If you're anything like me, the idea that 39 tall ships will sail into my home port of Halifax Harbour is enough to send you into paroxysms of joy.
I have always been attracted to these majestic ladies of the sea for as long as I can remember. So when the first Tall Ships Festival arrived here 25 years ago in the summer of 1984, my sister and I went down to the transformed waterfront filled with awe, our necks cricked up to stare at the forest of masts, the elaborate rigging, to see the faces of sailors from all over the world and hear languages spoken we'd only heard in movies.
We didn't know that we were walking towards the most incredible summer of our lives - the Summer of My Sister's Russian Sailor.
1 - In 1984, I was 19 years old and not involved with anyone. I'd broken up with my second boyfriend and wouldn't start another relationship for another five years - until I began going out with the man who would become my husband.
My sister was 16 and not involved with anyone, either. We were single, and pretty much bowled over by the handsome sailors who had invaded our city.
In particular, we'd always had a thing for Russians. We'd always been attracted to that country, perhaps because we were passionate ballet lovers and thought Mikhail Baryshnikov was unbearably good-looking as well as the most gifted dancer alive.
So that summer night 25 years ago, we approached the Russian star vessel of the festival with the same excitement fluttering in our stomachs as though we were about to shake hands with Baryshnikov himself.
2 - Standing at the foot of the gangplank were two sailors from the breathtakingly regal Kruzenshtern. It was foggy that night, nothing out of the ordinary for Halifax. The damp weather didn't keep a good number of sightseers from strolling past the ships. Once we began talking with this trusted ambassador for his country - because, when you think of it, they left him on dry land where he could have made a dash for it if he'd been so inclined - we lost all inclination to see any other ship.
That magical thing had happened, the thing that happens in movies and in the stories so many of us read or even write. My sister and this sailor locked gazes and fell for each other in an instant.
3 - His name was Rashid Kamalov. The first thing we noticed about him were his incredibly intense green eyes. I've never really seen anything like them since.
He spoke English very well, with a beautiful Russian accent, of course. His deep voice was warm and filled with good humour, and he laughed easily. He was a very manly 20 years old to our 16 and 19.
4 - In 1984, Russia was referred to as the Soviet Union. The Iron Curtain was solidly in place. Two young people from opposite sides of this ideological divide had about as much hope of carving a place for themselves in that world as Juliet had of waking in her tomb before it was too late.
But what did my sister and Rashid know?
5 - The Soviet authorities tightly controlled all public access to the Kruzenshtern, so most of the time we spent with Rashid occurred when the ship allowed people aboard, or the few times supervised groups were let off the ship to march in a city-wide parade, attend a dance for all the ships' crews and for one supervised stroll around the downtown area of Halifax. Most of the time we simply talked to each other over the side of the ship.
The magical part of this time began immediately and carried on throughout both Nova Scotia stops for the Kruzenshtern. The Iron Curtain seemed to part for awhile, and circumstances and timing arranged themselves so that Rashid's free time coincided with these official treks onshore, and mine and my sister's work schedules cleared so that we could be together. The sailors aboard the ship were mainly cadets from a marine college, as well as regular crew and a contingent of quite obvious KGB officers! Hilarious.
My sister and I quickly discovered an unknown characteristic of Russians. They like to weasle their way past forbidden obstacles. They're masters at sweet-talking a commanding officer into letting two Canadian girls on board when most of the Soviet authorities are somewhere else. And here's the biggest surprise we discovered. Russians are the biggest bunch of romantics that ever were.
Soon, the whole ship's crew were in on the conspiracy of helping Rashid and his Canadian sweetheart steal a moment or two together.
6 - The ship sailed out of Halifax harbour during the incredible Parade of Sail. Of course, for Michelle and I, it was another moment of divine intervention.
Only official people were allowed down on the docks that morning as the tall ships made ready for sail. The enormous size of the Kruzenshtern meant it was moored in the container pier, and access was controlled for the Parade of Sail by cordoning off the piers with actual metal ship-and-train containers. Do you think that would stop my sister?
We did the old decoy maneuver. While I chatted with the security guard along with other people, Michelle slipped past the end container, along a narrow concrete ridge high above the water. I watched her walk bold as brass all around the pier building. When no one brought her back in about half an hour, I followed. Heart pounding, mind you.
We were able to say goodbye to Rashid and the other sailors we had befriended by then. We promised to meet them when they returned to Nova Scotia several weeks later, in Sydney, Cape Breton.
7 - What an agony of waiting until the tall ships were due to arrive in Sydney.
We drove up to Cape Breton with a friend of mine, and stayed at her aunt's place for a few nights. My friend had to get back to Halifax before the final Parade of Sail out of Sydney, so Michelle and I stayed at a camp ground for the last few nights.
On the day when the ships were scheduled to arrive in Sydney harbour, I discovered that 'time stands still' is not just a figure of speech.
But finally - finally! - there it was.
The sailors were all arranged along the yards horizontal to the masts. My friend quickly confirmed that they were all waving at Michelle and me. You can see Rashid waving at my sister - he's on the center yard, right hand side, closest to the mast. He's got a dark beret on.
8 - For five magnificent days, my sister and her Russian sailor had their bubble of happiness, and nothing could burst it.
L to R - Rashid, Michelle and Vitaly
L to R - Vitaly, Rashid, Michelle and Nik
9 - One of Rashid's close friends onboard was Yuri Bondaryenko.
We spent most of our time as a little group of four: Rashid, Michelle, Yuri and me.
Yuri and I never discussed it out loud - we just knew it when we looked at each other. Our jobs were to make sure Michelle and Rashid had as much time together as possible. And that's what we did.
10 - Once again, things magically arranged themselves and we were in the right place at the right time when Rashid was allowed off the ship to visit other vessels - in a supervised group, of course. A man who looked like he'd stepped out of 1965 followed us everywhere. But we didn't care. We went aboard a few other ships, got some ice cream and enjoyed every second of it.
We discovered a few more things about Russians. These ones, anyway. We realized that all the sailors aboard this ship were definitely handpicked as shining examples of the best that Russia had to offer. Not only did the tall ships make us feel like we'd travelled back in time. The manners of these men were very Victorian. They were all very gallant, offering us their arms instead of the more modern way of holding hands. They wouldn't exit a conversation unless my sister or I released them from it - even when their ice creams were melting!
Hospitality was very important to them. Whenever we spent a few hours on deck, basking in the luxury of being able to talk without having to do it over the side of the ship, Rashid's fellow sailors would come to us with chocolate, bread, apples, cigarettes - anything they had, they offered to us.
11 - The night before the ship sailed was completely sleepless. If I was going to be executed in the morning, I couldn't have felt any worse.
Michelle had secured an official pass this time from a sailor aboard one of the C-class Canadian vessels, who couldn't stand up to the onslaught of their love story. We drove onto the pier without any problem, and began the final few hours together before the Kruzenshtern sailed to France for the next leg of their journey.
As you can imagine, everyone tried to be brave but the mood was incredibly sad. Rashid was allowed to stay beside us while the other sailors got the ship ready to set sail. Sailor after sailor stopped a moment, motioned with their hands for us not to cry, and continued on.
All of a sudden, Rashid got the okay to come down the gangplank.
See? I told you - the Russians are a bunch of lovesick fools.
12 - You can't see him very well in the fog, but this is the officer who gave that okay for Rashid to dash on land to say goodbye to my sister.
Thank you, sir, for that. Wherever you are.
13 - At last, Rashid was ordered aloft.
There's Rashid in the same spot on the yard - center, closest to the right of the mast.
This is the last I saw of the Kruzenshtern.
She'll be here for the 2009 Tall Ships Festival. And I'll be there - for old times' sake.
You can read a transcript of a conversation I taped while we were aboard.
If you are in the Halifax area, do yourself a favour and come down to the waterfront. Hope to see you there!
Kailana says That's an awesome story! It's the sort of thing that would happen in a movie. :)
Hazel says I didn't know Russians are romantics, thanks for mentioning that. This love story is beautifully told.
Michelle Johnson says I've been smitten with this story since you mentioned it here. I'm a sucker for a love story anyway.