Some of us will have the disturbing experience of going to a place or a building and having the uneasy feeling that something bad had happened there. This is an account of our experiences in whole countries in which the feelings were supercharged by physical evidence and the behaviour of whole communities which had experienced horrific experiences. Of course, we knew quite a lot about the behaviour of the Nazis in eastern Europe, wholesale slaughter of any people who did not live up to the pure Aryan ideals and of course the attempt to wipe out the Jewish race. What we also knew was that the vile Nazis were superseded by the repression of the Soviet Union.
What we did not appreciate was the lasting physical and human impacts of both of these horrible regimes.
And now the Russian state is attempting to destroy Ukraine – Plus ça change!
This account is stimulated by the invasion of Ukraine, and the ghastly destruction caused by the Russians in 2021 and onwards. What started as a cruising adventure rapidly morphed to an exploration of the disastrous political, social and economic effects of cruel repression on whole nations. The Soviet occupation of East Germany and the Baltic States finally ceased in 1989. Until then, the police and border authorities were designed to control, and behind the scenes, secret police, such as the East German Stasi kept records on any citizens that could have caused trouble to the regimes.
We entered the former Soviet zones in all innocence, and were more than surprised by what we found some 10 years after the Soviets had left. In fact one of our crew of two, found himself to be very depressed at experiencing the psychological and physical scarring of whole societies
The vehicle for our experiences is an old lifeboat converted for long distance cruising. It has the distinctly strange to the English ear of Deneys Reitz; this is because the funds to build it had been raised in South Africa during World War Two The man with this name was a Boer who after fighting the British, and writing a splendid book titled “Commando” eventually became the South African High Commissioner to London.
The lifeboat was converted into a cruising yacht by 3 great craftsmen in Norfolk, England. Conversion took nearly 3 years, but when finished was a capable long-distance cruising yacht with 5 berths. So, Don and Charlotte set out on our adventures in 2000, crossing the North Sea in 2001, and then through the Kiel Canal, turning Eastwards into the Baltic Sea and into East Germany and onwards towards Poland and the Baltic States. This is an account of what we encountered……
We were deeply impressed by the effects on what seemed to be extreme neglect of the built environment – and then more gradually on the behaviour and attitudes of the people. It seemed to us that many had been subject to something horribly depressing, which had lasted quite a long time and seemed to us as though a shroud had been cast over the countries we visited – East Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and to a lesser degree Estonia.
On September 1st 1939 Germany invaded Poland, forcing Britain and France into war and sparking the bloodiest conflict of the 20th century
German-occupied Poland during World War II consisted of two major parts with different types of administration.
The Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany following the invasion of Poland at the beginning of World War II — nearly a quarter of the entire territory of the Second Polish Republic — were placed directly under the German civil administration. The official term used by the Nazi authorities for these areas was the “incorporated Eastern territories” (German: Eingegliederte Ostgebiete). They planned for a complete Germanization of the annexed territories, considering them part of lebensraum.
The rest of Nazi-occupied Poland was renamed as the General Government district (Generalgouvernement).
The Nazis rounded up as many Jewish people as they could and shipped them off to death camps.
“It was a terrifying day, I cannot describe everything that took place. You cannot imagine the barbarism of the Germans. I am completely broken and cannot seem to find myself.”
The Soviet Union and the independence of Poland
Poles were the first nation to have been subject to extermination in the Soviet Union solely on grounds of nationality. Over the course of the Polish Operation, nearly 140,000 were persecuted, with 111,000 suffering immediate death. The sole criterion of repression was Polish nationality. It was the first nationally-motivated act of genocide in a communist state, as opposed to mass killings carried out on political, social or classist grounds.
After the joint invasion of Poland, the two allies cooperated closely for nearly two years. Both Germany and the Soviet Union manifested equally hostile attitudes towards the Poles. It included mass killings, the annihilation of Polish elites and the extermination of Poles in concentration camps, often after having exploited them through forced labour. The Soviets methodically deported the Polish populace into forced exile in distant parts of the USSR, characterized by a hostile climate – semideserts, taigas or tundras. The deportation process was halted by Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, thus saving millions of Poles from eastern parts of the former Polish state from being sent off. Suddenly, the entire Polish territory was under Nazi occupation.
Poland did not regain its independence after World War Two. After the great conflict, the Soviet Union, which had first attacked Poland as Hitler’s ally in 1939, seized the entire Polish territory, with the open connivance of the triumphant Allies.
1939 – Nazi Germany invades Poland. Beginning of World War II as the United Kingdom declares war on Germany in response to the invasion. The Soviet Union invades from the east. Germany and the Soviet Union divide Poland between them and treat Polish citizens with extreme brutality. Germany begins systematic persecution of the large Jewish population.
1940 – Soviet secret police carry out systematic massacre of about 22,000 Polish army officers, professionals and civil servants mainly in a forest near Katyn in Russia’s Smolensk Region. The Soviet Union attributed the crime to the Nazis until acknowledging responsibility in the late 1980s.
1941 – Germans start to build concentration camps in Poland. Their names – Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek – become synonymous with the Holocaust.
1943 – Warsaw ghetto uprising against German attempts to transport the remaining Jewish inhabitants to concentration camps. Resistance lasts nearly four weeks before the ghetto is burned down. The Germans announce the capture of more than 50,000 Jews.
1944 – Polish resistance forces take control of Warsaw in August. The Germans recapture the city in October and burn it to the ground.
1945 – Soviet forces capture Warsaw in January. All German forces are driven from Poland by March. Poland’s borders are set by the post-war Potsdam conference; Poland loses territory to the Soviet Union but gains some from Germany.
1947 – Poland becomes a Communist People’s Republic after Soviet-run elections, under the Stalinist leadership of Boleslaw Bierut.
1955 – Poland joins the Soviet-run Warsaw Pact military alliance.
1956 – More than 50 people killed in rioting in Poznan over demands for greater freedom. Liberal Communist leader Wladislaw Gomulka takes over.
1980 – Disturbances at the shipyard in Gdansk lead to the emergence of the Solidarity trade union under Lech Walesa.
1981 – Martial law imposed. Many of Solidarity’s leaders, including Walesa, are imprisoned.
1983 – Martial law lifted.
1989 – Round-table talks between Solidarity, the Communists and the Catholic Church pave the way for fall of Communism in Poland. Partially free elections see landslide win for Solidarity, which helps form coalition government. Tadeusz Mazowiecki becomes the first non-Communist Polish prime minister since 1946.
1990 – Walesa elected president of Poland. Market reforms, including large-scale privatisation, are launched.
1991 – First parliamentary elections since fall of communism. Soviet troops start to leave Poland.
1993 – Reformed Communists enter coalition government. They pledge to continue market reforms.
1994 – Poland joins Nato’s Partnership for Peace programme.
1995 – Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former Communist, narrowly beats Lech Walesa to become president.
1997 – Polish parliament adopts a new constitution. General election is won by the Solidarity grouping AWS. Jerzy Buzek forms a coalition government.
1998 – The EU opens talks on Polish membership.
1999 – Poland joins NATO.
2000 – Aleksander Kwasniewski re-elected as president.
2001 – Poland permits citizens to apply to see the files kept on them by the secret police during the communist era.
2001 October – New coalition between the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and the Peasants’ Party forms government with SLD leader Leszek Miller as prime minister.
2002 December – EU summit in Copenhagen formally invites Poland to join in 2004.
2003 March – Polish Peasant’s Party ejected from ruling coalition over failure to vote with government on tax. Leszek Miller carries on as PM in minority government.
2003 June – Poles vote in referendum in favour of joining EU.
This cast our minds back some 20 years when we took our boat through the Kiel Canal and turned eastwards to visit East Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and then thankfully across to Finland. We were one of the few cruising boats to take this journey alone at that time. We set out in a spirit of adventure – but we did not expect to encounter the social, psychological and physical effects of prolonged occupation by the Soviet Union. It was as though a dark force had blanketed the land and smothered the minds of the populace.
Now, Russia, the remains of the Soviet Union, seems to be trying to crush the independent country of Ukraine, seemingly in an attempt to rebuild the lost Soviet Empire. The savage attack on an independent country is horrifying to behold. More than 20 years later we were to encounter the dark effects of a previous Russian occupation on countries that have since regained their independence and joined the EU and NATO.
When we were planning our trip in the comfort of a comely little English village, our streak of adventure had been aroused by reports by the Yachting Association of a fleet of British yachts sailing to the Baltic ports that had been under the control of the Soviet Union before that dark empire broke up, allowing the light of democracy to shine forth.
This notion appealed mightily, so we planned a solo trip to the Baltic via the Kiel Canal. It became apparent from reading the pilot books that the bulk of British yachts heading for Baltic waters seemed to turn left on leaving the canal and headed towards Denmark and thus to Sweden, to cruise peacefully amongst the Scandinavian islands. But this was not for us!! We were going to follow in the footsteps of the previous year’s Cruising Association fleet. And were to be helped by their pilotage notes, so Job Done, adventures in the Eastern Baltic were for us!
So… We arrived at the British Yacht club in Kiel full of confidence and hope. We were not even put off by the faint air of snobbery towards motor boats in what was undoubtedly a Yacht Club – that is a club for yachts and yachties, as the manager made clear. He was even more clear about our plans – “You will need to be very careful about the authorities in the East” he warned, “They haven’t fully recovered from Soviet occupation”.
We were not put off, we had the pilotage notes, and the experience of circumnavigating Britain – the Baltic Sea was small, with little tides, surely the countries of the old empire were recovering from their experiences of the Nazis and Soviets and would welcome a yacht bringing friendship and money??
Bolstered by the pilotage notes, we cast off, only to catch one of the propellors round our mooring rope. The yachties smiled complacently. But we had a trick or two up our sleeves. Airily fobbing off offers of help, Don went below and opened one of the hatches under the rear bunk, revealing propellors and a rope round one of them. In no time at all, the rope was severed, the hatch replaced, and Don reappeared, shouting “cast off”, and we glided off the pontoon to the surprise of the small crowd that had gathered to see the motor-boaters humiliated. So with a brisk nod to the amazed yachties, we waved good bye and set off to the East. The adventure had begun!!
Our first journey into the unknown was to Heiligenhaven, in what had been West Germany, which was a straightforward trip of about 4 hours. So we set a straight course around the coast and were happily bumbling along, when the radio burst into life: “Motor yacht heading down the coast on course 120 degrees”…… came a voice, “You are proceeding into a firing range”. Aha, that’s what the yellow buoys were for. So we replied and asked for guidance. What followed was the politest, most helpful guidance from the patrol boat skipper, who gave us a course to steer changing to 054 degrees, offered to accompany us, and when we were put out of danger, gave us a course to steer 5 miles out to sea and a new heading to get us safely back to Heiligenhaven. Little did we know, that was the last pleasant encounter we had with officials for a long time! We thanked to Patrol boat skipper warmly and continued on our way warmed by his helpful manner – and of course his actual help!!
So we proceeded towards Heiligenhaven, with a strengthening wind from astern, eventually sighting the harbour and town ahead. Then … To enter the harbour we had to turn into the teeth of a full gale, and proceed up a narrow channel, but with great luck there appeared a convenient mooring right ahead. By this time we were exhausted, so had a quick sandwich and fell exhausted into our bunks . We had reached the borders of the old Soviet East Germany!
But the wind blew and blew, so we were stuck in what turned out to be a delightful town. Featured were wonderful windy walks on the shore, the sight of a small inshore lifeboat roaring out to sea through sheets of spray to rescue four men in a rowing boat. What barking mad impulse led them to leave the sheltered channel seemed impossible to divine. But like all lifeboats the German one took two men off the rowing boat, and towed the other two to safety to the shelter of the channel. It was too far away for them to hear the cheering and applause from the watching crowd on the shore.
The food in Heiligenhafen was really good. We joined a huge queue outside a bakery, to find customers were invited to choose slices of different breads – “I’ll have three of the currant bread, two of the crusty brown one and – ah, whats that one right on the top shelf …..” Now wonder there was a massive pile-up of customers!!
As well as regular forecasts on the phone from Met Ace Paul Bartlett comfortably snuggled in the “Kings Arms” in Greetham in Rutland, we had taken to observing a small lake by the shore. For 3 days, there were combers on the lake, but on the fourth, the inland wave height was diminishing. Hurrah, quick check the next day with Bartlett who confirmed that the wind was dropping (a little). This was enough! We set off from the harbour, into the channel, and out into the near gale, heading for the Fehmarn bridge, which marked the boundary between East and West Germany. We were off to explore the old Soviet Union……!
As we motored through the bridge, it was evident that the wind was pretty frisky, but soon we turned into a wide channel, and turned so the wind was behind us, so we went near supersonic, at 10 knots! Eventually the channel narrowed and we passed in to a very narrow channel and then a buoyed lane and so into the pretty little harbour of Wismar. Expectations of hostile reception and gross bureaucracy were dashed . Nobody showed the least interest in us – until a voice from above called “Ahoy there”. It was a Swede called Tomas Rundberg, skipper of a visiting coaster who wanted a chat and wouldn’t refuse a glass of wine! Our new friend Thomas spoke of sailing his coaster around East German waters, invited us to visit him in Kalmar, his home port. Then he said, “You need to be careful the further east you go – Germany is recovering well from the bad old days, but Poland and the rest are still under the shadow of the Soviets. And for God’s sake, stay away from Kaliningrad between Poland and Lithuania, which is still Soviet territory. If you get arrested in those waters, I don’t know what might happen, but at the least they will strip your boat of anything valuable. So Tomas climbed onto the wharf to return to his boat and we went exploring in the town. It was quite beautiful but it was noticeable that there was a huge amount of renovation and repair work going on – much more we thought than would be normal in a West German, or for that matter English town of that size. This was evidence of past neglect, but we knew the West Germans were pouring vast resources into the recovery of the old Soviet East Germany.
We slept peacefully, no customs or police. We realised that Wismar was German, ie European territory and we were a European boat that had permission to travel in the Schengen area. So what was all the fuss about?
We were about to discover the first looming of the Dark Shroud…
The wind had dropped, it was a gloomy, grey day, threatening rain as we approached Warnemunde at the mouth of the river…… Further up the river stretched the massive city of Rostock, obviously a major engineering city, although much of the industry seemed to be derelict or in the early stages of being rebuilt. We tied up for an hour or so against a pontoon in Warnemunde and went into the town and bought a new fender…… Pleased with our purchase, we untied and went up the river Warnow to find a marina for the night. Sure enough, there on the right hand side was a large almost empty marina. Just the job! So we slid inside and tied up to an empty pontoon. We had just tied up and were pleasantly contemplating a little wine, when our anticipations were rudely interrupted buy a little man shouting “Sie konnen nicht hier liegen”. So, we untied and found another empty pontoon further in. Five minutes later the small man arrived shouting, in fact nearly screaming “Sie konnen nicht hier liegen” By this time we were becoming pissed off by the shouting and screaming, now supplemented by arm waving. “Warum nicht?” said Don Politely. The excitable little man, who we had discovered was the Assistant hafen meister, started shouting about “Strom” – electricity. “Wir mochten keine strom”, said Don clearly but maybe ungrammatically. The little man was by now jumping up and down, pointing at a Baltic–style fore and aft mooring. “Nein Danke” said Don. By now it had started raining heavily and the little man was screaming, jumping up and down and getting a thorough soaking. We started backing off, which increased the volume and arm waving. “Lets go” we said, so we started backing out of the Marina. Charlotte yelled for both of us; “Oh SHUT UP, you silly little man” she shouted and we left, to moor at what looked like a yacht club across the estuary.
What we were about to discover was the dark after-effects of the Stasi, the East German secret police, the after-effects of which still lingered in the minds of officialdom, and which continued to affect the behaviour of the East German population. For example, the pace of life was markedly slower than in West Germany and officialdom was considerably more noticeable.
We climbed through the fence at the yacht club, and walked to the clubhouse, where we were greeted very warmly, offered drinks and shown a menu of what was very tasty food. We mentioned our experiences with the deputy harbour master – “Gott”, said the yacht club manager “Macht getrunken, doof, dummer Kerl”. We gathered that they didn’t rate our friend either!
So, we slept peacefully at the yacht club mooring, and the manager refused to charge us for the mooring, saying they needed to make up for the marina manager.
Very nice of them, we were warmed by the experience.
We followed a ferry past Warnemunde, a bit regretful that we were prevented from visiting Rostock, but heartened by the descriptions of Stralsund, despite the tricky passage into the harbour. We moored up opposite the town quay, which was next to some truly impressive warehouses. Looked a very attractive city. The initial impressions were sadly dampened by the state of the town, which had obviously been sadly neglected in the recent past. There were what had been lovely buildings in a state of near collapse, there was a statue from the Soviet days of a brave soldier shaking hands with a sturdy worker, there were some old slogans, some pro-Soviet, others anti-Semitic, plastered on walls. But it was obvious that extensive renovations and repair was everywhere. The beautiful city centre would obviously recover under West German stewardship. Charlotte caught a bus out of the centre to try to find a laundromat. She returned, quite shaken at the state of the suburbs. Vast grim concrete blocks, rusting and shabby, with huge heating pipes cloaking the buildings – whole blocks of decaying concrete, obviously not repaired or renovated. She reckoned that the best solution would be demolition and rebuilding.
All in all, the strong impression was of slow recovery from deep depression, this was the first time that we had encoutered the physical effects of oppression and neglect. We searched for a good restaurant, but all we could find was menus dominated by pork medallions. So we went to the new fast food café near the harbour and had… pork medallions!!
The low spot was the Soviet era statues seen below:
There were quite a few buildings like this scattered round the town…
The high spot of Stralsund was the churches, which had been beautifully maintained and were truly impressive.
Shaken by the evidence of neglect and semi-dereliction, but heartened by the obvious improvements being worked by the West German regime, we left Stralsund through the rain and mist, into a desolate marshland, with a very shallow channel so narrow that we had to throttle back in order to stop the propellers getting sucked down by the mud. Across the wasteland we could see the wreckage of Peenemunde the Nazi rocket research and production facility, bombed by the RAF towards the end of the war. We met a British historian in Stralsund, who said that he had found remains of rockets, fuel tanks and other debris, left after the war.
Our next destination was Wolgast, which turned out to be a pretty town, with the usual blisters of neglect and some renovation. But the unique feature was the harbour master – a stocky and friendly woman who helped us to find shops, to the point of giving us lifts in her little car. We were hugely grateful, and invited her on to the boat for a drink. She seemed very reluctant, but eventually sat on the wharf and shared a glass of wine with us. Next morning we asked her for the harbour dues as we wanted to leave. This seemed to cause a crisis: She indicated that this was not her job and phoned to her “boss”. She arrived in a smart Mercedes and got out carrying a briefcase. Her “uniform” was a dark grey sharply cut suit, to match the briefcase. The overall impression was of “Rosa Klebb”, from the Bond films . She briskly ordered the harbour master away, and climbed on to the boat. There ensued a ritual that was to become darkly familiar: Passports; crew lists, previous and intended destinations, boat registration documents. At the end of this rigmarole, she produced a ridiculously tiny bill, which she stamped with great ceremony. Got in her car and left. We called the harbour master back, thanked her warmly, gave her a bottle of wine and also left.
The shroud darkens… Our next destination was Poland via an inland route with very shallow waters and several bridges that seemed to open once a day, so we had to lower and raise the mast. We were still somewhat disturbed by the behaviour of “Rosa Klebb” as we crossed the Polish border, heading for Świnoujście. The way in seemed to be through a very narrow channel. We were so involved in navigating the channel that the appearance of a red Verey light and the accompanying report caught us by surprise. There was a grey patrol boat moored by the side of the channel near the “border”! So… We went across and tied up alongside the boat, and went through what was to become a familiar ritual: Passports, crew list etc etc. Then we were ordered to report in the town – again!! So, we slowly meandered into the town through a narrow channel bordered by herons perched on poles, and to the security post located in a concrete bunker. There we repeated the usual ritual before being ordered to the town quay, where there was very little room for us to moor alongside near-derelict fishing boats.
Tied up, we were heartened to see a bar opposite. So we scrambled off the boat looking forward to a nice beer and some cheerful people. The beer was OK, but the reception was distant – nobody acknowledged us, silence fell on the place. So, we finished our drinks and went back to the boat. A sense of isolation began to shroud us, but Charlotte’s food was good, so we went to bed and slept soundly. Next morning, Don set about fixing the sewerage pump and Charlotte went ashore to purchase some local charts. The pump was fixed and Don had decided to pump the contents of our tank into the harbour, as he was convinced the water was so filthy that nobody would notice – when Charlotte arrived with the news that the sale of charts to foreign boats was forbidden!!
“Lets get out of here” said Don, so we started up, radioed the port control on the official channel and set off. We had sailed some 30 minutes when the radio sprang into life.
“British motor boat, you are ordered back to port security immediately”, crackled the voice. Enquiries about why, what we had done wrong were simply responded to by a repeat of the order, so we turned round and went to the bunker, where we moored up. A grim policeman escorted Don into the office, where he was admonished for breaking the law. Said the policeman;
“The authorities must know where you are and where you are going 24 hours a day!!” They refused fuel, saying it was for Polish use only! We were fined a paltry amount and the Police radioed the next port after going through the by now familiar routine: passports, crew list etc. The most arresting statement, which left us open-mouthed was
“You may think this is a democratic country – it is not, it is a Soviet state!!”
So to next port, Dziwnów, where we moored by the port control office outside the town and…… you guessed, passports etc etc. Said Don;
“I guess its too late to turn round and go home !!”
A policeman walking on the bank led us to a narrow entrance to a tiny fishing harbour containing a Polish yacht. Friendly overtures were met by blank stares. The skipper disappeared into the cabin and slammed the door!!?
However, there was a bright spot – a diesel bowser arrived to fill up the fishing boats. Pleasant approaches to the driver were rebuffed. The fuel was for Polish boats only!
But there was one pleasant experience. Across the harbour was what appeared to be a lifeboat. We strolled across to look at it and were accosted by a man who turned out to be the skipper. We explained the history of our boat, we had mutual boardings – and then he went to a small house, which accommodated the crew and he came back with a large armful of vegetables from his garden!
Our pleasure at this encounter was dashed by the discovery that the computer data links didn’t work, so we were reduced to poor signals on mobile phones. The feeling of isolation in a strange and hostile place was beginning to become depressing.
The desire to get out of this country, which we had only just entered, was becoming overwhelming. “only 2000 miles to go”, said Don.
However, having gone through the familiar ritual at customs etc, and having produced proof of having paid to a new policeman, we headed for Kołobrzeg. This was a much more uplifting experience, there was a harbour office and the harbourmaster took care of the usual stuff, showed us to a good berth, said he would contact the fuel jetty and raised the Union Jack on the flagpole!!
We had not been there five minutes when a British delivery crew came in with a large yacht. The stories they told of unpleasant bureaucracy in Poland and our next country, Lithuania, turned nascent feelings of optimism to zero. “We’re off”, said the British skipper, “back as soon as possible to civilisation. You lucky buggers”
A school class approached, and the teacher translated to the children. My impression was that they spoke pretty good English already, and were more than curious about living and working in Britain. Then even better news; there was a new hotel in the town!! We installed ourselves in the bar, ready for food, when there was a loud outburst of expletives in a strong American accent. The shouter was leaving the bar, so Don said “Hi there, can we help?” The man said “You speak English?” “pretty well” Don replied. So the man told his story. His wife was the women’s world middleweight boxing champion and the bout had been fixed in “Warsova”. She needed regular meals and the Goddam people behind the bar refused to speak English!! So Don went to the bar and asked if anyone spoke German. It was explained that the restaurant was full with a coach party who would be leaving in 30 minutes, then there would be places. This was explained to our American friend and he fetched his wife, who seemed to be deeply introverted. It was explained that she was working out boxing moves in her head ready for the bout in the morning. So, we wished them luck and went off to our boat. Never did hear what happened next!
Next day we went to the fuelling jetty and took 600 litres of diesel. All very cheering!
On to Darłowo, no friendly harbour master, just the usual 3 species of police. Then… there was a Dutch yacht, “Skua” moored not far down the harbour!! So we went down to say hello and were invited for drinks! Don went into the near-derelict town to buy drinks, but the only thing available was vodka, so we bought half a bottle. It transpired that the Dutch couple were on their way home, having discovered that living on a boat (in Poland) was not to their liking. A very pleasant evening speaking English for a change!
The entrance to Ustka harbour was very tricky, as there was a strong cross current and a considerable swell: Just like this!!
We crept in to the entrance, throttles and bowthruster at the ready, and moved up to the top of the harbour, where there was an office in the usual concrete building. There we were received by the harbour master, who seemed to have delegated powers to do all the passports etc stuff. He directed us to the other side of the harbour, saying something about a “yacht club” so with high hopes we went across to what turned out to be a fishing harbour. The yacht club had evidently been closed for years, if it ever existed! The “Clubhouse” was derelict, there were no showers, the bar was also wrecked. A quick walk around towards the town took us past the rail terminus, which to Don’s already sensitised imagination had all the appearance of the railhead for Belsen camp – there were derelict rail carriages, rusting lines and rubbish everywhere. Now to explore the town……!
We strolled across the river and into the town, which showed the effects of neglect and lack of investment we had by now come to expect. But here was a restaurant in the town centre, so we went in the door. There was a woman behind a counter who showed no signs of recognition. So, we sat down. Nobody came to the table, so we waited – and waited. Eventually, Don went to talk with the woman at the counter. As far as he could gather we were personae non grata, and no service was forthcoming. We eventually left, feeling very rejected and pissed off.
The rest of the town was similar in impact. Nobody was interested in us – until we came across a small café, with a small cheerful woman just inside. She greeted us warmly and we learned that she served tiny pizzas, so we sat down and scoffed two each!! We then found a small market and were able to buy fruit, veg and some provisions.
Then, we went half a mile down the street across the river and past the “Belsen railhead”, past the fish harbour and to the boat, lying alone aganst the wharf. To cap it all, the weather became worse and worse, with strong winds and rainstorms, so it seemed we were stuck. After a few drinks it was decided to catch a bus to a nearby town. The view from the bus was hardly uplifting, but at least there were faint signs of rebuilding. The town had a museum!!! We went to the reception and were issued with huge mats to put on our feet and led to the first display room. There we were followed around by an expressionless, silent woman – and as we reached the entrance to the second room the lights went out behind us and there was another woman who followed us round again, until the third room. This bizarre ritual went on until we eventually shuffled to the exit, where we took off our foot mats. The whole performance was completed without a word being spoken! So, off into the town to seek the bus stop back to Ustka. We were walking down the street, talking loudly about the museum experience, when a young woman came up behind us. “You speak English?” she enquired. Then she said “I was born here, isn’t it a horrible place?!” She turned out to live in America and was visiting relatives. She also opined that anybody who came here on vacation needed their heads testing. We couldn’t help agreeing and eventually caught a bus back to Ustka.
And so it went on for the next week, when there were early signs of the weather abating. Our met ace Bartlett agreed, so we went down to the harbour entrance and watched a fishing boat wallowing and rolling into the harbour mouth. So we decided to wait for a day. That evening, we were visited by a German yachtie, who seemed to be in a state of high anxiety. We found out very quickly that his yacht had missed the harbour entrance and run on to the beach, only being refloated at huge cost with a lot of local help. He wanted to know if all the Polish harbours were like this. So, we gave him a glass of wine, and took him through our harbour charts, pointing out the better one(!!). He eventually left, leaving behind a beautiful wooly cap, which we still have to this day.
Pray to all the saints, tomorrow will be better, and we can get out of this grim tip!!
The morning was bright, our hopes were high, so we went through the usual Police bureaucracy and steered fast towards the harbour exit – and popped through! Next, we were knocked sideways by a steep swell, which grew as we proceeded. No worries! The swell reached the level of the top of the wheelhouse and the old boat loved it!! At last, it seemed to say, real seas not these pathetic Baltic wavelets!! So, we rocked and rolled our way towards Władysławowo (! Pronounce that).
“It was a great relief to be out of unfriendly Ustka and on our way to somewhere unpronouncable. The sea was mangeable, but we were much bothered by fishing gill nets, some of which were marked by buoys, some of which were not. So, as we rounded the corner towards the harbour, the entrance opened out, lo and behold, there were 3 German yachts moored up. So we tied up, and of course were visited by the usual trio of Customs, immigration and Police. But somehow they seemed more relaxed than at Ustka, as did the harbour master in his office . We soon realised that Vladi…… Was a holiday resort. Having conversed with a couple of German Yachties, who said they were bound eventually for Scandinavia via Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Long way to civilisation, said one !!
We strolled down to the beach for ice cream and chips and thus to drinks and bed, ready for the next day and Gdansk. One of the Germans gave us a chart showing the way into the Port of Gdansk, far larger and more complex than any of the ports we had visited so far.
As we entered the wide channel towards the port of Gdańsk, passing a German cargo boat, we heard the captain of the big boat speaking to the port control in English, so we radioed port control and a very helpful voice talked us through a complex of channels and into a marina in the inside. This looked OK, a bit dilapidated, but it had an office, so we did the usual bureaucracy and signed in. The first feature we noticed was a wreck of a large motor yacht with a tattered Union flag on its stern. Apparently it had arrived some years before, the crew had left and never come back. We felt for them!! Also, there were few cruising boats in the marina, which was in poor repair.
The next morning we were struck by schoolboys waiting for a bus.. it was apparent they had cans of beer to drink whilst they waited!! There seemed to be no restaurants nearby, but there was a bus stop, so we caught a bus to Warsaw, which was also in the process of being renovated/rebuilt. Would be a very attractive city once rebuilt! We were joined by old pal Ian Hamilton who did a good job cheering Don up.
One morning on a fairly breezy day, it appeared all was not well with the harbour pontoons. In fact, the pontoon with several boats attached, was coming free of the concrete harbour wall that held it, so the boats were in danger of being crushed. This was a task for “Deneys Reitz” the old lifeboat. So we motored across, and with the help of friend Ian Hamilton, who was staying with us, tied the boat to the pontoon and drove it back to be at 90 degrees to the concrete wall. Hamilton then rushed to the office to alert the harbourmaster and staff, who, clearly drunk, staggered out, found a lot of stout rope, and sort of tied it up to the concrete wall. The first time an old lifeboat ever drove a harbour!!
The Marina was in easy walking distance of the town. Lots of people in the streets and a restaurant that served fried goose liver. But gradually it began to sink in that the police in the streets were decidedly sinister. Most of them tall, heavy booted young men, many with Alsatian dogs. Then it became apparent that if any people were behaving in a disorderly manner, they would be taken down a narrow side street and failed to reappear!
On our last night we were having a quiet drink, when a noise of loud music approached. It was a motor yacht with a small band playing noisily on the foredeck!
The skipper at the helm was enormously fat, and seemingly quite drunk. Also on the foredeck was a young man. It appeared that his job was to leap on to the pontoon, as the skipper rammed it, and take a rope. This bizarre ensemble played into the night, until the skipper evidently collapsed from alcoholic excess. We found out the next morning that they were on their way to a port somewhere so the trio could play at a concert. We doubted if they would ever get there!
The next morning, all was quiet on the musical yacht, and we went to pay our dues and leave for Klaipėda in Lithuania. As Don left, the manager said
“Thank you for helping to mend the harbour!”
So, we wound our way through the port to wait for an hour for the arrival of the usual three variegated police and we were off to the next country, a long trip across the Soviet enclave of Kaliningrad to Lithuania…
We were on our way, when a blip appeared on our radar, travelling fast. We assumed it was a ferry, but it rapidly became clear that it was a warship – and a Russian warship at that! It slowed and shadowed us for four hours. Charlotte had to navigate very carefully, lest we entered the Russian waters. We remembered tales of innocent cruising boats being arrested and taken in to Kaliningrad, having their boats stripped of valuables.
During the Soviet period, the Kaliningrad oblast or region, administratively part of the Russian Federation, was separated from the rest of Russia, more than 300km to the east, by the then Soviet republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus.
Since Lithuania and Poland joined the EU in 2004 it has been impossible to travel between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia over land without crossing the territory of at least one EU state. There has been friction, particularly with Lithuania, over transit regulations.
Kaliningrad is still of great strategic importance to Moscow. It houses the Russian Baltic Fleet at the port of Baltiysk and is the country’s only ice-free European port.
In 2013, Russia deployed short-range Iskander ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads in the region, in what it said was a response to US plans to deploy a ballistic missile defence system in Europe.
So, we proceeded very carefully until the port of Klaipėda, Lithuania hove into sight on the horizon. The entrance to Klaipėda harbour was half-blocked by a large wreck, hardly a warm welcome! The water was bright green, not a healthy colour, more like green slime.
But we motored up the harbour to what seemed to be the reception and customs wharf, which was crowded with people fishing. So we smiled in a friendly fashion and held out our ropes for people to tie us on. Nobody offered!! They just backed away!!
Then a trio of young people appeared, and having seen our flag, took our ropes and then wanted to explore how they could come and work in London when they had finished their degrees. We were having a warm conversation when two official vehicles approached. The usual police and customs reception committee. At the sight of the official vans, the young people simply melted away, lest they were seen talking to us!!
We had to assist the officials on to the boat, as the official wharf was so rough, causing the risk of serious damage to our hull. This trio were younger than the Poles, but if anything grimmer and more unfriendly, if that was possible!
Having gone through the usual rituals, we were dispatched across the slimy harbour to the “Yacht Club” This turned out as usual to be derelict, with the addition of bits of plastic boat scattered about. The “club manager” spoke no English, but kept kissing Charlotte’s hand and exclaiming “No Problemi” There were no showers, no washing facilities and if there had been a bar and restaurant, they were derelict! So we tied up in the most secure place we could find, as far as possible from the lines of men standing all the way down the harbour with fishing rods, fishing for God knows what in the slimy waters. Next day we paid the harbour dues and once again wended our way across the harbour to the customs/police wharf. As usual there were three grim officials, who were sitting at the cabin table in the boat. All of a sudden a fast tugboat tore past, causing an enormous wash. Charlotte and Don rushed outside to fend the boat off the rugged, sloping wharf. Down below it projected the kettle full of hot water with which Don wanted to make tea for the crew straight into the lap of one of the police. He leapt up describing it as “a catastrophe”.
“You are damned right” said Don
“The whole bloody reception and so called Yacht Club are all a catastrophe!!”
Having had our crew list, passports, boat identification and other documents closely inspected and stamped – and failed to purchase diesel, we set off in the direction of Liepāja in Latvia. On arrival, things seemed somehow more relaxed. But we passed a row of rotting fishing boats on the way to a genuine boat club with three Finnish boats tied up. Then appeared a young man to greet us! He helped us to fill in the usual forms and then suggested we might like to do some shopping!! A small supermarket supplied most of our needs – even had some wine! Then he drove us round the town, which was sadly neglected. There were some very large decaying houses, which the agent said had belonged to Russian officers. We quizzed him about his work. He said he was yacht agent for the few foreign cruising yachts, was involved renovating one of the big houses and “selling foreign cars”. We later learned these had been stolen in Germany!
He was happy to arrange the supply of fuel and asked to see the documents for the company that owned our boat. When we said it was owned by us he declared that unless it was owned by a commercial organisation, then no diesel. So… we contacted our friend Pat Scott in England and she made out a letter heading for her company and set out a demand for fuel, which would be received by her employee, Don Young!! This worked the trick and he drove us to a heavily fortified area, and spoke with a very sinister man dressed all in black, with dark shades. He said it was better we stayed in the car whilst he negotiated the best price (for him we guessed)
So, we took the boat round to the pontoon of this fortified area, which we guessed was Russian owned, and were refuelled by some really charming people, who came on the boat and when finished gave us a large bottle containing the chemical composition of the fuel under our company letter heading!!
The overriding impression we had of Latvia was that despite the decay and dereliction, it was gradually emerging from the dark shroud that had blanketed Poland and Lithuania. But the remnants of the Soviet occupation still remained, in particular:
Latvia was completely different to Lithuania and Poland. The authorities seemed more relaxed, except for the obvious remnants of Russian occupation and the closed areas, obviously owned by Russians.
But our arrival in Estonia was a revelation – and we learned the reason was its proximity to Finland. The language was close to Finnish, and in general the behaviour of the authorities was quite relaxed. Don nearly fell over when he approached the harbour master and hesitantly enquired if he could buy some fuel. “Sure”, said the harbour master, pointing at a fuel pump on the wharf.
“Help yourself and pay me”
So, our next port of call was Finland. We sailed across the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki. On arrival, we tied up at the customs pier and telephoned, expecting a posse of police. Instead there came a young man in uniform, clutching a sheaf of papers. Oh God thought Don, here we go. The “papers” turned out to be tourist brochures. “Welcome back to civilisation” said the young man, having heard from where we had come!!
We arrived in the ex-Soviet countries in all innocence, and found communities which had been seriously scarred by occupation and previous Nazi barbarism. The physical effects were dramatic , revealing decades of neglect. The contrast between East Germany and the West was dramatic and Poland, Lithuania and Latvia all showed the signs of occupation. But in Poland and Lithuania , the behaviour of the authorities in 2000, was extremely unpleasant and controlling . This could be contrasted with Estonia which reflected ten years of Finnish influence.
What was evident in the whole ex-Soviet territories was the presence of ex-Russian enclaves like the fuelling enclave in Latvia and the barred off area full of large luxury yachts in Estonia.
So we return to the behaviour and influence of Russia on its neighbours, in particular on the Ukraine, which has become a democratic Western European nation, with the unfortunate accident of being close to Russia.
The behaviour and essence of modern Russia can be seen daily in the news.. The following is taken from an article in Prospect magazine by Rafael Behr:
“Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in the “Gulag Archipelago:” “In keeping silent about evil, and burying it so deep that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousandfold in the future”
“Putinism is the harvest of a vindictive cruelty that was sowed when Russian politics recoiled from any sustained reckoning with the crimes of the Soviet Union. In place of atonement and reconciliation was built a cult of victimhood and vengeance. The hope for a different Russia is in those people who remember the truth and pass it on to their children, whose defiant grip on reality holds out against the totalitarian abyss. They are resistance to Putin’s nihilistic war, and they are relatively few and powerless today, which is why their voices need to be amplified. Their courage – their very existence – has to be illuminated, or the future of Russia is only darkness”
Let us give all our support and succour to Ukraine, lest it becomes another victim of the “Dark Shroud”.