Day 20: Leaving St Petersburg

We’d had a late night and a long day – metro tour, bike tour, dinner out, final provisioning shop, then the usual pre-departure checks and preparations before bed.  So a 5.30am start wasn’t particularly welcome.  Still it wasn’t raining, and most of the other boats were also up and at ‘em – so we were in good company.

The first three hours were the schlep back up the fairway from the yacht club to check back out of Russia at Kronstad.   No sniffer dogs, just a man with a camcorder recording his search, a quick passport check and we had 15 minutes to leave our berth.

Again we had to stick to the traffic separation scheme, and in a convoy of yachts we made good progress, with a helpful wind, making an average of 7 knots on a beam reach.  There was some chop and a few waters off the bows, but generally it was a good sailing day.

That said, it was very windy and cold.  Suzanne spent most of the day at a 45 degree angle in the saloon and galley – trying to cook or to eat what she’d made.  From fried egg sandwiches in the morning, to fresh baked cheese baguettes and soup for lunch, and asparagus risotto with homemade apple, blueberry and cherry crumble and custard – we were well nourished on this long leg.

The water in the measuring jug (bought in Visby) says it all…

We crossed the Finnish/Russian border around 9pm, and duly raised and lowered our courtesy flags.  We regretted that we hadn’t recordings of all the appropriate national anthems to play at this particular point.  Now safely back into EU waters, we could switch our mobile devices back on and use our mobile data roaming, without fear of breaking our bank accounts.  

Putting up the yellow Q flag and the Finnish flag

Our plan was to find an anchorage close to Hapasaari, the customs and immigration point, a small island in the Gulf of Finland, and the most tick ridden place in the whole country.  We were advised they were only open from 8am to 8pm, and not knowing the rock strewn area, thought that as we would now start to experience real night darkness, it was probably the most sensible option.  It also meant we could keep taking advantage of the favourable wind and sail all the way (and keeping our incredibly cheap Russian fuel for as long as possible!)

Bit fresh up on deck

Our plan was thwarted, when a message came through to say customs were expecting all 15 yachts to check in that night.  So we turned on our engine, to try and get to the island before night set in.  It was not to be.  We arrived with our navigation lights on and with difficulty picking out the guiding withies and buoys.  Luckily most of the rally yachts were already at anchor, and these provided a useful guide to the direction in which we should head.

We waited our turn to dock and handed the lines to the two waiting officials.  Our papers and passports were taken away to the office, and returned about 10 minutes later, along with a free gift of two glasses cleaners.  No, I don’t know either.  Perhaps it was an oblique reference to our berthing style – although we’d done it fairly smartly?  Who knows.  But I wish I’d used mine immediately.

After leaving the berth we then set about trying to find a suitable anchorage in the pitch dark – and our first starlit night of our whole trip in the Baltic.  Sailing at night plays with your sense of depth – making it really difficult to judge just how far away you are from another boat or boulder.  Anchoring means trying to find somewhere not too deep, so you don’t have to put out miles of anchor chain, and also in the right kind of sea bed, so you don’t get stuck.

We had two aborted attempts to anchor – one we realised there was a rock looming, the second because we realised we were directly over a cable.  We moved around and tried to moor near the customs pontoon – but they were having nothing of it – shinning torches directly at us.  

As we looked for other options, the customs launch came straight for us, and we thought we were going to be boarded, but we think that once they saw the boat name, they realised we had checked in.  We’d forgotten to take down our yellow Q flag, that indicates you still have to clear customs.  Doh!

Past midnight, tired and just a little rattled, we finally found a spot, dropped anchor and set our anchor alarm.  Andrew slept in the saloon in case there were any problems in the night.  In fact, there were none – the boat barely moved.  However the closeness of the rocks and boats surrounding us when we awoke next morning were a bit of a shock!

Welcome to Finland – land of lakes, ferns – and rocks!

Our daily stats

No map again for this leg, but it was a long one! 102 nautical miles, which we sailed, and sailed and sailed – and only 4 engine hours.  

You can hear us chew the fat on this journey in Episode 26 ‘Tall tales of Russian sailing’ in our ‘2 in a boat’ podcast.

A few days in St Petersburg

One of the main drivers for doing our Baltic rally was to sail into Russia and in particular to St Petersburg.

Our arrival and entrance into Russia did not disappoint.  Multiple uniformed officials with oversized peaked caps, sniffer dogs, and copious paperwork and stamping.  The Jetsons style hydrofoils ploughing back and forth at breakneck speed between St Petersburg and the Peterhof summer palace.  And the warships, submarine and other naval vessels that put on a parade, and accompanied us into Kronstadt.  Quite superb.

Immediately before entering our marina, there is a large suspension bridge, with a 22m clearance – and disappeared and oddly placed buoys.  We made it through, but 6 other boats on the rally managed to ground themselves at this point.  Doh!

Crystelle Venture third boat on the right

We took advantage of the incredibly cheap (about 60 pence) number 7 trolley bus outside the marina gates that ran into town and down the main shopping street – Nevsky Prospect – the equivalent of Oxford Street in London. 

In fact, there was a lot about St Petersburg that reminded us of London.  The large square with column in the centre in front of the Winter Palace/Hermitage, had the feel of Trafalgar Square.  The bridges across the river, including one built by Mr Eiffel, had a similar rhythm to those across the Thames. Many of the buildings built over the last 300 odd years, have brother and sister buildings in all the major capitals across Europe.  So there was an odd sense of familiarity about the place.

And then there was the Russian twist to it.  The onion domes, the gold plating.  The over the top interiors of the Hermitage and the summer palace – all copies or pastiches – a sort of nouveau rich meets mid 70s Elton John style of decoration.  You really had to be into Baroque to enjoy it. War damage meant that most of the summer palace was a complete reconstruction – and parts of it felt almost as flimsy as a stage set.  Perhaps that’s why there were fearsome women guarding the roped off areas in every room – keeping you out or ushering you through – just in case you accidentally knocked a wall over!

Oh the crowds!  Not as bad as Tallin in the city itself, but in the main tourist destinations like the Hermitage and the summer palace, it was unbearable.  Even the guides complained about the number of Chinese now overwhelming the place.  Apparently it’s due to the Chinese that photos are now allowed to be taken in the royal palaces. So that’s something to thank them for, I suppose.

Away from the guided tour to the Hermitage – the best bits being the Rembrandt collection and the modern art gallery housed in a separate building (with fab air conditioning) – we got more of a sense for the real St Petersburg and its people on two tours we booked via AirBnB Experiences.

Our first was an introduction to the best of the metro (subway/tube) stations.  This might sound strange, but the stations are a great reflection of the art and political situation at the time each station or line was built.  There is some fabulous art, sculptures and mosaics, not to mention chandeliers and columns, underground.  Check out the oldest line, the red one – obvs – if you want a quick introduction. 

Our guide was Irina, a qualified tour guide, who fed up of the impersonal nature of taking cruise tours round, opted to introduce this tour herself.  We certainly learnt a lot about St Petersburg, the metro, and the habits of the locals.  We ended our tour with a visit to one of a few donut houses left over from the Soviet era.  

Our second was  about a 9 km bike tour around the centre  We wish we’d done this when we first arrived, instead of on our last day – as we were introduced to areas and places we would never have found on our own and would have liked to return to spend more time.  It was slightly hair-raising at times, as there is only one cycle lane in the whole of St Petersburg, the rest is pavements and traffic dodging!

The bohemian courtyard, with a maze of coffee shops, clothing, jewellery, food outlets – all owned and run by young people – who for a peppercorn rent could run their own business in old buildings that the state no longer had a use for.  Achingly hip, and lovely and warm too – I could have spent my days there too with my mac and my tea!

The other was an area deep in a warren of back yards and courtyards, where the locals had decided to create their own gaudi-esque mosaic sculptures and murals.  Intriguing.   Although it was at this point, when I asked why there was so little natural entrepreneurship – Scandinavia is awash with small boutiques and artisanal crafters from bread, to beer etc, in direct and close comparison.  They are clearly influenced by western social media, with their faux (or possibly not so!) gangster chic – big blacked out top of the range cars, moll and thug outfits.  But the blossoming of creativity and entrepreneurship hasn’t quite yet made it.  Our guide said he would explain later, as 2 guys looking like security guards started to take a little bit too much interest in what we were doing.

So it was that our guide pointed out how in the soviet era everything had become homogenised and industrialised.  No longer a baker on the corner, but a large factory churning out all the bread.  Those skills and way of being were lost.  Hence why the donut places we had visited earlier in the day were so significant.  A little bit of entrepreneurship and craft that had survived, a sweet reminder of what had been and could be again perhaps? 

Day 19 – Part 2 – The day we joined the Russian navy

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!

de-soiled herbs means dirty fingers!

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.

Crystelle Venture making her way to Russia

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.  

Raising our Russian courtesy flag and our Q flag

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.

getting fuel in St Petersburg

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.

Daily stats

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’.