The Black Sea Ferry

How to buy passage on the Black Sea Ferry

Black sea ferry route

Black Sea ferry route

Last year, 2010, I wanted to travel by ferry from Odessa to Istanbul. In the end I went by road via Romania and Bulgaria.

This year I wanted to go to Georgia; I wasn’t particularly anxious to repeat the ride experience of the previous year so I set out on an expedition to find out how to buy my ticket. 

I rode from Kiev (where I have an office) and stayed in Zatoka, a Soviet style holiday resort about 80kms east of Odessa and about 30 kms from my target of Illichovsk.

The ferry is run by UKRferry, which used to be a fair size business plying regularly and often across the Black Sea.

A couple of years back the corrupt politicos in Kiev hiked the import duties through the ports and as a consequence business fell off and the ferry company is now a shadow of it’s former size. However, it is running a regular weekly RORO service every Wednesday between Ilichovsk Ukraine and Batumi, Georgia.

There are 2 ticket sales offices – one in Kiev and one near the port entrance in Ilichovsk. 

The Illichovsk sales office is not easy to find. Follow signs out of Odessa for Ilichovsk. After 40 kms you will see a very smart Socal petrol station on the right hand side. 

Socal petrol station, Illichovsk

Next to Socal is a down at heel Georgian Restaurant and next to this a virtually hidden sign for UKR ferry.
I stopped at the first building on the right behind the sign and interrupted an elderly couple having lunch. 

Entrance to UKR Ferry offices - through yellow gate on the left.


“Ookerferry pazhalsta” I said and they pointed.

I rode forward and was almost instantly surrounded by a pack of mangy dogs trying to tear my legs off. Fortunately the woman at lunch heard the commotion and arrived to drive off the dogs and point at the correct office.

The correct office is in a miserable decaying building signed as a Bank. You walk into a long corridor with closed doors and no signs.

About halfway up on the right is door with hatch. The hatch is at eye level if you are 1.3 metres high. Otherwise you have to half crouch in the standard Soviet position of beseechment whilst you have a conversation with someone you cannot see on the other side of the door.

I played the “I’m English don’t understand” card and the door swung open to reveal tall, svelte and charming Natasha. 

With perfect manners and English accent she showed me the wallmap with routes, the costs and sailing times. The cost for me, one way from Odessa (Ilichovsk) to Batumi was $200 USD and $300 for the motorbike. She told me to check for ticket availability by phone on Thursday or Friday (you can check, but cannot reserve or buy online) The office is closed at the weekend (even Natasha needs to rest) but you can come along on Monday or Tuesday to buy your ticket for the Wednesday sailing.

The Black Sea Ferry Purchase Experience

One month later I was cruising the same roads, desperately trying to find my way back to the office. Eventually with the help of GPS, maps, people and mostly God, I found it.

Now whilst Natasha is charming and the ferry is large it does fill up (for trucks, cars and motorcycles) quite fast. Certainly on my sailing you couldn’t have squeezed another vehicle in. So if you hope to take a vehicle on the ferry don’t try pitching up on Wednesday morning hoping to drive right on. 

I found a campsite at Griv, a few kms up the coast and stayed there for the weekend before buying my ticket on Monday.

Natasha’s dark good looks were indelibly inked into my brain – if not the office address – so I forgave her when she could not remember me arriving previously. 

After a fairly fast 2 minute beseechment crouch I was once more invited into the office. I handed over my passport and vehicle registration and money.

“No money. Money pay to Bank” said Natasha pointing through the walls to the bank. She gave a piece of paper with a ticket reference and off I went to the Bank. Which was the first door on the right at the beginning of the corridor.

The Bank, where you pay for your ticket

In the bank I handed over the ticket reference, my passport and $500. This was converted into Grivnyas, the Ukrainian currency before being paid to the Ukrferry account. In fact  the ticket was less than the advised $500 but I don’t know how. The point being, I needn’t have bought the dollars in London and thus paid 2 lots of transaction charges. I could have presented my cash or credit card to the Bank and then could have paid UKRferry electronically. But without local help you’re not going to make it so turn up with cash – Grivnyas or Dollars – or a cashcard.

Anyway when you pay, you get a receipt which you take back to Natasha. Much stamping of forms and you get your ticket. 

Before leaving the building go back to the Bank and see if you can change a little more cash to Georgian money – they ran out of foreign exchange cash quite fast on the ferry.

The local UKR Ferry office in the port is a long low building set on a rise at the very end of a broken concrete road.

 

Ukr Ferry port transit
Surrounded by Swiss Beemers

 

For the traveller, there is a lot of activity taking place here, but only at the proper time. Don’t worry about being first in the queue for anything. No-one is going anywhere fast.

Park your conveyance, or get off the bus, go inside the building, turn left and in the dimmer recesses is UKR office. Sole task here is to tick your name off the list and stamp your ticket.

You can’t get your name ticked off the list until the list has been physically brought to this office from the office where you bought your ticket just up the hill.

If the list hasn’t arrived you can sit in the waiting room. Better still, and no-one will tell you this while you are sitting there, go up the stairs in the building to the first floor, turn right and go to the third door on the left. In there, ask them to photo copy the picture on your passport, your international licence details and page 2 of your vehicle ownership document (V5 if you are British) It will cost you 3 grn for the service.

When you’ve been ticked off the list go through the passport check at the gates to the ferry port and stop at the small building about 30 metres on the right. Give the nice young man in the first office all three documents. He will come outside, check your vehicle for radiation (seriously!) and stamp your documents.

Jump on you bike, head toward the ferry, don’t go on it yet.

Cross the railroad tracks, park. With your back to the ferry, go into the grey concrete building in front of you. Turn right into passport control. Hand over your passport, the original vehicle docs and the stamped copies from radiation control.

They will be amazed and pleased that you have copies of the documents.

Because I didn’t know of the radiation and photocopied doc requirement I had to go back to the beginning and start again. It’s all a bit like an online game – collect three nurdiciles of Gravstattor bluudcreme to get past the gate of Slatyor Guardians. 

The radiation check is to make sure it’s not being smuggled out of Ukraine for sale to terrorists. Don’t ask – check out the want ads in the Economist.. 

Meantime the customs police will ask you for a couple of signatures and will keep the copies you’ve had made. It’s also, I am told by a man who paid, in this office that they take the bribes if they can find anything wrong with your documents. Anything at all, or even slightly unusual. You have been warned. Smile and pay or miss the ferry.

Next is immigration control. A really vivacious young blonde woman in camo uniform, on learning about my journey, said “Wow. Cool” She has gun on her hip.

Victory motorcycles are not listed on computer – consternation. 

Guys in black body armour - Customs Spetnatz maybe? - arrive. We go to the bike, check every possible number – everything is ok.

We troop, body armoured and black booted, back to the computer. “Try Polaris I say” She finds it, and Victory and Vegas. “Cool. Thank you” she says with a great white smile. I smile back. She shifts her gun.

“Go to ship” say Spetnatz without smiling.

I go to the ship, ride up the massive entrance crossing the railway tracks.

“Mozhna” shouts Army guy, “Passport”

Passport is shown, I proceed up the ramp.

“Mozhna” shouts load master – “bike put there” Bike is put. “Leave bike, go back” … hmmm.

So I walk down the ramp and sit in the shade and chat for two hours with the Army guys. I can’t take pictures of a British truck holding up the traffic flow as it drives off the ferry ( Wrong ship, wrong day ?) because the ferry is of strategic importance. As the ferry is German built, registered in Panama neither I nor my Army friends can work out quite how the ferry is strategically important.

Finally left waiting was a truck who’s driver seemed to be having a some mechanical problems, a politico or demi billionaire with a blacked out Lexus, a Polish white van driver trying to pull a last minute stroke to get his van on board cheaply and me. 

The truck driver wandered over and admired the bike, I offered some water which he drank. He climbed back into his cab and with a lot of effort got his truck pointed the right way and slowly ground up the ramp. The van went next and when I arrived and the top of the ramp was making a pig’s ear of trying to park in a smallish space. The master knew the space available and previously had said no. He was right, and with the incompetent van drive unable to park, lost it completely and displayed a truly incomparable show of demonic cursing.

I tucked into small space and went to check in on the ship.

At reception I asked, “What I have bought for cabin?” The middle aged  (that is younger than me) receptionist said “Cabin share with man.”

I said “How much to share with woman?”. Without blinking she said “$15”

Without blinking I paid.

There were around 140 people on the ferry – evidently 80 were crew and of the remaining 60 or so some 30% were truck drivers on a regular commute. 

This means only 40 people made the outward journey for the first time. Given the route is only open for 26 weeks it means only 1,000 travellers a year make their way to the Caucusus by ferry. So it was highly likely, and proved so to be, that my fellow travellers would be colourful characters. 

Dinner was 20.00 but by the time I had showered it was 20.30 before I found my allocated place on table 15. Already seated were three delightful and thankfully multilingual young women all travelling across Georgia to Armenia.

 

Ukrferry Black sea ferry passengers

Hanka, Elaine, Melise.

Hanka is a radio journalist and PR writer. Tall, elegant, vivacious, full of life, with an amazing smile Hanka eventually became my cabin-mate for the crossing as she thought I was a little more civilised than the ageing Bulgarian woman she was sharing her cabin with. 

With her at the table were Elaine, a laconic American with Georgian ancestry and Melise who is a fizzy French/Armenian. Both were students travelling and visiting their roots.

The three men at the table evidently worked in Ukraine but were on their way home for the summer. From his cellphone their leader showed us all a picture of  him catching a huge fish in the R. Dnieper, and having done so, moved on to show us a video of a baby bear that he captured in Ukraine and flew to his land in  Armenia. His story included the fact that he had no less than 3 lakes on his land, all well stocked with fish, and should we get into trouble we should call him as he was on personal terms with Armenian President. 

Dinner over, the assembled passengers went on deck to watch the cable being cast off and set sail.

Except it didn’t. 

In true Soviet style the ferry was secured and closed up and went nowhere until the next morning. The only bar was closed, there was nowhere open even to buy water. And they don’t have duty free shops. There was one water tap in an open space next to reception but when this ran out of plastic cups no new ones were forthcoming. 

As I had just one small bottle of water with me and half a bar of chocolate I thought better go to my cabin and get some sleep. 

What I didn’t know was that I had been spotted waiting to get on the ship. In fairly short order I was approached by a crazed fellow biker from Latvia who was driving his girlfriend and her family to their ancestral village in Georgia – in a people carrier, not a bike. Naturally he had huge amounts of alcohol which he’d brought on board and although I didn’t want a beer I was very happy to accept the orange juice that had also been purchased to mix with the Vodka.

Lemke’s girlfriend’s sister Laura was also part of the party; extraordinarily Laura works in England and happily acted as interpreter for the next couple of hours.

The beer and vodka made interpreting a little more difficult – although I fully understood the phrase “the need for speed”.

On deck getting a breath of air I met Karol, a seemingly gentle Polish student hitchhiking around Europe for the summer. Karole is studying history of Art at the Catholic University of Lublin

With him was fellow Pole, Andre. Tall, heavily muscled blonde student, studying robotics at Warsaw University was spending the summer cycling to from Poland to Iran; Andre is encyclopaedic about travelling in Europe. Andre gave me a solid piece of advice which I came to value a month later. I had planned (vaguely) to follow the Black Sea along Turkey's nothern coast. Andre said all you will see is the sea to the right and buildings to the left. "Go," he said, "and meet the Kurds in their mountains. See Ararat, See Iran." So later i did just that.

The bartender Oleg is another fine character, hugely observant of the human cast before him all the while delivering finely chosen words of wit and wisdom.

 

Ukrferry Black sea ferry OLeg

Oleg, Master of Fun

As a schoolboy in Odessa Oleg showed great promise as rugby player. As a result he was offered several good jobs (in those Soviet times each Ukrainian company fielded a rugby team in preference to a soccer team) and a free place in University with a guaranteed degree. However his parents wanted him to do something else and whilst all the bickering was going on the Army, who had also noticed his Rugby playing talents, scooped him up instead.

But then came Peristroika and funding for the Army, as well as Rugby, was cut. 

Released from the Army, Oleg went to acting school  in 2000 working as entertainment officer for hotels and then on UKRFerry with 4 ships. As a side line he trained special forces to find food in the wild and learned English translating the Morning Star.

As happens in this part of Europe the Government had to get it’s snout in the import / export duty trough. The consequential increase in road or ferry tax or similar meant UKR ferry hit hard times and Oleg had only the bar to run.

Now in his 40’s he commands the bar on the Black Sea Ferry, speaking 5 languages, living in 2 countries and on a ship quoting tracts from Shakespeare to  an international audience of truck drivers and travellers.

It’s worth the trip just to meet Oleg. And to drink his coffee.

Generated with the default ContentController.ss template