It was 1994 and the last leg of a Scandinavian Peninsula circumnavigation on the 39-foot sloop Tiota. We awoke to blue skies over St. Petersburg, Russia, and signs of good winds for our westward passage to Estonia. Following our now familiar hardy breakfast routine of coffee, tea, Russian bread, jam, cheese, and salami, three of us prepared the boat for a 200-mile ocean voyage across the Gulf of Finland to Tallinn.
Twice during the crossing to Tallinn, Russian vessels approached in heavily armed patrol boats to check on us. The first time they came close enough to read our boat name and hailage on the transom and then called Tiota to ask our nationality. The second time, a few hours later, they came close again and asked our destination. It sounded like they had forgotten to ask that question the first time around. Both times the Russians were courteous and spoke excellent English over the radio.
These were our last contacts with Russian officialdom. The customs and immigration procedures, both on entering and exiting Russia, went smoothly. All the officials spoke English fluently and were most courteous. It’s amazing how quickly the frontiers of the Cold War have melted away. Maybe this suggests that the barriers were erected by high levels of government and possibly the armaments industries but not between the people and the low-level officials we met.
The captain and my crewmate became a little woozy during the trip to Tallinn and couldn’t understand how I was able to sleep so peacefully in the violent motion of Tiota’s forepeak. I told them that I liked the cave like atmosphere of the forepeak bunk. With the soft suitcases and extra supplies, I had created a well-padded sleeping area. I would crawl into this womblike space and curl up in a fetal position until I warmed up enough to stretch out. The rushing water along both sides of the pointed hull must have contributed to the embryonic atmosphere. I was actually quite happy, like a baby being rocked to sleep.
During the night, we had our first semi emergency in the rising winds. I was trying to put another reef in the main sail, but as I loosened the halyard and pulled down on the sail, the slides popped out of the sail track. This immediately set off a madly flapping sail and loose battens that took several minutes to get under control. It was only a momentary emergency, but it demonstrated how strong the winds could be against just a few square meters of uncontrolled sail, making the situation almost impossible to handle. We hastily bagged the jib and replaced it with a storm jib.
It was cold out in the open waters. We were at the end of the Baltic Sea sailing season. I pulled on my fleece-lined long johns and wore my woolen watch cap continually. I interrupted my slow going through The History of Germany to warm up vicariously with John Updike’s Brazil. I thought the hot jungle passions and naked beaches of South America might warm me up. They did, but only momentarily. (It wasn’t until a few weeks after our passage that I read about the Estonian ferry disaster in the Baltic Sea. My own brief encounter with the Baltic made the accident that much more real to me.)
By the third uncomfortable day of what was supposed to be a two-day trip, we finally arrived in Tallinn at the hotel/marina/office complex that had served as the sailing sports venue for the 1980 Russian Summer Olympic Games. The United States, under Jimmy Carter’s leadership, boycotted those games over Russia’s Afghanistan policies. We immediately noticed that Tallinn, a part of the former Soviet Union until only a few years ago, was much more Westernized than St. Petersburg. I was amazed by the positive differences we saw in the building and grounds maintenance there, in comparison with that of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club even after its refurbishment for the recent Good Will Games.
While wandering around the harbor office complex in search of a telephone connection, I stopped in a modern-looking advertising agency. I talked to the receptionist seated behind a Macintosh computer doing graphic layouts. She let me try the phone plugs under her desk, but I couldn’t reach the Helsinki number for my computer. During several attempts with the calls, I told her how pleased I was with the thoroughly modern and Western atmosphere of Tallinn, compared to nearby St. Petersburg. She was pleased with the compliment but mildly annoyed that we were lumping Estonia in with Russia. We had arrived in Tallinn the day after the last Russian troops had left. Their departure was somewhat acrimonious, which made it easier to understand the receptionist’s reaction.
I walked around the old walled city, marveling at the twelfth-century stone construction. Tallinn dates back to 1154 and was one of the famous commercial centers during the twelfth to fifteenth-century period of the Hanseatic League. I wound my way around the narrow cobblestone roads and discovered a street artist selling miniature oil paintings and bought one as a souvenir. I made my way to an outdoor café where I had a pizza and a bottle of Sprite for 13 kroons ($1.00). The prices in Tallinn seemed similar to those in Russia. At the café, I kept hearing telephones ringing around me and finally noticed how many people were busy talking, not to their companions, but on cellular phones. Either they were all making important business deals or the Estonian phone system was very bad. I suspected it was a little of both.
The shops were very modern and well stocked, including a large American-style supermarket. Hemlines were about five centimeters lower than in Russia. The women looked more sophisticated and comfortable with their newly adopted Western styles than the Spandex mini-skirted, spike-heeled, bleached-blond women commonly seen in Russia.
A very up-to-date computer store helped me, free of charge, with my never-ending E-mail adventures. In the back of the store, was a room full of young programmers busy writing Estonian software. They were surrounded by all the latest computers and American software packages. One young man had no trouble loading my files onto his computer. He then called the physics department at the local university and patched me through to a Swedish Internet connection. My files were off to my brother in Boston in less time than it took me to introduce myself and explain my request to the young man.
In the last 800 years, Estonia has been ruled variously by the Danes, the Germans, the Swedes, and the Russians. During that entire period, they enjoyed only twenty-one years of self-rule, just prior to becoming part of the former Soviet Union. Now, free again, they seemed hell-bent on becoming a thoroughly modern country with Western values. The streets were alive with happy faces and late-model, expensive cars. There was a billboard advertising a soft rock radio station, “Raaadio LOVE. 98.7 MHz.” Several Harley-Davidson bikers, dressed in “colors,” were making an enormous roar in the narrow streets. McDonald’s was under construction in the center of town. And, best of all, most of the young people spoke English.
Tallinn was a wonderful transition in our journey between Russia and the West. Westward of Estonia lay the lands of pastry shops and Touch-Tone telephones.