the navy's first
This article was published in Russian Life November 2015
Text and Photos by Sandra Reddin
Solovki is only 150k from the Arctic Circle, and the wind frequently whips up such a storm that boats are prevented from getting to or from the island; for several months of the year its inhabitants have virtually no way of leaving the island at all.
Journeying here even in good weather takes some planning. Most who make it have come to experience what is considered the holiest place in Russia. Some come to worship in the 600-year-old monastery, others simply to trek around the island and enjoy the isolated quiet of the forests. There is very little in the way of tourist comfort or distraction. This is what makes the islands so unique, even liberating.
We had been on the island for almost a week and, after several windy and overcast days, the sky was a perfect blue, so I decided to walk around the bay. The impressive and ancient Solovetsky Monastery sits so close to the shore that the best view (apart from the boat as you approach the island) is had by crossing over onto the other side of the bay. It is not far, less than 10-minute walk. If you are lucky and it is a calm day, you can see the monastery's reflection in the still waters of the White Sea.
When I reached the other side, I found a small, very excited group of people that had gathered at the end of the jetty. They were straining to see around the bay and out to the open sea. I had no idea what they were looking for, but I did know that beluga whales are often spotted in the area. Maybe that? Seconds later, however, a beautiful wooden sailing ship floated gracefully into the bay. Beautifully framed by the monastery walls, she glided in on one sail towards the jetty and the now cheering crowd.
The ship was the St. Peter, and as she came alongside the jetty, the crew and crowd clamored to reach each other. I was the only onlooker and felt like an intruder, so after taking a few pictures I decided to come back in an hour or two. When I returned, the crowd had dispersed and the boat stood gleaming in the fabulous northern sunset.
Only one crew member remained on board. He introduced himself as Yevgeny. I discovered that he was one of the 12 people who had built and new crewed the St. Peter. She had been put to sea before, but only for short trips since her launch in 2013. This time they had been out in the White Sea for two weeks, recreating the route (in reverse) of a journey made by Peter in 1703 when he accompanied Dutch and English merchant
Yevgeny proudly showed me around the ship. At 14 meters, It's a three-quarter-sized replica of the first Russian naval ship built on Russian soil – completed in 1693 in Arkhangels, under the guidance of Dutch builders (and replicated with a bit of guess work, since few drawings remain of the original). She was built over a decade right here on the island, this time under the guidance of the Solovetsky Maritime Museum. Needless to say, it was modernised with an engine, navigation system and modern communications.
It was hard to believe the St. Peter had just completed a two-week voyage with 12 crewmen on board. It was absolutely pristine and "ship shape."
The next day, I rendezvoused with Yevgeny at the Maritime Museum, directly opposite the monastery. Intimate and inviting, the museum has an upper exhibit gallery from where you can view the activity in the workshop below. The museum was the dream of Sergei Morozov, a charismatic historian who taught seafaring to local kids and wanted to keep boat building tradition alive on the island. He died in 2001, but his dream for a working museum was kept alive by others. It finally opened in 2007.
Yevgeny was busy in the workshop. Originally from Moscow, he worked in sales, but always wanted to work with wood. Seven years ago, he asked himself what he was doing with his life, and decided to move to Solovki. He has not looked back. The other 11 shipmates are enthusiasts from all over Russia.
Yevgeny said the ship's voyage went very well. Mostly it was windy and foggy, but they did have a spot of trouble when the waves kicked up to 15 meters per second and the engine cut out. Water started coming in. "It was exciting to play with the wind," he said.
The St. Peter will remain on Solovki and conduct historical and ethnographic voyages around the White Sea. RL