An 18th century tall ship replica, Pilgrim, is expected to arrive in Duluth in September, when it will connect with its Sister City after having originated an around-the-world journey in Petrozavodsk, Russia.

Duluth and Petrozavodsk, in northwest Russia, were established as sister cities in 1987, during the Cold War, when the nuclear threat hung over both superpowers.

Now, in troubled times again, the Pilgrim is two years into fulfilling a mission that figures to finish in Alaska. After laying up for a few weeks in Duluth, the Pilgrim plans to take a train to Seattle, and voyage to Alaska.

“They’re primitive sailors,” John Kucko said of the brothers Alexander and Sergey Sinelnik. “It’s a remarkable voyage. The captain (Sergey) has wanted to do this since he was a teenager.”

(Gary Meader / gmeader@duluthnews.com)
(Gary Meader / gmeader@duluthnews.com)

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Kucko is a 30-year television journalist for WROC-TV CBS in Rochester, New York. He’s spent most of his career covering the Buffalo Bills professional football team.

He employs digital photography in his off time, and in the background of a recent photo he took he saw the wooden, 40-foot Pilgrim. His curiosity sparked, Kucko immediately did some homework and realized what he’d discovered. He’s been chronicling it on Facebook since last weekend. On Thursday, the Pilgrim dropped through Buffalo and into Lake Erie.

“It’s now on the open waters of Lake Erie,” Kucko said, his life returning to normal. “I’ve never had anything quite like this come my way. It’s the right time. America, the world, it’s divided. People are angry and depressed. And here’s this inspirational story that winds up right here in western New York. People appreciate an adventure.”

After a substantial layup for COVID-19, the Pilgrim pressed ahead. When it stops in port, “they do a lot of good-will stuff, inviting people on board with masks; they’ve got a tiny museum in their tight quarters. It’s really amazing,” Kucko said.

The Pilgrim departs Buffalo, NY, Thursday. (Photo courtesy of John Kucko Digital)
The Pilgrim departs Buffalo, NY, Thursday. (Photo courtesy of John Kucko Digital)

Kucko spent time with the captain and crew, pushing through a language barrier using gestures and communication through common words.

According to Russian state media, Sputnik, “the Sinelniks started their trip two years ago from Petrozavodsk in Russia’s Karelia region. On the way to the United States they visited Estonia, Finland, Denmark, overwintered in Germany and then continued the voyage through the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal, and the Canaries and Caribbean Islands.”

Kucko said Sinelnik began the voyage with his wife and two sons, who departed after several thousand miles. The boat, made of pine, doesn’t appear to show up on vessel tracking sites on the internet.

“I couldn’t find it either,” Kucko said. "There's not a lot of technology on board."

Traveling the Hudson River through Albany, New York, the Pilgrim was forced to remove its masts to get past a number of low bridges.

“(A) very important thing: We will dismantle the Pilgrim’s masts in Albany,” said a translated version of Sergey’s routine online updates. “All three masts of our ship are removed, because Albany bridges begin with a height of only 6 meters maximum, which means that not a single mast under them will pass us!”

Sergey lamented the masts being down, saying it “radically” changed the ship’s appearance. Americans had already taken note of the vessel, he said, and without masts, “(I)t will be (just) some other ship,” he said.

With its mast down the Pilgrim travels across New York state to Lake Erie on the Erie Canal. (Photo courtesy of John Kucko Digital)
With its mast down the Pilgrim travels across New York state to Lake Erie on the Erie Canal. (Photo courtesy of John Kucko Digital)

In another entry, Sergey made note of all the colonial harbor towns he wished he could stop to visit.

“It is a pity that the Pilgrim team does not have so many reserves of time and means to defend itself for deep acquaintance with historical shores,” he wrote. “It remained only to consider the landscapes passing by.”

The Pilgrim is expected to be the second tall ship to make an unexpected visit to the Twin Ports this season, following the Schooner Huron Jewel. The Huron Jewel left Duluth for the South Shore of Lake Superior earlier this week and disembarked from Washburn, Wisconsin on Thursday.