramp it plummeted into freezing water, twenty feet below.
And on a different topic…
All three boats needed fuel, which turned out to be more complicated than expected. Our agent called to say that before we could be given fuel, we would need to provide copies of our boat registration. I contacted Seabird and Grey Pearl to get their documents and scanned them. Our agent then said we would need to provide copies of everyone, on every boat’s Russian Visa. Once again I had to contact everyone and scan copies of their visas. The agent then needed to know the fuel burn daily for each boat. She also wanted additional information about where we were going, and how many days we would be at sea. None of us could figure out why the tight security around purchasing fuel. Our best guess is that they wanted to know that we had enough fuel onboard to get out of the country.
In any event, we ultimately passed the test, and it was agreed that we could have fuel. Our fuel was to be delivered to the dock via a truck the next day.
At 11am the fuel truck appeared as promised, but only had 2,000 gallons. We needed roughly 3,000 gallons between the three boats. We were assured another fuel truck would be available in the afternoon, but, to be safe, we decided to fuel Sans Souci first. Sans Souci was low enough on fuel, that without more we could not reach Japan, whereas Grey Pearl and Seabird had adequate reserves.
Before fueling, though, Braun (Grey Pearl) wanted to ‘test’ the fuel. This took some explaining to the Russians. I’ve never tested fuel, but Braun has three different tests he wanted to conduct. For the first test, he put something that looked like toothpaste, called ‘Kolor Kut’ at the end of a long pole, and dipped it to the bottom of the tank on the fuel truck. This test was to detect water in the fuel. The second test involved putting some of the fuel in a jar and studying it visually. If the fuel had algae, this would appear as ghostly translucent crud floating in the fuel. For the third test, Braun asked the truck driver to put a gallon of fuel in a bucket. Braun then let the bucket sit for 10 minutes, and checked the bottom of the bucket for sediment. The fuel flunked this test. Braun showed the sediment to the driver, and through the translator he responded, “No problem. That’s just rust from the storage tank.” After this response was not-too-warmly received, it was discovered that the driver had taken the test fuel from the sump at the bottom of the truck’s tank. The test was run again with fuel from the normal hose, and the fuel was certified, by Braun, as clean. I was very happy to have Braun doing this. Our next passage is a long one, and it would be a major problem if we were to take on bad fuel.
The fuel tested fine, and Sans Souci filled our tanks, as did Seabird. Grey Pearl got stuck waiting for the second truck, which didn’t arrive until well into dinner time. But, the good news is that all boats received fuel and were ready for our next adventure!
Our departure was even smoother than arrival. Another thick stack of documents was required, but all of us now have these documents in our computer, and it was just a matter of running the printer, after changing a few dates.
Prior to departure I had sent an email to the other boats asking for any pictures they might have, that I could use in my blog. Ordinarily, I shoot all the pictures for my blog, but I always felt a little uncomfortable carrying a camera in Petropavlovsk. Nothing was ever said, and in fact, the travel agents encouraged picture taking, but I couldn’t get over the notion that we were in Russia, and I didn’t want to risk irritating anyone.
Everyone was so busy getting ready to go, that I never received any pictures. However, a few minutes after we were underway, a call came on the radio, saying “Ken, this is Braun. We forgot to give you pictures, but have some for you. We’d like to turn this into a training exercise if you don’t mind.” This sounded fun. Braun’s idea was that the Pearl would sneak up behind Sans Souci, while we hold course and speed. They would then pass a memory chip with the pictures to a person positioned on our stern. A few years back, while crossing the Atlantic, my boat, and the Nordhavn Goleen, had tried passing medical supplies between the two boats, while running side by side. As our two boats approached each other, my boat was hit by their wake, and veered suddenly, and potentially dangerously. Braun’s suggestion seemed a smarter approach, so we gave it a try, successfully.
And, as we were leaving Petropavlovsk, a little bit of ‘adventure’…
Petropavlovsk is at the back of a bay, which is entered or exited by a narrow channel, which is several miles long. As we were coming in, I had my navigation software, Nobletec, lay down a ‘track’ memorizing the route we used to enter the bay. To exit, all I had to do was follow my track. However, as we were exiting, something didn’t seem right. We were closer to the rocks on my starboard side than I remembered being. I immediately used the radar to verify my position, and discovered that something was out of whack. I called the other boats, and said “Something weird is up with Nobeltec. I’m not sure where I am. Can someone track me while I sort this out?” This was a dangerous situation. We were in a narrow channel, and our charting software had decided to go haywire. I restarted Nobeltec, and it still wasn’t right. We then noticed that Nobeltec said “D.R.” in the upper right hand corner. This mean “Dead Reckoning”. For some reason Nobeltec had lost connection with my GPS, and was literally guessing at my position. Ouch. This has never happened before. I shut everything down, and brought it all back up, and all was fine. I still do not know what the problem was. I always validate the charts against the radar, and had done so shortly after leaving port. Once I had everything working again, I asked the other boats why no one had mentioned that I was off course. “We thought you were taking a short cut,” came the response. Argh. The good news is that I am compulsive about triple-checking our position and found the error fairly quickly.
As I type this, we have just entered Japanese waters, and are three quarters of the way through our 1,100 nm passage to Japan.
The first three days were calm. Only rarely did we see another boat, however, now that we are in Japan, there are boats everywhere, and unfortunately, many of them are fishing boats. We’ve been dodging fishing nets, and fishing gear in the water. During the day this is reasonably easy, but overnight, it will be tense.
Tomorrow at this time, we will be at the dock in Tomakomai, Japan, near Sapporo, on the island of Hokkaido!
Nordhavn 68, Sans Souci