Crossing the Black Sea


From 2007:

Today we’d sail on the Yuzhnaya Palmyra, a ship of the UKRFerry shipping company, on once weekly service Istanbul to Odessa. It was to be an approximately 28 hour crossing of the Black Sea south to north, although we’d have to see about the timing.

Departure was set for 9:00 on the web, 10:00 on our ticket (a hard copy they insisted on sending via DHL for $70 from Ukraine to the U.S.), and 11:00 by the people at the hotel, who made some calls on our behalf. So arrival as well, I suspected, ought to be approximate.

We presented ourselves down at the Karakoy docks shortly past 8:00 a.m. “Actual Time,” as the reception clock had it. We had ample time for a spin up and down ship, stem to stern, and an extended goodbye to the mosques filling the Istanbul skyline, lying at anchor, as we were, just meters across the Golden Horn from Topkapi and Sultanahmet. There would be breakfast service before heaving ho, part of the “three meals a day provided all passengers.”

It may have still been Istanbul outside but it was full Ukraine in the песторан (restaurant). Most of the good Ukrainian women were fat as those Americans they worry about on the news, most everyone smoking wherever possible, and a bunch of smoking and horseplay over a 9:30 breakfast of Slavic breakfast staples, cheese and meat slices, an egg dish and a sausage, a tea bag and aching-sweet juice the color of kvass.

Kvass was a Soviet era concoction a young man named Еѵгєлу (Evgeny) once showed me how to sample back in 1986 in a kiosk outside Red Square – served with the nice Soviet touch of a single, shared glass. Here each got our own glass. Mirja and I shared our table with a family of three women, all in print dresses, and a video-taping man.

Even as you gazed out onto working ships with good Turkish names like the Turgut and The Osman, and teeming local ferries of the Tur Yol line, here came women indefinably Ukrainian, with name tags Iruna and big ‘ol Svetlana, slinging plates for six or eight stacked right up their arms. There were pats of butter, and a jug of кетчуп (ketchup) on every table.

Syrupy ballads from the steppes blared straight out of Slavic central casting. They were just enough too loud to notice they were a little too loud.

It took half a year for word to reach the Atlantic coast that gold had been discovered in California. Here, it took three minutes to be jostled by regular, abrupt announcements, way too loud. In the style of receptionists back home, whose announcement echoes across, say, the parking lot of the car dealership, they never thought to put the handset down gently, but instead rattled it around in search of its cradle.

Turkish, Turks will tell you, is useless outside his country’s borders. Even inside in this case, as even at the Istanbul dock, the only announcements were in Ukrainian with just an occasional partial English translation.

Further humiliating, the Ukranian home currency, the hyrvna, and the dollar were just about the only ones in play. I had extra Turkish lira, and while they’d trade in them on the Palmyra, I put them away in the (probably idle) hope I could convert them later at a less usurious rate than on the ship.

Lots of smiles among the passengers. A country crowd, I thought, except for young men, most in sleeveless T’s or undershirts which apparently pass for cool or maybe virile hereabouts, all painted with the permanent scowl of defiance you see on 17 or 20 year olds worldwide.

I wish I could have telepathically conveyed, on behalf of every other man, the simple notion, “We don’t want your (brightly painted) woman.”

Those smiles were because frowns, I think, meet the unknown, and it appears Ukranians don’t get out much and thus lots of stuff is still the unknown. But smiles are the great diffuser.

The Yuzhnaya Palmyra staff was prefectly courteous. They were a little too loud. There was a playroom, a beauty shop (nyet manicures), an open bar (from 8:00 a.m.), a gift shop with cosmetics and a selection of fabrics under locked glass for sale, a disco and a «Country Bar,» a punching bag and a weight machine on deck upstairs, slot machines in the smoky stairwells between decks and two or three swarthy Slavs watching from the shadows beside Lucky Joker and Double Diamond and Ballygator slots.

The Sony TV in our cabin had a replacement value USD$1130 in case of damage, according to the brochure kindly provided in the room. There was a fridge (a Nord, replacement value $260), and a double bed. Perfectly nice.

Muted colors, everything scrubbed spotless. The Palmyra was nearly spotlessly clean, yet only after a scant few hours the crew set about washing down the decks. Mirja was reading a book titled Ahab’s wife, and in Ahab’s honor decided to name this ship’s captain Captain Anal.

We looked set to waddle north across the sea, to’ing and fro’ing and smoking, side to side ambling with a boat full of tourists from Ukraine who’d come down to see Istanbul and were now headed home.

The ship offered its Ukrainian passengers “The Night Panorama” tour, “Folklore show at the Orient House,” “A visit to Aqua Marine water park,” and “Aviation Museum” tours, among others.

How in the hell did they get the couch in the cabin!? It measured palm to armpit in its smallest dimension and the door was only palm to biceps. And anyway the clearance in the passageway only scarcely accomodated two standing people and the couch was longer than me if I laid on it. It wouldn’t fit it through the window. The window was even smaller.


At 12:10 the tender Zubaydeh arrived, connected and winched us away from Karakoy pier, and by 1:30 we’d finished the traverse of the Bosphorus, clearing the final lighthouse.

Shortly before we left the Bosphorus coast we slipped past a shipment of the most busted up, dilapidated old tractors you’ll ever see, sliding by us to port, all heaped one in front of the other on the deck of a cargo ship. You just had to wonder first, to whom they were worth saving, and second, from where they came – the Donbass in eastern Ukraine, maybe Abkhazia, the breakaway region of Georgia to the far east of the Black Sea?

Surely not from the north coast of Turkey, from whence they might have been transported by road or rail, or from the richer Danube basin to the west.

Shoreline fell away instantly behind the queue of ships stretching off toward Bulgaria and Romania and the Danube delta beyond. Ahead was only open water, no shore forward of the ship.

Land nearly gone behind us, staring into the rising and falling and ever re-forming triangles shaped by the waves, we considered the stark division between man-induced worries just back there, amid the bawling frenzy of 14 million people in Istanbul, and the abrupt and absolute indifference of the sea.

Just at this time back at home I was involved in two separate and entirely different matters involving lawyers, in two different states. I vehemently did not ask for either affair, but rather they sought me out, and I had worked myself into some kind of a case of hand-wringing nerves prior to our sailing, trying to find out the latest back home. The sea did not give a damn.

It was a succession of feeding on the Yuzhnaya Palmyra, just like on the glitz ships of the west, but lunch was culinarily less successful. A cup o’ creosote, a cold beet salad, brown meat Mirja divined as pork. Music had turned to a rather too loud and dramatic piano.

There were, however, nice home touches. Like flipping a switch we had moved from Levantine vine leaves and Turkish puff pastrties – still just about literally within sight to aft – to warm, familiar Finn-like food: potato soup from tureens and shredded cabbage salads.

After our tablemates left and the dining area began to clear out, it became impossible not to notice the increasingly theatrical, but no less real, weeping at a table over behind Mirja. A woman in a black sleeveless blouse sat in the seat nearest the wall, clutching a tissue, facing the window, keening at the sea. She was utterly alone.

We gave her considerable berth but we were concerned enough to ask the serving women if they thought they should look after her. Mirja imagined she had just gotten a cell phone call with news of a death or equally weighty calamity.

But the woman we asked sort of touched her temple, indicating the woman was perhaps a touch mad, and made us know that the woman was made sad by the melodramatic piano music with which they flooded the dining hall.

We could only assume maybe they’d already had this experience with her on the way down from Odessa, and at least in any event we knew the staff women in the dining hall didn’t seem too concerned.

And later on, in Country Bar, Mirja spotted our weeper grooving to the Europop, then dancing alone in a performance we could only guess she would rue in the morning. If she was drunk for her afternoon keening session, she had bounced back professionally.

An east wind and full sun led to a calm sunset. In the afternoon as we all lolled on deck, a meteorological phenomenon reminiscent of Lake Malawi filled the sky. In Malawi the gray had been its lake flies. Today over the Black Sea an isolated bank of cloud set up a gray wall of precipitation which evaporated before it reached the level of the sea. A gray wall against the sky from the clouds to an indeterminate level above our heads and out to the horizon, rain that stopped en route to earth.

After midnight the Palmyra took on a pitch and a roll, the plates in the pantry rattled, and out on the deck, just as beautiful a moonset as you’ll ever see, the ship now quiet, the horizon undiscernable. The moon hung impossibly low, its position against the horizon impossible to judge, a sharp half moon, lit on its face from 1:00 to 7:00, pumpkin orange, the only light to be seen outside the white caps lit by the ambient light of the ship.

I thought to break inside for my camera but stood down, for I knew instantly that its beauty would be impossible to capture on mere film, like a landscape we once saw crossing Tibet.

On this night its radiance defined the freedom of the sailor, unencumbered by humanity, open instead to the gaping enormity of nature.

 – See the Ukraine Gallery and the Turkey Gallery at



One thought on “Crossing the Black Sea

  1. Reblogged this on Common Sense and Whiskey and commented:

    Because Ukraine is back in crisis this week, with some of its military ships impounded by Russia during an attempted trip from Odessa through the Kerch Strait, this might be a good time to revisit a trip from several years back between Istanbul and Odessa by overnight ferry. Here’s how that went:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s