Crossing the Bering Sea in an eight-foot dinghy is no small feat. It was a bold, dangerous, and reckless attempt on the part of John Martin III to reach China. But instead the 46-year-old Kenai man landed in far eastern Russia.
Martin’s bizarre boat journey from Alaska to Russia briefly made headlines this fall.
Russian television channels also picked up the story of the Alaskan who’d spent 11 days at sea before washing up on shore in Russia’s Far East.
Four months later, Martin remains in legal limbo while Russian authorities figure out what to do with him. All along he’s insisted his landfall in Russia was an accident.
“Well, I was trying to reach China. Of course I didn’t make it,” he said by phone.
Here’s the long-story-short: Martin doesn’t have a passport — he said it was revoked over unpaid child support.
Intent on crossing the Pacific anyway, he bought an eight-foot Walker Bay sailboat this summer. Packed with provisions, he floated down the Tanana and Yukon rivers with the aim of crossing to Asia. His blog details his wife and son in China whom he hasn’t seen in more than a decade.
But ocean currents carried him north up the Bering Strait. He eventually made landfall at a fish camp near the tiny village of Lavrentia.
A family took him in.
“They dried my clothes for me, they let me dry out and they let me sleep in their bed,” Martin recalled. “And when I woke up the authorities had arrived.”
He was flown to Anadyr, the administrative capital of Chukotka, in Russia’s extreme northeast.
At first he was confined to the hospital. But the local courts accepted his defense that he’d crossed into Russia accidentally and acquitted him. That was in mid-October.
“I have not been under guard since then,” he said. “So really what they did was give me some great freedom being in Russia without documentation, and yet I’m free to come and go within the city as I please.”
Martin is writing a book about his journey. He keeps a blog: No Ocean Too Wide. It details his journey and his life in the Russian city where he remains a curiosity.
Since his discharge from the hospital last month, Martin has been staying with a family and living off the kindness of strangers.
“When winter started coming, just the clothes that showed up and the jackets and boots and shoes and just everything that you would need,” Martin said. “Just people have been really good to me here.”
He’s used to public attention. In 2011, he camped out in front of the Anchorage mayor’s office for five months to protest the city’s crackdown on homeless camps.
“Because we’ve chased so many out of the woods, we have people doing time in jail for nothing else than trying to survive,” he testified to the Anchorage Assembly that year.
He had demanded a meeting with then-mayor Dan Sullivan.
The mayor refused and reportedly grew irritated over the Martin’s relentless vigil.
“I really try and limit my conversations with first-degree sex offenders,” Sullivan said at a press conference. “I really don’t know what the discussion would be. If he needs social service help, there are social service agencies that can help him.”
Sullivan was referencing Martin’s 1997 conviction for sexual abuse of a minor. It involved a 15-year-old foster child who had lived in his household when he was 23.
Following his arrest, he spent eight years in prison, his wife divorced him and he lost contact with his kids.
He’s no longer on the sex offender registry. But he says his passport was revoked in 2007 for unpaid child support. That’s why he attempted the dangerous ocean crossing rather than buy an airplane ticket.
But Martin’s strange chapter in Russia is likely coming to a close. Four months after he’d first arrived, a judge ruled he was in the country illegally after all. Now, he said, Russian authorities have begun the deportation process. He’s appealing but resigned to the fact he’ll likely be sent back to the States.
“But even once they do deport me, you know, I do hope to reach China,” Martin said Monday. “So my focus I suppose will be to get my book finished and try to get it published so that I can make enough money to pay the child support and get my passport back.”
To be repatriated by the Russian government, the U.S. citizen would need documents issued by an American consulate.
U.S. officials at the consulate in Vladivostok didn’t respond to multiple inquiries into the case.
That leaves basic questions unanswered, like who pays for the travel or whether Martin will fly around the globe or back over the Bering Strait.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story characterized the sexual abuse of a minor as an “affair.” An affair is generally considered to be a consensual sexual relationship, and minors are legally unable to consent to sexual relations with adults, so the term “affair” is inaccurate. The sentence has been changed.
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