Illywhacker - Japan to Russia


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Author Peter Aston
Date August 200
Map Ref Hokkaido, Kurils, Kamchatka Petropavlosk

Here is a CCC article written as an update of illywhacker's travels in May/June 2000

  Bad weather along the Kurils for most of the passage

After 2 wonderful years in Japan, illywhacker and her crew John sailed from Kushiro in Hokkaido on 2nd June 2000 and arrived in Petropavlosk, Kamchatka, the most eastern part of Russia on 11th June. If one is ever "sent to Siberia", the Kamchatka peninsular is about as far east from Moscow as you can get! Kamchatka is the frontier of Russia, sparsely populated, an absolutely stunning tourist destination for the wilderness-seekers but one which takes some homework if arriving by yacht. Only a handful of foreign yachts sail to Kamchatka and hopefully our experiences will make the process a little easier for those that might wish to follow.

Our decision to come this way instead of making a direct passage to the Aleutians on our way to Alaska was a result of some Internet surfing by Lyndall who believes firmly in researching the journey ahead by all means possible. The continuing success of Amazon Books and the gradually increasing tonnage of illywhacker are similar manifestations of her voracious appetite for information!

The Aleutians separate the North Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea which is named after Vitus Bering, a Dane who lead a Russian expedition to sail west to discover and claim the west coast of America. It is a story of disaster and tragedy but the two vessels St. Peter (Petro) and St. Paul (Pavlosk) departed from Avacha Bay, Kamchatka in 1740 and did reach Alaska only to suffer incredible privations on their homeward voyage. The natural harbour of their departure, now Petropavlosk Kamchatky (PK) was said to be secure in all winds and the countryside magnificent. A web page of the re-enactment of a 1994 voyage by the local yacht Avacha stirred us to contact the Russian sailors involved and this lead us down the tortuous path to obtaining the necessary permissions.

To enter Russia as a tourist one is required to have an invitation from an official tour company and the "yacht club" (3 yachts of varying condition and some wonderful people) arranged for the Yelizovo Tour Service to get in touch with us. Yelena and Martha (an American woman from Alaska married to a Russian) exchanged countless e-mails with us until we finally obtained visas for 2 weeks and the Pogranichiki (border guards) and FSB (old KGB) were advised of our intentions to sail through territorial waters and into Avacha Bay. All we carried with us was a faxed invitation in Russian, a passport stamp and the promise of a welcome from the yacht club. So it was with some trepidation that we set our course from Hokkaido along the Kuril Island chain to the southern tip of the Kamchatka peninsular, then north to PK, a passage of 870nm.

By the time we departed Kushiro we were used to sailing in fog with just 5 hours of darkness each day but it wasn’t long before the weather closed in and the skies darkened so that day and night were almost indistinguishable. The wind swung to the NE, dead ahead and we wished we were somewhere else… anywhere! Despite this illywhacker kept us warm inside our zipped-up cockpit with the heater going below full blast. Changing sails was preceded by a 15 min dressing up to get wet gear on followed then by a rush of activity, frozen hands, streaming nose and eyes then back inside to the warmth of the cockpit. We tended to keep such exercise to a minimum! The main carried the 2nd reef most of the time and the headsail furling dealt with changes in wind strength from inside the cockpit.

The charts show a 0.5kt current against us on the Pacific side of the Kurils but at one point this increased to 2kts. All we could see of the islands was an unmoving radar image. We were getting nowhere so we bore away to the south of Ostrov Shimushir into the Sea of Okhotsk. The water temperature suddenly dropped to 0.80C but the current was favourable and even when we hove-to for 12 hours in a stint of heavy weather, we made a few miles of northing, keeping a close eye on the coast (by radar).

After 4 days of this we were really spooked, being so close to land without seeing it through the grey fog, rain and mist. The 5th day was cloudy too but we could tell the sun was up there above it all and there was conspiracy afoot, Nature was about to show us the Kurils in her own way and in her own good time.

The dawn watch had been able to report that land was visible, a dark shape on the waterline growing as the fog lifted to reveal black rocks glistening with water and highlighted with streaks of snow.As if the show was over, the fog closed in and left us unsure of the real shape of the landmass.We had an eery feeling of a larger presence and moments later the skies opened high above us and two snow-covered volcanos towered through the fog almost overhead; 2 ugly sisters, snarling at our impudence in sailing these waters. Moments later the fog closed and they disappeared deigning only to occasionally lift their skirts displaying their shining black rock shoes at sea level.

A brief view of a Volcanic island of the Kurils before the fog and rain closes in

For the next 4 days we were never allowed more than a tantalising peek at the Kurils as the fog swirled about, always blanketing the magnificence that their whole must surely offer. We saw enough to wonder that such huge peaks could exist in such numbers so close to our tiny yacht. Luckily, days 10 and 11 were fine and clear and we sailed close to the Kamchatka peninsular on the east side, marvelling at the craggy unspoilt coastline and the smoking 3000m volcanos behind. It was 0200hrs on the 11th June that we sighted the entrance to Avacha Bay.

There are very few yachts that go to PK, one of the reasons being a fear of the bureaucracy and now that we are here, we can understand why! On our arrival at the entrance to the bay we radioed for clearance on channel 16 and were told to proceed to a GPS position some 2 nm offshore and wait for a pilot. Despite our weak protestations that we didn’t need one we rolled around in the swell for some 8 hours until a fearsome black and unforgiving vessel hove into view. I could just sense disaster .. and sure enough in an attempt to get the pilot on board we received a nasty bash topsides.

Russian pilot approaches - offshore from Petropavlosk CIQ tieup at Petropavlosk - our tour operator Yelena is on the left

The pilot was a nice guy however and explained that this port was Russia’s primary Pacific nuclear submarine base, it even had a great wire net that could be deployed across the entrance. Security was severe! As we motored into the port the VHF was abuzz with instructions from Navy, Police, Harbour Security, Port Control, Quarantine, Customs, Immigration and goodness knows who else. Suddenly we were ordered to "stop engines" and wait. The pilot was obviously embarrassed and said our permissions were revoked and we must leave as the Navy had not been adequately briefed. We pleaded lack of fuel and various other things seeking at least 72 hours rest. Another hour as the VHF ran hot and then we were allowed to proceed once more. Our "Agent" and tour operator Yelena is a beautiful and feisty lady who had solved the problem by ringing the Admiral!

We arrived here on 11th June and as I write we are tied up in a secure harbour surrounded by huge and rusty fishing ships. The harbour wall is severely eroded and there are many lumps of reinforcing bar and old bolts waiting to tear another hole in our topsides. The now extremely grotty, oversize fenders we’ve carried from Japan are essential in a working harbour such as this. After clearing in with Yelena’s help, our first visitors were Vladimir the Harbourmaster who became a good friend and the Port police who we commissioned to mind the boat whenever we were absent. This was a user-pays arrangement at about US$1.50/hr. With a uniformed guard standing by we were happier about the safety of the boat which allowed us to plan some trips to the Kamchatka hinterland.

Not having any Russian to speak of we were entirely in Yelena’s hands in all aspects of our stay in PK. She did a mighty job in all respects, arranging fuel, water, shopping, repairs, meals, tours and entertainment as well as introducing us to many of her friends. We also had numerous visits from members of the PKYC who invited us back to their houses for some warm and wonderful evenings. The city has the appearance of a place that spends most of the year under a carpet of snow and ice so external maintenance is rarely done. Inside, the flats (no houses) are very small and dependent on the building heating systems which are known to fail for weeks at a time due to lack of fuel to power the electricity generating plant. Some people we met overcame this by building a "dacha", a small garden and accommodation a few miles out of town with their own power supply.

Festivities at PK waterfront for Lenin's Day "Come and see my dacha" - Yelena beckons

The city of Petropavlosk Kamchatky nestles at the base of a huge volcano and in addition to the usual winter sports the local residents delight in visiting the many natural hotspring spas, some housed in cedar buildings others just in the middle of a park. All are said to be of great benefit to ones’ health and more so if the water is consumed, with or without vodka.

As part of our association with Yelizovo Tours we felt obliged to take an organised tour or two with Yelena’s tour company although this was not compulsory. She arranged for us to take a helicopter ride over a volcano-studded mountain pass to a pristine valley dotted with hot springs. The hotspring bath and the picnic lunch in the soltitude of our mountain retreat were delightful, getting there and back was the real adventure The airport was a paddock reached via a bumpy gravel road and sported a half dozen ex military choppers. We were lead to the least scruffy of the bunch, a black 6-seater which had no passenger seating but a rug on the floor. Lyndall sat in the co-pilot’s seat up front and John and I sat with Yelena’s son on the rug. Starting the beast took some time but she finally spluttered into life as the mechanic standing outside, reached across Lyndall pressing buttons and pulling levers, all of clunky Russian design. When he seemed satisfied it would keep running, he slammed the door and ran around the back and joined us on the rug. I was quite relieved that he was there and with similarly perverse logic was happy that the pilot flew the bucket of bolts about 10m above ground the whole way…do they glide to a landing?

We leave from here to sail the Aleutians to Alaska, keeping to much the same latitude of 53N until we reach Dutch Harbour, Unalaska. More reports after that.

(Late news: illywhacker arrived safely in Dutch Harbour 09 July2001).


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