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Catch-22 on the River Neva

Jun 10, 2007
 A recent travel essay in the New York Times described the yearly boat migrations on the ICW. “Late spring means the start of an annual migration of snowbirds, who make their way north each year. Using the Waterway — whose most heavily traveled leg stretches from Key Largo, Fla., to Manasquan, N.J. — as a kind of floating I-95, they move slowly up the coast, going perhaps 30 miles a day, and stopping off at places like Georgetown, S.C.; Elizabeth City, N.C.; and Beaufort, to rest for a day or two, to refuel and maybe hit the shore for a little shopping, to renew old acquaintances and make new friends. (The Waterway’s historic version continues to Gloucester, Mass., and there is also the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, an interrupted 1,700-mile leg along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.)”

The article brought back memories of my own ICW migrations and a similar 800-mile inland waterway voyage from Archangel to St. Petersburg, Russia, in advance of the winter ice. Unlike the smooth going on the ICW, the Russian waterway was fraught with bureaucratic hassles, particularly one amusing incident on the River Neva leading to the Baltic Sea.

I crewed on one of fifteen Dutch boats celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Russian fleet started by Peter the Great with help from Dutch shipbuilders. Our fleet of recreational sailboats endured all sorts of petty bureaucratic roadblocks along the lakes, rivers, canals, and locks of this commercial and naval waterway, formerly forbidden to Westerners. Finally, we arrived at the ten bridges crossing the River Neva leading through St. Petersburg – the last obstacle before our release into the Baltic Sea and a homeward passage.

According to Russian rules at the time, yachts on the river are forbidden to sail at night, and, to ease roadway congestion, bridges are only opened at night. This was a classic catch-22 for tall-masted sailboats. Fortunately, someone saw the light and allowed our small fleet to follow a string of tankers, caravan-like, on a nighttime passage through St. Petersburg.

At 2:00 a.m. we heard our pilot over the VHF radio, “All Dutch yachts. All Dutch yachts. This Sergei. Understand me?” He went on, “In keel line please. In keel line please. Understand me?” (Keel line meant a straight line from one boat keel to another.) We motored through the heart of this picturesque city in the dead of night following several tankers and ahead of the dreaded Russian winter.

The photo is of a miniature painting sold by many street vendors in St. Petersburg. The open bridge scene is an appropriate icon for a great adventure. Read more about it in Cruising the Gulags.