Flashback: A Cossack Black Sea Cruise
Updated: Feb 22, 2022
With a Russian invasion of Ukraine imminent, my thoughts go back to more innocent days, when Crimea was Ukrainian, Yalta was an open city, and Ivan’s mac and condensed milk was the supper of champions.
In the summer of 2007 I hitched a ride across the Black Sea with a crew of seven Ukrainian swabbies on board their chaika named Spas, a replica 16th century cossack war vessel which they built. The ship had sailed down the Dniepr, but this would be its maiden sea voyage.
A delegation that included the commander of the Ukrainian navy, an old priest, the Georgian Council to Odessa and his secretaries, saw us off with a prayer, a toast and three bottles of Teliani wine. Our voyage was touted as being representative of Ukrainian - Georgian friendship. I was the token Georgian.
We embarked from Balaklava to Yalta over a choppy sea that sent me to the starboard side along with Ivan Gavrilko, our cook. In Yalta, the customs cops checked our paper work, the crew did some last minute shopping for provisions and I refilled my stomach at McDonald’s.
We set a southwestwardly course across an expanse of sea that soon began to fill the hull. The electric pump failed to start and the manual foot pump needed more than duct tape, so for the next several days we would take shifts bailing with a plastic bottle and bucket while the diesel motor thundered us through long periods of windlessness.
None of the crew had ever been to Georgia before and all they talked of was Georgian wine and food. Everyday, Captain Myron Humenetskyy, a carpenter in his second life, uttered “satsivi” the way he might pronounce the name of his first love. I couldn’t blame him. Satsivi, an exotically spiced walnut-based sauce smothered over chicken or turkey (and sometimes fish), served cold during Christmas time, is a lusty dish. But out here in the middle of the Black Sea, there was no way I was going to tell the dreamy-eyed skipper he could forget all about satsivi in June.
I recalled how I once sailed from Chicago to some Michigan port with a bunch of Poles, cases of beer and a loaded shotgun who made an excellent case for sobriety at sea.
The afternoons were sunny and hot, the nights cold and mornings soaking wet with Black Sea condensation. In the doldrums, we’d cut the engine, jump overboard for a swim and trip out on the vastness of it all. When the wind kicked in, we’d hoist the sail and jump over with the rope and life preserver and get towed across the sea for a spell. Otherwise, we loafed on deck. We only consumed alcohol with dinner, maybe three shots of vodka, which I found disconcerting at first. How can you trust a sober Cossack? Then I recalled how I once sailed from Chicago to some Michigan port with a bunch of Poles, cases of beer and a loaded shotgun who made an excellent case for sobriety at sea.
Four days later, we were about 20 nautical miles from Batumi when we contacted the authorities, who asked us not to dock for another 30 minutes so that they could prepare a welcoming party. The crew changed into their national costumes and as we approached the shore, Roman Ros, the First Mate, fired a couple rounds from the cannon.
The Ukrainian council to Batumi and an anonymous entourage of functionaries and journalists welcomed us at the port. Some guy presented Captain Myron with a pilia, a ceremonial ceramic bowl full of wine and we took turns knocking it back. Then a children’s group of drummers came out to perform for us. Teetering with sea legs, I was teary-eyed at this show of hospitality. I turned to Roman, “You guys ain’t seen nothing yet!” But when I turned back, everyone had vanished. The council said he’d be back in a couple hours to take us to dinner. I took Roman and Ivan to a plastic table dive across the street frequented by riffraff and rent-a-girls where the beer was cold.
The council returned and took us to a sprawling new restaurant next to the boat. For nearly a week we had been nourished on Ivan’s one pot concoctions whipped up in the Lilliputian-sized galley. Not to mock his macaroni in condensed milk sauce, but it was the promise of a Georgian feast at the end of the rainbow that really sustained us.
We sat down with big wolf hungry eyes and licked our chapped, salty lips to a couple of platters of fresh scallions, radishes, parsley and tarragon, the ubiquitous Olivier salad that is no stranger to Ukraine, sulguni cheese and fresh bread. Waitresses brought out a few bowls of ojakhuri - roasted potatoes, onions and pork chunks - and two pitchers of Imeretian white wine. I elbowed Roman in the ribs. “Be careful, don't eat too much now. More food will be coming.” But I was wrong. We had our glasses filled only twice. We licked our plates and the serving bowls clean before the the staff cleared the table.
Our local hosts put us up in Hotel Oasis, about 15 kilometers north of the boat. It was a brand new “Euro Remont” development of plastic doors and windows and bathroom fixtures that were already breaking. We didn’t care, of course, for there were beds and hot water and toilets to sit on. Cleaned and refreshed, we drew straws to see who would return to the ship for night shift. Those of us who stayed were deposited at the only restaurant in town, a dark greasy spoon where I finally broke the news that there would be no satsivi until December. Myron took it well and even switched to Russian to ask the proprietor for help reading the menu. Then a couple other crew mates jumped into the fray while the owner made suggestions. I tried to intervene for help, which only complicated things, so I sat down to see what would come. And it was ojakhuri. The sailors, ever thirsty for Georgian wine ordered what there was - the house’s homemade red, white and chacha, all of which were criminally undrinkable, but it was good enough to unleash the inner-Cossack in the crew. They sang uninterrupted for hours.
The next day somebody organized a mini festival next to the port station with arm wrestling contests and a tug-o-war. Ukrainian children had sent gifts of their art – interpretations of Georgia – which were displayed while Ivan cooked up a Ukrainian beef and buckwheat soup for everybody. Later we took the Chairman of Adjara, Levan Varshalomidze and his guests from Armenia, for a little cruise around the coast, with a mini feast on board. Things got so festive that a mayor from Armenia stood up and declared “my country has no sea!” He stripped down to his skivvies and went overboard before Captain Myron had a chance to cut the engine. He couldn’t restart it and we drifted farther away from the mayor of Vanadzor, who soon tired of backstrokes. Fortunately, a coastguard cutter had been
trailing us, predicting such an event.
I had been concerned that Georgia did not live up to its reputation of hospitality upon our arrival, but after a few days, the Spas crew had become local celebrities. Fishermen offered little fried mullets - barabulka - to those of us on boat duty, the Armenian who almost drowned treated the crew to a sumptuous feast with a bottomless supply of wine and the Ukrainians reciprocated with an endless chorus of national songs.
For me, Batumi was end of the line. I returned to Tbilisi sunburnt, but with a firm step. The crew returned home across the sea. Plans to sail across the Atlantic fell through after their sponsor pulled out. When Russia forcibly annexed Crimea, Spas could no longer moor in Balaklava or sail anywhere near the peninsula. The ship and its crew have spent the years since exploring the Danube, Dniepr and their tributaries, rediscovering and inspiriting the Don and Zaporozhian Cossack legacy through contact, film and book projects. They have also returned to the Black Sea via Odessa, but now with Russian warships occupying Ukrainian waters there is no telling what awaits the Spas, its crew, and everyone else as the country braces for war.