- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 28, 2003

NEWPORT, R.I. - Vitaly Bondarenko remembered the ocean envy he had for sailors who returned to his native Soviet Union with tales of voyages to Italy or Greece.

In the Soviet era, sailing was the stuff of daydreams.

In 1991, Mr. Bondarenko planned a round-the-world-voyage and told his ocean-fearing wife she had a choice: Come along or stay behind. They set sail that year, planning to be away for three years. The voyage turned into 12 years of rambling across three oceans and docking in the ports of more than two dozen countries.

“You’re like a bird,” he said. “If you want to fly to another island, you can.”

But that freedom ended when Mr. Bondarenko, 55, was arrested here June 27 by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) without valid documentation. He is being held in jail as an arriving alien, awaiting a court date.

The former professor, his 48-year-old wife and their two boys — 10-year-old American-born Ivan and Australian-born Vasily, 5 — are now sparring with a foe more forceful than the storms that have tossed their 28-foot sailboat: immigration law.

Doug Stevenson, director of the Center for Seafarers’ Rights at the Seamen’s Church Institute of New York and New Jersey, said their story shows how recreational sailing changed after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“People can’t just be floating around the world. We need to know who these people are,” he said. “I can’t expect the authorities to loosen up on that. People who don’t have proper identification are going to run into trouble.”

Mr. Bondarenko and his wife, Marina, first came to the United States in 1992, mooring off North Carolina. They secured employment permits and stayed for several years. After more international sailing, they sailed to Florida in June 2001, and were allowed to stay for one year.

Their request to stay longer was denied. When they tried to leave by the June 13, 2002, deadline, Mrs. Bondarenko, who was five months pregnant, said she was too sick to travel.

They appealed again, but received only a court summons. The baby, born with Down syndrome about a month before the court date, was put up for adoption. The couple wrote to the court, explaining they were leaving for the Bahamas. On bad advice from fellow sailors, they left the day before their hearing.

“We thought it was legal to go from the country before we go to court,” Mr. Bondarenko said.

The court ruled them deported in absentia. After traveling to the Bahamas, they sailed north to Nova Scotia and planned to cross the Atlantic.

They had stopped in North Carolina in early June to avoid severe weather and were escorted out of the country. When they asked to refuel June 26, Mr. Bondarenko’s attorney said in a letter to immigration officials, they were ordered to dock in Newport because the Coast Guard had questions about their boat’s seaworthiness.

Mr. Bondarenko was reluctant and stated the family’s immigration problems, he said. But they entered the country anyway and obtained permission to stay a few days to complete documents.

“They said we could get cruising permit and we could stop in U.S. without any immigration problems,” Mrs. Bondarenko said.

But the next day, federal agents arrested Mr. Bondarenko and told him of the deportation order that had been issued because he failed to appear in court in Florida.

“They have to have something to show the inspectors that they are here for a temporary reason and that they qualify to be here and to be admitted,” ICE spokeswoman Paula Grenier said. “They had no entry documents.”

While Mr. Bondarenko awaits trial, his wife watches the children and minds their meager boat, anchored among Newport harbor’s opulent yachts.

“Without him, we are stuck,” Mrs. Bondarenko said. “It’s very hard for us. He’s not only the father, he’s the captain.”

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