When the British Coast Guard spotted Eugene and Alexander Smurgis bobbing about off the Essex coast, the rowers shouted "Russki, Russki" to identify themselves. In response, the authorities waved charts and tide tables at them and communicated in sign language. Only when a Russian interpreter was brought in were they assured that the Smurgises were not Russian defectors.
Port of London authorities helped them negotiate the Thames estuary to a safe berth. Even as they rowed past the Tower of London, they were bailing out water with an old plastic scoop. "The watertight sections are no longer watertight," Eugene told the interpreter.
Eugene Smurgis and his son Alexander were one-quarter of the way into their amazing around-the-world odyssey, the most ambitious rowing project ever. The fourth leg from Murmansk to London had taken a grueling 88 days, five weeks longer than expected. Like all ocean rowers, they had endured mountainous seas and terrible storms; unlike any other ocean rowers, they had to contend with deadly ice floes.
It was widely reported that the Smurgises spoke not a word of English, but that wasn't true. Eugene knew two: sponsor and storm. Seemingly unrelated, those two words defined, in a curiously complete way, the life of Eugene Smurgis for the past twenty-five years. Storm and sponsor--the first, he'd had enough for ten lifetimes; the second had eluded him entirely.
Well, not entirely. He did have on his side Vasiliy Galenko, a staff writer at Vokrug Sveta (Around the World), an adventure magazine. Galenko, who was Eugene's mate, had brought the magazine into his camp. Although Around the World lacked the resources to pony up the $30,000 needed to complete the round-the-world expedition, the magazine had paid for the boat and contributed p.r. work. And always there was Galenko the Loyal. Now he was in London, searching for sponsors and, in his fractured English, playing the Smurgis spokesman.
"We are hoping to find a big sponsor, one that will support us all the way around the world, not just for certain segments of the trip," Vasiliy told Chris Klein of the Moscow Times, identifying himself as the voyage's coordinator and close family friend. In fact, Galenko had been Eugene's rowing partner on a couple of early expeditions. Sharing a small boat for weeks with a man, even a recluse like Eugene Smurgis, teaches you a thing or two about what makes him tick. As a writer, friend, and fellow adventurer, Galenko was uniquely positioned to know Eugene Smurgis's remarkable story.
Eugene was born in 1938 in Orenburg, Ural. His father was an Air Force pilot. After finishing secondary school, where he first began rowing, Smurgis entered a teachers training institute in the city of Perm near the Ural Mountains. The area, laced with rivers, enabled him to continue rowing.
After graduating from college, he became an anthropology teacher in Tulpan, an out-of-the-way hamlet on one of the Volga's tributaries. It was there that Smurgis first saw the boat of his dreams, the boat that would alter the course of his life. He watched as an old woman struggled at the oars, inching upstream, with heaps of hay piled in the stern. The boat, 7 meters long, was the same design that had been used for centuries by the ancient Pomors tribe along the upper Volga. Its bow and stern were slightly upturned, suggesting a Dutch wooden shoe.
Smurgis hired a local craftsman to build a boat similar to the one he'd seen the old woman rowing. When it was completed, he decided to take it for a spin. Dubbing it Max-4, he took to the oars for 43 days, finishing 4,500 kilometers later in Lipetsk, where his parents lived. In traveling down the Kama and Volga Rivers and up the Don, Smurgis was pleasantly surprised by how easy his small craft was to steer.
He had found his medium, his raison d'etre. He soon realized that full-time teaching was not compatible with marathon rowing. Teaching would have to go. He needed seasonal work, so he quit to become a commercial hunter and woodcutter. For the rest of his life, he would follow the same basic pattern of rowing summers and working winters.
Over the next twenty years, a self-taught Eugene Smurgis rowed 36,700 kilometers of inland waterways, navigating all the major rivers and lakes of Russia, and later Siberia. In the beginning he rowed with a partner, but on his third trip, in 1971, he went alone, crossing part of the Caspian Sea in thirteen days. It was the start of his solo career. In 1976 he went solo for twenty-six days; two years later, he rowed north to the Kara Sea, alone that time for 40 days and 40 nights--all this in a boat with no cabin, no crawl space.
He adapted well to being alone with the sea, but his dream, his ultimate rowing challenge, included a human partner: his son, Alexander.
As a boy, Alexander, nicknamed Sasha, was often sickly and weak, and Eugene, macho conqueror of nature, worried about his "sissy son." Eugene married Alexander's mother in the Far East, but little else is known of her. Sasha, born in December 1971, grew up in the town of Lipetsk, 400 kilometers south of Moscow. By the time he was a teenager, he was a head taller than his sinewy, balding father. The boy had broad shoulders and a lean, athletic body. Although he was a handsome lad, some might say he had a "baby face." This may have fed his father's fears of raising a sissy son. In any case, he vowed to toughen the kid up.
In 1986, when Sasha was not yet fifteen, his father shanghaied him for his longest adventure yet--4,800 kilometers over 44 days. The Smurgis team rowed the Amur River, the Sea of Okhotsk, the Sea of Japan, finishing in Vladivostok. It was there in that eastern Siberia port that Eugene had the vision destined to direct the rest of his life: He and Sasha, Smurgis and Smurgis, would row the world! Alexander's reaction to this blueprint for his life is unknown.
In 1987 father and son united for another marathon row, this time 1400 kilometers on the White Sea and the Onega River. In the fall, Alexander went off to technical college. Eugene, infused with visions of becoming the first Russian to achieve heroic stature in a rowboat, decided he couldn't wait for his son. He would start without him.
In 1988 he journeyed to the northern Siberian community of Tiksi to commence the around-the-world expedition that for so long had fueled his dreams. Tiksi, at about 72 degrees north latitude, was a bi-chromatic world of ice and pale blue water. Although he often had to drag his boat, now Pella-Fiord, over rough pack ice, he reached Khatanga, 1300 kilometers away, in 30 days.
In 1990, with his son still in school, he returned alone to Khatanga, rowed the treacherous waters around Cape Chelyuskin, reaching a latitude of 77 degrees north, and finished at Dikson, reputedly the coldest place in Asia. His total for the second leg: 2,100 kilometers in 65 days.
Vanya Rezvoy, who helped with this article by translating the Smurgis documents from Russian into English, sees Eugene Smurgis as a man who was always rushing. "It's like someone was standing behind him with a stopwatch, yelling 'Go, go!'" he says. Rezvoy has read parts of Eugene's diary, and what emerges for him is someone who seldom stopped to smell the roses. "Much of the diary is technical," he says. "It shows a man without the time to watch nature."
In Dikson, though, Eugene seemed to open up more than usual, at least in his diary. No doubt buoyed by his son's participation, he offered some actual insights:
18 August, 1992 Drizzly. For the last 24 hours didn't have an hour of sleep. Already tired and haven't left Dikson yet. All the trouble of building, transporting, equipping, and organizing the boat, and we still have the rowing to do. In all, 2,500 kilometers through three cold northern seas.
The last two months have worn me out. I can feel tiredness as a huge weight, pressing on my soul, on my body, on my mind. It hasn't been easy--in all my travels I can't remember ever having so little rest time.
We raise our oars to the vertical to signal port authorities that we are ready to leave in (new) Max 4. The "4" stands for four oars, manned by me and my son, Sasha. He was away at technical college and wasn't on the first two legs with me. But he has been a part of my rowing expeditions since he was 14, when we rowed the Lena River.
That time, testing our new boat Pella-fiord, we rowed 4,500 kilometers in 45 days. The next year we rowed the Onega River, from mouth to source. On that trip, I began to take notice of my son. Yes, I realized, he could do things. We made a perfect team, a good fit for each other. Now on this adventure, he has matured even more. He is 20, quite strong, and a perfect companion.
As we leave the harbour, the boat immediately begins jumping on the waves, as if she is happily anticipating this voyage.
19 August Today is my birthday (54th), and God granted us this hut on the shore of a wonderful isolated harbour. Here, protected from the winds, we were able to sort things out on the boat and make improvements. We have already learned that we cannot both sleep at the same time. There is not enough air in the tiny cabin, so we must drill holes.
Sasha is cooking dinner of reindeer meat, and we are having vodka. Fifty-fourth birthday...a lucky day. I'm still traveling, still excited about what I'm doing, still feel like I'm living, really living.
I can't remember the last time I had my birthday on dry land...can't remember the last time I had relatives with me while celebrating my birthday.
I will remember two birthdays forever. One, 1978, caught in pack ice, desperately trying to cross frozen harbour in a storm, white water boiling all around me, wind blowing and foam flying...
The other, 1983, in the Sea of Japan, under a huge, bright moon, quite still, with barely a ripple....
On September 30, 1992, Eugene and Alexander Smurgis reached Murmansk, an ice-free port and the largest city above the Arctic Circle. They had completed the third leg of the most daunting rowing adventure in history. Since leaving Dikson, father and son had covered 2,500 kilometers in 43 days. It was a real Smurgis family achievement, and Eugene was thrilled. Navigating stretches of free water flowing among ice packs, they had crossed the Kara and Barents Seas, all the while enduring ferocious winds, wrong-way currents, limited rations, and each other. They had made it--together.
Taking turns at the oars, they had averaged 4 kilometers an hour--when they rowed. Sometimes the land closed in around them, and they had to use a rope to drag the boat, sometimes over jumbled hummocks of ice.
There is almost no human life on the barren northern sea coast between Dikson and Murmansk. The rowers came upon only the occasional weather station, fishing village, or military site. The few people they did see invariably welcomed them as heroes and offered them supplies. Eugene would show them the letter he carried from the publishers of Around the World magazine, certifying that the Smurgis adventure was legitimate and urging readers of the letter to help. One can trace the progress of the Smurgis boat by the rubber stamps they received from the polar stations, some of which were adrift on ice floes.
When the Smurgises returned to Murmansk in June 1993 to begin the fourth leg, they were sure they had their papers in order. They would now be leaving Russian territory, making security an issue. At first the authorities gave them permission to leave. But then, after two hours of hard rowing out of Murmansk, they were abruptly surrounded by border guards and coast guard officers, who rudely dragged them back to Murmansk. They could feel the tentacles of the Russian bureaucracy closing around them.
Aided by Around the World magazine, the rowers had procured seaman's passports and, they thought, the necessary stamps. They registered as the crew of an "ocean-going vessel," which essentially let them leave the country anytime they had a good reason to go.
The stooges in the Ministry of Security, formerly known as the KGB, were slow to catch on, but they eventually decided the Smurgis boat did not qualify as an ocean-going vessel. Although the rowers' paperwork had been in perfect order, the bureaucrats waved their magic wand and rendered them worthless. Father and son were forced to return to Lipetsk to sort out matters. At first Eugene was furious, but he soon accepted the delay as just another in a long line of obstacles they must overcome. Two weeks later, they were back in Murmansk with new, improved paperwork.
Murmansk to London was a definite increase in intensity. The distance was 4,000 kilometers, much of it above the Arctic Circle. Then there was the North Sea, with its terrible headwinds. In all, they took 88 days, more than twice as long as from Dikson to Murmansk, and suffered untold hardships.
"It has been a constant battle against the weather," Eugene told an interpreter, "but at no time did we allow ourselves to feel afraid." With a touch of national pride, he added, "The boat was made by craftsmen from the Urals, so we knew it would get us through even the worst storms."
But that was then and this was now. And now In London they needed provisions and boat repairs and a new radio (their old one had a range of 5 miles). Eugene publicly offered to put any sponsors' names on the boat. Adding a little butter, he told reporters, "We wanted to visit Britain because it has been the home of so many great seafarers throughout history."
Added Alexander: "A lot of great sailors throughout history have set sail from London on transatlantic journeys. We are pleased to be following them in our rowing boat."
On September 29, 1993, four weeks after arriving in London, Eugene Smurgis rowed down the Thames and out into open water--alone. He had no sponsor and, more important, no son. His dream of rowing around the world en famille was in ashes. Alexander, after being detained as an illegal immigrant by English authorities, was en route back to Russia, while he was left to continue the journey by himself.
He was bitterly disappointed in his son. his sissy son. He had simply broken under the pressure, the deprivation, the sheer hard work. A big reason he had started the whole adventure, he told himself, was to share it with his son. It had been his chance to make a man out of him, but he had failed.
For Eugene, the difficulties and hardships were a gift of fate; he lived for such challenges. But Alexander was not like that, and it was a difference Eugene couldn't accept. So beaten down was Sasha that in London he nearly suffered a nervous breakdown. When Galenko or others questioned him about the Murmansk-to-London leg, tears would well up in his eyes and he couldn't speak. In a BBC interview, he responded to the inevitable "How tough was it?" question with a shake of the head and a mumbled,"Very difficult." Vanya Rezvoy considers it likely that Eugene stifled any talk that might be seen as a complaint.
Such relentless pressure sent Alexander teetering on the psychological edge. But Eugene could see only a son who, once obedient, was now a rebel, out of control. Galenko recognized what Eugene was blind to: The boy needed time to rest, time to restore mind, body, and spirit. Why not stop and celebrate the victory so far? suggested Galenko. But it was not to be. The invisible stopwatch continued to tick, even if Eugene was the only one who could hear it. After several quarrels, Sasha, fed up with the ironman routine, withdrew from the row.
Vasiliy Galenko sympathized with the boy. He knew almost as well as Alexander what it was like to share a rowboat with Eugene. He had accompanied him on a 1983 expedition along the Amur River to Vladivostok and the Sea of Japan (1,750 kilometers in 30 days), during which they ran smack into two typhoons. It wasn't so much that Smurgis was autocratic, rather that he was impulsive to the extreme, relentlessly determined to do things his own way and confident that it was the right way. That usually meant going rather than staying, if that was the debate. Although it was the ideal philosophy for a one-man boat, it was a tad insensitive toward a boatmate. For his part, Galenko finally realized that if he continued rowing marathons with Eugene, he would either die or have a nervous breakdown. Small wonder if Sasha had reached the same conclusion.
Still, you had to admire the old man's dedication, his tenacity. He had a bulldog's grip on this round-the-world expedition, and nothing could tear him away. Time after time, he ignored the warnings of others and rowed into the teeth of storms, only to emerge unscathed at the other end. His diary supports the impression of a man lacking the gene for fear. "They told me there will be a storm. Should I wait? Nah, I'll go." One by one, his companions succumbed to a dread that was alien to Eugene.
Of course, after more than 700 days and nights of rowing, Smurgis could be excused for believing that he was the most qualified judge of rowing risk. Who was going to give advice to a man who had spent almost two years of his life in a small rowboat?
The Coast Guard tried to. When it was time to leave London and head south for the Mediterranean, they urged Smurgis to stay inland and navigate the canals of France rather than brave the Atlantic Ocean and the dreaded Bay of Biscay. Not surprisingly, he ignored their advice, saying, "I don't want to soak my oars in fresh water anymore. I am an ocean rower now."
Dover 6 October, 2:00 a.m. As I slept on my boat, a dead silence was broken by a knocking. "Hello, I'm a Russian tourist and I sw you on TV. Would you like some vodka?"
I declined the vodka but accepted his offer of food. Then he asked for a photograph and I gave him one. He is also called Sasha, from St. Petersburg. His wife is Irish. Before he left to catch a ferry, he apologized for waking me. "I couldn't resist," he said. "Incidentally, where is your son?"
And so I had to lie and not tell this nice guy that my son just broke down, that he turned out to be a sissy.
The appearance of this fellow Russian is the only bright spot in these last few unhappy days of westerly winds and black clouds.
When I tried to leave, I progressed only 100 meters in one hour. Though I impressed the fellows in the pilot boat with my efforts, I had to return to the marina.
Dover 8 October I'm here with 120 Russian cadets from a huge sailing barque. Some of the cadets took a ride on my boat and liked it very much. I have been working on the boat and taking walks around town, thinking only one thing: Will the coming storms let me reach the Canary Islands?
Sasha, of course, is gone. The moment he smelled something burning on the stove, he defected. Perhaps the instinct for self-preservation is stronger when you're young.
I, on the other hand, have no place to retreat, no place to go back to. My money problems only seem to get worse. Even rationing my food, I have hardly enough for one month more. Yesterday I denied myself the pleasure of eating my one true luxury item--salted pork fat. I counted on selling some of the souvenirs I'm carrying for food money, but the beaches are empty and they won't let me sell in the cities.
Two German and two Dutch yachts left today, and now only one Danish catamaran and I are left. Spirits are low--I'm depressed--and rain every day adds to that feeling.
Awake at two on the morning to strong winds and waves. Try to change the position of the boat, but it is futile in these winds.
7:00 a.m. Looking out at sea from the pier, it is all white. Damn, damn, damn! Every day counts now.
The Russian captain of the barque invited me to attend their farewell dinner, but I declined.
Trying to leave, trying to leave. I harness myself to the boat and make a desperate attempt to leave the harbour. But low tide combined with wind drag me back. And that after the Russian captain talked me into trying at low tide.
Back in, I tie to a buoy and cook dinner. At 9:30 the pilot boat appears, and the captain tells me it's the right time to leave. Now I must battle not only rough seas but darkness. Still, I can see lights along the shore, so it is okay.
I have to sweat a lot just to get out of the harbour, but I finally make it. Good bye, land. Will I see you again? The pilot boat returns, signals with a siren, and leaves again. I never heard a complaint from those men, even though I cost them a lot of time and trouble. I will take it as a tribute to the importance of my mission.
The Dover Coast Guard warned Smurgis to avoid the treacherous Bay of Biscay, but of course that was daring a child, like waving a red flag in front of a bull. They urged him to use the French canal system instead. Once again he ignored the advice. Who dared tell him how to row, row, row his boat?
English Channel, 25 October Tied the oars and locked myself in the cabin, a dark place. And also dark thoughts about the future and my current situation. According to the plan hatched by Vasiliy and me, I should be in the Canary Islands by now...and I have yet to reach France.
In the mornings it is okay--my spirits are usually high. But once it gets dark, my spirits go down with the temperature. But it will be fine. The biggest ventures in life are hard, but you must do them all the way to the end.
I see this journey as a tribute to my father. Last time I saw him in a hospital bed, he told me, "No matter what happens to me, don't delay your adventure." He died soon after that, almost as though he preplanned his death so that I could be there to bury him. His timing was perfect--I didn't even have to postpone leaving for Murmansk.
Eight in the morning, rowing south. Can see three islands off Normandy (Channel Islands)...a lighthouse...and then a continent: France!
Island of Jersey 26 October Got my anchor stuck. Debated waiting for the current to change. But what if I wait and still can't get my anchor back? Cut the cable and lost the anchor. It was a good anchor that served me well not too long. It was a gift anyway. And that's how I lost 21 pounds of anchor and 50 meters of cable.
So now I have to get ashore and find a rock to make my spare anchor heavier. The shore here looks inviting. There are lots of nice green harbours and good places to get ashore.
Some Frenchmen approach shouting the name of (French ocean rower) Gerard d'Aboville. They are happy that I know of him, and they give me a dozen bottles of beer.
Bay of Biscay 14 November Spent the night worrying. I don't like this area, with the rocks nearby, a devilish neighborhood. How many souls have been lost here? I hope I won't add one more soul to the collection.
By 5 o'clock the boat is jumping more than ever. White water all around. I still see the rocks. It's two hours before the low tide will be over.
Finally I unhooked from the buoy and started rowing, trying to put a safe distance between me and the rocks. An hour and a half row against the current, crawling southeast. With the high tide, and the boat started going, going, going. Now I can relax and have some breakfast....
Got some breakfast, got some rest, and started rowing southwest with the current.
At night I saw that if the wind doesn't weaken or change, I will be blown back to La Rochelle, two hours of rowing wasted. If so, I will spend the night there, shower, send a fax to Vasiliy, and get in touch with the press...
It's too bad I'm spending all my energy correcting the effects of the wind. All the time I row southwest but move directly south.
I'm surrounded by shallows, and strange posts are sticking out of the water all over. I've tied off to a buoy. I will stay here until the next high tide, at 22:30.
Thus ends Eugene Smurgis's final entry. Sometime later that day, November 14, 1993, under mysterious circumstances, the Russian rower was thrown from his boat. The next day Max-4 washed ashore near the town of La Tremblade, on the west coast of France. Four days later, after a massive but fruitless search, Smurgis's body washed ashore nearby.
After Smurgis's death, Around the World published excerpts of Eugene's diary. Vasiliy Galenko continued to write articles publicizing the exploits of his difficult friend. Trying to explain what would possess someone to attempt to row around the world, Galenko pointed to the Amur River-to-Vladivostok expedition he shared with Smurgis: "We made it through 30 days and two typhoons. Eugene was ready to push farther. The time was ripe for a round-the-world trip."
Galenko suggests three other factors that motivated Smurgis: "First geographic curiosity, because he was a traveler at heart. Second, to make history. And finally, it was a romantic thing to do."
Galenko arranged for Max-4 to be donated to a maritime museum in La Tourblade "as a monument to the courage of the Russian adventurer." He also put together a memorial service for Smurgis in La Tremblade on April 2, 1994.
In response to an invitation to attend the ceremony, French ocean rower Gerard d'Aboville sent Galenko the following letter:
Thanks for your letter which I just received. Many thanks also for all the information enclosed.
Unfortunately I did not know about Eugene before a journalist informed me that a Russian rower was lost at sea in Bay of Biscay.
I would have liked so much meeting Eugene when he was in Brest, and maybe I would have been able to convince him not to cross the Bay of Biscay (a very dangerous place) in the time of year he tried to...