Swiss make waves in Russian Arctic

The Chamade anchored off the island of Kizhi

A voyage planned three years ago simply as an adventure for two, last summer brought a message of hope to hundreds in Russia and Switzerland.

This content was published on April 10, 2010 - 15:15

The Swiss duo, journalists Marc Decrey and Sylvie Cohen, have now published a book on their unique trip, called Chamade en eaux interdites (Chamade in forbidden waters).

Chamade is the name of the yacht they bought to fulfil a dream that many people may have and few ever realise. They decided that when they reached the age of 55 they would give up full-time work and spend half the year sailing.

The original idea was for the two of them to make a voyage spread over several years.

“When it came to thinking of our route we decided to start with somewhere more difficult while we were still relatively young and had more energy,” Decrey told

“The idea behind going to the Far North was to see magnificent scenery, empty spaces and tough weather conditions.”

But before the first leg of their voyage in 2007, Decrey, in the course of his work as a journalist, happened to come upon the figures for Swiss organ donations – and was shocked to see how far Switzerland lagged behind most European countries in this field.

“Organ donations had a very poor image. People think anyone who has had a transplant is weak and sickly,” he explained.

“We suddenly thought: why not try to change the image? Why not take some of these people on board with us?”

And so, in 2007 when they sailed Chamade from France, via Scotland to Norway they had three transplant patients and a donor with them. In 2008 three of the four joined the next stage, on to the Norwegian island of Spitzbergen in the Arctic Ocean.

A permit from Putin

In 2009 it was time to turn round and come back. Not wanting to retrace their route round Norway, Decrey and Cohen’s other option was Russia.

“The first question was: are there waterways? And it soon turned out that there were. The next question was: will we get permits to use them? And there the answer wasn’t so obvious…”

Not for nothing does the title of their book refer to forbidden waters. For years the militarily sensitive Russian Arctic has been off-limits to westerners. And to get from the Arctic to Petersburg they had to use the infamous White Sea-Baltic canal, built by doomed prisoners in Stalinist times, and which is closed to foreign shipping.

They badgered everyone they knew who might be able to help them, and eventually hit gold: a contact put them in touch with a “very high ranking Russian personality”, who undertook to back their case.

When they docked in Murmansk, the immigration authorities found it hard to believe that the person who had signed the document authorising their trip was none other than the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin.

Transplants West and East

For this trip they were joined by a total of four transplant patients, one after the other.

From the point of view of raising the profile of transplants in Switzerland, sailing in Russian Arctic waters, far from any medical help, would be as good a proof as any that having a new heart, kidney, or lungs is no barrier to living a full and active life.

And on shore, they decided to try to meet and exchange experiences with Russians who had had a similar operation.

Ducrey explained to that it was not their intention to proselytise – they did not feel it was their business to interfere in Russian affairs.

But in Russia, as they discovered, transplants are barely known. By law, donations can only be given by blood relatives.

The Chamade’s visit was in itself a sensation in the Russian media, attracting broad press interest.

“They came because we were an event: a foreign sailing boat in those regions isn’t something you see every day. The journalists came to do an interview about the foreign boat, and went away with a feature about transplants.”

“They were absolutely amazed. They had never heard of organ donations. They had no idea how it works. It’s a taboo in Russia.”

The Swiss did meet a few Russians who had transplants – and heard of the obstacles in their way.

The patients have to fund the operation themselves, and it can cost up to $40,000 (SFr 43,000). Afterwards they are regarded as handicapped, and excluded from the workforce with a miserable pension. So on the whole they prefer not to talk about it.

Breaking stereotypes

If the Russian attitude to transplants seems to westerners surprising and depressing, much of what the Swiss discovered on their voyage was surprising and encouraging.

The picture peddled in the West is of great wealth in Moscow and Petersburg and the rest of the country dying of hunger, Decrey said.

“That’s not at all the country we found. We found a country living modestly, but not badly. People were extremely open and happy to come and talk to us.” Even in small villages the shops were decently stocked, and in the towns the supermarkets would make those at home “green with envy”.

Not that everything is rosy: some places were run-down, and Murmansk in particular was suffering from the legacy of “disastrous Soviet industrialisation” in the shape of air and water pollution. The Swiss found very little environmental awareness in general.

And Soviet-style bureaucracy is alive and well. There were all kinds of rules, regulations and restrictions to be haggled over.

For baffling reasons, the FSB – successor to the KGB – suddenly tried to prevent them filming the tourist island (and Unesco world heritage site) of Kizhi, despite the fact that a Swiss television team had been given permission to join the Chamade for that specific purpose.

Some prejudices die hard, whether it is the Russian attitude to transplants or the western view of Russia. But a modest Swiss sailing boat has done its bit to break them down.

Julia Slater,

Transplants in Switzerland

In 2009, 103 people in Switzerland donated their organs, which were used in 491 transplants. It was the first time the number of donors had exceeded 100.

However, in the same year 67 people died while waiting for organs.

By far the most common organ transplants in Switzerland are for kidneys, accounting for nearly two out of every three transplants.

The rules on organ transplants were changed in 2007. A person's organs can be harvested after death only if consent is given beforehand. The will of the dead person overrides the wishes of surviving relatives.

If people do not make their intentions clear before dying, the next of kin can decide. If no relatives exist, the organs can't be taken.

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The voyage of the Chamade

The Chamade arrived at the first Russian port, Murmansk, at the beginning of June 2009.

It went on to Arkhangelsk, and the Solovetski islands, an ancient monastery used as a labour camp in Stalinist times.

It passed down the White Sea – Baltic Canal, built by prisoners under Stalin at the beginning of the 1930s. It was only thanks to a special permit from Prime Minister Putin that the Chamade was able to use it.

From there it sailed through Lake Onega, visiting the island of Kizhi, and Lake Ladoga and via the river Neva to St Petersburg.

The Chamade arrived in Petersburg to take part in a forum on organ donations and transplants arranged by one of the voyage’s main patrons, the Vaud University Hospital, and the city’s Pavlov Institute.

At the end of August it went on to Finland to overwinter in Turku.

Four transplant patients joined the Chamade in turn: one left as the next arrived. Respectively they had received a kidney, liver, heart and lungs.

The book of the voyage (in French), by Sylvie Cohen and Marc Decrey, is published by l’Aire.

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The Chamade

The Chamade is an Ovni 365 – an aluminium lifting keel yacht designed for long distance sailing.

It was built in France in 2006

It is 12m long and 4m wide.

It has a draught of 0.8 - 2.1m.

It weighs 8.8 tonnes.

It is equipped with heating, an extra fuel tank, radar, and a satellite phone.

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