Vergi to St Petersburg
We didn’t rush this morning to get away, as we knew that there was no point getting into Kronstad early. Besides we had sore heads and Andrew massive bites to nurse. We finally got away around 11ish, and set off motor sailing on a carefully followed track to avoid slipping into a military zone.
Kronstadt is a town and naval base on Kotlin Island, just west of St. Petersburg, Russia, where we needed to gain clearance to enter Russia. (It is also spelt Kronshtadt.)
It was at this point on our journey that the GPS above our companion way in the cockpit and also displayed by our chart table decided not to work, forever. Unfortunate as this was the one Suzanne used to write our log and to keep track of our mileage. So she used the time to ‘de-soil’ her herbs, as the advice had been no soil to be taken into Russia!
Our aim was to get to Kronstadt for noon the next day, and with a lot of miles to get under our belt, within a restricted fairway, we settled into some decent sailing making between 4 -6 knots.
Around 5pm we crossed the border into Russia, and raised our courtesy flag. Our journey was then made up of a mixture of sailing and motor sailing. Andrew took the night watch until around 3,30am when Suzanne came up to take over.
Around 4 in the morning, some of the faster yachts started to over take us, one by one. And at 5am the sun came up. Suzanne put on some home made croissants, but managed to burn them.
On watch, with the yacht motor sailing and on auto pilot, and the wind in a steady position, there isn’t too much to do, other than look out for other marine traffic, and avoid it if there is any likelihood of a collision.
Our track was alongside the main fairway for large container, bulk carrier and cruise ships – but far enough out that we didn’t cross paths. At various intervals there would be channels leading into it from either Russia or Sweden – and it was those that you mainly had to keep an eye out for.
At 7 am Suzanne had just done one of her periodic sweeps of the sea, looking ahead, behind and to the sides – with nothing untoward, and settled back to loading up photos onto her laptop. A strange noise made her turn to look behind – and there was a surfaced submarine! It gave her such a fright that she called down to Andrew, who was still resting, to say that a submarine had surfaced behind the boat!!
Clearly it hadn’t, in only a 100 feet of water – and another yacht later confirmed they had watched it move across to be behind us. Still at that point in time, it felt like it had! And thinking back, Suzanne had spotted a strange looking craft close to the coast, but unable to make out what it was, had dismissed it as some kind of fishing vessel.
Little did we know at this stage that this was not going to be our only encounter with this submarine.
After this we noticed a number of large naval vessels at anchor in the distance. Over the next few hours, they formed up and appeared to be practicing their display for Naval Day on 28 July. We watched as they manoeuvred and two large white launches with what appeared to senior naval officers in white uniforms and lots of gold braid raced up at 30 plus knots we guessed to inspect them.
As the fleet came closer, we watched as they rounded a buoy, and headed off back up in the opposite direction. We could see the sailors standing to attention in their white uniforms on each ship, and hear them as they sang and cheered. It was pretty cool to witness.
We had slowed our pace to be able to watch and take photos, and we now continued on our final miles into Kronstadt.
As we were in the final lead up to Kronstadt we called Graneet on the radio, as instructed, to let them know of our arrival, but without success. By this time we had been caught up by one of the American yachts. As we approached the gateway into Kronstadt we heard a message on the radio for the two yachts approaching, but without giving any instruction. We tried calling again. We then heard a message from Radio 1, naming us and the other yacht. We tried calling radio 9, Graneet and our rally control – without success.
At this point we looked behind us and realised that the naval fleet we had past earlier practising their display were now in a convoy and closing in on us at a great rate of notes, clearly heading into St Petersburg as well. We radio’d again and said we were moving out of the way of the fleet.
At this point one of the two white launches we had seen early came racing at over 30 knots towards us, looking as if it might ram us. As it approached, one of the officers ran up to the podium on the side, and using the microphone on its stand, hailed us in Russian. Andrew responded with ‘niet’ i.e no. What he was saying no to Suzanne still isn’t sure. But if it was to say no, I don’t speak Russian – clearly that wasn’t true – because he’d just answered in Russian (he can actually say 3 words) and if the chap had been asking us to move the boat, then clearly it wasn’t the right answer. Some gesticulation went on, and Andrew moved the boat further out of the way. The launch then raced across to the American boat, clearly to have the same kind of none conversation.
We then sat back and enjoyed the fleet passing with our submarine taking up the rear. Once clear we continued into Kronstadt and the fun of clearing immigration and customs.
So the German boat full of Swiss seemed to have rattled customs. They had prescription drugs they wanted to declare, but the sniffer dog had been put on the boat before they were allowed off the boat to declare – and so a Mexican stand off ensued for the next 6 hours. As a result we had two sniffer dogs, one for customs, one for immigration, as well as a search by two uniformed men which seemed to be a half hour english language lesson. All passports and ship paperwork duly checked and stamped, we were free, after about an hour – to head on into St Petersburg.
It takes 3 hours from Kronstadt to head up the fairway to St Petersburg. On our way in, guess what – the fleet passed us on their way back out! An even closer encounter than the first two times that day!
We weren’t prepared for the Jetson style hydrofoils ploughing their way to and fro on the fairway, making at least 30 knots, but unnervingly leaving no real wake.
We dodged men fishing in inflatables right in the fairway, and just as we approached the new bridge to make our final few hundred metres into the yacht club, the leading buoys seemed to disappear.
We then noticed that they were off to the left, making a big kink. This was different to what was on the chart, and that we had been told – and we quickly debated and decided to follow the buoys as we saw them – ie swing to the left and then back through the buoys under the bridge. This worked fine, but we were then presented with a load of buoys that were missing – the channel supposed to lead us to the club. We found out later how lucky we were. Others had missed the kink to the left, ploughed straight on and grounded – about 6 in all – so half the fleet (as the 2 larger yachts couldn’t fit into St Petersburg).
We went straight to the fuel barge and filled up with 165 litres of fuel. At a third of the prices of the UK – it would have been crazy not to.
So it was that finally, at 5pm the day after we set off, we berthed by stern buoy at the Central City Marina amid all the sun, noise and chaos of St Petersburgers at play in the water.
We were underway for 30 hours, making 131 nautical miles, sailing for 7 hours, motor sailing for 16 and motoring for 7. We used 12 gallons of fuel and 23 engine hours.
The map of our journey is an approximation, as we don’t have the actual AIS captured for the trip.
You can hear us talking about our entry into Russia on our podcast ‘2 in a Boat’ episode 25 ‘How we almost joined the Russian navy’.