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The Odessa Odyssey
Amy Nutt
August 02, 1993
A crew from Ukraine scrimps and scrapes in the U.S. to prepare for a Homeric race around the world
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August 02, 1993

The Odessa Odyssey

A crew from Ukraine scrimps and scrapes in the U.S. to prepare for a Homeric race around the world

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The temperature out on Rattlesnake Point is hovering around 100�. Inside one of the mammoth Trident Shipyard hangars that anchor this barren patch of earth to Tampa Bay's southern shore sits the shiny white hull of the racing yacht Odessa. It has no mast yet, no bulkheads, and the hand-engraved ship's bell hangs from a huge crane just off the boat's stern.

It's noon, and the eight sailors from the former Soviet Union who have been drilling and sanding and painting Odessa's hull for the past six months are taking a quick lunch break. Their dining room, just beyond hangar number 2, is a plywood shack with swatches of blue plastic stretched—not quite successfully—over gaping holes in the walls. Their table is an old wooden door propped on sawhorses. Their lunch, for something like the 180th day in a row, is packaged Oriental soup noodles. With the heat hammering at them, they eat quickly and quietly.

The eight-man Odessa crew is made up of two electrical engineers, a mechanical engineer, a commercial navigator, a marine researcher, an architect, a university student and a professional yacht racer who come from places like Kiev and Moscow and Odessa. In the heat of Tampa, they think of their families back home, of the work yet to be done, of their empty stomachs. Most of all, they think about the sea and about the race. It is all they have been thinking about for two years.

Under even the best of circumstances, a nine-month circumnavigation of the globe is no vacation, which is probably why The Whitbread Round the World Race, a quadrennial event first organized in 1973, has been described as the Mount Everest of yacht racing. The 16 yachts entered in the 1993-94 Whitbread—of which Odessa hopes to be one—will split the voyage into five stages. They sail from Southampton, England, on Sept. 25, and their ports of call will be Punta del Este, Uruguay; Fremantle, Australia; Auckland, New Zealand; back to Punta del Este; and on to Fort Lauderdale before returning to Southampton next June.

It is a voyage of Homeric proportions. In past Whitbreads, sailors have been swept overboard in furious storms off Cape Horn and boats have been crippled by equipment failure or dismasted.

Odessa's odyssey began on land, nearly three years ago. In December 1990 Anatoly Verba, who had sailed in the '89-90 Whitbread, formed a partnership with Rick Grajirena, a Tampa businessman and fellow sailor, to launch a joint U.S.-Soviet 1993 Whitbread campaign. The collapse of the Soviet Union less than a year later, however, threatened to stop their campaign dead in the water.

When the ruble took a nosedive, prospects for getting Odessa's hull built did too. In March 1991 the Odessa Yachtsman's Association had contracted with Volga Buran in Novgorod, near St. Petersburg, to build the yacht's hull for 1.4 million rubles. By January 1992 the price tag had risen to an astronomical 55 million rubles. "Essentially," says Grajirena, "they were holding the boat hostage." After six months a compromise was reached, and in July '92 the company agreed to build the hull, this time for a mere 7.8 million rubles. Unfortunately for Verba and his crew, Volga Buran didn't complete construction of the hull.

Undaunted, Verba and his mates decided to finish the boat themselves. They moved into a ramshackle boardinghouse in Novgorod that had no hot water, no shower and only one small kitchen for 30 residents. "It was a 0.0001-star hotel, out of four stars," Verba deadpans now.

Late in October '92 Odessa's deck and hull were complete, though the bulkheads were not. With winter fast approaching, the crew decided to ship the unfinished yacht home to Odessa before the first snowfall. On Oct. 27 Odessa's 63-foot hull was lashed to a flatbed truck for the 1,300-mile journey. Sixty miles into the trip it started to snow, forcing the driver to crawl along at 20 mph. It took seven days to reach Odessa. On Jan. 10 both yacht and crew were loaded onto a cargo freighter bound for Honduras. On Feb. 7 the eight weary sailors finally made landfall in Tampa. The race to the Whitbread starting line had been halfway run.

Behind the hangar that houses Odessa, Verba, 47, huddles with some of his American friends in the tiny trailer he lives in. The ceiling leaks, and there is no hot water. Verba's eyes are red rimmed and puffy from lack of sleep. The group is brainstorming about how to get the funds to finish Odessa before the Whitbread's September deadline. Donations to Verba and his crew have come in all shapes and sizes: a $1,000 check from a Canadian banker, Topsiders for the crew from a local shoe company and T-shirts from sympathetic American sailors. For months food had been delivered to the crew weekly by a Catholic soup kitchen in Clearwater, Fla.; last week a Hyatt Hotel in Tampa began delivering dinner to the crew every night.

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