Leonid Teliga: The First Pole to Single-Handedly Sail Around the World
In the 1960s, a remarkable record-breaking journey took place that thrilled people in Poland, who back then were largely isolated behind the Iron Curtain. Stopping in places like Barbados and Tahiti, the trip wasn’t about breaking a speed record but about one man’s love for sailing. That man was Leonid Teliga.
As a teenager, Leonid Teliga had delved into books written by great travellers like the Polish seaman and mountaineer Mariusz Zaruski. He was also a big fan of Joshua Slocum, who in the late 19th century became the first man to ever circumnavigate the Earth alone. Many, many years later, after Teliga completed his own sea voyage around the planet, he described his sailing experiences in the booklet Opty od Gdyni do Fidżi (Opty from Gdynia to Fiji, ed.), where he says that the idea for the journey had been planted in his brain by Slocum’s writing:
Captain Slocum’s voyage caught the attention of the entire world and it took years before others attempted to go into his footsteps. As a boy scout, already well acquainted with travel literature, I discussed the possibilities of such a journey with my brother and friends.
Give the people raw fish
Teliga’s own planetary sea voyage took place in the years 1967-69. It brought enormous excitement not only to the man himself, but also to the many people that followed it from Poland. Back then as a member of the Eastern Bloc, Poland was largely isolated behind the Iron Curtain and stories from Teliga’s journey gave much welcomed glimpses of exotic destinations entirely unattainable to the average citizen, like Fiji and Barbados.
For example: in January 1969, while Teliga was in the town of Papeete on the Polynesian island of Tahiti, he gave an interview for Polish Radio in which the listeners could find a number of tasty details. He was asked if there were any Tahitian dishes he thought would be worth introducing into Polish cuisine:
Of course, raw fish with lemon and salad, I seriously recommend it, I’ll give a recipe in the press.
Even though the communist authorities eventually started to use how his journey garnered nation-wide interest for their own propaganda purposes, the trip was essentially a private initiative made possible by one man’s love for sailing, not by state support. Teliga wasn’t some kind of fig leaf masking the obscurity of the Soviet-imposed regime – he had built his yacht, the Opty, with his own money and without receiving any grant for that purpose. Sometimes the authorities would even make things harder rather than easier for him. For example, he was only allowed to take 2 kilos of books with him on board, an anecdote that nicely illustrates the unnecessary absurdities of the communist regime.
War & other previous lives
As mentioned earlier, Leonid Teliga became fascinated with sailing at an early age. But it wasn’t until he was 20 that he managed to complete his first sea-sailing course in Jastarnia on the Baltic Sea. Before that, the Pole born on 28th May 1917 in Vyazma, Russia (his family moved back to Poland with him when he was two after the country regained independence) enlisted in the army because he couldn’t afford to go to university. That in turn took him to officer’s school.
During World War II he was wounded while fighting for Poland, and he eventually found himself in the Soviet Union. There, along with others, he manned a motorboat evacuating Rostov-on-Don, a city threatened by the Nazis. In 1942 he joined General Anders’ Army, a Polish force formed in the Soviet Union from freed soldiers, and along with them made it to the UK. After some military training he became an air gunner in the 300 Squadron of the Polish Air Forces in Britain and participated in bombing missions over Germany. After the war, he studied English in Cambridge for a while and in 1947 he returned to Poland.
His life remained eventful, but fortunately it wasn’t to be marked by going to war again. He wrote short stories, reportages, translated books and was briefly involved with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where he put his command of English and Russian to use. He travelled to Laos as a Polish member of a UN mediatory committee. In Gdynia, he taught sailing, and also made a living on fishing boats in the far seas. In Rome, he worked as a correspondent for the Polish Press Agency, an organisation he left in 1963. Afterwards he started to prepare for the voyage of his life – that fateful solitary journey around the globe.
An updated seahorse is still an outdated seahorse
The money Teliga had earned abroad made it possible for him to build a private yacht – not an easy undertaking under a communist regime critical of non-egalitarian initiatives. Even obtaining the most basic materials like wood and ropes was a hassle, not to mention that the state shipyard in Szczecin declined Teliga’s proposition of constructing a vessel for him.
Because of such difficulties, the building process took far longer than necessary and heavily relied on Teliga’s determination. Although it ought to be said that some well-wishing people did help out: Teliga received, for example, maps and provisions. The Polish navy threw in a medicine kit.
Eventually the yacht, an updated version of a pre-War design by Leon Tumiłowicz, called Konik Morski (Seahorse), was put together in a small workshop in Gdynia under the supervision of the designer. The ready vessel, called Opty (an abbreviation of the Polish word for ‘optimism’), was 9.85 metres long, 2.75 metres wide, had a wooden hull, a motor, two wooden masts, and a sail surface of 43 square metres.
Despite the revamping, at the time of the yacht’s registration in late 1966, the construction was already outdated. The bigger and lesser shortcomings, e.g. the lack of a self-steering mechanism, were a result of the limited resources Teliga had at his disposal.
The pain of setting sail
When Teliga was finally permitted to leave Gdynia on board of Opty he couldn’t do it – the yacht wasn’t fit for the heavy autumn weather in the Baltic sea. So, in December, Opty was transported on board a bigger vessel to Morocco, where conditions allowed for it to sail. Polish Ocean Lines gave a helping hand by arranging for the transit. After some simple preparations, Leonid Teliga set sail for the Canary Islands on 25th January 1967, beginning his voyage around the globe from Casablanca.
However, there was a certain gloom surrounding this grand moment: from day one, Teliga was experiencing serious lower back pain. Despite taking various medicines and sunbathing (he thought the condition might have something to do with the dampness of the leaking cabin), the aches weren’t going away. He lived with them throughout the trip. Fortunately though, the yacht was working fine, even if it wasn’t the most comfortable.
Seaweed & barnacles are just an excuse
When Teliga reached the Canaries, he had his vessel taken out of the water and re-painted, a necessity with a wooden hull that can easily overgrow with seaweed and barnacles. This hiatus, and future ones as well, didn’t bother the sailor however.
His journey wasn’t meant to break a speed record, it was a rather relaxed affair during which he took the time to admire the exotic destinations he arrived at. Teliga was savouring his journey. It wasn’t until March that he left the islands and sailed across the Atlantic to Barbados. His yacht proved to be resilient enough to withstand even the storm conditions he had encountered during this early phase.
Due to his unhurried manner of travelling, Teliga had the opportunity to meet a menagerie of people on the way. In Barbados, he encountered a dentist who, in return for his services, simply asked the Pole to send him a postcard from every port he would go on to visit. Later on, in Fiji, Teliga made the acquaintance of Krzysztof Starzyński, nephew of Stefan Starzyński, the valiant president of Warsaw murdered by the Nazis during World War II. Teliga was even a guest at Krzysztof and his Melanesian wife’s house.
A Pacific New Year’s Eve
Of course, not everywhere was he greeted with a smile. For instance, after leaving the Antilles he had to wait two weeks to cross the Panama Canal: the presence of a lone sailor from the Eastern Bloc unsurprisingly raised suspicion. Nevertheless, he made it to the Pacific coast and after spending two months there, during which he waited for an Australian visa to no avail, he set out for the Galapagos Islands.
It was around this time when Teliga started becoming famous back in Poland. Eventually, there’d be TV, press and radio coverage of his travels, which, as already mentioned, was like a breath of fresh air to many living under the secluded communist regime.
After over a month spent on the Galapagos Islands, where he miraculously steered Opty clear of a collision with rocks only because he managed to wake from sleep at the last moment (solitary sailors take naps at sea when on steady course), Teliga left for Tahiti in late October. He arrived there just in time for New Year’s Eve after stopping only briefly in the Marquesas Islands.
The record-breaking Dakar voyage
In Tahiti he stayed, understandably, for over three months. He got to know the island, but also built a self-steering mechanism of his own design to make his journey more convenient. The yacht’s hull underwent renovation and was re-painted – it had been scratched in a collision with a floating palm tree and consequently became infested with wood-eating Teredo clams. On 7th May 1967, Teliga left for Bora Bora, where he visited the grave of the noted French seaman Alain Gerbault, before sailing to Fiji.
Since he hadn’t obtained an Australian or South African visa, Teliga prepared to sail from Fiji to Dakar all in one go. He gathered the necessary provisions and got his yacht into top shape. On 29th July, he set out and travelled smoothly through the Southern Pacific. But it wasn’t long before the winds became capricious in the Indian Ocean, their direction changing often and forcing him to work hard to stay on course.
But this was nothing compared to what was about to happen in the Atlantic. There, on the last day of 1968, a hurricane hit Opty and broke its rear mast. Here’s how Teliga described the event:
(…) I heard a sharp sound and then another: the right steel shroud of the mizzenmast was waving like a piece of string, the mast leaned over making a cracking noise. The wind rampaged for maybe another three minutes.
Teliga removed the debris from his deck and kept pushing forward despite the missing mast. He arrived in Dakar on 9th January 1969 after sailing the seas alone for 165 days straight – at that time, it was a world record.
Everything comes to an end
In Dakar, other than having his yacht seen to, Teliga visited the local hospital – his back pains had gotten far worse. He took some time out to rest, but left Dakar toward the end of March. On 5th April 1969, he completed his circumnavigation of the Earth by crossing over that first Canary Island leg of the voyage he had begun precisely 2 years, 13 days and 12 hours earlier. After a brief stop in the Canaries, he reached Casablanca on 29th April and the journey was over.
Teliga was taken by plane to Warsaw, where he was quickly diagnosed with cancer. It became apparent that he had been battling not only the oceans but a major illness as well. It must have taken a lot to fight on both fronts. Unfortunately, the first Polish solitary circumnavigation of the globe proved to be Teliga’s last great travel: he died on 21st May 1970 at the age of 52, less than a year after completing his epic journey.
Before passing away, Teliga wrote two booklets. The earlier-mentioned Opty od Gdyni do Fidżi is one, while the other deals with the second half of the journey. Teliga also began work on the book Samotny Rejs Opty (The Opty’s Lone Voyage, ed.), but that title had to be completed by his brother, Stanisław, and was only published in 1973. The yacht Opty was transported back to Poland and today is on display at the Shipwreck Conservation Centre, a museum institution in the city of Tczew. In Gdynia, Poland’s famous port, there is a monument dedicated to Teliga.
Perhaps being on display like this would have appealed to him. After coming back to Poland, Teliga gave an interview for Polish Radio in which he spoke about the sights he enjoyed while sailing around the world:
It was like entering a magnificent art gallery where you see wonderful paintings, not all realistic, some very surreal. (…) Really high-class aesthetic experiences, and that was, among other things, the great thrill of my voyage. I never got bored of that.
Author: Marek Kępa, June 2017