The Circumnavigators - by Don Holm


- 36 -

The Lone Pole

          Leonid Teliga, the Polish yachtsman who left
          Gdynia in the fall of 1966 on his 30-foot yawl
          Opty, passed through Panama on his way to
          Tahiti, in September 1967.(1)

at sea on a solo circumnavigation of the world in his home-built
dream ship. This was not only the way he wanted it, but the way he
had planned it for years, ever since his boyhood days when he had
devoured the books of Slocum and Gerbault.
  This early fascination with voyaging, in fact, led him to expand his
school studies on his own into more advanced fields to prepare for
the time when he would be captain of his own ship. He soon could
master problems in algebra and geometry far ahead of his class-
mates. (2)
  He knew also that boats cost money, so he must have a career that
paid well. In his home town of Gdynia, on the seacoast of the Bay of
Danzig, a few miles north of the city of Danzig, the best-paid profes-
sion seemed to be that of a doctor, so he turned his studies this way.
But, in Poland, an intermediate school diploma was not sufficient to
get him admitted to a medical college. He turned then to a maritime
school where he completed the course, and in 1938 shipped on a
fishing schooner.

   ~ 313 ~

 After Hitler's legions marched into Poland the following year, 
Teliga found himself stranded in a Caspian fishing port, where he
had been employed in the industry. He helped in the evacuation of
Rostow, then enlisted in the Polish National Army and became a
bomber pilot. By this time, Poland had been overrun and split up
between Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R. In those days of fast-
changing alliances, Germany and Russia soon became enemies, and
the latter allied with the rest of the Free World at least until the
Axis powers were defeated.
  After the war, Teliga returned to Poland, a country now under the
red flag but no more subservient than its people had been under Nazi
rule. Teliga became a sailing instructor, and to raise money to pursue
his dream, he became a freelance translator, a writer, and member of
the diplomatic staff. He went to Korea as a staffer with the Inter-
national Conciliation Commission, and later worked as a corre-
spondent in Rome, and served with the International Commission in
  Meanwhile, he worked on the plans for the boat he wanted.
Returning to Warsaw in June 1965, he devoted most of his time to
the project. Opty, as his dream ship was called short for "Opti-
mism" was launched in October 1966, exactly twenty-eight years
after he had completed his sailing course in the maritime school. By
December, Teliga was ready to depart, but the Polish Sailing So-
ciety would not grant him a permit for a lone voyage across the Baltic
in December. After much negotiation, Teliga compromised with a
permit to ship Opty by freighter to Casablanca. Then followed hectic
days of scrounging supplies, anchor chain, instruments, canned goods,
guns. A farewell dinner was given Captain Teliga.
  Then, the next morning, Teliga sailed Opty the twenty miles to
Gdansk (port of Danzig), and the yacht was hoisted on the deck of
the M/S Slupsk for the trip to Casablanca, on December 8, 1966.8 In
this North African rendezvous for yachtsmen, he met John Sowden
for the first time. Sowden had not planned a circumnavigation, but
they talked about it frequently, and this probably put the idea into
Sowden's head.
  Anyway, there was no doubt in Teliga's mind what he wanted to
do. He left on January 25, 1967, for the Canary Islands, reaching
there after a 16-day passage during which he encountered a Force 9
storm. The bouncing around opened seams on the coach roof, and
from the damp cabin Teliga came down with lumbago. On
March 16, he departed for the Barbados, a 2,700-mile passage which

  ~ 314 ~

took 31 days at an average speed of 3.1 knots. During this passage, he
suffered from an aching tooth and had to remove a plastic cap from
it. The going was slow and he wrote in his log, "The ocean is so
damn big and to cross it one must display as much patience as there
is water."
  He spent several weeks cruising in the Indies, putting in at
Grenada on April 21, and arriving at Panama in August. Because of
his Polish flag, Teliga unfortunately experienced red tape and some
unpleasantness in the Canal Zone, but finally, with diplomatic con-
nections, he was able to obtain clearance. He reported in his log that
the American yachtsmen and local yacht club officials were friendly
and helpful, in contrast to the official attitude. He left Balboa on
August 17, taking twenty-nine days to reach the Galapagos Islands,
where he missed meeting Sowden by just one day. Other yachts at
Santa Cruz, he logged, were the U.S. Renee Tighe, Discovery, Free
Flight; and the Seafair from New Zealand.
  He departed October 26 for the Marquesas, arriving at Nuku Hiva
on November 30, where he found at anchor Tarmin and all the boats
he had met in the Galapagos. On December 21, he left for Tahiti,
passing through the dangerous Tuamotus between Rangiroa and
Arutua atolls where navigation is tricky with variable light winds and
unreliable currents. He once hit a floating palm tree which scraped
off a patch of anti-fouling paint and exposed the planks to worm
damage. On December 31, he entered Papeete harbor and moored
alongside Tarmin. It was New Year's Eve, and the time had come for
a celebration even for a Lone Pole.
  He waited out the hurricane season here with Sowden and Johann
Trauner, another solo circumnavigator. The time passed pleasantly.
Among the other yachts were the Eryx II, a large Frcnch-owned steel
schooner flying the Union Jack, and the well-known Canadian sloop
Driver, sailed by the Graham family.
  On May 5, he crossed to Bora Bora, then sailed directly to Suva
where he was cordially welcomed by the British authorities and local
yachtsmen. He spent a pleasant two months here, but was unable to
get a visa from the Australian immigration office, an episode which
aroused a good deal of local opinion when the word got around.
  Somewhat embittered, Teliga decided to head for home as directly
as possible. For one thing, he was not feeling well something he
kept between himself and his log. He loaded supplies aboard for 180
days, just in case he did not stop anywhere on the west coast of
Africa. He had 400 liters of fresh water aboard and enough food to go

   ~ 315 ~

straight through to the Baltic if necessary. Leaving the Fijis on July
29, 1968, he crossed to the New Hebrides, sailed through the coral-
strewn Torres Strait, and entered the Indian Ocean. In mid-October,
after a storm, he spotted the English freighter Egton, which changed
course and hove-to. This was the first vessel Teliga had seen since
leaving the Torres Strait two months before.
  "Some ship masters," he wrote, "are sea gentlemen and really care
about yachts."
  It was the wrong time to sail around the bight of Africa, but he did
not want to have to fight his way into a port and then fight his way
out again. It was bad enough out here. Besides, the pains he had been
enduring almost constantly were now worse. At first he had thought
it was because of an accident in which he had been hit in the abdo-
men by the boom. The intestinal and bladder troubles persisted,
however, with the occasional passage of blood. The passage around
the Cape was a trying experience with southwest storms and winds
over sixty knots much of the time. On November 3, he was altering
course to the north, keeping to the east of the usual sailing route to
take advantage of the inshore currents. He also wanted to see a region
of the oceans that few yachtsmen visited.(4)
  Now he was no longer in a hurry. Perhaps he felt the end coming
too soon. He entered Dakar on January 9, 1969, after 165 days at sea,
one of the longest solo voyages on record, having sailed 14,263 miles
  In Dakar, the French navy looked after Opty; Polish, French, and
Sengalese friends looked after Teliga. It was one of his most enjoyable
port visits. Feeling better, he left Dakar on April 5 and crossed his
outbound track from Las Palmas to Barbados, thus completing a
circumnavigation solo in two years, thirteen days, twenty-one hours,
and thirty-five minutes, according to his log.
  He stopped in Las Palmas from April 16 to April 20, and then
sailed to Casablanca, which he entered on April 29. He could go no
further, not even the last final and triumphant leg to the Baltic and
home. For some time now, he had been extremely ill. In order to
attend the ceremonies waiting for him in Warsaw, as the first Pole to
sail alone around the world in a small boat, he flew back on a
commercial airliner to attend the official dinners and functions, and
to be honored by his country's high decorations. Opty was returned
later and a Gdynia shipyard took charge to prepare the yacht for the
next season free of charge.
  Typically, not even Teliga's close friends knew how seriously ill he

   ~ 316 ~

had been. Only his log knew. The pains, we now know, had been
with him during the entire voyage. Later a friend and neighbor,
Witold Tobis, wrote:

        We did not have the slightest idea about the illness and
        the pains which Teliga had to endure during the whole
        voyage. It is now supposed that what Teliga took for the
        ishias was in fact the first attack of cancer. It was during
        the first part of the voyage. The unfortunate crash of
        the boom on his abdomen seemingly developed or ac-
        celerated this illness. This happened during the Grenada
        to Cristobal crossing. The next paroxysm of pains and
        the bigger one was during the passage through the Torres
        Strait. After passing the Cape of Good Hope, at the horse
        latitudes, Teliga got a high fever and as now we know
        from his log book, he lost his mind for some days.
          And then comes the last leg of the voyage, namely the
        quick passage from Las Palmas to Casablanca, when
        Teliga was in such pain he had to bite his blanket.
          About a week or ten days before his death, Teliga
        came to my backyard, when I was putting the finishing
        touches to my self-made yacht. He said then, "Your boat
        seems to be a mini-Colin Archer type," and we had a
        little chat, and it was for the last time.(5)

  Teliga's solo circumnavigation on the trim little home-built Opty
ranks among the best of them. It was made in fast time for such a
small vessel, and with a precision that surpassed most voyages. Had it
not been for Teliga's log, and occasional letters from faraway places
to friends, no one would have ever known about the Lone Pole.
  In 1969, the Polish government issued a special 60-gr. postage
stamp in honor of Leonid Teliga and his voyage. The stamp shows a
map of the world with Teliga's route on Opty and an explanatory
   ~ 317 ~

 - end Chapter 36 -

To Chapter 37.


AUTHOR's NOTES Chapter Thirty-six 1. From a notice published by the Slocum Society for members Autumn 1967. 2. From a story in a Polish periodical, translated by Michael Chelchowsky. 3. Opty was a neat and trim yawl with underwater lines similar to the John Alden yachts, and a small but pleasing transom and overhang. She was 32 feet loa, and registered as a five-ton vessel. She was built by Teliga in his back- yard and fitted out mainly by his own hands. Existing photos attest to the good workmanship that went into the construction. No one will ever know the whole story of the legal red tape and complications that had to be overcome to make his dream come true in an Iron Curtain country. 4. For another voyage in this area, see the account of Bill and Phyllis Crowe on Lang Syne. 5. From a letter dated April 4, 1971. 6. Teliga was one of the few voyagers to be so honored- not even Captain Joshua Slocum achieved this. Commodore John Pfleiger of the Slocum Society tried in vain to get the U.S. postal officials to issue a commemorative stamp on the fiftieth anniversary of Slocum's circumnavigation. A 68-peso stamp was issued by Argentina in 1968 to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Vito Dumas's solo voyage during the early years of World War II. He was first to do it in the Roaring Forties, his track having been followed later by Bill Nance Chichester, Alec Rose, Nigel Tetley, Robin Knox-Johnston, Moitessier, the Smeetons, the Griffiths, Dr. David Lewis, Marcel Bardiaux, and others.

To Chapter 37.

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