Sailing a hand-built, wooden boat from Petrozavodsk, Russia around the world would seem like a preposterous fantasy. Doing it during Covid times and making a 10-month layover in the Twin Ports—even more. Yet this seemingly impossible voyage was successfully carried out by Captain Sergey Sinelnik and his small crew with the historic ship Pilgrim. How did they do it? This is a tale of Russian magic which my family was privileged to be a part of; it’s a remarkable story of how Duluth/Superior became a temporary home to a Russian historic replica ship of the 18th century.
Captain Sinelnik’s incredible journey started on June 22, 2017, when the Pilgrim launched from Duluth’s Sister City of Petrozavodsk, in a remote area of Russia near the Finnish border. The crew, which included Sinelnik’s wife Marina and children, sailed a route through the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Caribbean Sea, then up the Atlantic coast to the Hudson River, and finally through the Erie Canal and into the Great Lakes. The journey from Russia to Duluth took three years. The Great Lakes must have exerted some subconscious, irrational force on Sinelnik, enticing him to come north rather than take the more direct route through the Panama Canal. Our “Zenith City” is an end of the road for any round-the-world route by water… How was Captain Sinelnik going to get past that?
Sinelnik’s quandary was the Twin Ports’ gain. With nowhere left to sail, the Pilgrim motored under the Lift Bridge and docked alongside the DECC in the Duluth Harbor on August 31, 2020. My family immediately became enchanted with these visitors from overseas. We headed down to say privyet (the ship was open to any and all), and I felt I was half Robinson Crusoe the moment I stepped onboard. Who were these mighty sailors? There can be no greater way to instill an appreciation for foreign cultures than to see something as different, as historic, and as real as the Pilgrim in your own backyard. The ship invariably made people happy. Kids got to imagine themselves as pirates. The Russian-speaking community of greater Minnesota flocked to meet these heroes in person. Wooden boat builders and admirers, of whom there are plenty in our region, felt an instant connection to these like-minded souls. These sailors brought the world to us.
As more and more visitors came to see the ship and chat with the crew, Mayor Emily Larson came up with a beautiful tribute to the city’s foreign guests, proclaiming September 9 Lodya Day in Duluth (using the northern Russian word Lodya—an old Slavic wooden cargo ship). Having these guests in town was all the more meaningful to our family, considering that schools were closed to in-person classes at the time, and the outside world seemed to have grown much further away during the summer’s international travel ban. We couldn’t go to Russia last summer, as had been our annual routine ever since moving to Duluth from St. Petersburg in 2014. Now suddenly Russia had come to us. These seamen had surmounted incredible barriers, and made tremendous sacrifices, to be here in Duluth. We invited them over for a smelt fry, and I sensed the crew savoring the richness of our Lake Superior fishery. We felt lucky to have foreigners in our home.
So, what do you do with a 42-foot wooden boat weighing 35,000 pounds and with nowhere to put it for the winter? The Duluth Sister Cities International organization came to the rescue—taking Sinelnik and the Pilgrim under its wing, they found a home for the ship to spend the winter at Loon’s Foot Landing in Superior. Sinelnik and his crew returned to Russia once the sailing season ended, and Sinelnik asked me to send him reports on the ship’s condition through the winter months ahead.
The Pilgrim was reunited with its captain in May of this year. Sinelnik and crew flew from Moscow to New York City, drove from there to Superior, and took ample time preparing for the crucial next leg of their trip—trailering the ship to Seattle. Yes, the magician had found his solution. The local Northland hospitality took any rush out of their plans… Invitations to backyard Duluth saunas, more smelt fries, and exploring Lake Superior on the Pilgrim gave Sinelnik and first mate Alexey a way to connect with our community more than they had at perhaps any other stop on their four-year route to date. It culminated in sailing the Pilgrim to the North House Folk School Wooden Boat Festival in Grand Marais in June—a place and a crowd where the Pilgrim was truly in its element.
On July 6, the Pilgrim said goodbye to its second home on the shores of Lake Superior. Having spent almost three months in total in Duluth and Superior, Captain Sinelnik, who was awarded the title of “Honored Traveler of Russia” by the Russian government in 2005, summarized his experience here.
“Lake Superior has a huge amount of fresh water. All this water gets into people’s soul and leaves a positive imprint on them. You can’t help but take a positive view on life when you’re surrounded by this much water. It has a positive effect on people’s psyche. Maybe that’s what makes people here so hospitable. Maybe people here underestimate what a strong effect this lake has on them.”
We won’t ever underestimate the miracle of these Russians sailing their wooden boat to Duluth, and becoming part of our local history. We have Lodya Day to prove it.