Growing up behind the Iron Curtain in Sochi, Russia, Rimas Meleshyus was afforded relatively little freedom.
Upon reaching adulthood, he fled the Soviet Union, seeking political asylum in a U.S. embassy in Moscow. The escape was not easy, Meleshyus recalled, and he narrowly escaped capture as police pursued him to the gates.
Twenty-seven years after his escape, Meleshyus continues to regard his freedom, and his American citizenship, as his most prized possessions.
As a part of his continuing pursuit of an untethered life, the 63-year-old recently stopped by Oak Harbor as he prepares for his next attempt at circumnavigating the globe in a 24-foot San Juan 24 sailboat.
“I am free. I go wherever I want to go,” he said, adding that he appreciates the fact that he is lucky enough to have no obligations other than to pursue his dream.
After obtaining U.S. citizenship, Meleshyus heeded the advice of his father, who repeatedly reminded him that, “You need to travel to get a good education.”
Meleshyus traveled to each of the 50 states, and spent stints in places such as New York and Guam, where he worked as a Japanese-language tour guide. When his longtime girlfriend left to return to Japan, Meleshyus decided to teach himself to sail.
Since then, he has made international headlines, particularly with his sailings in the San Juan 24, Pier Pressure.
On his first embarkation, he sailed across the Gulf of Alaska. His experience on that voyage veered drastically from his expectations, and he found himself shipwrecked on an island near Dutch Harbor after 34 days at sea. He was rescued by the Coast Guard after nine days.
Although he didn’t lose an ounce of determination, he did lose four teeth on that stretch of his journey.
“I’m a very determined person,” Meleshyus said. “I’m very strong.”
In July 2013, he set sail from Oak Harbor in Pier Pressure, which he had purchased for $500. His goal was to reach Cape Horn, which he supposed would take him about 10 months traveling non-stop.
Although he has yet to reach Cape Horn, Meleshyus has had the opportunity to explore much of South America.
In December 2014, Meleshyus found himself in a bind once again. He’d set off from Sausalito, Calif. on his way to American Samoa, and lost his life raft amid gale-force winds and 20-foot waves about 944 miles northeast of the Hawaiian islands.
He sent a text reading, “I lost my life raft, in danger now,” to a friend via satellite. That friend contacted the Joint Rescue Coordination Center, which attempted to contact Meleshyus. A HC-130 Hercules aircraft was sent to search for him, as was a U.S. Coast Guard ship and two Good Samaritan ships in the area.
Eventually, Meleshyus contacted the Coast Guard to alert them he was alive and aboard his vessel.
While on that journey, his boat sustained damages including a broken tiller.
Friends and acquaintances in American Samoa, where he had eventually docked safely, urged Meleshyus return to the United States to purchase another boat, as a new vessel purchased in the U.S. would likely cost less than the necessary repairs.
Meleshyus returned to the United States, making stops in California and in the Pacific Northwest, where he stayed with friends such as Shannon Buys of Oak Harbor and Patrick Rodden of Coupeville, who described Meleshyus’ journey, and his drive, as “incredible.”
Meleshyus stressed that he is not interested in purchasing any boat other than a San Juan 24.
Though the vessel is not designed for blue water sailing, Meleshyus says it is what he’s comfortable with, and it’s also what makes his trip unique.
“I know the boat very well,” he said. “I’m not scared.”
To fuel his journey, Meleshyus accepts donations of clothing, food or other supplies.
“It’s very important to me to do this for America, for everything (it stands for),” he said.
Donations can be made by contacting Meleshyus at 360-561-8757. He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.