“Oh I do like to be beside the seaside” as the refrain goes. The Bay of Baku may have shores of concrete rather than of sand and oiled waters that will forever be murky rather than gin-clear but the latter is partly due to nature and both are to be accepted in an industrial city. Topographically the bay is a very pleasing crescent shape with a ridge rising in its lower horn and aside from an island placed centrally between them like the star in the national flag there is no land obstructing the view across the Caspian to the far horizon.
With both a small history of messing about in boats behind me and a continuing interest in the subject, I have enjoyed observing what traffic can be seen in the bay. My apartment overlooks a new-ish yacht club that has its moorings empty save for a couple of high league gin-palace MV’s and some more workman-like sloops huddled apologetically at the far end. The international ferry terminal is just round to my left by the commercial docks but both seem very subdued. To my right are naval yards with vessels unsurprisingly static.
The only regular sign of life in the bay is pleasure boat that takes paying punters (me once included) on a forty-minute trip from a quay on the boulevard half way out to the island and home again several times a day. I had been hoping to go a bit further. Seasonally there is a small flotilla of around a dozen sailing dinghies that mysteriously appears on occasional sunny summer afternoons and then disappears just as unexpectedly. After several sightings I am still none the wiser as to where the group hails from. When it was suggested recently that hiring a boat for a day’s sailing might be a nice idea, my curiosity was definitely aroused.
One of the advantages of Baku being a small city is that most reasonable inquiries can be quickly answered through someone knowing somebody and this boat trip was no exception. I insisted on inspecting the vessel before committing to it and this was not a problem but it did entail entering a living and working naval dock to do so which came as a slight surprise. The twenty-five foot sloop was far beyond its first flush of youth but leak-free, orderly and serviceable – we booked.
Being a band of five and numbering two non-Azerbaijanis amongst us we asked to sail from the yacht club in the interests of diplomacy but it could not be done so we started our Saturday outing by strolling as a group into the naval yard. Thankfully the ratings seemed less concerned by our presence than the gate-keepers had done.
All at sea with our trusty skipper (photographs used with permission)
This corner of the bay evidently enjoyed shelter from the majority of Baku’s sometimes fearsome winds as the first I thing saw on the water was a couple of fours out for exercise in racing shells just like those I used to row on the Thames. There was even a small grandstand of raked seating to be seen beyond them that suggested regular competition and I was told that rowing teams have been a part of Baku for many years. The Caspian does have its millpond days but for the majority of the time those rowers must have it pretty tough; hats off…
Our skipper was a spry old fellow of uncertain, grey-haired age who soon demonstrated that he knew the waters and the vessel like the back of his hand. We flew under navy colours but he claimed never to have served; a courtesy flag from or for the yard I guess. While his former career was never actually divulged it did become clear that he loved to sail: he built the boat himself over ten years (materials were hard to come by during Soviet times) and it was his pride and joy.
The weather smiled upon us, providing sunshine for warmth and a fresh force four/five to move us along smartly. The plan was simple: strike out towards the island (an hour or so under way), drop anchor off its shore and eat lunch then return to dock; easy. For a change, everything actually went to plan too.
On many occasions I have heard the island referred to as “Snake Island” and I had thought this name a creation of folks who had gone walking across the land and been frightened by the odd serpent appearing in their path. I learned that day that you do not actually have to set one foot on dry land to learn how Snake Island got its name: at least half a dozen of the little fellows actually swam out to meet us while we were at anchor. It was a very pleasant surprise for me, a bit more of a shock for one or two of my companions.
Snake Island had an other surprise in store: its Soviet naval graveyard (I know, I should probably read more guide-books…). Half a dozen or so semi-beached, rusting hulks lie resting there, including allegedly the largest Soviet Navy vessel ever to sail the Caspian. All are sheltered on the mainland side of the island with oxide colours to camouflage them by day and no superstructure protruding above the island’s highest point to betray their silhouettes by night. I would love to take some SCUBA gear and investigate below the waterline one day; don’t fancy my chances though.
Navy no longer (photograph used with permission)
After a leisurely lunch we weighed anchor and set forth on an easy reach home; the skipper even let me take the tiller for twenty minutes or so which was great fun (and a bit of a workout). It was great to get close to the sea again, especially after a year working in the semi-desert. Once the winter is over it might be time to set sail again.
Almost as a post script (with my apologies to the artist – no disrespect intended), it should be noted that the proposed José Carreras performance I wrote about earlier did actually take place while I was away in England. Apparently the main sub-species of audience were still evident at the Opera Ballet that evening (young man chatting/texting on mobile, two women talking incessantly et al) but their numbers were suitably reduced and one was able to enjoy the beauty of tenor and piano in relative silence. Mr. Carreras is reported to be in fine voice and sounding most lovely.
For those who might be wondering (as was I), the reason behind Mr. Carreras’s appearance has been explained thus: Chopard have recently opened a boutique in Baku, Mr. Carreras is apparently a close personal friend of the family and he has been invited to all of their recent openings. Whether or not he gives a public performance on each occasion I do not know but there certainly are many people who are glad he did so this time.
P.S. Photographs have now been added to “Up hill and down dale” – finally.