Spitsbergen is about as far as you can get from Australia. Wherever you go from there, you are heading home. But which way to go?
Just look at a map of Norway – it just goes on and on. In 2012, while Ian and I counted polar bears, dodged icebergs and photographed beluga whales in Spitsbergen, I began to think about getting south from Norway via the Volga River instead of back down that beautiful but endless Norwegian coast. In St Petersburg my friend Vladimir Ivankiv had told me that 2 Russian flagged vessels (Aenigma and Wild Goose) had completed this Volga journey in the last decade, so I knew it was theoretically possible. But for a foreign-flagged vessel?
Tainui having been bedded down for the winter in Tromso, I headed home to the Australian desert to deal with that inevitable mortgage bloat, the bane of every cruising sailor’s life.
Through Crewseekers Maxine Maters, a Dutch lawyer who has lived and worked in Moscow for 2 decades, expressed interest in joining Tainui for the trip. While I bit my nails in Australia she cajoled, wheeler-dealed and probed the back alleys of Russian bureaucracy, mounting a raft of robust arguments as to why Russia really had no choice but to grant the necessary permissions.
My idle, theoretical research gathered momentum after Maxine joined the party. For 8 months we explored together the process by which we could make it happen. We were empowered by a decree issued by Russian Prime Minister Medvedev in 2012, affirming his government’s intention to allow access to Russia’s inland waterways for foreign vessels after 100 years.
The application process was lengthy and frustrating. The main problem we faced with our Russian respondents was silence. I think our plans were too far into left field for the bureaucracy to cope with. And this despite a formal decree by the Russian Prime Minister. The main problem is that there is a gulf between senior level intention and its practical expression by workers at the coal face.
The first requirement is a 3 month business visa, needed for foreign skippers and crew. There is just no mechanism allowing easy attainment of this. The list of hotels we planned to stay in, the towns we intended to visit, the dates and means by which we were travelling couldn’t be put into the rigid visa application. Purpose of travel? Cruising doesn’t make sense to the authorities. And of course you can’t get a visa without a formal invitation from a prescribed organisation inside Russia. The way I got round this was not entirely dishonest. I formed a company called “Maritime Research” and my stated intention was to research a book on marine transport on the inland waterways. I do intend to produce a simple guide for those who wish to follow, so I did not feel I was being deceptive. I said I was interested in the exploits of the Vikings on the Volga in the 10th century, and that is not entirely untrue either.
I dutifully listed all the ports we planned to visit and the dates as accurately as we could guess them. Off went the application and…. silence. New applications were submitted, enlisting the dubious assistance of the Russian Yachting Federation and a government organisation called Rusarc, which organises local cruising between St Petersburg and Archangel’sk. Still silence.
Ultimately I was granted an invitation from the Ministry of the Interior to apply for a business visa and the visa was granted me in Sydney without demur, just a week before the deadline for my return to Norway. Maxine, who lives in Moscow, doesn’t need a visa. My worry all along had been that nowhere in my application was there any mention of our planned mode of travel – Tainui. I was to worry about that right up until we found ourselves well inside territorial waters, with the apparent blessing of all the right people. And then our wonderful adventure began.