"The tattoo is the official ending of this story.
Truly I was not sailing alone,
all of you were my virtual crew.
Thank you for being with me."
We have covered close to a thousand expeditions in 2008. It's difficult to choose the best, as they all contributed in their own way, sharing their story - their very soul in fact - with us and the world.
And yet, there are those who linger in our minds long after their final debrief. We have chosen 8 expeditions who have contributed in an extraordinary way to the Spirit of Adventure in 2008.
Today number 3: against the wind, Tomek and Wacek
One brilliant spring day in California, a sailboat was quietly making its way out of a marina, leaving behind a bunch of neglected yachts with uncovered, yellowing sails. "They just stand there, like abandoned women," the sailor thought to himself. "After some years in the sun and rain they disintegrate in your hands."
Few knew that the Captain would come back to the exact spot in the following year, with an accomplishment managed by only five famous names before him.
"People buy themselves the right to dream, but dont have courage enough to sail," pondered the man as he navigated his way out to the open sea.
His sail would go without stops, East to West against the prevailing wind, a bit like most of his life had been.
The first Luka
Polish Tomasz Lewandowski grew up trailing about the Jeziorak lake in Poland, dreaming to sail around the world alone. At 20, he fixed up Luka - an old, 25 ft straw yacht. It took one year to transform her - in his eyes at least - to the 'Princess of the Jeziorak'.
In the mid 80's, Tomek was seemingly closing in on his grand voyage. He had just bought materials to build Rudy, a 40 ft yacht, when marriage intervened. Tomek found himself a responsible father building a new house instead.
Some years later, Tomek's life fell apart. The marriage and the home vanished, leaving him with nothing left but an aging dream. With that, Tomasz Lewandowski left for America.
In 1990, long before Discovery's "Deadliest Catch" was conceived; the industrious immigrant went to work fishing for scallops in New Bedford, on Alaska's Kodiak Island and the Bering Sea.
Soon, Tomek had made money enough to set up his own business - a small construction company in Seattle and Mammoth Lakes.
Enters Beata. The very first time I met Tomek, he said, 'one day Im going to sail the world alone and then Ill tell you all about it', she recalled.
In the following years, Tomek would drag Beata around marinas to look at yachts. "Close your eyes and imagine, thats my Luka standing there, he told her. "She was not there yet, but she already had a name," Beata said.
Late June in 2003, Beata came home to find that Tomek had left. He was in Santa Barbara and it was love at first sight. "Tomek called me a week later," Beata said. "Either he missed me or maybe he wanted to show off his new fiancé? Of course I went to California right away, to meet my new rival."
She was a Mikado 56' - Tomek's true Luka at last. After her arrival in California, Beata and Tomek spent a magical first night onboard; with the sailor already plotting his route.
On March 6th last year, Luka left on her maiden voyage around the world with Tomek, ship dog Wacek - and Beata at the keyboard back home.
Where you normally would adjust the sails a couple of times per day at the most, going against the winds makes for a far more stressful and demanding journey. Tomek and Wacek were headed straight towards infamous spots such as the Cape Horn and Cape of Good Hope, in the worst way possible.
The sailor and his Jack Russell first mate were moving "like a fly in pitch" and the Captain promised himself a tattoo after his return that would read, 'I will never again sail by any cape from east to west'.
"This is against nature," Tomek explained, "only an idiot like me would come up with such an idea."
The spoiled Anglo-Saxon
Sails such as this would normally be packed with dramatic reports of winds, waves and sleepless nights - but Tomek made it look easy. Calm days were deemed "ideal for a bottle for a solitary sailor" and home made fudge for his dog: "It's fun observing how he tries to separate it from his teeth," was the Captains only comment.
The sail was single handed, as Wacek had four legs but no hands and was mostly busy chasing sea birds on deck. When a whale hung out near the yacht, the dog barked at him all day with short interruptions only for eating. "It's rude and un-Polish to not allow strangers some rest" Tomek pointed out, "but the Jack-Russell is a California-born, spoiled Anglo-Saxon."
Mr. R. Nadrowski
Putting on his MP3, the sailor listened to Polish audio books, most around 30 years old. "Some are hard to listen to, the people who read them were probably chosen for the job at a party meeting," relayed the Polish emigrant and offered reviews.
"I discovered that the manner of reading a book is almost as important as the text itself," said the Captain. "For example I cant stand to hear books read by Mr. R. Nadrowski and Im very sorry that from a lack of other things to do, I recorded so many of them. He totally corrupted Shogun."
There were real books too; some unloaded overboard such as Van Daniken, whose "personal proposals are like a stretched condom," ruled the Captain.
And so it went on. We got worried following a week-long update black-out, but then a message explained: "Wind and direction the same, nothing worth describing happened."
An old lover
Day 221, bland sausages were to make for a nice stew in thin crepes. The Captain laid out the plan; two sausages in each, a few strips of bacon, a little stinging paprika. Unfortunately, the powder egg pancakes fell apart and ended up overboard.
"Disappointed and sweaty from standing in the hot kitchen, I sat down in the steering room and opened a beer," wrote the Captain. He recalled a cigar stowed away in the cupboard, still wrapped in its fancy cellophane. Giving up smoking 5 years earlier, the Captain lit up.
"I felt like I met up with an old lover," he reported, "and even though I knew that this connection is bad for me, and that we have no future, this one time I let her once again passionately hold me."
"I lit the second half of the cigar and opened another beer; we had a splendid time listening to a book about the first white colonists of Africa.
"Then I opened a bottle of Whisky and my perception sharpened even more..."
"Sail without fear brother..."
Gazing at the endless horizon, Tomek pondered his life and shared his thoughts with us. He spoke of his brother: "We cruised to Guadalupe, and traded with fishermen head to head, a can of beer for a spiny lobster. Mirek was thrown overboard, knocked out a tooth, got two black eyes...Hehe."
"He survived this adventure but alas a year later he did not survive a stroke."
"At least I had got him away from his sofa. He had tasted fresh spiny lobsters, crude oysters and the waves in San Quentin. He too liked to dream, and when we die, we all go where we imagine we go," Tomek figured and imagined Mirek now sailing on his ideal, twenty-meter yacht, flying full sails:
"And he smiles at me as if saying, 'see, this is what a yacht should look like, and not like yours with so many windows to break. Mine will withstand any weather, but I ordered good weather for your greenhouse, so sail without fear brother..."
265 days out, Tomek and Wacek were closing in on the Horn - with a malfunctioning engine. This would be bad enough with the winds and currents coming from behind.
But sailing against, without a good chance to maneuver onboard a Luka "almost five meters around the hips and reluctant to climb," the Captain was in trouble. The engine fix was too complicated, "my qualifications for it equal those of someone who has watched ER and now must perform an open heart surgery," fretted the Captain.
Tomek and Wacek found a sheltered bay 10 nm north of Horn where they hid waiting for the winds to abate, navigating by sail the narrow canals in and out. It became clear that this sailor was as tough as they come.
The sapphire abyss
With so much time spent non-stop at sea, the solitary Captain had to dive in the ocean and scrape the bottom of his boat.
"The scrapes sunk like snow flakes," Tomek reported. "Watching them fall into the sapphire abyss, a few kilometers of water perhaps, I felt uneasy." Diving in several times, he cleaned the propeller, until the cold immobilized him. "I felt that I was slowing down and should get out of the water. With trouble I pulled my 150kg body along a thin, bending ladder."
The courage paid off. Luka sped off at 2 knots, and the Captain celebrated basking in the sun on deck, sipping hot tea "mixed with alcohol," while waiting for fish to catch his bait.
Wacek was busy chasing sea birds, now with advanced tactics pending the situation: "Wagging his tail at the albatross he barked noiselessly," Tomek reported, "as if saying: hey, friend swim up near by, we will play, Ill tear some feathers from your ass..."
The Captain was softer, "it started raining and I thought that I shouldnt leave the poor bird in the rain, but at once I realized how absurd that thought was."
On day 341, the real danger part arrived. Running out of "supplies" the Polish sailor rigged a distilling apparatus on board. "Tomorrow we will fire up..." said the message, followed by a week-long comms silence from the ship. February 2nd, an update at last, going into detail about the moonshine system.
The distillatory was mounted with a large crab pot and a pressure cooker tightened by 3 pairs of grip-tongs and a few little clamps. The mash was mixed, gurgling for a few days, until it stopped and smelled like bad wine. "It looks like all the yeasts died," reported the Captain. "Based on what I know from instructions of the home distiller, which I got many, the yeasts had to die from excess of alcohol," he concluded.
Tomek survived his on-board distillery; in fact he had the last sip on Valentines Day, after catching "a chicken" (a seagull who took the bait Tomek had rigged for fishing). "What a pointless death," the Polish sailor commented the bird's fate.
There was a reason for the reflection. The day prior, Tomek had a bad dream. "I distinctly heard a voice say, 'soon you will die'."
"He threw a party and hung himself, not me - I have a plan"
"I thought well fuck it; this moment is as good as any, maybe even better, because now I am almost happy," Tomek recalled.
Yet was this truly the best time? Tomek wrote how in certain cultures, some people - when it becomes obvious that they wont move any further up the ladder - want nothing else besides what they already have, "and from then on they start to slide."
Tomek's vacation rental neighbor in Florida - an African ex banker - had told him about his grandfather who owned great herds of cattle, had many wives and children in Rwanda. "One day he threw a party for the entire tribe, made a speech, then went to the forest and hung himself."
"Not me," Tomek decided. "I have a new great plan, better than sailing the world, and a multitude of unfulfilled desires, so at this moment, this evil voice cant count on any cooperation from my side."
After one year without meeting a soul, the sea treated the sailor and his dog to some last parades. There were glowing sunsets, flying fish the size of herrings and jumping dolphins...all ruined by record dog Wacek.
"Wacek half hang overboard, or would run on deck furiously, he took turns barking and crying excitedly," Tomek wrote. "I would check sometimes so he didnt get it in his head to swim with the dolphins."
Sweet scent of home
Tomek's voyage had come about as a hypothetical route he drew while sitting on a couch with a broken arm, drinking cheap whiskey. Approaching the same, abandoned yachts with their yellowing sails, Tomek wrote "all the events of this cruise will close in a circle; we wont be able to add anything to it or to take anything away."
No records had been planned, no big sponsors had financed the voyage, and no big TV crews were in place. Yet when the Captain and his dog sailed to shore on April 1st this year; Tomasz Lewandowski had become the first Polish citizen and only the sixth sailor in the world to successfully pass Cape Horn single handed against the wind, and survive. The voyage took 391 Days, 20 Hours, 29 Minutes, and 10 Seconds.
Before him: Sir Chay Blyth (1971), Mike Golding (1994), Philippe Monnet (1989), Jean Luc Van Den Heede (2004) and Dee Caffari (2006).
"We sailed to shore. We were greeted by mermaids and two pretty girls with a basket of flowers," Tomek wrote. "Sailors caught the mooring-rope and I jumped the railing and rushed to Beata."
"Ah, how beautifully she smells."
Previous in the countdown:
4. The longest row, Erden Eruc
5. Karakoram new route double, Babanov & Afanasiev
6. Red flares for freedom, Alberto Peruffo
7. The 14th knight, Ivan Vallejo
8. Wintering the Big White - Tara's 2007-2008 Arctic Voyage
North Pole winter, Matvey Shparo and Boris Smolin
B.A.S.E. jump, Valery Rozov
Everest seniors, Yuichiro Miura and Min Bahadur Sherchan
A personal sea voyage, James Burwick and the Anasazi girl
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