Follow MV Northern Exposure on  Follow MV Northern Exposure on Twitter or  Instagram @NorthrnExpo

We'll post whenever the website changes.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007, in Saint Petersburg, Russia

Hi everyone. Well, I wrote most of this note underway on our overnight sail to Russia. We’re in port in Saint Petersburg now, and email is a little spotty (which is why it’s so late), but I’ll save any news about Russia until next week.

Last week, we had just arrived in Helsinki, Finland. It’s an interesting city, with a decidedly Scandinavian appearance, but a lot of Russian as well. This isn’t a great surprise, because Finland spent most of its existence being a part of somewhere else, and until 1917 or so it was part of Russia. Though we did a lot of walking around during the week, it wasn’t a conventional touring visit. We had a lot of errands to do, mostly to get ready for our trip to Russia.

We explored the Market Hall, which is a food hall that’s something like Reading Terminal Market. They sell a lot of typically Finnish food, although it’s hard to take a place too seriously when the only sign on the door is completely in English. So it’s more like Reading Terminal Market than we’d expected. There’s also a large department store in town, Stockmann’s, which has a large food department and supermarket. Many of the European department stores have food departments, like Harrod’s in London, or partner with supermarket chains. We hadn't really been in a place with the type of supermarket that sells lots of pre-prepared dinners. This was good timing, because we’d have company and two overnight voyages, and simplicity is a great idea if you can do it.

We had service on our ailing freezer while we were in port, and Art bought some foul-weather gear to replace the stuff he’s probably been wearing since he was twenty-five. I had some needed maintenance done on my hair.

Russia is pretty particular about entry paperwork, and we were leaving the European Union anyway, so there were lots of reasons that we needed to clear out of the country rather officially. Helsinki’s Customs is on a nearby island where there’s a fort to see. We took a ferry to Suomenlinna with all the other tourists, and made our way first to the Customs office. As it turned out, there was a form that needed to be filled out in triplicate, something I’d rather do with the help of my onboard PC than do in pencil at 4 AM when we’re eager to get underway. So that part of the trip was definitely worth the effort. We also took a look at the dock we’d use to visit Customs, just to know how to approach it and what to expect when we got there. Some countries are pretty casual about checking in and out. The first time we went to Norway from Sweden in 2000, we practically had to beg the Customs guy to sign our papers. But either Finland is stricter or they know what we’d be facing in Russia. Either way, we had everything we needed, except our crew and their passports.

The fortifications, now a World Heritage site, were founded in 1748 specifically to thwart a Russian attack, though it finally fell when the Russians seized it from the Swedes in 1808. The fort itself wasn’t remarkable, though the signage, layout and parks made it a fine destination for a balmy day. The church on the island proudly claims that its the only steeple in the world that also serves as a lighthouse, and there’s a glass enclosed light at the top of the steeple that serves this purpose. The problem for us was that we’ve already seen the only steeple thats also a lighthouse” two months ago and it’s in Norway, not really very far away. Don’t these people get out much? The best part of this island was the dry dock, a huge shipyard that’s been in continuous use since 1750. As many as twenty-four vessels at a time could be in there.

The day before Jack and Sammie arrived, we prepared the boat, but we also found time to take a walk around the island where our marina was located. We’d gotten a brochure called “Helsinki on Foot from the Tourist Information Center in town. It comes in twelve languages, but for some reason the English one wasn’t available. So Art exchanged the Swedish one theyd given me for a French one. I did my best to act as guide. He refers to my guiding as “here’s the something-something, designed by someone-I-can’t-pronounce, in 1856. This building serves the very critical function of something-something”.

Jack and Sammie arrived Friday morning on an overnight ferry from Stockholm. We took a walk around the town, starting at the Market Hall, where we ate reindeer sandwiches, just because we could. Then we did another of the recommended walks, with my broken French. We were standing in front of the State House and two women tourists were puzzling over some detail of the building. I tried to help, and showed the woman my brochure while we discussed it in English. She began to read and translate it in flawless French. Then I noticed that her guidebook was in German. So I asked her “Gee, you speak German, French and English. I’m surprised you don’t speak Finnish, and then you could read the signs yourself.” She laughed and said, “Well, we just arrived yesterday.”

Our departure for Russia depended on the weather, and we ended up leaving the dock on Saturday, to clear Finnish Customs and anchor out in the islands about thirty miles east. The islands were dotted with little brown summer houses here and there, some small boats on small docks, and almost nothing else. Many of the islands were connected by bridges and we speculated that you could drive to them from Helsinki. They certainly weren’t served by ferries. We anchored in a large, calm bay all by ourselves with other boats only visible in the distance. The weather has been sunny and warm, and we ate dinner in the cockpit, looking like we could be in some commercial for a life-affirming product (in the 1950s, that would have been Newport cigarettes. Now maybe it’s Pepsi. Or maybe from our graying heads, it’s some medication for arthritis.)

That night, Jack noticed that the guest head, which you’d fill with fresh water only when you were using it, was constantly filling with water, and would eventually flood the boat (not to mention use up all our water) if left alone. This was pretty serious, as we were leaving for Russia, a place where we couldn’t easily refill the tanks. Jack’s quite handy around boats, being that he lived and breathed them for a fair number of years, and still is a boat broker in North Carolina. He’s the guy that turned Art on to sailing in the first place. Anyway, after consultation between the two handymen, the temporary fix was to turn off the water pump, starving that system. But that disabled every other water system on the boat: the other head, showers, the galley for coffee or washing dishes, washing off the anchor, and, well, that wasn’t a way to go to Russia. By morning, they’d figured out how to disable the ailing head without shutting down the rest of the boat. And during our voyage, Jack took apart the ailing solenoid valve, found an obstruction, put the thing back together (it was like dismantling and rebuilding a Rubik’s cube) and it was absolutely fixed.

As we were apparently leaving Finland, a Finnish Coast Guard boat chased us down offshore. They asked us where we were coming from, where we were going, and whether we had cleared out. We had indeed, the day before. They didn’t ask us whether we’d anchored out for the night in Finnish waters overnight after we’d cleared out of the country. Usually, that’s considered fine as long as you don’t go ashore, but I’m not sure whether that follows the letter of the law. They didn’t ask, and we didn’t offer.

For the most part, we had to motor all the way here, but there were other little events that captured our attention. For most of the beginning of the trip, it was pouring. That didn’t matter to most of us, because we were lounging down below, but Art had to try out his new foul weather gear, which worked fine. We ran over a fishing net and got it caught in our rudder. A navigation system that we’d been using all summer couldn’t handle the enormous amount of ship traffic we were in and kept rebooting the electronic chart plotter that we needed to navigate. The fix for that was to turn off the network that gave us this useful information. This very cool system puts an icon on the chart screen showing us ships that are nearby, and it tells us how fast they’re going, how close they’ll get, and when that will happen. That wasn’t easy to give up in the ship channel toward Saint Petersburg.

During the night, it never really got dark, which was a great plus, and it never got very cold, a truly great plus, but a parade of ships passed by us. Art set our course on the far side of the ship channel, so we only had to evade one ship during the entire night. But it requires vigilance to make sure that the next ship doesn’t have you in its sights when it barrels up behind you. On the plus side, it keeps you awake during night watches.

The Russian Coast Guard called us on the radio just as we were entering Russian waters, and I was reminded of the way Israel handles boat traffic. We have an agent in Russia who handled our paperwork, and we knew from others what to do and what documents to have, and both the entry and our subsequent visit to Customs went pretty smoothly.

So now we’re tied up at a small marina at the exhibition center in town. It’s not really a marina. The onshore head, for example, is in the exhibition building, like visiting some city’s Convention Hall to use the bathroom (we could, if we need to, get the night watchman to open the building to us after hours). But we’ve got a pretty self-sufficient vessel, and the harbor is protected from weather and boat traffic, which is all we really need.

I’ll save all of our news about Saint Petersburg until next time. We might be underway again next weekend, so next week’s note might very well be late, too. Hope you all are having a great summer and we look forward to hearing from you.

Love, Art and Karen