Batkyvshina Article

Batkivshchyna Heads Back to SeaBy Olga Kryzhanovska, Kyiv Post Staff Writer

When the Ukrainian schooner Batkivshchyna set sail from Kyiv bound for the New World just over a year ago, its crew might have anticipated that they would run into some alarming adventures on the high seas, but they could hardly have imagined that their exploits would turn them into media celebrities in the United States.

And still enjoying the glow of publicity, these latter-day Ukrainian folk-heroes are not planning on making the long trip home any time soon. They say they're determined to continue working to promote Ukraine's image abroad and will not be returning for two more years at the soonest, and even then only by way of the South Pacific and Australia.

After crossing the Atlantic and spending part of the last winter in Connecticut, resting and making repairs to their vessel, Captain Dmytro Biryukovich and his wife, Nina, cook Leonid Deryagin and deckhand Serhy Logachov are now getting ready for their next challenge. Starting May 28, they'll be taking part in the two-month Great Lakes 2001 regatta, visiting some 22 ports-of-call along the way.

Batkivshchyna became the unlikely focus of media attention during last year's American OpSail 2000, an event that attracted some 400 participants from around the globe. The Batkivshchyna's adventures and mishaps drew a lot of press coverage, even getting featured in the New York Times.

So, when he returned to Ukraine for a brief visit in late April, Captain Biryukovich had his work cut out to put the lid on the many tall stories and rumors of incompetence and chaos inspired by the Batkivshchyna's action-packed voyage.

"There were no stowaways onboard, we didn't try to escape from the Turkish police, nobody drowned and we were not rescued by U.S. coast guard," he reported. "On the contrary, I think our voyage was a real success, and as captain, I didn't witness any major blunders."

The Biryukoviches and their two companions are all that remains of the original 18-member Batkivshchyna team -- including two women and a teenager -- that started out from Kyiv's Osokorki harbor on April 7, 2000.

Biryukovich has learned a lot from that trip and says that by using a smaller crew this time around he'll be able to maintain more discipline and order. However, for the upcoming regatta, Batkivshchyna will also be taking aboard a number of American volunteers.

A 64-year-old retired engineer, Captain Biryukovich should know what he's doing. After all, he designed and constructed the Batkivshchyna himself more than a decade ago. He converted an old fishing vessel -- reinforcing its hull with concrete and installing specially designed masts -- to create the 25-meter-long Batkivshchyna, or Fatherland.

Biryukovich insisted that the schooner did not suffer from any major disasters during its 8,000-mile trans-Atlantic crossing. But the problems they did encounter were definitely more serious than anything experienced by the other yachts tha t took part in the prestigious sails parade, most of which were much better equipped and more expensive.

Batkivshchyna's troubles began even before it reached the Black Sea. It was the first vessel to navigate the Dnipro River following the spring thaw, and that ambitious undertaking proved costly. With the buoys that mark the channel floating out of position, the schooner ran into rocks near Zaporizhya and damaged its hull. After Batkivshchyna went into dry dock in Norwich, Connecticut, the crew discovered the damage was much more extensive than they had thought, and Captain Biryukovich and his friends spent many days repairing it.

And the damaged hull was only the beginning. Near the Spanish port of Cadiz, the schooner ran into a bad storm and its main sail was damaged. In fact, for the rest of the voyage, the crew spent most of their leisure time mending sails.

In the middle of the Atlantic, the vessel lost radio contact with land and its Global Positioning System went on the blink. This incident sparked the rumor that the schooner had sunk. The Batkivshchyna had to change course to catch up with the regatta and found itself in Norfolk, Virginia, hundreds of kilometers north of its intended destination in Puerto Rico.

After cruising the Eastern Seaboard with OpSail-2000, Batkivshchyna finally reached Norwich, where it was greeted with flowers and fanfare. Local residents hosted a celebration, complete with a banquet and dancing, in honor of their guests from Ukraine.

Today, the Batkivshchyna crewmembers remain local celebrities. And the schooner has become an attraction for school children and curious tourists. Batkivshchyna's captain said he found the Batkivshchyna's winter quarters cozy and his new American neighbors friendly. He said he was particularly impressed when the local policeman began delivering his messages by hand since the Batkivshchyna lacks its own telephone. Meanwhile, the schooner has achieved a kind of cult status. A small Batkivshchyna fan club was set up, and its members now help the captain to schedule and plan upcoming trips and appearanc es. The Batkivshchyna's fans include teachers, engineers, factory workers, and even a chauffeur. Many of them are of Ukrainian origin.

Several lucky American volunteers will join the Batkivshchyna to sail in the Great Lakes 2001 festival from Norwich to Chicago and then down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

"These people want to be active physically and socially - I think it's also important for them to be helpful," said Biryukovich. "Besides, I'm sure that they will learn and experience a lot during their stay on the Batkivshchyna - as we already have."

This time around, the captain doesn't expect any major difficulties, because the schooner is well prepared for the regatta. Thanks to donations from its American friends, the Batkivshchyna is now fitted out with a new radio, radar and computer. Each new piece of equipment has a story behind it, the captain explained.

"One time, I came back on Batkivshchyna after spending the whole day ashore and saw that instead of my old portable radio there was a brand new one there," he said. "The sailor on watch told me that some guy had just brought the radio, connected it and left it without even leaving a business card or phone number."

After benefiting from so much generosity, the Batkivshchyna crew felt impelled to undertake some charity work themselves. In collaboration with the Children of Chernobyl Relief Fund, they have raised some $8,000 for the children's hospital in Rivne.

Now Batkivshchyna's calendar is fully booked for the next couple of years. After reaching New Orleans, the vessel will either head for the Caribbean Islands for a regatta or sail through the Panama Canal and visit the West Coast of the United States.

In any case, the Batkivshchyna's route home will likely take it to Australia. And that will enable Captain Biryukovich to realize another of his ambitions: to circumnavigate the world.