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Intrepid Captain's Next Sail Set

A sea of glitches can't dampen the zeal of a Ukrainian tall-ship skipper and his mate.

May 11, 2003|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

In his homemade tall ship, Dmytro Biriukovich sailed from Kiev, went missing on the high seas, blew triumphantly into New York Harbor, delivered toys to Cuba and, to the amused admiration of a growing coterie of admirers, navigated countless other obstacles large and small.

Then his incredible journey could have ended in a tangle of red tape in Long Beach. Biriukovich and his boat have been here since September, spending the winter before heading west to complete a journey around the world. But he needed a new crew from Ukraine, and they couldn't get visas.

Then last week, fate once again smiled on the 66-year-old Ukrainian with big maritime dreams and little money.

His crew of six, whose visas to enter the U.S. from the Ukraine were held up for months, flew into LAX on Monday.

The crew has set to work repairing the 97-foot Bat'kivshchyna and then will sail off to complete the journey begun three years ago, cursing bureaucracy as they leave.

"He is really ... spectacular," said Veronica Uhryniak, who coordinated the dozens of tall ships from 24 nations that sailed along the Eastern Seaboard as part of the Bicentennial OpSail 2000 festival.

"I'm glad to hear he's still alive," she added.

It is a sentiment frequently voiced by those familiar with the escapades of Biriukovich and his boat, which over the years has been the subject of a U.S. Coast Guard search, has run aground in rivers on two continents and has sailed without radar or, very briefly, a working toilet.

Biriukovich rolls with it all.

"It doesn't matter. It is ocean. We must save ourselves," he said.

"There are three things in life very nice," the captain added, explaining that he was quoting an old saying: "A horse running, a woman without clothes and a boat under sails."

Biriukovich said he has always preferred a boat under sails.

His wife of nearly 45 years, Nina, remembers that for their first date, "he took me not to a restaurant, not to some nice place, but to a boat."

Little did she know what was eventually in store for her. But she has made do. During their stay in Long Beach, Nina, 67, has planted tomatoes in pots on the dock beside the ship and made coffee in the ship's tiny kitchen for homesick Ukrainians drawn by their country's blue and yellow flags.

The flags flap above the ship, a converted fishing boat with two graceful masts that can be taken down when the vessel goes under bridges.

Below, there is a kitchen, a master bedroom and berths for a crew.

"It is difficult to be here in these conditions," she said through a translator. "But home to me is to be with my husband."

For most of their marriage, her husband's wanderlust was never an issue. When Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union, Biriukovich said, he was forbidden to head to the open sea.

Instead, he worked as a civil engineer and confined himself to drifting up and down the Dnieper River, founding the first Ukrainian yacht club in 1967.

Over the years, he and his brothers also began retrofitting rickety old boats with Ferro-Cement, strengthening their hulls and making them sturdy enough for rough seas. One of those is the Bat'kivshchyna, which means "Fatherland" in Ukrainian.

After that nation became independent in 1991, Biriukovich wasted no time in proudly hoisting a Ukrainian flag and shipping out. Down the Dnieper and across the Mediterranean they sailed, to Spain, Greece, Turkey, Italy, Cyprus, Israel.

In all the countries they visited, Biriukovich said, curious passersby would flock outside the ship asking, "What is this flag?"

A staunch Ukrainian patriot, Biriukovich was appalled. "That's how the idea was born," he said. He converted his boat into a floating expression of Ukrainian nationalism, hand-lettering displays in careful, if sometimes idiosyncratic, English.

And then, in late 1999, Biriukovich heard about OpSail 2000, a grand gathering of tall ships, complete with a parade July 4 in New York Harbor with hundreds of vessels.

"I have never met people who were so happy to be there," said Uhryniak, the OpSail coordinator, of her first meeting with the Biriukoviches.

The captain said it would have been unthinkable to ask his government, which was beset by financial troubles, for money. As it turned out, Ukraine used to have a tall ship of its own, a 300-foot beauty, according to Mike Lamperelli, an OpSail volunteer who has become one of Biriukovich's many guardian angels. But he said that boat wound up in Western Europe after independence. So there was only the Bat'kivshchyna, manned by Biriukovich, his wife and a volunteer crew.

"Everyone said, 'Oh my God, are they going to make it?' " Uhryniak said.

Biriukovich said he never had any doubt. But others, including his Canadian son-in-law, Roy Kellogg, were seized by moments of panic during the three months it took the Bat'kivshchyna to cross the Atlantic in the spring of 2000.

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