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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

White Nights on the Neva By Private Yacht

As a world traveler on small sailing yachts, I have experienced some spectacular passages. Gliding down the middle of the Straits of Gibraltar on a pitch-black night as huge vessels blot out the nearby shores and pass silently on either side. An early morning departure up the Bosporus Straits as the first light strikes the mosques and palaces of Istanbul.

But even for an experienced sailor, there is something extraordinary about traversing St. Petersburg in late June during the White Nights. The bridges are drawn up, spectators stroll along the embankments, and the city's stunning monuments and museums are illuminated by the fading rays of the midnight sun.

The experience is heightened by the fact that Russia's internal waters are usually forbidden to all vessels sailing under a foreign flag, even small pleasure yachts. But once a year, in June, the government of the Republic of Karelia holds its Blue Onega festival and helps make arrangements for foreign yachts to participate. For those who may be interested in attending the 1997 festival, now is the time to start making plans.

Taking part is not simple, but I highly recommend it to intrepid travelers. This past June, I joined a 10-meter English yacht, "Babaji," in Helsinki on June 19. Her skipper, Ray Glaister, his wife, Margo, and I had decided to accept an invitation by the government of the Republic of Karelia and the Historic and Cultural Maritime Center of Petrozavodsk to participate in the Blue Onega festival, which is dedicated to the anniversary of the founding of the Russian naval fleet by Peter the Great. This annual festival provides a unique opportunity for foreign yachts to enter Russia's waters.

Our first jaunt was short and simple. It involved sailing from Helsinki to Kotka, our last stop in Finland and our last chance to enjoy a full-service marina with washing machines, hot showers, clean toilets and even a sauna. We then entered Russian waters under the surveillance of a naval patrol craft and proceeded to sail overnight to St. Petersburg, occasionally using our motor for extra power.

In the early morning, we reached a small harbor on the fort of Kronshlot, which had been designated as the official entry point for small vessels heading toward the festival. The area had some interesting sights: On the south side of the main channel from the large naval base on Kotlin Island, Peter the Great built a small, round fort in 1703 to protect his new city from Sweden. He also erected the island's lighthouse using material acquired from France, and subsequent Russian rulers added a larger palace. We tied up to a dilapidated wooden pier that was superimposed upon majestic old granite steps. Our clearance process was lengthy since the customs officials live in the nearby town of Kronstadt, and visit the island only when a local shipping agent can liberate a motor boat. After an eight-hour wait, we finally left and followed the hydrofoil channel through the very shallow St. Petersburg Bay to the Baltic Shipping Company Yacht Club on Krestovsky Island. There we discovered that, although the summer sailing possibilities in the Blue Onega festival had been well publicized in the international yachting community, we were the only vessel that decided to make the voyage. This was probably because of the difficulties involved in obtaining reliable advance information about the conditions and costs of the trip.

One of the problems we encountered while trying to plan the voyage was that although Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin signed a decree allowing foreign vessels to participate in the festival, the decree didn't clarify how the details of this participation. We had been told the Baltic Shipping Company Yacht Club had been designated as the organizer for the onward passage to Lake Onega, but when we turned up they appeared totally uninformed of this fact. At this point, Captain Glaister was on the verge of turning around and sailing home, but an emissary arrived from Petrozavodsk and in short order arranged everything.

Finally, on June 26, two days behind schedule, Babaji was finished with the official inspection process and was declared ready for passage. At 1 a.m. we were moored to a rusty dredger just ahead of the first bridge on the river Neva. The pilot who oversees boat traffic on St. Petersburg's waterways then arrived and explained the position we must maintain among the 24 cargo vessels going up or down the Neva with us that night as the 10 bridges opened and closed. With a maximum sailing speed of eight knots, we were worried that the Babaji would find it difficult to keep up with large ships chugging past at more than 10 knots. In order to assure that we passed under the last bridge before it closed, the pilot discussed our situation with the authorities controlling the river traffic on a special frequency radio.

Finally, at 2:35 a.m., the first bridge opened -- and we were on our way. With the second bridge towering above us, we entered the spectacular riverway where we could see the Hermitage on one side and the Peter and Paul Fortress on the other, glowing in the dusky summer light. We sailed through two more raised bridges, passing the brightly-light Finlandsky railroad station on the north and the towers of the Smolny Institute on the south. Then we were overtaken by two large ships, and our motor overheated as we failed to keep up our steady pace. Fortunately, we were eventually able to regain our position and we reached the Alexander Nevsky Bridge as the sun was beginning to rise. By 5 a.m. we sailed under the Volodarsky Bridge amid bright sunshine.

We tied up at the passenger ship station for a brief snooze and were joined by a large motor vessel, the Yugo Sever, from Petrazavodsk, which was filled with children from a maritime training school. The Yugo Sever gave us a tow to make sure we arrived in time for the start of the festival.

After the passage through St. Petersburg, the rest of the Neva was somewhat anti-climactic, at least until we reached the fort of Petrokrepost, which is located at the mouth of the Neva. The fort was established in 1323 in the continual wars between Sweden and Russia. It was used as a prison by Tsar Peter and his successors. After a heavy fog lifted, we motored our way across Lake Ladoga and then we were taken in tow for a long passage up the Svir river. At its lower end, the Svir passes through miles of a nature preserve. Its rural banks are much more colorful than those of the Neva and the current is less swift because of two large locks.

After stopping at Voznesenye at the mouth of the Zvir, we borrowed two charts of Lake Onega and took off on our own again for an overnight passage to Petrozavodsk. Forecasts of bad weather fortunately did not materialize and we arrived at 4 a.m. on the first day of the festival. We were among the first foreigners who had legally crossed Russia's inland waters since the end of the Cold War.

After another short sleep, we were ordered to "dress" our vessel by hanging colorful banners over our masts to join other boats for a parade in front of the city. We returned for the ceremonial opening of the Historic and Cultural Marine Center, which is located in the south of the city. The center is the brainchild of Victor Dmitriev, an international mariner who works with the support of the Karelia government. Dmitriev has designed and built wooden replicas of several ancient vessels, including Viking "variags," medieval trading vessels and the frigates built by Peter the Great near Arkhangelsk and transported overland to help defeat Sweden on Lake Onega. The opening ceremonies included much shooting of small antique cannons, a re-enactment of the founding of Russia's maritime fleet performed by actors in full regalia, and a mass dinner with the customary speeches and toasts. Stimulated by flowing vodka, beer, brandy and several orchestras, the party continued until 4 a.m.

Although one of the conditions set for our passage was that we always should be accompanied by a Russian, the officials give me permission to pilot Babaji back to St. Petersburg. We were given charts of Lakes Onega and Ladoga, a large, detailed chart book for the Neva and Zvir rivers and a portable radio with the special frequencies to communicate with the operators of the two locks we had to pass. The return trip was trouble-free. We traveled only by day, stopping at night at a protected granite export port on the Onega and moored alongside primitive piers or other vessels on the two rivers. The main channels on the lakes and two rivers were extremely well marked, and the detailed chart book was a pleasant but not essential guide. The radio we were given didn't work, but we easily followed commercial vessels into the two locks.

The pilot to pass the St. Petersburg bridges met us at the passenger ship station where we had left him on our trip up. Once again we sailed through the opening bridges of the sleeping city, an apt closing for an exhausting but exhilarating 13-day voyage through the inland waters of Russia.

How to Get There

Until the Russian government repeals, amends or ignores Article 5 of the law passed by Josef Stalin in 1936 preventing entry of all foreign flag vessels into Russia's inland waters, entry into Russia's these waters by sailboat will remain problematic.

Despite this drawback, I have learned that an English admiral, John Kapp, is organizing an "around Scandinavia" rally in 1997. Kapp is hoping to organize a flotilla of yachts that will sail from St. Petersburg to Arkhangelsk via Russian lakes and canals and back to England via Norway, possibly taking part in the Blue Onega festival along the way. Those who might like to join him are encouraged to write to him at 55 Hove Park Road, Hove, East Sussex BN3 6LL, England.