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A BIT OF RUSSIA SHIPS INTO MARINA

A trip to Russian territory may be closer than you think.

For the next week, it will take only a drive to Erie Basin Marina, where curiosity seekers will find a hale and hearty welcome to board a Moscow skipper's Viking-style ship that is circumnavigating the globe.

Michael and Irene Poboronchuk started their journey in 1991, tracing the route of explorer Vitus Bering, who in 1741 discovered Alaska while in the service of Peter the Great.

Poboronchuk, using an old Russian drawing, built a replica of the 50-foot-long, 12-foot-wide craft that Bering used to make his journey. The only difference, he says, is the convenience of a 150-horsepower diesel engine that provides push on windless days and when navigating through canals.

"Many adventurers have constructed replicas of Columbus' vessels and retraced his route, but no one has ever done that for Bering, and I was embarrassed it hadn't been done," Poboronchuk explained.

A 300-page book detailing that 2,000-mile portion of his journey is scheduled to be published later this year in Russia and, he hopes, eventually in Western countries.

But boosting Bering's stature in modern times was only part of the motivation for the journey. The husband and wife, in circling the world, wanted to spread a message of peace and friendship by promoting culture and education.

On the high seas, that often became secondary to more immediate challenges. They have weathered five hurricanes, wicked winds and other treacherous elements.

"A port captain in Acapulco guaranteed me there would be no hurricanes for seven days, and when we were three days out at sea, 50 miles from land, we were hit by Hurricane Calvin.

"My masts are 30 feet high, and the waves were 60 feet high. Winds were over 100 mile per hour. It was like riding on a mountain top, then going into a canyon between walls of waves with only a tiny piece of sky above you visible.

"You think that the next wave will go on the deck, and it will be the end. In that hurricane, I prayed, I prayed that the bilge pump would not stop because if it had, I would have never made Buffalo," the salty-looking, bearded Poboronchuk said Saturday morning as his craft snuggled safely beside a wall in the marina's calm waters.

Bad weather, he said, was only one of the obstacles. Off the shores of El Salvador, pirates boarded their craft.

"It was 6 a.m., and there was a huge fog. My wife suddenly started yelling someone was on the boat. Two men had come aboard with a knife and gun, and said they wanted money. I stepped out from the cabin with two flare guns pointed at them and said 'If you don't go away, I will shoot you.' They thought the flare guns were real guns, and they went away."

The unofficial Russian ambassadors of good will also have had their share of smooth sailing in the 20,000 miles and 12 countries they put behind them.

"Our boat is a small wooden bridge between many people. We have been made honorary citizens of New Orleans, Mobile and the Conch Republic. Many mayors have given us the keys to their cities," said Poboronchuk, who had worked as a reporter for a Moscow newspaper before setting out to sea.

Because of the troubled Russian currency, the couple's savings has grown meager, and they are funding their trip with donations made by people who accept paintings and hand crafts made by Poboronchuk's artist wife.

While awaiting visas this week to sail north to Canada for the winter, before crossing the Atlantic Ocean, they hope schools, churches, yacht clubs and other organizations will accept their offer to put on presentations of their journey.

"And tell people if they want to visit Russian territory to come here to our boat. They are welcome," Poboronchuk shouted, standing on the deck of his pine ship not far from the Erie Basin Marina's observation tower. "Tell them they won't need a visa for this Russian territory."

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