Sailing in the wake of the Vikings

Sydney doctor John Vallentine John Vallentine on board Tainui: fascinated by Viking journeys. Photo: Supplied

An Australian adventurer is preparing for a pioneering trip along the waterways of Russia from the Arctic to the Black Sea, opening up a route that few foreigners have travelled since the days of the Vikings.

Sydney doctor John Vallentine, who spends half his time practising medicine and the other half sailing the world’s oceans, is wading through marshes of bureaucracy to make the trip possible this northern summer.

His boat, the cruising cutter Tainui, is laid up in Tromso, Norway, after an exploratory trip Dr Vallentine made to St Petersburg last year.

He plans to set off from the Arctic port of Murmansk at the time of the summer solstice, when the midnight sun will illuminate his way down waterways long closed to foreigners. His route will take him past the Solovetsky Islands, used as gulags in Communist times, and down the infamous Belomor (White Sea) Canal, built by slave labour under Stalin.

He will travel to the Karelian capital of Petrozavodsk, founded by Peter the Great, and to the River Volga cities of Yaroslavl, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan and Saratov, before leaving Russia at Azov and entering the Black Sea at Kerch in Ukraine.

All these places were well known to the Vikings, but few foreigners have made the full north-to-south journey by water in modern times.

”I have always been fascinated by the eastward journeys of the Vikings, who explored these inland waterways a thousand years ago,” Dr Vallentine said. ”I would like to write about the less-well-known history of this proud, violent nation of superb seafarers. What better way to research it than on the waterways themselves?”

Dr Vallentine said he was aware of only three other foreign yachtsmen having made the voyage in the past 75 years – one from Britain, one from Northern Ireland and one from Germany.

The sailor from Northern Ireland was Miles Clark who, with grudging permission from the KGB and sponsorship from National Geographic, sailed his family yacht Wild Swan on the 3200-kilometre route in 1992. Sadly, shortly after finishing the voyage, he died and it was left to his father, Wallace Clark, to complete a book, Sailing Round Russia, based on the ship’s logs.

Dr Vallentine said he was learning as much as possible from the experience of his predecessors and hoping to write his own guide for foreigners who might follow him. Cruise ships travel on only part of the route.

The yachtsmen who went before Dr Vallentine made their voyages in the early 1990s, when the then president Boris Yeltsin was opening up Russia after 70 years of Soviet rule.

Now President Vladimir Putin is also keen to attract foreign ventures and visitors – especially in the run-up to next year’s Sochi Winter Olympics, which he hopes will be a showcase for Russia.

Dr Vallentine must apply to the Russian Interior Ministry for permission to make the voyage and anticipated there might be problems with ”Russian regional bureaucracies, as well as pedestrian difficulties such as acquiring fuel and water, negotiating the many locks with a mast strapped on deck, navigation generally and mosquitoes”.

But for a man who has sailed to Patagonia and who began his double career of doctor and sailor as a medical officer on British trawlers off the coast of Iceland in the 1970s, these are problems he can probably take in his stride.

So far the bureaucratic snags have come from Australia.

”Australian bureaucracy can make life difficult in silly little ways,” he said.

”When I applied for recertification of my commercial master’s ticket, I was told I had to have a first aid certificate.”

So even though he is a registered medical practitioner, specialist physician and holder of advanced life support credentials, he had to go off and study first aid.

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