Black Sea Crossing…..away from conflict
My route across Ukraine was blocked. People were shot at every day a few hundred kilometres ahead of me in the war torn Donbas area close to the border with Russia. Snipers were busy and artillery shells pounded, even civilian jet liners were blown from the sky as separatist rebels and government forces exchanged blows for control and sovereignty. It was unthinkable for anyone to cross the zone unscathed. My only option for further travel East by motorcycle was via a dubious, but much safer ferry service across the Black Sea or a very long detour north via Kiev and beyond.
Mr Vladlem of the UKR Ferry agency fixed an appointment for me at his office in downtown Odessa at eleven o’clock that morning and greeted me with a smile. He thanked me for my punctuality and offered me a seat. A quick look around his cramped working space revealed stacks of paperwork piled on desks and shelves, he was a busy man.
Slowly, in English he gave a well rehearsed speech on what to expect during my three day sail from Odessa to Batumi, in Georgia and warned that the ferry catered mainly for trucks and railway wagons carrying goods and occasionally livestock too. Tourists and motorcycles weren’t really part of the “picture” and there were no frills to be expected on board. I smiled, booked a cabin for myself and paid cash for the passage of one tourist and accompanying motorbike. The “picture” to me was better than a war zone.
The dock was somewhat isolated an hour’s ride South of Odessa and took a while for me to find. There was a run down check in facility with several offices I needed to go through for rubber stamping and passport control. Finally, I was allowed to queue for boarding in an empty square with my bike. To my astonishment and surprise, I found I was not the only motorcycle tourist in line that day. I met Paul, from Scotland, another solo adventure biker also heading East on his mighty KTM 990. Conversation got going and I was happy to have found a new biker pal.
The good ship MS Greifswald was no “family ferry” by any standard. Rather, she was more like some sort of a pick up truck of the sea, packing as Vladlem had told me, a mix of heavy freight vehicles, noisy pigs and sheep, massive rail wagons and a few stacked containers. Paul and I were held back and were amongst the last to board with our iron steads which were parked and secured next to the heavy rolling stock. Then, we were directed to our cabins which although a little bleak were surprisingly clean. I collapsed on my bunk still in my riding gear and closed my eyes. When I woke up some hours later it was dark, the Greifswald had left port and was steaming at sea.
The first night of navigation took us no further than Costanza off the coast of Romania. Here anchors were dropped again for a refuelling stop. As I stumbled out of my cabin early in the morning I learned there had just been some commotion through the night on the main deck . A couple of pigs had broken out of a truck and sparked a frenzied chase around the rail cars. All was in order now but it had taken a while to tire out the animals and secure them back in the truck. I laughed and wondered if this could possibly have happen anywhere else in the world.
The focal point of the Greifswald was definitely the galley. There was a bar open a few hours a day for coffee, tea and expensive beer and this was really the only social event available on board. There was no television, no movies, no internet ……not even karaoke.
Announcements over the intercom were made regularly in Russian and English when meals were about to be served with wishes of a “good appetite” to all.
The food was ok, I mean I liked it and lapped it up without fussing. It’s fair to say though that what we found on our plates were creative combinations to say the least. Pasta served with a breaded fish and tomatoes, or spaghetti with a scoop of liver and baked beans. Russian borsch followed by mash and rye. Breakfast was my favourite: semolina, cabbage, sausage and bread with a cup of lemon tea. I noticed Paul struggled with the variety sometimes. In my mind it was all still better than food in a war zone.
So my friends, all in all the ferry crossing on the Black Sea took almost four days. It should have taken no more than three however, the long fuel stop in Romanian waters, some choppy weather conditions and a technical glitch once docked in Batumi stretched my crossing that little bit further.
I found the Greifswald enjoyable, really! The basic service on board was comfortable enough and certainly left me with enduring memories. The staff was mostly accommodating and courteous. Perhaps the food could have done with a little more care but that was part of the experience too. The long crossing was a chance to relax and get away from riding my motorcycle every day and to catch up with my thoughts in a clean cabin that was luxury enough for me. I had time to plan some routes beyond Georgia and write some emails to send as soon as I found and internet connection once more.
In May 2016 the crossing cost 270 Euro. This included passage for my motorbike, a clean quiet cabin to myself and all meals as well.
The connection between Odessa and Batumi is a regular service that runs at least twice a week although I recommend getting in touch with the UKR ferry office in Odessa a few days before you intend to sail. Their website in English and contact details are easy to find on the net.
The Greifswald has space for cars and vans along with motorbikes and trucks.
One last word of caution…if there is livestock on board you can expect smell when stepping outside in the open. It gets worse after day two and by day four all the animals are moaning about it too, it can be foul ?!
Copyright 2017. Special thanks to Paul Maclean for pictures!