From Russia with Luff

Viktor Yazykov surmounted countless obstacles-- even performing surgery on himself in the middle of the Atlantic-- en route to becoming the first Russian to complete a solo circumnavigation. From our May 1999 issue

August 1, 2007

Viktor Yazykov performs surgury on his abscessed elbow during the 1998-9 Around Alone race

Viktor Yazykov performs surgury on his abscessed elbow during the 1998-9 Around Alone race

Viktor Yazykov’s elbow could’ve been a metaphor for the land of his birth: damaged, fragile, and shaky, there was no way of telling how much more it could take. But Yazykov-sailing his shockingly fast 40-footer, Wind of Change, deep in the South Atlantic en route to Cape Town, South Africa, on Leg 1 of the Around Alone race-was a long way from his hometown of Sochi on the Black Sea. He was also a long way from a doctor. As Yazykov examined his swollen arm, he was struck by an awful realization: if he didn’t get treatment soon, he’d bring new meaning to the term “singlehanded sailor.”

Yazykov’s long-held dream of sailing the world’s great solo races had become a nightmare. Five weeks earlier, he had left Charleston, South Carolina, several days after the official start due to his late arrival from his transatlantic qualifer. Despite his quick progress, he was soon overcome by a crippling bout of depression, a first for a man who normally exudes good health. Yazykov had departed against doctor’s orders, having injured his elbow during the crossing. On Leg 1, he further aggravated the problem when he was forced aloft for several hours in a gale after a shroud parted. While he was making the repair, the arm took terrible abuse. When Yazykov stepped back on deck, his physical well-being was no better than his mental state.

Via the COMSAT satellite email that is the primary source of fleet communications, Yazykov informed race headquarters of his situation. Officials relayed the information to Dr. Dan Carlin, a former Navy physician who operates World Clinic, a Boston company that provides “telemedical” services to offshore sailors and other adventurers. Carlin determined that Yazykov’s elbow was abscessed and required immediate attention. The solo sailor would need to perform surgery upon himself.


Carlin emailed a 10-step procedure to Yazykov, who broke out the elaborate medical kit issued to each skipper, strapped on a headlamp, turned on his video camera, took out the scalpel, and went to work. Later, he wrote in another email message: “For about half an hour [after finishing] I did not know what to do. Have been sitting on the bloody cabin floor almost completely naked all covered with blood with right arm lashed up and watching as my life drop by drop leaving me [and] making little lake bigger, rolling [boat] moves it from side to side.”

Due to charging problems, Yazykov could only send email when his solar panels topped off his batteries. Without the power to communicate right after the operation, he had no way of asking for follow-up advice. Unwittingly, Yazykov rigged a tourniquet to staunch the bleeding, a procedure that could’ve had tragic consequences. When it didn’t work, he cut it loose, drank some red wine “to make new blood,” and passed out. There must have been an angel in his rigging, for when Yazykov awoke, he was on the mend. During the 24 hours that he was totally out of commission, his boat-without autopilot but tracking along nicely-knocked off 239 miles. Several days later he sailed across the finish line and into a media frenzy, amazed to find that his story had attracted worldwide attention.

One of two Around Alone skippers who set out with the aim of becoming the first Russian to complete the race (for Fedor Konioukhov’s story, see “A Mountain Too High,” page 38), Viktor Yazykov had wandered into harm’s way before. Twelve years ago, he was “recalled” into the Soviet army and sent to the site of the Chernobyl nuclear-plant disaster to work on the cleanup. Stationed at a camp some 20 miles away, Yazykov was trucked in several days a week for highly radioactive duty. “Later, I met people who got the same [draft notice] but didn’t go,” he said. “I could’ve probably escaped, too, but somebody had to do it. Most of the people I worked with there had really bad troubles after. Most are dead.”


Today, at age 50, Yazykov is lean and hard, with the physique of an NFL cornerback two decades younger. He has always relished excruciating workouts-he spent two “enjoyable” years of his youth in an army commando school where he learned arctic and desert survival skills and how to sky-dive fully armed. But his favorite activity is cold-water swimming, year round, even if it takes breaking the ice to find water. “In coldest time of year, you dive in and you feel like you’re a new man,” he said. “You have force again. It gets you ready for anything.” Still, Yazykov spent the two years that followed his Chernobyl obligation feeling tired. He believes he avoided long-term radiation sickness by drinking gallons of green tea.

“Nobody else did that. It was important. It absorbed the radiation.”

Yazykov is clearly not a man who subscribes to conventional wisdom, despite growing up in a system that embraced conformity. The oldest of three brothers, he saw his first sailing dinghy when he was 16 and was immediately hooked. “I knew immediately it was my nature,” he said. After his army discharge, in his early 20s Yazykov enrolled in a prestigious nautical college on the Sea of Japan with the intent of learning navigation, earning his seaman’s card, and going to work aboard a North Pacific fishing boat. He also picked up Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World and, with a group of friends at the local, government-run yacht club, began fixing up tired old sailboats and racing them as fiercely as he could. The military training, the marine education, the grueling self-imposed regimen, the hard miles on the fishing boats-all were leading Yazykov down an inevitable path towards his own offshore calling.


Soon Yazykov was managing the yacht club. There he met his wife of 25 years, Ludmilla, who one day got a look at the strapping sailing instructor and decided she needed lessons. He also made another important alliance. Through his connections, years later he was also offered the opportunity to join the Fazisi campaign, Russia’s first and only entry in the Whitbread Round the World race.

From the outset, however, the Fazisi program was a mess. Yazykov worked on the building of the boat under the ever-watchful eye of humorless security guards. At the end of Leg 1, in Uruguay, the co-skipper and project manager-a close friend of Yazykov’s-succumbed to the pressure and committed suicide. After Leg 2, in Australia, Yazykov was dismissed. Later, Skip Novak, an American sailor who had been hired on as Fazisi co-skipper to bring a measure of reason to the proceedings, wrote, “I was carrying on [with the race], but the project’s central committee had dispatched Viktor back to the salt mines for reasons which still have never been made clear to me. I thought I would never see him again.”

Yazykov did not disappear. Back home, in 1990, he returned to the boat he’d started building four years earlier. There were no West Marine stores in Sochi, but over the years the resourceful sailor had become a master of improvisation. And he was always a hard worker. With lumber milled from chestnut trees that he’d literally dragged out of the woods, Yazykov constucted a beautiful 29-footer on oak frames that he called Laguna. Her mast was fashioned from an irrigation pipe. The lead keel was cast in a specially dug hole. With plywood, lead, acid, and metal plates, Yazykov even handcrafted the boat’s batteries. Then, using the seaman’s passport from his fishing days, he wrangled an exit visa and, with Ludmilla as crew, sailed off to compete in the 1992 singlehanded transatlantic race.


The 28-day crossing from Plymouth, England, to Newport, Rhode Island, was the fulfillment of another dream. But Yazykov had cruised into a bureaucratic nightmare. He’d left the U.K. with a promise from race organizers that a valid visa would be awaiting him upon arrival. It wasn’t, and U.S. immigration officials told Yazykov that he faced deportation and that Ludmilla wouldn’t be allowed to join him while his case was under review.

Yazykov was rescued by a local sailor named John Deveau, a chandlery owner who had volunteered to host one of the solo sailors. Over the next few months, Deveau took Yazykov into his home and became a champion of his cause. On the eve of his October deportation hearing, Deveau put in a desperate call to NBC News in New York. “They were going to force him to set sail in hurricane season by himself,” said Deveau. “It would’ve been suicide.” But a sympathetic telecast outlining Yazykov’s predicament carried the day. He was granted permission to stay for the winter. Ludmilla joined him, and Yazykov landed a job at Hall Composites in Bristol, Rhode Island.

Yazykov would put his fresh sailing and building experiences to good use. In Newport, he formed a friendship with local sailor Bob Adams, who also yearned for solo offshore adventures. Together, the two hatched a scheme to constuct a pair of identical 40-footers for the 1998-99 Around Alone race. Because Yazykov had some talented buddies who, by Western standards, worked cheap, they decided to set up shop in Russia. But the plan would produce mixed results. The radical canting-keel sloops, designed by Yazykov and Adams in collaboration with naval architect Steve Baker, were ultimately terrific little boats finished to a high, professional standard. But they took longer to build than planned. And, due to travel and the cost of shipping gear and materials to Russia, they were more expensive, too. “It was like that old saying about going broke saving money,” said Deveau.

The effort put a huge strain on their relationship. Although Yazykov and Adams launched their twin ships last summer and set off to sail for Charleston and the start of Around Alone, by the time the pair reached Gibraltar, they were no longer speaking to one another. Deveau, who remains close to both men, said, “Business relations between friends can be difficult, but when you have the same personalities, it can be even tougher. Bob and Viktor are cut from the same cloth.”

Midway across a slow transatlantic qualifier, running out of time and cash-Adams had been the campaign’s primary source of funds, and due to the belated launch, none of his hoped-for sponsorship backing had materialized-the Rhode Islander radioed that he was withdrawing his entry and sailing home. Yazykov pressed on to Charleston and, even though he was late for the official start, joined the race a few days after the September 26 send-off.

Despite his injury, Yazykov sailed an outstanding first leg. His elapsed time of 44 days, 12 hours was just four days slower than that registered by the Class II winner. “My boat is remarkable,” Yazykov said. “She’s everything I want. My time could’ve been better, but my autopilot worked only 15 percent of the time.”

On Leg 2, Yazykov returned to the same salty Southern Ocean he’d tasted 10 years earlier aboard Fazisi. And again he sailed with distinction, arriving in Auckland just hours after Mike Garside and Brad Van Liew, both sailing 50-footers. “My boat is different than other boats,” he said. “I’m very satisfied with it.”

But it was on Leg 3 that Yazykov realized his grand ambition and became the first Russian solo sailor to race around Cape Horn. “I saw it from a distance, around 30 miles,” he said. “Then we came closer. It was the middle of the night and there was a full moon and I could see it gold in the moonlight. It was great. As long as my life is, that’s how long I have been thinking about Cape Horn.”

Yazykov told his story beside a flapping flag of Uruguay, a beautiful flag adorned with an oval, smiling sun. It was impossible to say whose grin was brighter.


More Destinations