By job he was an oceanographer, by heart he was a dreamer, by nationality he was a citizen of the planet Earth — in short, he was an extraordinary guy. Yet his personal file in the USSR was stamped as “not worthy of an exit visa” so he was not allowed to leave the country, even if it was for a holiday. So in December, 1974 he jumped a cruise boat “The Soviet Union” off the coast of the Philippines islands — and he swam to freedom.With no food or drink, no swimming equipment apart from flips and goggles, he swam to the shores about a hundred kilometers for three days — completely alone at sea.
Since his childhood, Slava Kurilov had been very keen on swimming and he loved the sea so deeply, he made it his career — he was an oceanographer, a deep sea diver. He knew the sky — all the major constellations, he knew meteorology, he had a vivid inquisitive mind — he also spoke good English, had a sister living in Canada and his father was in a German prison camp during the WWII, which also considered somewhat of a treachery. A few times Slava applied for a permit for research trips outside the country, but to no avail — the reason being “endangering the security of the USSR”.
In his diaries he wrote that ““my homeland had sentenced me to life imprisonment through no fault of my own. Until my death I will never see the free world.”
Apart from that, Slava had an interesting outlook on life: he practiced yoga and meditation, he trained himself to abstemious, ascetic regime, and often he went without food — or water! — for five days at a time.
THE CRUISE “FROM WINTER INTO SUMMER”
One day — it was November 1974 — Slava came across a travel ad in a paper: a large cruise line was to go on a voyage towards the equator, departing Vladivostok. The cruise was an unusual one: the ship did not intend to enter any foreign ports so no visas were required — the route was just to travel the outer waters for 20 days without approaching the coastal lines.
When Slava read that, he felt a pang of hope — in his memoirs, he later wrote that he felt like a wild animal which was about to be taken out for a walk before chaining him down forever. So the decision to go on a cruise was made, and it was an easy, confident one.
Interestingly, the cruise ship was built in 1930s in Germany and initially was called “Adolf Hitler” — the rumour had it that it was the Fuhrer’s private yacht. It sank during the war, but was recovered by the Soviet engineers. After that, it became the largest cruise ship of the Soviet Union and was used on the Far East routes, as far as possible from the civilised world — so it couldn’t be vetoed.
The route for this particular cruise was kept in strict secret. What was announced, however, that the passengers could sunbathe under the tropical sun, swim in the onboard pools and enjoy the stunning vistas. The guest lecturers would talk about the geography of the Pacific Ocean as well as the countries in the proximity. A cruise with no stops but with lectures about the South East Asia — well, in those days it did not sound unreasonable.
The main challenge was to figure out when — and where to jump. Slava’s goal was the Philippine island of Siargao, near the southern part of Mindanao.
On December 13, at about 8pm, dressed in tight thick shorts and a few pairs of socks, equipped with a snorkel, flips and an amulet he had deep faith in, Slava walked to the upper deck — and took a leap into the darkness.
The deck was no longer under my feet. For several moments I flew through the air, until I felt the waves parting, gently welcoming me into their embrace. Coming up to the surface I looked around – and froze in terror. Beside me, an arm’s length away, was the huge hull of the liner and its gigantic turning propeller. I desperately summoned up my strength to swim out of reach, but I was held in the dense mass of stationary water that was coupled to the screw in a mortal grip. It felt as if the liner had suddenly stopped, yet only a few seconds ago it had been doing eighteen knots. The terrifying vibrations of the hellish noise went through my body; the screw seemed to be alive: it had a maliciously smiling face and held me tight with invisible arms.
And so he began to swim, trying to keep the liner behind his back, swimming away from it. After the initial shock, Slava was consumed by utter silence — just the mild murmurs of the ocean accompanied his thoughts. He realised that he really needed a compass — yet taking one on board would have seemed suspicious. Now all he had to do was to continue swimming — but he found it comforting, as the water was warm and the ocean seemed friendly. Had he known what was ahead of him, he later wrote — he would have jumped anyway. Anything lying ahead — losing the direction, thirst, hunger, uncertainty, jelly fish or shark — was a better option than returning to the ship, to the Soviet Union.
A day later he did not feel sore or tired — only the breathing of the ocean, which by now seemed like a living creature with heavy breath. Slava miscalculated the route, and his initial estimates — to swim for about 24 hours — had grown to three full nights alone in the ocean.
There was a lot between the jump and the land. He was all sore and swallen from the salt water. He scratched his knees on the coral reefs and was bleeding, thinking of the sharks. He almost made it to a quiet bay — until he was picked up by a strong torrent and taken back into the open ocean. A boat passed right by him without noticing. The Soviet cruise liner seemed centuries away now to him.
At last he felt the land under his feet. The first thought at that moment, funnily, was “If I get attacked by a shark now, it would have been the biggest fail ever”. The second thought — even a feeling — was a wave — pun intended — of huge love towards the element of the water, towards the Pacific Ocean, the feeling of a beautiful force that had looked after him so very well. And after that he immediately fell asleep on the sand under a palm tree.
Waking up a few hours earlier, Slava took stock of himself. he was not hungry — his mouth was still swallen. He was vey thirsty, but far from the state of dying of thirst. When planning the great escape, what never crossed his mind was the thought of actually reaching the foreign land — and so he did not foresee a need for matches, a knife, an ID. But nothing mattered — Slava felt like the first person on Earth, like Adam, like Tarzan from the Jungles, and it felt great!
The locals, who found him on the beach, could not believe his charade swimming motions — after the initial contact was established, they kept asking him about “the rest of the bunch”. It was incomprehensible for them, in a way, to believe that there was no shipwreck — just an escape.
Slava spent six months in the Philippines, while the authorities figured what to do with him. He was imprisoned for a few weeks, but then released as of “good character”. After the contacts were made with his sister, he was sent to live to Canada. His very first job was at a pizza joint, but after he perfected his English and got himself oriented, he continued doing what he loved most — working with the oceans. Once he travelled to Israel, which he instantly fell in love with — and so in 1986 he immigrated to Haifa.
He continued doing oceanography-related research until 1998, when a diving accident went wrong — he was 62 years old.