If Poland isn’t thought of as one of the great sailing nations, it’s understandable. After all, the country has historically had relatively limited access to the sea (at times, it’s had no land either), and for half a century after the Second World War the activities of would-be skippers and crew were severely limited by the Communist authorities. But there are still great achievers among Poles who have taken to the water; as SailHo.blog is a Polish-English team, we decided it was time to celebrate them…
Asked about Polish sailors, many people would probably be able to name Joseph Conrad. After that, the well-informed might call to mind recent achievers – Jester winner Szymon Kuczyński and three-times circumnavigator Joanna Pajkowska, for example. Even Poles might struggle to expand on that list, though interest in sailing was piqued recently when the tall ship Dar Młodziezy (above) set off around the world to mark 100 years since Poland regained independence (briefly) in 1918.
One Polish skipper (pictured below) certainly worthy of note is Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz, who became the first woman to sail solo around the world with her voyage on the yacht Mazurek between 1976 and 1978. Her 28,500-mile journey didn’t take her round the great capes, and she didn’t make the voyage non-stop. Nevertheless, like Joshua Slocum before her, she had set a benchmark for others to follow.
With a background in sailing for scientific research, it was perhaps natural that Krzysztof Baranowski would also take to the sea for sport, and just “because of because”. Between 1972 and 1973, Baranowski sailed around the world on the Newport – Cape Town – Tasmania – Falkland Islands – Plymouth route. Not satisfied with that achievement, he set off again in 1999 to do it all again, this time the other way round. He went on to become a leading figure in Polish sail training and an authoritative writer and broadcaster on all things sailing related. In his scientific expedition days, Baranowski sailed on Śmiały under Captain Bolesław Kowalski – a skipper with a reputation more fearsome than Ahab himself. Kowalski, called Bolo by those who dared, became a leading figure in the PZŻ, the Polish equivalent of the RYA.
Andrzej Urbańczyk first came to attention in the 1950s, when he sailed a raft from Poland to Sweden. Later, having emigrated to the United States, Urbańczyk continued his life as a compulsive adventurer. He sailed solo around the world, and clocked up more than 120,000 miles in his career (a distance unbeaten by any Pole), including 75,000 solo. He was honoured in the Guinness Book of Records for the longest non-stop ocean voyage by raft (pictured below), having sailed nearly 7,000 nautical miles across the Pacific from California to Guam.
In recent times, one of the greatest achievements by Polish sailors was to circumnavigate Antarctica. Between December 2017 and April 2018, skipper Mariusz Koper and his all-Polish crew (Tomasz Grala, Hanna Leniec, Michał Barasiński, Magdalena Żuchelkowska, Wojciech Małecki, Ireneusz Kamiński, Piotr Kukliński and Robert Kibart) sailed into the Guinness Book of Records on Katharsis II, making the first circumnavigation of Antarctica in a sailboat south of the 60th parallel. For crew member Hanna Leniec, this was also a personal battle. Just a year before departure she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and it was her experience that prompted the voyage of Katharsis II (below) to be dedicated to raising awareness about the disease.
Like all nations who go to sea, though, Poland has seen sadness and loss. In 1964, the yacht Enchantress skippered by Krzysztof Grabowski was lost in the Bermuda Triangle having already been hit by a hurricane off Florida. Grabowski had already sailed the Atlantic alone, from Tangier to New York, in his 7.6-metre yacht Tethys, and before that had distinguished himself as an airman with the RAF-Polish 301 Squadron during the Second World War. More recently, readers might recall a man overboard tragedy involving a Polish husband and wife crew (pictured below) off Barbados. In 2017, Stanisław Dąbrowny fell from the yacht Vagrant; his wife Elżbieta, an inexperienced sailor, was unable to help him. In an emotional interview with the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, she recounted her husband’s cries for help – “Ela, turn around!” – and her own, ultimately unsuccessful efforts at rescue, first with lifebuoys and then with attempts to manoeuvre Vagrant.
She said: “I started reverse gear, but the lifebuoy cable got stuck in the engine. I cried, I asked him to swim to the buoy. His voice was getting weaker. I felt that I was leaving my beloved man on the ocean. And I couldn’t help him”.
Elżbieta wasn’t able to raise the alarm and call for rescue for five days; by that time, it was too late for Stanisław.
And what of the future? Jester winner Szymon Kuczyński is likely to go on to achieve even greater things, and there’s a feeling that we haven’t heard the last of Joanna Pajkowska’s (below) sailing exploits, either. Michał Weselak is attempting to make a name for himself in the Mini-Transat; Krzysztof Urbański, Tomasz Pawłowski and Marta Michalska all took part in the last Clipper Race; and Krystian Szypka planned to compete in OSTAR 2020 on his yacht Hallelujah (we’ve been on board, and she’s a beauty to behold), almost 50 years since the first Poles raced in the event (they were Krzysztof Baranowski on Polonez, Teresa Remiszewska on Komodor, and Zbigniew Puchalski on Miranda).
Finally, we can’t finish without recommending the YouTube channel of Sail Oceans. It’s about the ongoing adventures of a family of four aboard their yacht, living the dream and sailing round the world. It’s almost always in English, so accessible even if you don’t understand Polish. Catch up with them here.