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Original Issue

The Odessa Odyssey

A crew from Ukraine scrimps and scrapes in the U.S. to prepare for a Homeric race around the world

The temperature out on Rattlesnake Point is hovering around 100°. Inside one of the mammoth Trident Shipyard hangars that anchor this barren patch of earth to Tampa Bay's southern shore sits the shiny white hull of the racing yacht Odessa. It has no mast yet, no bulkheads, and the hand-engraved ship's bell hangs from a huge crane just off the boat's stern.

It's noon, and the eight sailors from the former Soviet Union who have been drilling and sanding and painting Odessa's hull for the past six months are taking a quick lunch break. Their dining room, just beyond hangar number 2, is a plywood shack with swatches of blue plastic stretched—not quite successfully—over gaping holes in the walls. Their table is an old wooden door propped on sawhorses. Their lunch, for something like the 180th day in a row, is packaged Oriental soup noodles. With the heat hammering at them, they eat quickly and quietly.

The eight-man Odessa crew is made up of two electrical engineers, a mechanical engineer, a commercial navigator, a marine researcher, an architect, a university student and a professional yacht racer who come from places like Kiev and Moscow and Odessa. In the heat of Tampa, they think of their families back home, of the work yet to be done, of their empty stomachs. Most of all, they think about the sea and about the race. It is all they have been thinking about for two years.

Under even the best of circumstances, a nine-month circumnavigation of the globe is no vacation, which is probably why The Whitbread Round the World Race, a quadrennial event first organized in 1973, has been described as the Mount Everest of yacht racing. The 16 yachts entered in the 1993-94 Whitbread—of which Odessa hopes to be one—will split the voyage into five stages. They sail from Southampton, England, on Sept. 25, and their ports of call will be Punta del Este, Uruguay; Fremantle, Australia; Auckland, New Zealand; back to Punta del Este; and on to Fort Lauderdale before returning to Southampton next June.

It is a voyage of Homeric proportions. In past Whitbreads, sailors have been swept overboard in furious storms off Cape Horn and boats have been crippled by equipment failure or dismasted.

Odessa's odyssey began on land, nearly three years ago. In December 1990 Anatoly Verba, who had sailed in the '89-90 Whitbread, formed a partnership with Rick Grajirena, a Tampa businessman and fellow sailor, to launch a joint U.S.-Soviet 1993 Whitbread campaign. The collapse of the Soviet Union less than a year later, however, threatened to stop their campaign dead in the water.

When the ruble took a nosedive, prospects for getting Odessa's hull built did too. In March 1991 the Odessa Yachtsman's Association had contracted with Volga Buran in Novgorod, near St. Petersburg, to build the yacht's hull for 1.4 million rubles. By January 1992 the price tag had risen to an astronomical 55 million rubles. "Essentially," says Grajirena, "they were holding the boat hostage." After six months a compromise was reached, and in July '92 the company agreed to build the hull, this time for a mere 7.8 million rubles. Unfortunately for Verba and his crew, Volga Buran didn't complete construction of the hull.

Undaunted, Verba and his mates decided to finish the boat themselves. They moved into a ramshackle boardinghouse in Novgorod that had no hot water, no shower and only one small kitchen for 30 residents. "It was a 0.0001-star hotel, out of four stars," Verba deadpans now.

Late in October '92 Odessa's deck and hull were complete, though the bulkheads were not. With winter fast approaching, the crew decided to ship the unfinished yacht home to Odessa before the first snowfall. On Oct. 27 Odessa's 63-foot hull was lashed to a flatbed truck for the 1,300-mile journey. Sixty miles into the trip it started to snow, forcing the driver to crawl along at 20 mph. It took seven days to reach Odessa. On Jan. 10 both yacht and crew were loaded onto a cargo freighter bound for Honduras. On Feb. 7 the eight weary sailors finally made landfall in Tampa. The race to the Whitbread starting line had been halfway run.

Behind the hangar that houses Odessa, Verba, 47, huddles with some of his American friends in the tiny trailer he lives in. The ceiling leaks, and there is no hot water. Verba's eyes are red rimmed and puffy from lack of sleep. The group is brainstorming about how to get the funds to finish Odessa before the Whitbread's September deadline. Donations to Verba and his crew have come in all shapes and sizes: a $1,000 check from a Canadian banker, Topsiders for the crew from a local shoe company and T-shirts from sympathetic American sailors. For months food had been delivered to the crew weekly by a Catholic soup kitchen in Clearwater, Fla.; last week a Hyatt Hotel in Tampa began delivering dinner to the crew every night.

Lerea Goldthwaite, 45, a friend and former employee of Grajirena's (the latter reluctantly pulled out of his agreement with Verba last fall because of financial uncertainties), has been both mother and manager to the crew since they arrived in Tampa. She has arranged for free dock space for Odessa as well as housing for four of the crew. The other four crew members share two couches and a cot in the trailer's cramped living space. Goldthwaite has also acted as a legal intermediary for the sailors. "In the early weeks of their stay," she says, "two of the crew were struck by cars when bicycling to the boatyard. Neither was seriously hurt, but there was a small windfall in the form of insurance settlements totaling about $5,000."

When Don Mains, a former Tampa resident and Bush political appointee to the Department of Commerce, heard from a friend in early June about Odessa's plight, he flew to Tampa from Washington to spearhead a last-ditch fund-raising campaign. Odessa, he learned, was desperately in need of a mast and a set of sails. Mains is hoping to raise $300,000 by the end of August. "We're trying to get people to buy into a little part of this adventure," he says. A phone service was set up so that callers could get regular progress reports by calling 1-900-93-DESSA. Recently some of the sailors were seen in front of the White House, at the New York Stock Exchange and in Rockefeller Center, handing out pamphlets that described their plight.

But the most exciting development—according to Gennady (Crocodile) Korolkov, 32, who is one of Odessa's navigators and its comedian in residence—is an impending appearance on the Home Shopping Network in order to pitch Ukrainian knickknacks such as dolls, intricately painted wooden eggs and souvenirs of the yacht. "We go and be American TV stars, yes!" he says. Mains knows the value of Crocodile's 1,000-megawatt smile: "We'd like the captain and crew to become shining beacons of capitalism," he says, only half-facetiously.

Not that the crew isn't already engaged in a pretty fair example of free-market enterprise. Vladimir (Kuli) Kulininchenko, 33, earned $250 one week by giving sailing lessons at the Tampa Yacht & Country Club to a dozen elderly women who dubbed themselves the Main Sheet Mamas. And 32-year-old Mikhail Mikhailov, an accomplished water colorist, advertised his talents at local yacht clubs and received several hundred dollars' worth of commissions to paint pictures of members' houses and their boats.

The crew saves all of the money that it earns. In their six months in America the sailors have had only two outings—to the Salvador Dali museum in nearby St. Petersburg and to see the movie Jurassic Park. Odessa's crew is saving its pennies for one thing and one thing only, to buy the sails that will buy them wind. In the meantime they work 16 hours a day readying their half-built boat for a race it may never run.

During their few hours of freedom each day, the sailors often play at being American. Igor (Kip) Kutorkin, 30, who is staying in Tampa with Bonnie Ballengee and her two children, flies kites with Melissa, 10, and plays hoops with Brian, 6.

The crew has jury-rigged a shower no bigger than a phone booth next to the trailer. It is a skeleton of two-by-fours with a small container of water—warmed by the sun—perched precariously on top. A tube that looks like something off a hospital IV setup serves as a conduit. Sergei Lastovetski, 40, Odessa's chef, is soaking clothes in a plastic bucket and thinking about his wife, Anna, and son Andre, 6, whom he hasn't seen for six months. "What is hardest here," he says, "is we don't have time to talk to family."

Nor do they have the money to pay for such a luxury. When they first arrived in Tampa, it cost 300 rubles to call Ukraine for just one minute. By July it cost 7,500 rubles. That amount is half the monthly stipend that the Odessa Yachtsman's Association back home provides to each of the crew's families. It is roughly the equivalent of $4. Despite the hardships, Lastovetski says he is doing exactly what he wants to be doing. "I love sail," he says. "Oleg [Doroshenko, 30, a navigator and paramedic], too, is crazy about sail. We work on the sea and rest on the sea. That is all there is. Water, wind, sail are so beautiful."

Captain Verba sends a weekly fax to the Odessa Yachtsman's Association to keep them apprised of the boat's progress. Each crew member gets to write a line home to his family at the bottom of the page. Three months ago Kip's wife transmitted a photo of their two daughters, Natasha, 7, and Olya, 5.

Twice a week Kulininchenko bikes four miles from the Ballengee home to Doyle Sailmakers of Tampa, where he has been given some space in the attic and the use of a small sewing machine from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m. In one two-month span Kulininchenko single-handedly sewed more than 500 square meters of test sailcloth. His hands are rough and raw from the work, but he is relentless, placing stitch after stitch after stitch. Like the rest of the crew, he grows impatient for the racing to begin. All through the night he sews and thinks about the sea and imagines his sails catching the wind.



To stay afloat, Kutorkin (far left) and Mikhailov, have to put in 16-hour days on Odessa.



The collapse of the U.S.S.R. drove Verba (standing, in T-shirt) and his mates to Tampa.



Kulininchenko has stitched some 500 square meters of test sail.



The crew usually dines on food donated by a local hotel and a Catholic soup kitchen.