My Voyage on the Russian Tall Ship, STS MIR


STS Mir

Back in the 1960's I saw several hulks rusting away in German, and Norwegian ports, or as part of maritime museums. I thought the age of sail was officially dead and that these hulks were part of history. Since the Parade of Sail in Halifax in June of 1984 I took notice whenever I happened to see a tall rig. I had seen the Maine schooners in Camden, and had an exhilarating sail on the Bluenose II but never dreamed I would get a chance to sail on a square rigger. Like most Haligonians I was looking forward to Tall Ship 2000 and seeing the vessels once again here in Halifax. My interest was aroused and I started surfing Tall Ship sites on the internet. One night I came across the Tall Ship Friends in Hamburg site and found that one could actually book passage as a trainee. Further investigation showed I could even sail the Boston to Halifax leg of the race. I was hooked.
I sent off an email requesting a berth on the Russian STS Kruzenshtern. I remembered this vessel from 1984 and thought she would be fun to sail on. The next day at work I mentioned to my boss what I was thinking of doing. Much to my surprise he was also interested in going. As it turned out the Kruzenshtern was sold out but we were offered passage on the STS Mir. Back to the web to find out some details of the ship. I was delighted to find that not only was she a relatively new ship but also touted as "the fastest of the tall ships". I sent off my reservation and received confirmation within a few days. Meanwhile my boss, John Carroll, had done likewise and had mentioned to several of his business associates what he was doing. Well next thing you know our number of Mir trainees had increased to four. Bill Primeau and Robert Delong had also signed up for the trip. I decided to put some Tall Ship pictures on my web site and starting receiving emails. We were not going to be the only Maritimers on board.
Robert Delong, who hails from Charlottetown, organized a driver and we drove to Yarmouth to catch The Cat ferry to Bar Harbour. The 2 1/2 hour crossing is an amazing ride as you travel at 54 knots across the Gulf of Maine. We arrived around 5:30am on Friday in Boston and proceeded directly to the ship. Early morning traffic was virtually non-existent and we were able to drive our van right to the ship's gangway at the Black Falcon Marine Terminal. The cadets on duty were surprised to see us and had to go roust up the Officer of the Watch. He soon found us a "kubrik" , cabin, and we got our heads down for a power snooze.

The remainder of Friday I spent either on board or on the quay. The hundreds of spectator boats that went by every hour was a floating boat show. It seemed like every yacht model, power or sail, that was ever constructed in the USA was on parade.
At quayside were:
Akogare 171' Topsail schooner Japan, Arung Samudera 128' Gaff schooner Indonesia, Cisne Branco 250' Full-rigged ship Brazil, Danmark 253' Full-rigged ship Denmark, Dar Mlodziezy 357' Full-rigged ship Poland, Dewaruci 191' Barquentine Indonesia, Eendracht II 194' Schooner Netherlands, Europa 185' Barque Netherlands, Gloria 249' Barque Colombia, Juan Sebastian de Elcano 370' Topsail schooner Spain, Kaiwo Maru II 361' Barque Japan, Kruzenshtern 376' Barque Russia, Mir 358' Full-rigged ship Russia, Pride of Baltimore II 173' Square topsail schooner USA.

Quite an impressive array of tall ships to visit. Aside from the vessels themselves were thousands of Bostonians to watch as I sat sipping Budweissers at one of many food and drink kiosks and cafes. Meanwhile back on board the Mir our "kubrik" now had a full complement of 12 occupants. 10 men and 2 women. Quite international in flavour as we were made up of 2 Austrians, 2 Brits, 1 Australian, and 7 Canadians. Among the Canucks were 2 from Alberta, 1 from PEI, and 4 Nova Scotians. We also had been assigned the (midnight to 04:00) and (noon to 16:00) watch to stand while at sea. By now we also had sampled Russian cuisine as served on the Mir, which prompted us to stock up on some more cabin supplies for the voyage. By Sunday morning we had enough of Boston and were eager to put to sea.

quayside

Just prior to our scheduled 11:00 departure all trainees were piped to muster at the main mast. Our Captain, Viktor Antonov welcomed us on board and introduced his officers. We then had a demonstration of safety equipment and survival suits. Finally the tugs arrived and we slipped from our dock and joined the Parade of Sail in Boston Harbour. As we proceeded to sea and the race start we passed Castle Island which was crowded with hundreds of thousands of spectators. With helicopters hovering overhead the Russian national anthem was played as we passed. Our cadets stood a little straighter and stuck out their chests with pride. The winds were very light and a heavy fog enveloped us. Ahead appearing out of the fog we could see the USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned warship in the world. As we sailed by she lit of a cannon in salute and we dipped our flag in return. Due to the unsafe visibilty all ships started the race on their own rather than on a start line. With that many vessels in close quarters it was the prudent thing to do. At sea, and racing in a tall ship. The fog horn sounding, 1 long and 2 short, every few minutes as we sailed outward bound for Halifax.

The wind was very light. Captain Antonov was on the bridge and kept calling all hands for sail alarm. He kept changing direction in order to try and find some wind. In order to do this we had to "wear ship". This is quite a task on a square rigger as the yards have to be moved around manually by the crew. One mast at a time, and one yard at a time. All we could do as trainees was to tail on lines as the cadets heaved the yards around. First Russian commands learned -"heave......russ" (haul & hold) and "brossili" (let go). We stood our first watch at midnight. Still foggy and light. Was not allowed on helm watch as conditions still tense due to the dense fog.

By the next morning, Monday, conditions had not changed. If anything we were sailing further away southward in search of wind. I spent some time up on the bridge and found the Chief Mate Sergej Timoshkov to be very accomodating. He answered all my questions. It was very interesting watching targets on True Motion Radar, and listening to the VHF radio as many ships were communicating, no doubt due to almost 0 visibility. During lunch it was announced the the Doctor "Dima", Dmitry Bogdanov, would open the crew mess at 21:00 for the trainees. I found my way there promptly at the appointed hour and had a San Miguel beer. I struck up a conversation with the "Doc". Interesting fellow from St. Petersburg, who had served on a Russian freighter before joining the Mir. He offered me a "papirrosa" (Russian cigarette with long hollow tube in lieu of a filter), it wasn't bad although much stronger than Canadian smokes. He told us that packs of 25 sold in St. Petersburg for about 8 cents. No wonder so many of the crew smoke. I also convinced Robert and the Doc to join me in a vodka. Vodka apparently is drunk with food so some bread sticks were dug up. Not bad vodka but apparently it was made in Russia and bottled in Germany. Russian vodka can be dangerous as it is not tested and may contain ethanol. Pleasant place to spend the evening and very popular among Canuck trainees. It soon became known as "outpatients" because of our host, the Doc.

Finally on Tuesday we started to get some wind. It had been nip and tuck whether they would call off the race. All ships were requested to arrive off Halifax by Thursday at 10:00 for a parade into the harbour. Some vessels did abandon the race and motored. By the time we came on watch at midnight she was blowing a steady 25 knots and gusting. The Mir liked the conditions and took off. During that watch the fastest time for the leg was posted at 14.8 knots. It was quite exhilarating to stand up in the bow and see the bow wave the ship generated. By dawn Wednesday visibility was about 3 to 5 miles and we could see some other ships. The wind had only diminished slightly and Mir was able to maintain a speed of 12+ knots. We crossed the line around 15:30 and apparently were first to finish. Just after crossing we hit a squall and cadets volunteered to go aloft and shorten sail. It was an amazing sight to see them scramble out on the yards to reduce and furl sails. Rather than go into port the Captain elected to put to sea under "plain sail" and return for next morning assembly into Halifax. That decision certainly made for a full crowd at "outpatients" that night.

Thursday morning was sunny with good visibility as we proceeded into Halifax and picked up the pilot. The Kruzenshtern was just ahead of us as we arrived under the lee of Chebucto Head. There were large crowds on the shore as we passed Point Pleasant Park and Pier 23 was full of people clapping and cheering as we came alongside the jetty and ended our voyage.

I had a great trip and enjoyed it immensely. The Mir is indeed a fast ship. Unfortunately due to a lack of funding she is quite poorly maintained. The hull is showing rust stains forward and the bright work and decks have seen better days. It must be a constant strain on the officers to keep her sailing. I know the Captain was concerned about the cost of bunkering in Halifax as world oil prices had increased substantially from his last fueling in Europe. The Cadets uniforms are tattered and worn. Crew morale appears to be quite poor until time comes to perform and then they seem to come to life. The quality of food served to the crew is spartan. The Mir is not a good "feeder". I found it difficult to accept that although the trainees and cadets messed together that the cadets were given less food at mealtimes. This alone would be enough to upset the best of crews. We fared OK due to our cabin supplies and enjoyed our daily cocktail party at 16:00 in our "kubrik". Canned lobster, smoked oysters, crackers and cheese, and peanut butter, plus the odd rum were more than enough to sustain us. Shipboard rules appear overly concerned with blockage of pipes in the heads. The idea of doing your duty and then having to toss toilet paper into an open rceptacle is gross. Bill P. was quite appalled by that to the extent that he commented that he could save a step by just shitting in the bucket. We all got a kick out of Nicole, who was in charge of keeping the trainees in line. After seeing her tapping on her watch and expounding on the quality of the soup she quickly got nicknamed "The Soup Nazi", after the episode in a Seinfeld TV Show. It was difficult to communicate with the crew unless you initiated the conversation. The language barrier and the short voyage made chatting difficult. When you were able to get a chat going it was however,always very interesting. Most of the trainees were nice people and there was very little friction on board. I think that on a long voyage with 12 crammed into a room that it would become more like the "Survivor" TV Series and you would be voting people out of your tribe. I had one amusing incident involving a pair of German, not so, gentlemen. On deck one afternoon I went to sit down on one of the deck benchs. It was a little crowded and I gave the fellow on my left a friendly hip check as I sat down. The fellow immediately commented to his friend in German " I hope this fat bugger has had to pay double for the voyage". Well no one expects anyone whose name is Angus to speak German....... The guy was dumbfounded when I told him in perfect German... "to kiss my ass."

I had a lot of fun on board, ejoyed the trip and the cultural exchange. I just hope I have an opportunity again some day to be a "Mir-mortal".
Angus Cross - Halifax, July 2000.
Captain's note


Mir Length overall: 358 feet Beam: 45'9" Draft:21'7" Hull: Steel Rig: Full rigged ship Year built: 1987
Flag: Russia --- Admiral Makarov State Marine Academy
Mir under sail

3 amigos

John Carroll, Angus Cross, Captain Viktor Antonov, Robert Delong, Bill Primeau