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The Captain's Quarters

 Self-taught engineer builds a wooden frigate on the Yenisei from plans off the internet  12/18/2013, 14:05
The Captain's Quarters
Photography by Yuri Pushkaryov

The rise to fame of Alexandr Marchenko, mediocre businessman from the town of Cheryomushki, was as well-deserved as it was unexpected. It all started with a news story, rapidly spread by the media, about an unknown man from Krasnoyarsk who was "building a copy of a pirate ship on the Yenisei". Blogs, social networks, news agencies, television and radio made the local craftsman a national hero in a matter of days. After biding their time, Sib.fm's correspondents went to Khakassia to get personally acquainted with the peculiarities of Siberian shipbuilding and its new major star.

By and large, Cheryomushki, built as a construction camp for the Sayano-Shushenskaya Hydroelectric Power Station (HPS), has made the headlines on only two occasions: in the late 1970s, when the first hydroelectric unit was launched at the plant and 30 years later, when the second turbine violently broke apart, killing 75 people.


The Sayano-Shushenskaya HPS took 17 years to construct, from 1961 to 1978

Today Cheryomushki is home to nine thousand people that live a rather boring life by big city standards in a few five-storey prefabricated blocks of flats from the 60s on the picturesque banks of the River Yenisei. Most are still employed at the HPS: those that don't work, drink.

We meet Alexandr Marchenko at the Cheryomushki-Central bus stop. He pulls up in his Lada Granta and immediately asks: "Have you seen the dam yet? Come on, I'll show you." It's a day off, the Siberian sun is beating down and it's a sin to argue with Khakassian hospitality. We agree. Among other things, on the way it turns out that the self-taught shipwright only worked for the state for one and a half years.

“After college, I worked in construction. Then I went into business: started transporting fruit from Krasnodar. It didn't work out – the Tajiks' peaches are tastier and customers voted with their wallets. Then I went all over the country in a truck; now I own a taxi company.”

On the way to the high point of our itinerary – the frigate “Black Pearl” that Marchenko is building – we talk about life in the area. We gradually start to understand how such a naval enthusiast came into being.

"The wages are good at the HPS, 50 thousand (roubles, $1500), for example. What can you do with that sort of money? People go to their "all inclusive" Thailands and that's it. There's nothing to spend it on here.

When I saw Pirates of the Caribbean, I immediately thought: I want to build a sailing ship like that one! I searched the internet for some plans from the Peter the Great era, bought some pontoons and started to build. That's how I've been living for the last two years: as soon as I get some spare money, I invest it in the ship.”

6400 people – the capacity of the largest ship in the world at the moment

Various media outlets estimated the cost of the "Pearl" differently: according to some, Marchenko forked out 3 million roubles ($91k), others say it was more like five ($152k). The captain himself dodges the question, saying that he can't be sure and it's already impossible to count. One thing is clear: it seems that Marchenko really does invest all his available funds in his fleet. He dresses simply, drives a you-know-what, doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, isn't married and has no woodworking education. The latter circumstance forces him to spend money on the services of professionals too.

"I built a summer house with my parents, so I can cut, plane and weld. Basically, I do what I can myself, but if there are professionals with equipment that can do the job to the millimetre, then why should I interfere. I understand that it can be done better: I outline my technical specifications and let them earn money.”

Interestingly, this sort of private shipbuilding is far from being a one-off in Siberia. For example, former geologist and birch bark expert Alexei Shutko almost single-handedly built an authentic 18th century 18-metre frigate in his garden in the Lake Baikal village of Bolshaya Rechka in 2007.

However, his ship is a purely romantic story, whereas Khakassian entrepreneur Marchenko's plans for the "Pearl" involve both creative fulfilment and commerce.

"From the outset, it was 100% a business project. I thought I'd make a recreation centre with a sauna and earn some money. But now I've put so much effort and money into it, it seems that there's probably some romanticism there too.”

32 km lie between Cheremushki and Sayanogorsk, where the HPS is located

Alexandr wasn't exaggerating when he talked about the effort put into the Black Pearl. In fact, during the two years of construction, the amateur and minor capitalist has fallen on hard times on multiple occasions. To install the 20-metre masts (about the height of the local five-storey buildings), he had to go and ask the leaders of the recovery efforts at the dam for a crane. Lend us a crane – got to stick a mast in my ship, as it were. Crane driver Vasily rolled up in his Ivanovets truck crane with a 60-metre boom pretty much in his lunch break to complete the task.

"Look at the figurehead (the wooden sculpture of a woman on the bow – Sib.fm comment). I found an old man who used to carve all sorts of wooden bas-reliefs in the church. I tell him what I want, here's a picture from the film, here's a log one metre in diameter. He clambered around my ship all day, measured a few things, did some drawing, made notes, then went ashore and ran his pencil along the log three times. I have a look – like two peas!”

Now, in the last stage of construction, Marchenko's holiday centre is already popular among local newlyweds for photo sessions. While we were on deck with the captain, a loud and boisterous family arrived. Alexandr doesn't take any money for a photo in front of his ship, saying that it's nice when people praise his brainchild and approve of his venture. The brainchild, by the way, only simulates a floating structure.

Without its pontoons, the "Pearl" would immediately go to the bottom of the Yenisei with its three masts, dozen beds, sauna and banquet room.

"Of course, at first I wanted to build a real ship, but then I worked out how much it would come to. And all this paperwork... I tried to get a plot for the ship as a recreation centre, arrange everything officially – so much red tape! But as soon as all the channels filmed reports about me and all the newspapers in Abakan wrote about the ship, it became easier to solve these issues.”

The Black Pearl's most important journey is still to come – in a couple of months, the captain plans to move his craft on its pontoons to a more picturesque site six kilometres further down the Yenisei. He says that it will be more accessible for tourists and holidaymakers.


After the accident at the Sayano-Shushenskaya HPS, 400 tons of trout died as a result of transformer oil leaks

"In the future, the ship will stand near the river Izerbel. We've been assigned a lot there. If it works out, I want to install fish ponds with trout around the ship so it'll be possible to catch fish.”

On his homeward journey in a Korean minibus, Sib.fm's correspondent was unable to escape from the questions that were tormenting him. Who is this shipbuilding enthusiast Marchenko? A romantic or a businessman? He's got the dam to the south, a taxi fleet in the north, and between them, in Cheryomushki, a frigate moored on the Yenisei. That being said, the sauna and banquet hall for three dozen people in the belly of the "Pearl" hardly mesh with the classical concepts of 18th century maritime romance. Attempting to answer his own question: "Am I a wheeler-dealer or aspiring romantic?" Alexandr shrugs his shoulders too.

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