137 Hours on a Boat: Crossing the Black Sea (Part 2)

(Editor’s note: this is a continuation of Crossing the Black Sea (Part 1), the story of my five day Black Sea ferry ride from Ilyichevsk, Ukraine to Batumi, Georgia)

My heart sank when I heard the announcement that the Port of Batumi was closed. It was Sunday afternoon, my third day on the Black Sea ferry from Ukraine to Georgia, and I was getting antsy. By Saturday I had finished all the writing I wanted to do, read two books and totally exhausted all topics of conversation with my cabin-mate, Paul. Not only that, he was starting to really get on my nerves, criticizing or disagreeing with just about everything I said.

I also had planned to go to the Azerbaijan embassy first thing Monday morning to apply for my Azeri visa, which was supposed to take three business days to process. Needing to be in Yerevan, Armenia by the weekend meant I was under a time crunch.

I was beginning to feel like taking the ferry had been a big mistake.

Monday morning on the Black Sea ferry

Monday morning came and unfortunately, so did more bad weather. It stormed overnight and another round of hail, wind and rain blew in just after breakfast. As I was getting hit on by a chubby Georgian man named Kvicha, they announced that the port was still closed. I wanted to cry. While the romantic overtures of my new friend were amusing (if not a little creepy), I was getting close to my breaking point.

However, by early Monday evening, the skies cleared and I watched with excitement as we headed directly to the shore.  The lights of the city of Batumi glittered in the distance and I was already thinking about what I would do once I was all checked into my guesthouse.


We seemed to be docked just after 7:00 and they called everyone down to the reception desk to turn in their room keys and pick up their passports.  Paul and I tore the linens off our beds, packed up our things and hauled our backpacks down to the smoky reception area to wait for the next step.

And then we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Until finally they announced that we weren’t getting off the boat after all.

There was some sort of problem with the ramp, which meant we had to stay on board until morning. I heard this news from Paul, who heard it from one of the German truck drivers. I thought he was kidding. I thought he was lying, just trying to get a rise out of me. I swore at him and when I realized it was all real, I broke down crying.

I struggled to understand why the non-driver passengers couldn’t leave if it was just the vehicle ramp that was broken. Even the drivers initially thought that the tourists would all get to leave. It made no sense to me, but no one spoke English well enough (and I didn’t understand Russian well enough) to explain it to me.

Lifesaver on Black Sea ferry

And just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, Paul went and drank himself into a stupor.

After a night of vodka shots with the German truck drivers, he came into the cabin around 2:00 a.m., stumbling around, knocking things over, repeatedly mumbling “God is great” in German, and eventually writing the same phrase in black marker on one of the bunk beds. When I asked what he was doing, he stopped and bolted out of the room. I lay in bed, slightly terrified of his eventual return.  He seemed to be in a crazed state and it would not have surprised me at all if he had ended up falling (or jumping) overboard.

Sure enough, an hour later, he returned, pretty much falling over every step. His mumbling turned into chanting (the same phrase) and he punched the wall several times, knocking the headboard down, before curling up on his bed in the fetal position and bursting into tears. I just tried to lay as still as possible, not wanting him to realize I was awake. Eventually he passed out, but not without some more chants in his sleep. When the sun rose the next morning, he jumped into the shower, clearly still drunk, mumbling and making all sorts of weird noises.  Then he grabbed the blanket off his bed and disappeared again out of the cabin.

As soon as he was gone, I got up and looked out the window to see dark skies and rain blowing sideways, waves crashing against the side of the boat.

And I completely lost it.

I was so tired of being on the boat.  Tired of Paul, even before his drunken escapade. Tired of not having anyone else to speak with in English. Tired of not being able to eat half the food because it contained gluten. Tired of my stomach rumbling because I ran out of snacks after two days and they didn’t sell any on board. Tired of being cut off from the rest of the world aside from very brief and occasional stints of getting 3G access on my Kindle.

Tired of stressing over trying to get my Azeri visa and tired of working through different scenarios in my head of how I would get myself to Tbilisi and then on to Yerevan to start my volunteer assignment on time. Tired of walking through the smoky reception area and being stared at by all the truck drivers. Tired of our bathroom that smelled worse than the outhouse I had to use during my homestay in St. Petersburg.

At that moment, I never wanted anything so badly as to get off that damn boat.

After crying my eyes out all of Tuesday morning, I turned a corner by late that afternoon. I hate to give Paul any credit because he drove me nuts, but in his hungover, possibly still drunken, state, he gave me a lecture I probably needed to hear. He reminded me how delays happen while traveling and you just have to go with the flow – it is part of the adventure.

He encouraged me to make the most out of the delay instead of wasting my energy being upset.  He implored me to think about all of the good times on my trip rather than focus on the bad, which I admittedly had a hard time doing because all I could think of were my miserable homestay experiences, hitting the wall around the holidays, and freezing my butt off for three weeks in Ukraine.

I was just wondering what I did to deserve this. Why me?

But Paul made some good points and by Tuesday evening, I had finalized a few blog posts, edited all my photos and started reading a third book. At dinner that night,  I was thrilled when they served ice cream for dessert – my first sweets in four days! I went to bed confident that we would finally reach port for good Wednesday morning.

Wednesday sunrise on the Black Sea ferry

Sure enough, I awoke Wednesday morning to cloudless blue skies and by 8:00 a.m., we were clearly headed directly for Batumi. I went up on deck to take pictures and enjoy the view of the city in the daytime.

Arriving in Batumi, Georgia

And crazily enough, the next two hours were the best two hours of the entire trip.

It started when one Georgian, Tomas, approached me while I was on deck taking pictures.  We chatted in Russian and I learned that he thought Paul and I were married. When I told him I wasn’t, he grabbed me and hugged me and kissed me on the cheek! Soon, I had Tomas’ phone number to go along with Kvicha’s that I got on Monday.  Then I met Ilya and had almost the identical conversation with an identical reaction.

A few minutes later, I encountered Tomas, Kvicha and another Georgian in the hallway near the cabins and they all insisted on taking turns taking pictures with me. Finally, I met an older Georgian woman named Londa who invited me to stay with her in Tbilisi and gave me her phone numbers in both Georgia and Ukraine.

Kvicha and Tomas on the Black Sea ferry

When I finally set foot on dry land for the first time in 137 hours and waved goodbye to Kvicha and Tomas, I couldn’t help but think how much more fun the entire journey would have been if I had all those encounters on the first day instead of the last!

But in retrospect, I probably brought a lot of my misery on myself.

I could have made more of an effort to socialize early on.  I could have not let myself be intimidated by all of the truck drivers on board. I could have given myself more wiggle room in my plans, especially because I had heard the ferry could be unreliable.  I could have brought more snacks. I could have been more laidback and not stressed about things I could not control.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

In the end, a 60 hour Black Sea ferry ride turned into nearly 140 hours and, for better or for worse, it was an experience I will never forget.

15 thoughts on “137 Hours on a Boat: Crossing the Black Sea (Part 2)”

  1. Wow, what an experience! I’m planning on taking the ferry from Georgia to Ukraine in a couple of months and this has me nervous, but maybe also excited? Great story at least, ha.

  2. Hi Katie,

    Thanks for the story. I am also from Chicago (but raised and educated in Michigan!). I do nothing but traveling. I have been travelling in these little Russian countries for 7 years now, but never on a ferry or cruise. My girlfriend and I were thinking about doing this trip from Batumi to Odessa. But considering the story you told, I think we’ll fly instead. God know I can’t stand any woman, not even Cindy Crawford for 5 days on a boat. Thanks again for your story. Go Blackhawks

  3. That’s nuts! And Paul sounds like a total nut. He did give some sound advice though and it sounds like you made some great connections toward the end.

  4. Hahaha now all those Tweets make so much sense! I totally get you having a breakdown, but for all of Paul’s faults, the advice he gave you is spot on! Nothing good comes from focusing on the bad and moping around doesn’t help anyone or anything.

    And look on the bright side! You now have this amazing story to tell! The most miserable travel experiences are great for that! And it will be an experience that you will always remember!

    1. Yeah, I have a tendency to dwell on the negative too much but I can usually bounce back quickly after a vent to a friend. The boat was so tough because there was no sympathetic ear to vent to and my access to Twitter or anything else was so limited. But in the end, yep, great story to tell. 🙂

  5. Glad to hear you made it (eventually)! I just wanted to say that I’m sorry you had the experience with Paul – I have had several run-ins with drunks while traveling, which ranged from the mildly gross to the nearly fatal (Paul-like drunks in motor vehicles = usually a bad idea). Just remember the words of Xavier from the movie “L’Auberge Espagnol”: Later, much later…each harrowing ordeal will become an adventure. For some idiotic reason, your most horrific experiences are the stories you most love to tell. 🙂

    Take care, and enjoy Armenia!

  6. OMG Katie, this is insane! I knew a few details from when we were talking on Twitter, but that didn’t even begin to explain all of what went on. I completely understand you breaking down a few times. I’m glad you made it through without injuring Paul or jumping overboard.

    1. Yeah, it was a little crazy. Paul really scared me when he was drunk – I really wouldn’t have been surprised if he had jumped overboard (or fallen!). He also had quite an attitude – he was hitchhiking through Europe and just seemed to think he was somehow better than me for that reason. It was really annoying.

  7. One day it’ll all make a great story! Whenever anything went wrong on my RTW trip I tried to remember that it’ll pass and I still tell some of those disaster stories (broken bones, lost air tickets and all) 8 years on.

    Am really enjoying reading about your adventures in a different part of the world I know so little about. Hope the next stage of your travels go well for you!

    1. Oh totally, even before it was over I was thinking “this will make a good blog post.” 🙂

      The nice thing was (and I didn’t have room to go into it in the post) is that people were so incredibly friendly when I finally got to Batumi and it was bright and sunny and warm, that I almost immediately forgot about how miserable I had been.

      Thanks for reading!

  8. so sorry about your troubles. hope you are better now. I remember when we took a car trip to Turkey from Georgia (this was long time ago in early 90’s, I was probably just 19). The customs people would not let anybody through. the line of cars grew and grew. we ended up waiting for 3 days… first night we ended up sleeping in our car, all five of us! that’s because we were totally unprepared for the long wait. you just sit there and wait. and then you see those local thugs letting people through right in front of you for bribe. I snapped too and it was not pretty. thankfully, the second night was at a local bread and breakfast.

    You really need patience of Job when you travel internationally, don’t you?!

  9. Wow great post Katie. I wanted to reach out and give you a hug when you where so down.

    That Paul guy seems a bit strange lol.

    I must admit I sometimes get like that feeling sorry for myself then I stop and think I’m in a new country seeing amazing things, yeah things might not be going great at the moment but it will pass. I’m really lucky to be able to travel so snap out it.

    Happy travels and can’t wait for your next blog entry 🙂

    1. Thanks Shaun! Yeah, Paul was a bit nuts. I actually saw him walking around in the city later that day and I turned and walked the other way before he could see me! 🙂

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