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Exploring Russia's Inland Waterways: Norway to the Med via the Volga River 2013

By John Vallentine — last modified Nov 11, 2016 10:37 AM
In 2012 the Russian Prime Minister decreed that restrictions on entry of foreign vessels into Russia's inland waterways were to be eased. Now, those yachts seeking a novel route south from Svalbard and Norway to the Mediterranean can consider the Volga River route.

Published: 2014-03-31 22:00:00
Countries: Norway , Russia , Turkey

Exploring Russia's Inland Waterways: Norway to the Med via the Volga River 2013

On to Cheropovets: © J Vallentine

This journey has much to offer. We did it in 2013 and recommend it unreservedly. As far as I know, Tainui was the first foreign-flagged yacht in the last century given permission to traverse Russia's inland waterways from the White Sea to the Black Sea.

Details of our journey are set down on www.tainui.org but some comments directed to those considering this wonderful adventure may be helpful.

Tainui is our 14 metre fibreglass Peterson cutter. She left Australia 10 years ago for a summer trip down to the subantarctic islands south of New Zealand and things just got out of hand from there. We crossed the Southern Ocean to Patagonia for 2 seasons of splendid remote cruising, then up the east coast of South America to Buenos Aires, French Guiana, Cuba and Haiti.

To cut a long story short, we slowly found our way north to Labrador, Iceland, Scotland, Norway and Spitzbergen. After a winter layup in Tromsø we set out for Archangel'sk early this spring. My crew was a Dutch Muscovite, Maxine Maters. Lawyer, negotiator, arbitrator, navigator, simultaneous interpreter, forward hand and manager of the general mess of my cruising life, she was invaluable. I should add that she is witty, cheerful, optimistic, patient and extremely difficult to put up with. Early on her skills were called upon when we strayed into Russian coastal waters east of Murmansk and she was asked to explain our breach of protocol and our intentions as a vessel illegally inside the 12 mile limit. I could not have done this trip without her.

For foreign yachts Russia's bureaucracy has a fearsome reputation. I cannot speak for past times, but I do not think that things are as bad as they used to be. Prime Minister Medvedev's 2012 decree has foreshadowed a softening of attitudes, so that entrance into the Volga-Don river system is now definitely manageable. Our customs and immigration formalities in Archangel'sk were no worse than those you might encounter in Brazil. Importantly, we found officials there (as everywhere along the way) to be courteous and helpful.

Foreign skippers will need a 3 month business visa and, in addition, a 1 month tourist visa to cover the last bit. The voyage can certainly be done in less than 3 months, but you would need to hurry and so much would be missed en route.

I do not want to trivialise these bureaucratic barriers. A prime ministerial decree is one thing, but it takes a long time for that to percolate down to the maze of local and regional departments, offices and control sections. There are 6 separate authorities managing various sections of the rivers. When it exists at all, communication between them is far from seamless. You will spend great deal of time and effort with each, explaining over and over again who you are, what you are doing, where you are going and why.

It is not necessary to have a licensed waterways pilot on board. It is absolutely essential however, to have a Russian-speaking crew member able to handle the endless radio communications with lock keepers and despatchers, and to manage negotiations with bureaucrats along the way.

Foreign certificates of marine competence carry no weight in Russia. One person on board must have a Russian inland waterways licence (roughly equivalent to CEVNI). This licence is only available to Russian citizens, so your Russian speaking crew will need to be a Russian national. I hope this silly regulation will change in the near future.

It will make things easier if you have a shipping agent or the informal equivalent thereof. The RCC representative in St Petersburg (Vladimir Ivankiv) took this role for us and his assistance was an invaluable.

You and your vessel will be complete novelties and your presence will not fit comfortably within the rigid processes governing regulation and passage of the almost entirely commercial shipping along the way. Regularly we were met by officials who just didn't know what to do with us. With so much red tape and without established protocols and procedures they were loath to do what might seem to be the obvious. But at a personal level they were without exception friendly, and often embarrassed by the predicament which our presence put them in. Ultimately, and often with the assistance of vodka tipples, solutions were always found and we sailed on without incident.

I can understand the concern of officials about pleasure yachts managing the Belomorsk Canal and Vytegra locks, but they are not yet aware perhaps, that Russian locks are easily manageable by vessels experienced with Scottish and West European locks. True, the Russian locks are huge, but they are gentle and efficiently run. We tie up to large, floating hooks set into the wall of the lock, using a single breast rope pulled tight. Large fenders are essential of course, but that is all.

The inland waterway network is astoundingly large and intricate system of interlinked rivers, canals and navigable routes for commercial vessels. There are more than 90,000 km of them! Over half of these passages are fully buoyed and lit, carrying river cargo in excess of 100 million tons annually. The Volga and Don Rivers (and the great canal connecting them) carry the great bulk of commercial traffic. The trip is remote only in one sense - in 2,300 miles we came across only 2 or 3 cruising yachts, all of them Russian of course. But the commercial traffic is continuous and, for sailors, quite fascinating.

As far as navigation goes, Russia's inland waterway chart atlases are accurate and detailed. They are expensive and, like the essential Russian VHF transmitter, we had difficulty locating a retail outlet to purchase them. We also have an iPad program called iSailor, whose electronic charts cover the entire waterway system. Navionics also has charts, but we preferred the iSailor version.

I was surprised to find that Russian phone coverage was excellent from Vytegra south. What a luxury to have continuous internet access in what were, for me, such remote areas.

Because of bridge and overhead cable restrictions (15 m maximum) we had to remove Tainui's mast in Vytegra. Were I to do the trip again I would take a ketch with mast clearance height of 14 metres - that would allow for some gorgeous sailing. For us, mast removal was a worrying affair because the huge floating crane, capable of 200 ton loads, was just too big and cumbersome for the delicate job. We managed, but not without some very anxious moments. We soon became accustomed to the 3 m of mast projecting from our bow and stern, but lock work required extra care. Careful advance planning and construction of the support system is important.

We did not encounter corruption and paid no bribes.

Waterway fees totalled around USD800 and accounting by the river authorities was scrupulous.

We had no security issues with the boat. Small boat clubs along the rivers were without exception welcoming and their hospitality was generous, at times overwhelming.

Of the Volga-Don trip I can only say that as an Australian I found every day a quite magical experience. What wonderful rivers they are! The endless secluded anchorages, vast inland seas, rich forested shores, sparkling onion dome churches, fascinating commercial shipping, the warmth and friendliness of the local people – all are a delight. After 40 years of ocean voyaging I am finding my search for novelty less often requited, but this Russian voyage has been wonderful - life-changing even.

If you need further details, our blog (www.tainui.org) may be of some interest. Please feel free to email me at jvallentine@gmail.com if you have specific queries. We are in the process of compiling a simple cruising guide also, which we hope to have in print within the next 6 months.

It is, I think, unlikely that recent events in Crimea will impact seriously on future trips down the Volga. Once you are cleared in at Archangel'sk and enter the Belomor Canal, you are in. And by the time you get down to Rostov-on-Don and Azov, 2,300 miles south, officials there will give their concerted attention to getting you out again. Whether clearance will take place at Azov or at Kerch in Russian Crimea remains to be seen. But in the Straits of Kerch (Crimea) there is continuous commercial traffic passing between the Black Sea, the Volga and the Caspian. You will not be alone.

Tainui is now in Marmaris. It will take time before her Russian trip can be seen in perspective. Meanwhile I am in Australia attending to the inevitable mortgage bloat which is the bane of life for cruising yachtsmen.

John Vallentine
s/y "Tainui"

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