A Russian Odyssey

Lance Ray was our island doctor and wrote this story, for our local Midway Journal.

A firm knock on the door signaled someone seeking entrance to the darkened U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conference room where Midway Ranger, Lisa King, was conducting her Orientation for new guests or returning visitors to Mid­ way Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. One of the guests raised the heavy steel door using the chain pulley, making a sound like Ebeneezer Scrooge dragging his chains as the door lifted. Through a narrow opening at the bottom crawled a diminutive Nellie Gusev, a forty-five-year-old native of Vladevostok, Russia. Nellie and her husband, Vasiley, and their 12-year-old son, Ivan, had arrived the day before from Honolulu aboard their 36-foot sailboat, Nakhodka. The Gusev’s were on the last leg of a 30,000-mile round-the-world sea adventure.

The couple, along with their three sons, had set out six and a half years earlier from Vladevostok where Vasiley was a Russian tanker captain and Nellie was a teacher. Vasiley had graduated from the prestigious Maritime Academy in Vladevostok and over 25 years had worked his way up as a seaman to the rank of captain.

Vasiley’s years of service had included trips to Haiphong Harbor in Hanoi, North Vietnam delivering fuel to the Communist government of Ho Chi Minh during the Vietnam War. He remembered several raids on military targets by American fighters over Haiphong. The couple spoke openly about glasnost, the fall of communism, and the parallels between the Vietnam War for the U.S. and the former Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Times were difficult in Vladevostok when they decided to set out on this journey. Teachers were not being paid for three to four months at a time, and the government shipping company Vasiley had worked for his entire career had been privatized and broken up into smaller, less profitable companies that were forced to cut jobs. In a misguided effort to build revenues, Russian states were charging large taxes to businesses established for two years or more. Newly formed companies were forced re-establish themselves under new names every few years to keep afloat.

A video the couple brought showed their small three-bedroom apartment in Vladevostok. The spartan fifth floor walkup unit overlooked their village of Nakhodka on the northern side of the former Soviet Naval Submarine Base. Nearby airfields guarded the sensitive Sakhalin Island, where Soviet fighters shot down Korean Air Flight 707 when it strayed off its course in 1984.

Nellie told of resigning her communist party membership in 1986 when they learned the Soviet leaders were living in luxury with large apartments in Moscow, vacation dachaus, and hunting lodges. The leaders were given automobiles and free food and accommodations at the best Soviet resorts and many other perks paid for by the hard work and party dues of ordinary citizens. After her resignation Nellie suffered negative repercussions in her teaching career, but she did not regret her decision. The Gusev’s had decided that their country needed to change from the communist system, but they would have preferred a more gradual evolution to capitalism. The total dismantling of the Soviet economy has left the Russian mafia and a few corrupt businessmen making huge profits while the average citizen can­ not buy bread or shoes. Vasiley, a native of Khazikstan, reflected hopefully that at least Russia is now the only one of the former Soviet republics to have nuclear mis­ siles. The Ukraine and Khazikstan also had them, but these have been dismantled and he feels the chances for a renegade republic launching its own nuclear strike is very small. Never a member of the communist party, Vasiley now teases Nellie-much to her annoyance that she is still a “communist.”

During their years in Nakhodka, the Gusev family had become accomplished sailors. They had even achieved some celebrity by coming in second in the annual sailing race from Vladevostok to the island of Hokaido some 90 miles across the Sea of Japan. This achievement, along with their dissatisfaction with the state of the Soviet economy. spurred them to begin their round-the-world journey.

The family sailed south from Vladevostok in the early 1990s. The parents schooled their sons on board ship while all members of the family shared the day-to-day tasks of keeping the boat underway. Young Ivan, who speaks the best English, is a precocious, worldly child. He talks easily with adults about world geography and political topics most 12-year-olds don’t think about. 

His parents say he has learned several languages on their voyage.

Three years into their sea journey the Gusev’s were marooned in Florida when their wooden boat began to sink while tied up at the dock. Vasiley dived in and saw hundreds of pencil­ sized holes in the hull from worms. He quickly filled these with cement, but they were forced to bring the boat up onto dry dock. For the next three years the two older sons and the parents worked odd jobs during the day to buy supplies to remodel and fiberglass the hull of the Nakhodka, and

strengthen her keel. Finally, in mid-May 1998 they sailed through the Panama Canal and on to Honolulu. When they left, their two older sons stayed behind in Florida intending to make their way in the U.S.

During this last leg of their trip the Gusev’s have taken turns at watch on the sailboat. Nellie takes the late evening shift until 1 a.m., Vasiley the night hours from 1 a.m. to 7 a.m., and Ivan fills in during the day. They are all skilled at reading their global positioning satellite navigation equipment, checking navigation charts, and handling the boat in all types of sea conditions. Ivan says matter-of-factly that he has been through one hurricane during their voyage. They encoun­ tered fifty-foot seas off the Canary Island, but the Nakhodka was redesigned in Florida to be self-righting, even if capsized in a storm. They have only one small, slightly damaged life raft, but Vasiley doesn’t put much stock in it. He tells the story of sailors who left their capsizing sailboat for a life raft during a race off Gibralter a few years ago and eventually died of thirst and starvation while awaiting rescue. Their sailboats, however, were later found, still afloat.

The Gusev’s will reach Vladevostok sometime in the next few weeks to face uncertain future. They discuss the idea of sending lvan as an exchange student in the U.S. As for the couple – their dream is to sail to Alaska to find work, buy a bigger boat, and eventually become U.S. citizens.

Whatever their fate, one has the sense that this family, schooled in the hardships of changing seas and political ideals, will not only survive, but thrive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *