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Cossacks who sailed the seas


Yury Voloshyn, an architect, is a Cossack history and ancient Ukrainian culture enthusiast. He and his friends built a replica of the Cossack chayka  a big boat of the type that was made by the Cossacks in the 17th century. They sailed in their chaykas across the Black Sea to attack Turkish cities and fortresses on the Black Sea coasts. Mr Voloshyn told his story of the present-day sea peaceful voyages to Bohdan Kolomiychuk, who wrote it down and gave his essay to WU.


My friends and I used to canoe down the rivers and once we sort of collectively had an idea of building a replica of the Cossack chayka boat, big enough to carry all of us. One of my friends, Vasyl Kochmar can be called a jack-of-all trades, and he is really a master of all of them. It was but natural to elect him head of the project.

It took nine months to build the boat. An extensive research was done at the archives and libraries. No original chaykas had been preserved and we wanted ours to be as authentic as possible so we had to rely on descriptions and drawings.

We gave our boat the name Presvyata Bohorodytsya  the Most Holy Mother of God, because we finished  almost finished  building the boat shortly before the Feast of Pokrova (Protective Veil of the Most Holy Mother of God). The boat was christened at a solemn ceremony, which, we hoped, was a sort of a re-enactment of Cossack boat christening ceremonies.

It was on Lake Hlynna Navariya not far from Lviv that our boats seaworthiness was tested. We were anxious that it might prove to be too unwieldy and too hard to control  the boat was made of oak wood and weighed over ten tons. The test sail proved to be encouraging.

Then came the time of learning and training. We had to learn to row in unison  there were twenty oars on each side of the boat. We had to learn how to use the sail properly. The boat which was made to all the specifications of a real Cossack chayka of old, turned out to be very easy to manage on water. Under sail, the Presvyata Bohorodytsya moved fast and steady  we crossed and re-crossed the lake from shore to shore in no time. Also, we realized that some changes had to be introduced  the oars, for example, had to be made longer, and now they are about five meters long (over fifteen feet).

After we had ascertained that both the boat and we ourselves were ready for a longer voyage, we had the boat brought to Kyiv. We launched it on the Dnipro River and began our preparations. We planned to sail down the Dnipro all the way to the Black Sea, then cross the sea and get to Istanbul. Then we thought it might be fun to try to sail further, into the Mediterranean. So we had to get passports and visas. The crew on that first voyage was made up of forty five men. We all had our heads shaven, Cossack style, with one long lock of hair left to grow from the top of the head. We had traditional Cossack dresses with us to wear in foreign lands. We even had replicas of ancient Cossack cannons and sabers with us.

All of these things done, we put to sea, though for the start it was a river.

It was a most memorable voyage, from the very start. We got to the Black Sea with no problems, stopping on the way to renew our provisions. When you sail down the river, navigation is no problem but when you get into the open sea then you do have to know where you are going to get to your destination. Our navigation skills did not let us down and we arrived in Turkey safely.

We stayed in Turkey for four days and then sailed on through the Straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles into the Aegean Sea. We stopped at some of the Greek islands to take a better look. On the Island of Skiros one of our crew got bitten by a snake. We did not know what kind of snake it was but one of the crew members was a medical doctor and he did what must be done when you get bitten by a venomous snake. Our snake-bitten friend is still alive and kicking.

Early next morning, a military boat arrived and we were told we had no right to be moored where we were  there was a military base of some sort in the vicinity, and Could you please leave immediately? We sure did. We paid no fines, we did not have any further trouble, and we were grateful for having been treated in such a friendly manner even though we had evidently broken some rules.

We sailed on and on, and eventually arrived in France. The local papers wrote about our voyage; we were called envoys of free Ukraine. That historic voyage of ours was taken in the early 1990s, after Ukraine had regained her independence. For most of us it was our first visit to what was used to be called to the capitalist countries, and many things impressed us greatly.

Since then we have made several more and much longer voyages, expanding the geography of our travels to include many countries of Europe, all the way to Britain. I think the stories about our experiences and impressions could fill a hefty volume but the space of a magazine article puts constraints on me. Incidentally, choosing what to write about proved to be a problem   there was so much that I wanted to tell!


Daily happenings and emergences

To describe a typical day on a chayka voyage is not easy simply because no two days were alike.

When we stopped at a port or elsewhere, there had to be always someone who would stay behind on the boat when the crew went ashore. Once, in the vicinity of Saint-Tropez, I stayed behind all by myself when everybody else went ashore. Usually, there were several crew members who stayed behind. Soon after everybody had left, a strong wind sprang up. Our Presvyata Bohorodytsya was moored close to luxurious yachts and motorboats, and I was worried the wind would drag our boat and slam it into one of them. I dropped all the anchors we had to keep the boat in place  it helped but little. I could not start the engine (our Presvyata Bohorodytsya was equipped with oars, sails and an engine  just in case; the engine was the only twentieth-century concession to modern civilization; the original Cossack chaykas, of course, did not have any engines except for the Cossack muscles and the wind) and when the situation seemed to be totally out of control, my friends arrived just in time to prevent any damage and consequent trouble.

It was our ships cook who was the first to get up in the morning. The rest of the crew had lots of other things to do during the day too; when there was no rowing involved and the weather was good, we idled, read books, played games, repaired things. But in storms  and we were in several  everybody did whatever each one was supposed to do, and we all of us sang songs loudly. I can tell you it was very scary and our somewhat frenzied singing helped us overcome our fears.

Once we got caught in a really violent storm. We were sailing from the Bay of Biscay into the English Channel. That area is notorious for a great number of shipwrecks that have occurred there. The waves tossed every which way, threatening to overturn us. The most important thing was not to allow a wave hit us sidewise. Somehow we managed to survive that storm but every time I recollect that scary experience it makes me shudder. Later we learned that a ship on a transatlantic voyage got sunk in the storm about a mile from where we were.

Another bad storm on another voyage hit us after several days of a leisurely stay in London. We were moored at St Catherines Dock. The local authorities gave us a great reception. We were even allowed to moor in the dock without paying any fees. We did have a great time in London. But when our holiday went into the eleventh day, our otoman (leader), Levko Tymoshchuk, decreed that Weve had too much of a good thing, and that We sail tomorrow morning. We did, but no one had cared to check the weather forecast. We were in the sea for not too long when the weather rapidly deteriorated and the choppy seas quickly turned into mighty waves. But we bravely sailed on towards France. About six miles from the French coast our rudder got broken, and without rudder in a stormy sea you are in a very big trouble. The situation seemed desperate. We managed to get some control of the rudder by tying ropes to it. Luckily, the sail had been furled in time and tightly secured. We did manage to get to the shore without anyone being thrown overboard  but we were completely drenched, shivering, our teeth chattering. The locals were very good at resuscitating us  but they kept shaking their heads in wonder. They could not understand why we had risked in a boat like ours in a storm!


Bathing, fishing and competitions

We took swims not only at anchorages and moorages but also when we were in the open sea. The swimmer would grab the rope one end of which was tied to something in the boat and the other end was thrown overboard to hold on to, and once in the water, it would let the boat pull him along. Once, when somebody was in the water, we spotted what looked like the fin of a shark circling around. We started hollering and shouting urgent warnings. The swimmer, in a great hurry, scrambled aboard. We harpooned the fish which proved to be not a shark at all though it did look like one. It was several feet long and it looked very fat  we decided it would make a good dinner. The fish proved to be made almost entirely of cartilage and very little meat which was not very tasty, to put it mildly. But we did eat it. Later, we described the fish to an ichthyologist and asked him whether it was an edible fish. He said it was considered inedible. But we ate it! we cried out. So you proved that at least it was eatable. Well, not quite.

Once, when we were in Brighton, I decided to take part in a swimming competition. The distance to swim was a nautical mile (1,852 meters, or about 6,076 feet); the temperature of the water was + 13o Centigrade. Most of the swimmers had special wet suits that would prevent them from losing the body heat in the water. I did not have anything but my foolhardiness. I was the third to arrive at the finish  the third from the bottom of the list of the participants, that is. Two others who arrived after me at the finish, were taken to hospital. I was taken by my friends to our boat, given a good shot of Ukrainian horilka (vodka) brewed on hot red pepper; I was wrapped in blankets and warmed by all other methods and means available. The whole incident was filmed by one of the crew members and later, when I watched that movie I laughed so hard I nearly cried  the sight of my ungainly, frozen movements and my stilted walk on my numb, wooden legs was very hilarious. But I can tell you that right after that swim I did not think it was a laughing matter at all.


Historical Cossack dress

When we arrived at big cities like Istanbul, we went ashore wearing traditional Cossack dress, complete with sharovary (loose pants), Cossack hats and even sabers. On one of the walks in such attire through the streets of Istanbul, where the reception in general was very friendly (local papers devoted several articles to us), we had some stones thrown at us, one of which hit me in the head. The police interfered and dispersed the stone-throwing youngsters. Im not sure why they did it  could they have remembered from history books that several centuries ago Cossacks raided the Turkish towns?

In Sicily, we were not allowed to venture inland further than several meters from our boat wearing our Cossack garb. I couldnt really figure why, but I changed into jeans and T-shirt and took a long walk. No one stopped me, I took pictures and enjoyed the sights, wondering all the time what was in our Cossack attire that made the carabinieri prevent us from treading the soil of Sicily. Did we look like an invading force?

We never had such problems anywhere else. We are planning to build a sturdier boat to brave the oceans.


Photos have been provided by Kish Society




When the wind was down, the Cossacks kept

going, using the oars.



The dashing ancestors of the old-time Cossacks.


The latter-day Ukrainian Cossacks visited many

European countries sailing in their chayka boat;

here, they approach the port city of Gdansk,

Poland, wearing their Cossack garb and hoisting

a replica of an old Cossack cannon.



Many a European port has seen the arrival of a

curious vessel crewed by Cossacks who seemed to

have come straight from the seventeenth century.




On to Istanbul! But this time not with war but

with peaceful culture-exchange intentions. 1992.


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