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Ukrainian sailors shine across Europe, but do they have a place to return to?

by Ivan Bidzilya 20 Sep 12:00 BST
Sailing in Ukraine: Finn sailing at Obolon Yacht Club, Kyiv © Ada Lesher

Devastated but still alive and resisting - this is all about the current state of Ukraine and this is true of Ukrainian sailing as well.

While Ukrainian kids shine in the Optimist class in Europe, their home clubs are surviving under mortar shelling and the local sailing community is trying to protect their clubs.

Odesa

From the first days of invasion Odesa-based Black Sea Yacht Club became one the symbols of Ukrainian resistance. The Club received true international recognition in March after Bon Jovi retweeted video where dozens of citizens were digging sand on the beach adjacent to the club's premises and loading a truck with sandbags. In the background, a young man with a drum set banged out "It's my life".

The video went viral in hours and the Ukrainian ambassador to Austria, Olexandr Scherba, reposted it asking, "Will someone show this to @BonJovi?" Shortly after the American rock legend retweeted the video quoting a lyric "This is for the ones who stood their ground... Odesa, Ukraine #SlavaUkraini."

While this is a widely covered story, the club's Commodore Albert Kabakov reveals a larger picture: "To be honest, in the first days of war, shock and confusion were felt in the air, so we had to keep the spirit up somehow. The decision came when my friend asked if the club had sand to deploy the street barricades and blanket the monuments to protect them as we expected assault. And we had a lot of sand. Within the days there were dozens of volunteers purchasing bags and stuffing them with sand. Soon there were too many people, so we coordinated them to help at bus and train stations as refugees were flooding the city, to handle humanitarian aid and even to counter cyberattacks."

Now, as the possibility of ground operation is low, the club tries to maintain its life. "For the moment we don't sail as the military administration ban is in place due to floating mines that have already killed a dozen of swimmers," continues Albert Kabakov. "But we keep personnel in place although we struggle to finance the club."

As for the future, the Commodore shares some great ideas. "After the war we would like to start a disabled sailing rehabilitation program for Ukrainian soldiers who suffered wounds and amputations. Unfortunately, this type of sailing was undeveloped in Ukraine, so we asked friendly clubs to donate boats for the disabled and, luckily, we have had a positive response.

"Also, we will resume our famous 100 miles open sea regatta around hotly-contested Zmiiniy Island (the one where on the first day of war our soldiers said in the radio transmission to Russian military flagship, 'F**k you Russian ship') inviting all our supporters around the world to participate."

In their concerts Bon Jovi told the world about the brave citizens of Odesa so billions of people became aware of the Ukrainian heroic resistance. It helped to raise millions of USD for Ukrainian refugees.

Mykolaiv

Famous for building ships and blue water yachts, Mykolaiv is one of the biggest sailing cities in Ukraine with several big and small clubs. Placed between Odesa and now-occupied Kherson, Mykolaiv is exposed to Russian missiles and artillery. But the city is alive although half of the population had fled.

Unlike the Black Sea YC, the clubs of Mykolaiv had been hit at least twice. The first assault happened in May, leaving several cruising yachts damaged. The second time, in the end of July, the Mykolaiv regional YC's offices suffered. Luckily, both times with no human casualties.

"We are on the edge of hostilities for half a year already," says the Mykolaiv regional YC Chief of Captains' board Konstantyn Garnaga. "The Russian troops entered Mykolaiv in March but were pushed away soon. So, we are used to being under siege. We experience shortages of water and electricity, food supplies were irregular at some moments, but we maintain the clubs' activities except for going on water."

According to Garnaga, the club has been turned into a humanitarian hub: "From the first days of the invasion we have been handling all kinds of aid, we manage volunteers, and our staff is very proactive in rendering assistance to those in need."

Youth training continues along. "We have a large kids and youth school, and at least half of our kids are still attending the club for physical and theoretical training," Garnaga continues. "Luckily, some kids have left the country and continue to sail in Bulgaria and Croatia, so they can maintain their skills.

"The main question now is to organize winter training for as many kids as possible, because we can't keep them off the water for so long. We hope we will find money for transfer and deals for accommodation and boat charter abroad."

Kharkiv

Another besieged city is so close to the Russian border it was the primary target for Russian artillery from day 1. This is Kharkiv that, despite daily heavy bombardment, stands tall and even coffee shops remain open. However, the yacht infrastructure wasn't so lucky. On the 5th July, a mine hit Kharkiv's regional YC's boat warehouse directly.

"We are completely devastated; all the dinghies are gone," the regional Sailing Federation head Yurii Sukhonos reports. "To be specific, there were 40 Optis, 15 Cadets, dozen of Lasers, FDs, Finns, coach RIBs and many other boats and parts: masts, sails, etc. All is lost."

Before the war, Kharkiv was one of the most prominent sailing centres of Ukraine. From Optimsts to the Star class, everything was there actively sailing and competing. Luckily, some top sailors managed to leave the city before it was almost encircled by the enemy, and they still reside in Europe, many due to the kind support and help of hosting countries and clubs.

Concerning the private cruising fleet, according to Yurii Sukhonos, "most of the boats were stolen by orks [Russians]." The case is that Kharkiv's regional YC is 45 km from Kharkiv itself, in Starii Saltiv town, which has been, unlike the metropolitan city, occupied for several months. "By far we have no idea how to move on. Now, when orks have left the town and region, and we try to preserve what is left; we set up our sailors' militia to guard the club. I believe we will restore our club and youth school."

As to draw the whole picture, we must mention the worldwide famous Ukrainian RIB producer BRIG, headquartered in Kharkiv. The company had lost its facility after several heavy strikes. Reportedly, all personnel are safe as the company closed the facility after the war broke out.

Mariupol

There is not even a single one in the world that hasn't heard of the Azov battalion and Azovstal plant resistance. For 80 days, brave men and women were defending their stronghold against the prevailing and better-armed enemy. One of the two big yacht clubs in Mariupol was Azovstal club, named so due to patronage from the industrial giant.

During the Mariupol siege and street clashes, the club suffered mortar shelling. Many dinghies and yachts were destroyed but the worst happened when the city was captured. According to local reports and rumours, the invaders have stolen everything, especially cars, outboard engines and else. Concerning the coaches and sailors, almost all of them have left the city before.

Now, as Mariupol remains occupied the new management had entered the club's premises. They are trying to set up a training process, but this is not easy when there are almost no kids in the city.

Energodar

The biggest nuclear power plant, now held by Russians, has made famous the relatively small town Energodar, which is the home for the plant's stuff and families. As it resides along the large water reservoir on the Dnipro River, it hosted the Yacht-Club Borisfen. The town suffered heavy bombardment and the yacht club is completely ruined. For the moment of writing there is no reliable information about the losses, but the cruising fleet is almost certainly gone.

Sailing is still alive

For sure, everybody has heard about Ukrainian success in the Optimist and ILCA classes this season. Indeed, many Ukrainian sailors are scattered around Europe and continue training and competing mostly due to hosts' support. But sailing life smoulders in Ukraine as well, despite most of the water being closed. Some clubs have managed to receive permission to resume training, and even conduct small competitions.

In Kyiv youth schools at Obolon' YC and Kyiv Racing YC were on water for at least July and August and plan to continue for September and October.

Further south in Dnipro city (home to "the medal maker" Victor Kovalenko) the local club Sich resumed youth Olympic and Optimist sailing but the terms are very strict. First and the most important condition is that sailors are staying close to the shore with bomb shelter adjacent.

During summer, a small lake in Yuzhniy town (Odesa region), literally 300 meters wide, became the Optis playground for many kids from all over Ukraine. "We are hosting free-of-charge kids from Odesa, Mykolaiv, Kherson, and other regions of Ukraine," the local club's head Alexandr Gudyma reports. "We had more than hundred Optimist and ILCA sailors during the summer and we continue on in September."

Later in September the Ukrainian Olympic classes Nationals are planned to be held at the Western Ukrainian city of Ternopil, famous for its long windsurfing tradition.

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