Wed, 23 Jun 2021

Kazakhstan: The last captains of the Ural River

07 May 2021, 04:49 GMT+10

Over the past five years, the Ural River's level has dropped so much that it seriously impedes river traffic. Such professions as ship-repair mechanic and river pilot are going extinct since their place of work is physically disappearing.

Saying goodbye to the ships

Chapayev Bay with its wrecks of motorboats and barges scattered around a flat riverbank is a ready location for a post-apocalyptic movie. Some of the vessels have fallen apart to such an extent that it is immediately clear they will never sail again. Among these wrecks are lots of rusting machines with unclear purpose, as well as slips - often overgrown with grass - along which vessels used to be launched into the river. A spark of life only glimmers in a huge shop where a few men operate some old, steampunk-style machines.

"Some 10-15 years ago, water levels in the bay were so high that we could host deep-draft vessels in need of repair. The bay was crowded with all sorts of ships and barges," explains Vladimir Samsonov, director of the Ural Ship-Repair Plant. "But since then, water levels have kept falling. And in the last five years, we could only host tugboats with a draft of no more than 70-80 centimeters."

The Ural Ship-Repair Plant is one of the oldest major industrial sites in the area. It was built in the early 1930s. All the ships between Orenburg and the Caspian Sea were built and repaired at the plant. Chapayev Bay is located at the outskirts of Uralsk. In the early 1940s, machine-building plants evacuated from Moscow and Leningrad were relocated here. Later, after World War II ended, the evacuated plants turned into the Omega Plant and the Zenith Plant. But few know that initially, during the war, they were hosted by the Ural Ship-Repair Plant.

The photos hanging on the walls of the plant's administrative offices reflect its entire history. Director Samsonov shows us the photos. Each has its own history. One depicts about two dozen men. It is an old, black-and-white photo, and judging by what the men are wearing, it was taken long before WWII.

"These were the people who started it," Samsonov tells us. "In the mid-1920s, they sailed on boats along the Ural from the Caspian Sea to Orenburg. They drew a navigational chart of the river and named every ravine. The White Ravine at Aksaut, the Saurkin Ravine near the Red School, the Vertyachy Ravine; these men were the ones who added those names to the map, and the names have survived to this day."

The photos depict moments in time that now seem incredible. In one photo, one can see a paddle steamer pulling three barges loaded with logs. According to Samsonov, such steamers could be seen on the river till the mid-1970s.

"I even worked on one of those steamers," says Samsonov. "[A paddle steamer] hardly compares to today's tugboats: it was slow, but powerful. It tugged barges behind it. Later, in the late 1970s, we got new tugboats that pushed the load before them. All these vessels were repaired here."

Then Samsonov shows us a photo depicting the launch of a sea barge into the river. Even in the photo, one can tell that it is much larger than a river barge. Today such a barge would hardly fit into the bay, not to mention that the low water levels would prevent a tug from bringing it here in the first place.

"Winter was the busiest time," says Samsonov. "At the end of the shipping season, around the end of November, vessels would come here for scheduled maintenance. They would be dragged ashore up those slipways and taken on special rail carts to their designated place in the plant, and by April they would be fully repaired."

The slips and carts now stay idle, as do about a dozen powerful electric engines that were used to pull the carts.

Telling us the story of the Ural's declining water levels, our interlocutor leads us along the slipways to the water. He then points to an iron rod with markings sticking out at the edge of the water.

"I asked to install this rod [in the water] so we can measure water levels," Samsonov says. "As you can see, it is completely on land now. In the spring, when water rises to this point [he points to a marking on the rod], we can launch vessels into the river."

Rails run from the slipways across the yard, crossing each other at a right angle and cutting the yard into squares. Samsonov says ships were moved around along those railways. The ships would be lifted with powerful cranes, then carts underneath them would be switched from one railway to another, and that was how the ships would be moved around the plant for repairs.

Today, two river tugs and a sea motorboat sit lifted for repairs in the plant yard. The difference between the tugs and the motorboat is that the latter has a proper propeller.

"We found this motorboat in Shalkar," says Samsonov. "It was abandoned there and was slowly rusting away. We brought it to our plant and decided to repair it. Its deckhouse and most of the other deck structures were in decent shape, because they were made of aluminum sheets, but we had to invest quite some effort in the hull though."

In the two years it took to repair it, the plant's workers had to completely rebuild the hull and replace the power unit. The plant hopes to sell the boat and make some money. But whether this plan will work is an open question. If the Ural's water levels keep falling, there will be no way to get the motorboat to the sea, because, unlike the tugs, it is a deep-draft vessel.

"There are dozens of shallow places on the way from here to the Caspian Sea now," Samsonov says. "With its deep draft, the motorboat can run aground and damage its propeller. We hope to find a buyer by the spring, and then get it to the Caspian in high water."

"Would dredging the river help?" I ask.

"I don't think so. What happens when you dredge a streamlet to drain melt water? See, if you make the streamlet deeper in one place, up the current you create a rapid, because the mass of water is the same. The same applies to the Ural. We can try to make the river twice as deep here, but since the water mass is the same, it will just start draining water faster into the sea. What will happen is the river will flow faster here and water levels up the river will fall sharply. Then the river overall will start flowing faster, bringing more sand that will create new sand bars all over. So trying to dredge the Ural is just another senseless scheme that can just kill the river. The solution is to do something about the dams up the river in Russia. If more water does not start flowing into the Ural, no dredging will do any good."

The last several years have been hard for the Ural Ship-Repair Plant. Low water levels hamper the river shipping industry so there are barely any ships. The plant now serves the needs of local businesses that work in dredging and river sand extraction. It also produces containers for liquids, as well as floating platforms for pumps used by local reservoirs.

Captains on shore

Another dying profession in Uralsk is a river pilot, the person in charge of river vessels. As recently as 20 years ago, the local river transport company had over 100 river pilots on staff: now there are roughly 10 in the entire West Kazakhstan Province. One of them is Pyotr Goncharov, who runs a motorship tug that takes dacha owners from Old Uralsk to Uchug Bay four times a week. He has been plying the route every shipping season for the past decade.

"The trip is short, but it is not without its challenges: The river bends here, creating lots of sand flats and bars. One has to be alert all the time," Goncharov explains.

Goncharov has an assistant, who introduces himself as Pavel. Goncharov is 71, and Pavel is 58, and the former calls the latter "young."

"The profession is becoming extinct," says Goncharov. "Pavel is the youngest of those who came to the river fleet in our time. The ship crew used to include five to six people; now it is just the two of us."

While we speak and learn more about each other, the barge that the tug drags - Pyotr calls it "the veranda" - is filling up with people, specifically, dacha owners who want to take advantage of the mild October weather to harvest their plots. We set off on time and go down the river towards Uchug Bay. The number of passengers is limited to 36 people.

"It is not a lot," says Pavel. "Back when river navigation was more developed, we would carry up to half a million passengers in a season. We had large passenger motorships, such as the Moskva and the Zarnitsa, and hydrofoil-equipped motorboats. But starting in the 1980s, things began to deteriorate, and now we only carry dacha owners along one single route."

I ask them how the river has changed since, and how visible the changes are.

"Of course, it changed," replies Goncharov. "The first thing is the lower water levels. Now we can only go on ships with a draft of up to half a meter. And still we occasionally hit sand bars. The Ural has always had a problem with moving sand bars. But we used to be able to form the river channel. We would place plates at a certain angle to the current and would thus channel the water in the right direction. Thanks to the plates, the current would wash away the sand bars, and we would get a waterway of the right depth. But that does not work anymore. There is not enough water, the river is too shallow."

Pavel adds a few points from an amateur fisherman's viewpoint.

"Every May holiday season, we would bring home some sturgeon meat, although I do not remember the last time it happened," he says. "We did not even have to fish. The thing is that the May holidays is when sturgeons spawn. There used to be so many of them that their backs would crowd the entire river surface. And some of them would jump out of the water and land on the barge. Then such a thing would become rarer and rarer. And in the last 30 year or so, I did not see anything like that at all. Sturgeons no longer go so far up the river. Forget sturgeon; I do not remember the last time I even caught an asp or carp in the Ural. There was a season for each fish species. In the spring, in high water, carp would spawn in flooded meadows: They need warm, shallow water for that. And every fall, asp would come to the surface to gorge on juvenile fish. Now there is no carp and no asp."

According to our interlocutors, river transport used to be a major industry. In addition to ship crews, there used to be a massive non-sailor workforce serving the industry: These people would repair ships, place beacons, dredge the river, etc. Also, there used to be separate divisions in charge of cargo transportation and passenger traffic. In West Kazakhstan Province alone, there used to be over a thousand such jobs. In Atyrau with its massive fishing operations, the river would create even more jobs. Today, in Uralsk, what is left of the industry barely supports 100 jobs.

See the full version of this article [in Russian] on the website of Uralskaya Nedelya.

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