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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sept. 11 Halts a 12-Year Voyage

APVitaly Bondarenko talking with a reporter at the Bristol County Jail in Massachusetts.
NEWPORT, Rhode Island -- Vitaly Bondarenko remembers the ocean envy he had for sailors who returned to the Soviet Union with tales of voyages to Italy or Greece.

Sailing was the stuff of daydreams for the 55-year-old former professor -- before Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's freedom campaign.

"But with Gorbachev, it was possible," he said.

In 1991, Bondarenko planned a round-the-world-voyage and told his ocean-fearing wife she had a choice: Come with him or stay behind.

They set sail that year, planning to be away for three years. The voyage turned into 12 years of rambling across three oceans and docking in the ports of more than two dozen countries.

"You're like a bird," he said. "If you want to fly to another island, you can."

But that freedom ended when Bondarenko was arrested June 27 by the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He did not have valid documentation, and is being held as an arriving alien in the Bristol County Jail and House of Correction in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, awaiting a court date.

Bondarenko, his 48-year-old wife and their two boys -- 10-year-old American-born Ivan and Australian-born Vasily, 5 -- are now sparring with a foe more forceful than the storms that have tossed their 8.4-meter sailboat: immigration law.

Doug Stevenson, director of the Center for Seafarers' Rights at the Seamen's Church Institute of New York and New Jersey, said their story shows how recreational sailing changed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"People can't just be floating around the world. We need to know who these people are," he said. "I can't expect the authorities to loosen up on that. People who don't have proper identification are going to run into trouble."

Bondarenko and his wife, Marina Ordynskaya first came to the United States in 1992, docking off North Carolina. They secured employment permits and stayed for several years. After more international sailing, they sailed to Florida in June 2001, and were allowed to stay for one year.

Their request to stay longer was denied. When they tried to leave by the June 13, 2002, deadline, Ordynskaya, who was five months pregnant, said she was too sick to travel.

They appealed again, but received only a court summons. The baby, born with Down syndrome about a month before the court date, was put up for adoption. The couple wrote to the court, explaining they were leaving for the Bahamas. On bad advice from fellow sailors, they left the day before their hearing.

"We thought it was legal to go from the country before we go to court," Bondarenko said during a jailhouse interview.

The court ruled them deported in absentia. After traveling to the Bahamas they sailed north to Nova Scotia and planned to cross the Atlantic.

They had stopped in North Carolina in early June to avoid severe weather and were escorted out of the country. When they asked to refuel June 26, Bondarenko's attorney said in a letter to immigration officials, they were ordered by the Coast Guard to dock in Newport because the Coast Guard had questions about their boat's seaworthiness.

Bondarenko was reluctant and stated the family's immigration problems, he said. But they entered the country anyway and obtained permission to stay a few days to complete documents. "They said we could get cruising permit and we could stop in U.S. without any immigration problems," Ordynskaya said.

But the next day, federal agents arrested Bondarenko and told him of the deportation order that had been issued because he failed to appear in court in Florida.

Meanwhile, a Florida judge reopened the 2002 case against Bondarenko, whose attorney, former immigration judge William Joyce, called for immigration officials to let his client out of jail. A deportation hearing planned for Sept. 30 in Orlando was moved to Boston, but no court date was set.

The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement has said Bondarenko is a flight risk. The other family members -- except the U.S.-born son, who can petition for their citizenship when he turns 21 -- were charged with immigration violations, said Paula Grenier, a bureau spokeswoman. "They have to have something to show the inspectors that they are here for a temporary reason and that they qualify to be here and to be admitted," she said. "They had no entry documents."

Joyce said international laws that say a government must help sea vessels in distress should trump domestic immigration law.

Coast Guard officials said they had no record of the vessel being "ordered" to port.

"Any time a voyage is terminated, it usually requires an extremely high authority," U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman Chief Phyllis Gamache-Jensen said. "These are the kinds of things we would keep a record on."

She said the Coast Guard's rescue manual does not consider low fuel to be a matter of distress. "Just like your car running out of gas is not 'in distress,'" she said. "You don't call the police, you call AAA. A sailing vessel's main means of propulsion is wind. A sailboat being out of gas is not in distress."

While they wait for status on Bondarenko, Ordynskaya watches the children and minds their meager boat, anchored among Newport harbor's yachts.

A New Jersey man has provided a cellphone and is helping pay for legal services. U.S. Senator Lincoln Chafee, of Rhode Island, wrote a letter on behalf of Newport Mayor Richard Sardella to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, asking for Bondarenko's release.

"Without him, we are stuck," Ordynskaya said. "It's very hard for us. He's not only the father, he's the captain."

The Russian consulate has offered to help update their documents, Joyce said.

William Kinsella, a Chafee constituent liaison, said immigration officials may offer a deal that would free Bondarenko.

Bondarenko would have to get documents certifying the Spirit's seaworthiness, withdraw an application for admission to the country and assure immigration officials that the family would voluntarily sail off without stopping in the country en route to their next destination, Kinsella said.

But the offer has not yet been put to paper, Joyce said. And leaving during hurricane season could be risky.

"But this probably is the most expeditious solution to having him released," Kinsella said.

Joyce said the deal sounds better than the government's initial plan "to take them off the boat and put them all on a plane and send them to Moscow."

"All their earthly possessions are on that boat," he said. "They have no idea what would happen."