I was introduced to Poland’s tragic history in my early teens when I read about the origins of the Dulwich Picture Gallery (as I recounted in my July 20 commentary, “Remembering the Wagners,” which saluted the pioneering work of Polish Captain Wladek Wagner at Trellis Bay).
The Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I in 1919, restored Poland’s independence and access to the sea. A new port on the Baltic Coast was started at Gydnia in 1922.
In late January 2012, about 200 Polish sailors and visitors attended a plaque-unveiling ceremony on Bellamy Cay to pay tribute to Mr. Wagner (1912-1992), on the 80th anniversary of his departure on the voyage that made him the first Pole to sail around the world.
Jerzy Knabe, the commodore of London’s Polish Yacht Club, reminded members of the Brotherhood of the Coast of Poland that Mr. Wagner had made the Virgin Islands his home for nearly a decade.
‘By the sun and stars’
Mr. Wagner recounted his travels in his book, By the Sun and Stars: Seven-Year Circumnavigation by Sail, 1932-1939. The below account was sourced from the 1986 revised edition (in English).
When he was a 19-year-old Polish Sea Scout, Mr. Wagner was inspired to promote the Polish flag in parts of the world where it probably never had been seen before. In summer 1931, he purchased for a few dollars a 29-foot vessel partly submerged in the sand at Gydnia, which he and some school friends moved somewhere they could work on it.
On July 8, 1932, he began his voyage on the newly named Zjawa equipped with just his scout pocket compass, two charts and his sea school knowledge. The little boat took him to ports in Scandinavia, Western Europe, Spain and Portugal, where he was joined by a paying companion, and Zjawa sailed on to the African coast in March 1933.
They crossed the Atlantic to Colon, Panama before Zjawa finally gave up its ghost, but his companions managed to sell its remains and gave him $75, half the proceeds. To raise funds for a new boat, he wrote newspaper articles and his first book, By the Sun and Stars, for publication in Poland.
He bought the unfinished hull of a 45-foot vessel for $500 and gradually converted it to a ketch rig he named Zjawa II. As he had no navigational instruments, he continued to navigate by dead reckoning, helped only by a small compass, some charts, and a reliable watch for a chronometer.
A visiting Polish training ship towed Zjawa II through the Panama Canal in January 1935, but later the rudder broke and then the main mast snapped. He reached the Colombian coast under jury rig and erected a tree felled from the jungle as the new topmast, but a second dismasting occurred near Samoa.
He was delayed for rudder repairs in Suva, Fiji, from July 1935 to April 1936, but Zjawa II sank in the harbour, destroyed by tropical worms. Working at the local shipyard was not lucrative enough, so he wrote his second book, Alluring Horizon.
When ready for the Pacific, Mr. Wagner was joined by an Australian friend, and prior to sailing in July 1937, he received a gift of a beautiful small compass from the Polish Navy. The eventful passage across the Pacific — 4,000 miles from Guayaquil to Tahiti, and then 3,000 miles to Bora Bora, the Cook Islands, and Sydney — was covered in three months.
His private effort to show the Polish flag became officially recognised when the Polish consul general in Sydney, Australia provided him with a steamship ticket, but he travelled back to more affordable boatbuilding in Guayaquil, Ecuador on Aug. 1, 1938.
Mr. Wagner had had to learn more English in Panama and Sydney, but quickly picked up enough Spanish in Ecuador to be able to employ and supervise some local labourers for ten months to construct Zjawa III, a seagoing 50-foot yacht yawl of his own design. Eventually, he was ready for the last part of the voyage: Australia to Poland
On July 19, 1938, he, was joined by two Rover Scouts new to the sea, who wanted to attend the Third World Rover Scout Moot in Scotland in 1939. They reached Southampton, England, on July 21, 1939. He would be officially representing the Polish Sea Scouts in Scotland.
They were given a tremendous welcome at the Moot, but Mr. Wagner knew that war was coming to Europe, so he had to make swift repairs and prepare for sailing. There remained only his return home. Despite protest from the Polish consulate in London, Mr. Wagner left Southampton bound for Great Yarmouth, Suffolk, intending to sail to Poland.
On Sept. 2, 1939, he heard that Germany had invaded Poland and the Polish consul general in London ordered him to return to port, where he joined the Polish Merchant Navy under the British authorities.
Mr. Wagner had voyaged 50,000 miles entirely under sail, but now his unbelievable challenges on land and sea for seven years were over.