Around this time last year, then 16-year-old Abby Sunderland was in a Marina del Rey boatyard preparing to circle the globe in her Open-40 racing sloop. This year, in a showing that adventure isn’t reserved only for the young, a group of Polish gentlemen none younger than 60, sailed into the harbor after having completed a sailing feat that few have endured – sailing the Northwest Passage.
Capt. Bronislaw Radlinski spoke to a crowded dining room at the Del Rey Yacht Club describing (through an interpreter) the details of this arduous and also treacherous journey through one of the more inhospitable areas on the planet.
It took Solanus 38 days to get through this frozen region, which spans from the entry to the Canadian Straits, to the Bering Strait at the beginning of the Pacific Ocean. After beating around for 4,000 nautical miles, on Sept. 19, the boat crossed the Arctic Circle on the Chukchi Sea and a day later, fighting strong currents, the team conquered the Bering Strait and sailed into the Bering Sea. They then sailed into the U.S. port of Nome, Alaska and down the Pacific Coast in the 48-foot steel yawl.
“We want to prove that the life of a sailor doesn’t end at the age of 60 – it only starts,” said Radlinski.
Radlinski apologized that he couldn’t speak English and told the audience he was from “another generation” – one that didn’t allow him the opportunity to learn the language. The aging captain spoke with great humility to his American audience as if he were making amends for a history that was sour in his memory.
“We remember the bad times,” he said in a somber tone after reminding the audience once again of the crew’s average age. “It’s a pleasure and privilege to represent a new Poland. We very clearly remember the bad times in Poland and we would like to prove that Poland is not what it used to be all those years ago.”
With that sentiment as a driving force, Solanus will be making its way back to Poland via Cape Horn in South America – stopping specifically in places where Poles immigrated. The team will be returning to Poland most likely in August of next year.
In sailing through the Northwest Passage, Solanus became one of only 40 boats to tackle what some call the “K2 of sailing”. In much of the passage there is no prospect of rescue possible. The team members were given advice for negotiating the ice through a person in Canada who, through satellite imagery, could direct them through. Radlinski said that while the ice was a frightening obstacle, he was glad not to have to negotiate the area in the darkness of night. He smiled, pointing out that there was no darkness at those latitudes.
“This passage was very difficult for us,” Radlinski said. “Because of the icing. It took us over a month – we sometimes had to wait several days for the ice to subside. There were a few times where the boat could have been crushed by the ice – it required a lot of patience and a lot of waiting.”
Now Radlinski and his crew will make their way towards more demanding conditions that only relatively few sailors have faced. As they left the calm and sunny Marina del Rey harbor they were all well aware that Cape Horn and the Southern Ocean were the next major challenges in their future.
The stoic, sturdy steel sailboat very much mirrored the stoic, sturdy crewmen from “another generation” sailing forward through all weather on a mission of goodwill and diplomacy.