SEA WORTHY: The crew’s around-the-world voyage included sailing through pirate-infested waters.
KLAIPEDA - Had they devoted their around-the-world sailing to Lithuania’s past millennium anniversary or some world challenge, let us say, global warming, they would have been national heroes now. However, they did not, so they are not. “Honestly, we did not like the idea of highlighting anything, no matter how noble an idea can be. I call it a family sailing trip. Family yacht sailing is the best family-bonding activity I can think of,” Andrius Varnas, a Minija village resident, says.
His daughter, Rasa, her Basque boyfriend, Egoi, and he, a seasoned yachtsman, have just finished their around-the-world sailing voyage on Ragaine II. Two years and two weeks it took for this seemingly improbable voyage. Their yacht, built in 1995, has ploughed through 55,000 kilometers of high seas, sometimes quite hostile, entering 44 countries.
“I have always been dreaming of taking the challenge. I have always wanted to criss-cross the world,” the 56-year-old Andrius confesses modestly. The trip cost him over 80,000 litas (23,100 euros), but he downplays the costs. “For some, one million euros is not enough per year, while others make their ends meet with a couple of thousand euros. I am far from being a well-to-do man, as I have put most of my savings into the trip,” the seafarer confesses.
The sailing-crazed trio is not the first Lithuanian crew to have embarked and successfully finished the high seas odyssey. However, “Our predecessors were mostly professional yacht sailors, very well equipped. We were the first Lithuanian family to have ever completed this kind of crossing. We were not going after some records, but sailing slowly, enjoying it. My daughter has dubbed the sailing ‘Sail around the world safely,’” Varnas related to The Baltic Times.
Asked what leg of the voyage was the hardest, Varnas acknowledges the start. “Pulling off the Minija quay, two years ago, was a tear-squeezing moment for me, as I felt mounting responsibility. Once you are at sea, it eases up, as the focus switches to running the boat,” the seasoned sailor revealed. As a cadet of Kaliningrad Marine School, he has criss-crossed the Baltic and North seas. He graduated from the school with a degree in ship mechanics and started working in the Klaipeda Seaport. However, his hopes to see the world as a sailor were futile, as he was not allowed to work abroad.
However, even with his life and marine experience, he did not play first fiddle on the boat, as his 28-year-old daughter, Rasa, captained the yacht. “She has proved a worthy captain. I was more of a helping crew, one caring for technical peculiarities, especially the engine,” the captain’s father admits.
Asked whether she was up for the workload, Rasa grins, cautiously picking the words. “Let the other two decide whether my captaincy was good. Frankly, between the two men, sometimes I felt like a coward, preferring safe sailing and reiterating this on every occasion. Thank God, they did not rush me.”
Rasa has been sailing since her teenage years; only Egoi has never touched the sails before. Rasa, however, calls him a “good yachtsman. The best virtue I have rediscovered in him is his ability to settle any kind of argument with ease and humor.”
The yachtswoman acknowledges the Ragaine II crew may have lacked seafaring and yacht running skills. “However, we patched up the knowledge gaps gradually, studying books on yachting while sailing,” Rasa tells.
She is proud of her yacht, that has withstood rough seas and currents. “The same pair of sails lasted the whole trip. She does not need any repair and it is ready for another sea challenge,” the Ragaine II captain maintains. The yacht had been built by Andrius. “When building the 10-meter long and 3-meter wide yacht, I did my best to have it strong and reliable for any waters,” the senior Varnas chips in.
Though the yacht bore all up-to-date navigational tools, it did encounter some rough weather. “On our way from the Galapagos archipelagos to French Polynesia we endured some weird weather, either a calm sea or a sudden gale pulling us off of course. However, it was nothing compared with the sudden storm in the Mediterranean, on the way from Egypt to Crete. The only option we had was to drift against the high wind with storm sails, kind of rugged jibs,” Rasa remembers.
Nevertheless, the biggest danger may have lurked off the coast of Aden, the area widely notorious for piracy. “Along the Oman shoreline, until Aden’s port in Yemen, in a total stretch of approximately 600 nautical miles, we sailed in a flotilla of 27 other yachts. We were safeguarded against the pirates by an international, U.S.-led military ship flotilla. Before the crossing, we had done our homework - contacted other yachts in the area, readjusted our sailing schedule and had given all specific information on our yacht and crew, including height, weight and even the hair color of each, to the international marine convoy. Each yacht received a special distinctive call sign; ours was ‘Sakalas 5.’
While crossing the precarious waters at night, we sailed with the lights switched off, listening for any weird sound. On the radio we heard a container ship, 50 nautical miles away, pleading for help, as the pirates’ speedy motorboats were chasing it. The ship was given instructions on how to behave under the circumstances, as a military helicopter was on the way to help the crew. Only having passed the pirate-infested waters we found out that a dozen yachts had been captured by the pirates,” said Varnas sharing the moments.
The Lithuanians were charged for visas in Australia as well, something Varnases couild not understand. However, otherwise, Andrius talks only highly of Australia, its nature and people. “Definitely, Australians have a very highly developed civilization, which caters to the needs of each citizen,” Varnas says. An abundance of free barbecues along the shoreline also surprised the seafarer. “One can bring some chicken or beef and barbecue it. You feel very comfortable and safe in Australia,” the yachtsman remembers.
He also was charmed with Eritrea’s paradise-like nature and little habitable islands in the Kuku archipelago, while Rasa cracks up remembering the bewilderment of the local tribesmen over her blond hair and her pale skin in some Pacific islands. “Had I visited them a century ago, they would probably have accepted me as some goddess.”
She is convinced that their sailing-home, Ragaine II, is strong enough to withstand the challenges of a future voyage as well. “Longevity-wise, she is quite fine. My dad will not let her rust away. Besides, since we preach safe sailing, we are not going to choose, sailing-wise, the most precarious routes. Sailing is a joy, not a race to us,” Rasa says.
Andrius, while happy to see again his 86-year-old mom, his hound, Sailas, and his newborn granddaughter, is convinced that he will soon long for the rustle of the sails. “I am trying to get used to my life in Lithuania. Frankly, I miss some good things already. Like tons of the fresh fish, tuna, mackerel, I used to buy at those fish markets. Sometimes I would catch 3-meter tunas, gut them, leave a fillet for myself and throw the rest for the sharks. In tropical countries I would jump on a bike for a ride and pluck off the most delicious fruits on earth,” Varnas says in the languor of recollection.
He reiterates his determination to go sea-globetrotting. “It is bad to retreat only into your own country. Even Europe is too small, to have a better perception of the world. Life is short, so it is worth seeing all the fabulous places out there. It may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so you cannot miss out on it,” Varnas reasons. He claims to feel younger after the completion of the voyage.