The first Australian to sail through central Russia

We called Vytegra Radio on VHF to request permission to enter the shallow, narrow and busy river which is the start of the Volga-Balt waterway system.

According to Maxine, the operator’s cheerfully irreverent response translated roughly as “oh Christ, a yacht, a foreign yacht and an Australian yacht – that’s all we need!”

The waters of Lake Onega in northern Russia are pristine, so we hoved to and filled our tanks using the salt water pump in the galley.

At the southern end of the lake we joined the queue of barges, tankers, dredges and tugs waiting to enter the river.

We entered the river without incident however, motoring gently between densely forested shores and delighting in bird song, the smells of spring flowers and the knowledge that we were now in waters long forbidden to foreign vessels.

Indeed, in the last 100 years only two foreign flagged yachts had been given permission to enter the Vytegra River and the Volga waterway system.

Tainui left Vardo in far northern Norway 2 months ago, bound Archangel’sk in the White Sea. Paperwork and formalities for the entry into Russia had taken eight months of frustrating negotiation with stodgy officaldom, although there is now a real prospect that the inland waterways are to be opened to foreign vessels in future years.

As it turned out, customs and immigration formalities were straightforward; timeconsuming but certainly no more vexing than in Brazil for example.

The tiny Archangel’sk Yacht Club was friendly, hospitable and helpful. Two Muscovites, Pasha and Max, joined us there for the overnight passage across to Solvetskiy Islands and on down to Belomorsk.

Solovetskiy boasts a beautiful monastery with an ignoble past – it was Stalin’s first gulag used to house political prisoners.

Many gulag internees worked on the Belomorsk Canal construction, a mammoth project in which it is said over 100,000 prisoners died in just four years.

We had 30 knot winds and uncomfortable beam seas and sleet during the trip from Archangel’sk, so that Solovetskiy harbour was a haven indeed. In Nizhniy Novgorod, 1,500 miles, half way to the Black Sea, we luxuriate in the sun’s warmth.

The Volga is a grand and beautiful river whose forested shores reveal in turn the sparkling onion domes of orthodox churches, huge abandoned factories and pretty villages.

We saw only two yachts in the previous two months, both of them Russian vessels. Of course we stopped Tainui mid-stream, rafted up with them, tippled and shared that wonderful goodwill which exists between sailors the world over.

Tainui is an object of interest and curiosity wherever we go. An endless stream of visitors drop by bearing vodka, fruit and offers of assistance with the tedious business of keeping our boat fuelled and provisioned. Without exception they are generous and charming.

Splendid Maxine, my Muscovite crew person, bears the brunt of cockpit social duty while I sit in a silence unusual for me and tipple, as the talk and laughter get noisier in incomprehensible Russian.

This is a wonderful journey, unlike any cruising I have done in the last 40 years. I wouldn’t miss it for quids.


– John Vallentine: I am a retired doctor. I left Australia seven years ago and am half way through the world’s slowest circumnavigation. My Sydney-Hobart racing days are long over and I like to keep comfortable on board, even if it means not going so fast.

Tainui is a well-travelled 40 year old Peterson 46. In past life Tainui was Vela (Kevin Read), Huon Quest (Hedley Calvert) and Mercedes VI (Kaufman). I am just her current custodian. She has never frightened me, although I know I have often frightened her!


This article was first published in the December 2013 issue of Cruising Helmsman.


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