In Search of the Polish Navy

A sentimental tribute to my dad, who inspired my sailing (and a lot of other things).

My family always got a good laugh from my mother’s stories about the “Polish Navy.” That’s how she referred to the sincere but sometimes misguided attempts of my Polish-born father and his friend to launch their sailing dreams. Listing hulls, ugly figureheads, and unconventional ballast ratios: her stories were guaranteed to work us into side-splitting hoots of laughter. Now an adult and a boat-owner myself, I have a new appreciation for what the Polish Navy was all about - and I can’t help but wonder what became of the bold venture launched so long ago in New Jersey’s Raritan Bay.

It was the late 1960’s, and my father was a young man who had recently escaped from behind the Iron Curtain (the stuff of less humorous legends) and been granted asylum in the Land of the Free. He had always harbored dreams of sailing the world, and in America, he struck up a fortuitous friendship with a fellow Pole, Jan Skarbek. As my father’s senior by about fifteen years, Jan was formally known as Pan Skarbek (Mr. Skarbek). This engineer from a noble Polish family (alas, now penniless) bought an unfinished wooden hull and set about completing his dream boat. He enlisted the help of friends, most of whom found the time to hold a screwdriver for a few minutes before retiring to the cockpit for drinks, as my mother recalls. My father distinguished himself as someone who actually worked long and hard hours alongside Pan Skarbek in South River Marina (which isn’t to say he didn’t down a fortifying vodka along the way), and was soon enlisted as crew for the Grand Voyage.

The hull that Pan Skarbek bought was originally intended as an Arctic sailing vessel by an American whose advancing age had outpaced his dream (sadly, a familiar refrain). More hulk than hull, the boat had never been launched. Family stories always put the boat at forty or even fifty feet, but my father’s carefully penned plans put the length squarely at thirty-five feet. (Suffice to say it was a big, impressive vessel, particularly for recent Slavic immigrants.) Although the boat lacked a mast and just about everything else, Pan Skarbek saw the promise of its ice-proof, inch-thick mahogany. Newspaper reports of the sale, on the other hand, describe a “modern day, misplaced Noah’s Ark.”

The problem was that the Polish Navy suffered from financial difficulties and therefore certain, well, compromises had to be made. To begin with, Pan Skarbek couldn’t afford lead ballast, so he made do by amassing about a quarter of what was required from scraps and poured by his amateur hand. The result was an inconvenient but not insurmountable list to port. The boat was originally designed with a single, massive mast in mind, but such things cost money, and the innovative Skarbek made do with two smaller masts, mounting them in positions that looked about right to his eye.

The ship went through a series of name changes, mirroring the ebb and flow of Pan Skarbek’s love interests. What started as Nina was eventually renamed Nonna and eventually stumbled along to Yolanta. One of Pan Skarbek’s flames was my father’s older sister, a striking, Jackie Kennedy look-alike. She had just the inspiring, noble silhouette that the worthy vessel needed, so my father put his artistic training to work by carving a figurehead in her likeness. He worked from a plaster cast, enhancing the bust for good measure. The final product was molded from epoxy and painted to resemble bronze. Unfortunately, neither portraits nor sculptures were my father’s specialty. The ill-fated result had more resemblance to Medusa than my aunt, who reportedly reacted to the compliment by screaming, throwing a fit, and banishing it to her dimly lit basement (where, legend has it, she later mistook it for a monster and screamed a second time).

Another colorful character in the story of the Polish Navy is Pan Skarbek’s scornful ex-wife. She would regularly bring their two sons to the boatyard to spend weekend time with their father. On the way out, she could be counted on – without fail – to floor the gas pedal, breaking the speed limit and covering anyone busy in delicate varnish work in a cloud of dust. Whether the effect was intended for Skarbek or the general public remains uncertain.

But no matter! Our good men shared a common vision! The grand plan was for Pan Skarbek, my father, and their more or less devoted friends to work on Nina/Nonna/Yolanta in the spring and sail to Europe via Bermuda in the summer (in the bold strokes of their master plan, I’m not sure they had time to consider details like the Atlantic hurricane season). As things developed, the cruising plan was somewhat modified: Provincetown would serve as well as Portugal, after all. In the end, this was further whittled down. My mother recalls only an hour-long outing in sheltered Raritan Bay. Since it would take a gale to move that colossus, it must have been a slow, stately affair.

And what then? Well, the colorful legends peter out at this point. With a baby on the way (that would be me) and the hope for an imminent adventure fading, my father dropped out of the venture. The good news is that he went on to own and make good use of a series of smaller boats (all made of low-maintenance fiberglass). Sadly, cancer took him at age 47, leaving my mother to recount the funny stories and me to carry the sailing torch. We never knew what became of Pan Skarbek and the Polish Navy.

Now I can appreciate the untold parts of this story. I know the feeling of a Friday night, anticipating the projects planned for the coming weekend. I imagine how my father and his friend must have felt when each small task was accomplished, the satisfaction of crossing one more job off a seemingly endless list (even though I’m not sure the two worked from a list as much as from the gut). I know the feeling of being dog tired at the end of a day of contortion acts below decks, and the weariness that Sunday brings before the dreamer rouses himself and looks forward to the next weekend spent, if not on the water, then at least in the boat yard.

Although the misadventures of the Polish Navy were the subject of many a hearty laugh in my family, I have to admire the effort. Despite limited means and know-how, my father and Pan Skarbek put their hearts and backs into hauling in a dream, one handful at a time. They weren’t content to simply start a new working life in a new country; they pursued bigger, nearly impossible goals. Not every American dream ends in success – but that doesn’t mean they end in failure, either. I also can’t help but wonder how many American-born millionaires stumble on the path to achieving similar dreams, in spite of the head start they enjoy?

I wonder whether sailing was a metaphor for freedom to my father and Pan Skarbek, more so than it will ever be to me, a girl with the luxury of growing up believing that dreams were a right, and not a privilege. Or were they simply in it for the joy of working in fresh seaside air, leaving the nitty-gritty of working and home life behind for a while? Either way, I salute them. Here’s to you, Dad, and to Pan Skarbek, for daring to pursue your dreams. Here’s to your story becoming part of another generation’s oral history. Thank you for the laughs - and for the inspiration.

In one way, I would like to hear what became of the Polish Navy from any reader who might happen to know. On the other hand, I am content to simply remember, smile, and dream on.

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Cruising World Magazine and also appears in my book, Pacific Crossing Notes.