A small village with a river fishing harbour. The interview was recorded when fishing boats were berthing there. On the boats, several older men are mending nets.
MB: A couple of words about yourself, please.
X: My parents were fishers. They started even before the end of the war. My mom came from Tczew, my father from Warsaw… My mom was one of the daughters (there used to be large families), my grandpa had a “Berlin-boat”…
MB: What’s that?
X: It’s a kind of barge used for transporting food. It was requisitioned by the Germans. My mother had to be there. Later, she started to fish. Then she met my father (shortly after the war), they hit it off. And she kept fishing, and he would fish, too, only not here, in Śwbno, but in Górki Wschodnie, it was called “The People’s Fleet”. Later I took over and I worked in a cooperative called “Liberation”.
MB: And there you fished for sea trout?
X: Vistula trout. There’s nothing like it in the whole world… That Canadian one, red… That taste was one of a kind. Here we had the only hatchery in Europe in which the Vistula trout was bred. Every year, we’d let 250,000 to 350,000 fish into the sea.
MB: Do they still stock?
X: [He doesn’t answer directly. He describes the system transformation – from a work co-operative with 34 owners to the buying out of the company by the fishermen when “Communism went down”] Here, to the side, we had a processing factory, but this also began to keel over, now I’m already retired… A colleague of mine bought a vessel, my papers are valid. You leave fishery, you sit at home in front of the telly. But a leopard can’t change its spots. Now I’ve started to fish again, as long as health allows…
MB: Is it a family business?
X: After my grandpa, so it was in my case. This Zbyszek there, the guy that I work for now, also took after his father. Over there, there berths my brother’s boat. I’ve done away with mine, you know, the retirement and weak health. The EU took away my boat, they gave me a discharge allowance, and such rubbish. After that hurricane in Holland I bought a speed-boat, eight metres. I’m repairing it. Sailing does go into your blood after all. Look. [showing his tattoos]
X: Poseidon. A shackle.
MB: What’s a shackle?
X: It’s a connecting link for rigging.
MB: How old were you when you began to sail?
X: It all began with dad’s illness. He got arteriosclerosis, his legs would go numb, his hands. And I was working as a driver at that time, earning really decent money. I worked at the slipway, then here, at our new sluice. – And father had a private-owned vessel, and that’s how it started. I took over after my father and worked with his brother-in-law. He worked with me for a year and retired, and later I brought my brother into the business. For some three years we worked together, the two of us. It’s a hard toil.
MB: So tell me about your work. Where do you go?
X: The Bay is small; it’s too crowded. I go all over the Baltic, from Hel… sometimes up to the Russians. Only that the border guards at Krynica Morska were damn bent on controlling us. They had radars on… …One lad stuck his neck out… in 1990. After work, fish cleaned. It was poor stuff. And, as always after work, you link two boats together. It started to pound. We wake up, “Jesus, the boat’s gone!” It broke away. And the lad drifted down to the Russians. And it was a big fuss, because Gdynia had to pay 18 or 28 thousand dollars to get the boat back; but there was nothing there anymore, no radar, nor sounder, nor VHF radio, nets – nothing. Three Russian boats came up and there – they tethered. And now imagine that the boys had to pay back 28-18 thousand dollars, cuz – there’s the embassy, and that’s another kind of a circus, so there’s no choice …
MB: Well, right, that’s right. These are political matters.
X: And go get new gear, everything. They must’ve worked for nothing for some three years or so.
MB: Damn. So it was a private vessel?
X: Yeah, everything was private. A shitty thing. Only until October 1st. – All moored, only us… Cod forbidden, this forbidden, that forbidden…
MB: But do you get something in return?
X: I’m a hirer here.
I don’t get nothing. Others got some return now for eel, but anyway you can’t catch flounder or cod or sander. Nothing. Everything stands and stinks. And we start at three, switch the GPS on, enter the coordinates…
MB: The work at sea. How is it?
X: You gotta have a heart for it. It’s like, you get hooked on it and it’ll just stay like that your whole life. Like sailing or angling.
MB: So you can’t break off?
X: You sit at home and you miss something. Like an alcoholic misses liquor. You need the hair of the dog that bit you, you need to go on the water.
MB: And where do you usually fish?
X: Further there, towards the lighthouse. It’s a much as 25 to 30 metres deep.
MB: It must be a hard work, isn’t it?
X: Look at my hands. Are these the hands of a pianist? … You wouldn’t believe it, but I played in a band for over eight years. The guitar and the keyboard.
MB: And what kind of music? Some rock?
X: From my times, I was born in ’55… Rock mostly, that’s what I grew up on, eh?
… from when I was a little snot, before the army time.
MB: You played the guitar?
X: First the guitar. A sixer, then a twelver. In 1974 I went to do my military service.
they let me in the band because supposedly I was good
where Budka Suflera [a Polish band] used to play…
we ordered that equipment, it was “Maroya” stuff, tape echo devices, such gimmicks… I didn’t sleep, normal after the army, life-starved, so off on the water, to and fro.
X: Later I managed to get myself one more vessel. You could find ways to scrape up stuff.
We bought oak timber in Kolbudy.
MB: So in the past people used to earn more than today?
X: Boy, under Communism? One kilo of fish lying there?!? 10 tons herring, so the warehouse was bursting at the seams. The [fishing] wholesale point would take it to make fishmeal, or it would go to farmers, for a fertilizer. But the fisherman had to get his money for his hard work. Right to the very last bit.
MB: And comparing to the present day?
X: Boy, what am I to tell you? The EU – our politicians have finished us off. I did away with two boats. I still fish, but my brother, who used to be my partner in business, is unhealthy (he’s got arrhythmia and some such shit). I went to Silesia, where I have another bro, the eldest one, in “Zabrze” coal mine, and he had an accident, so I went to him, and this scallywag did away with my tub.
MB: Oh my. But an accident? And what do you mean, did away with it?
X: No, it was the EU, they offered such-and-such sum. They measured the load capacity, crappidy crap… You won’t find one like that [boat] here. We built it in my yard. Like I mentioned to you before, I bought oak in Kolbudy, took it to a saw-mill, and the timber came to my house and we were building it for two years. Inside out, we even forged copper nails ourselves from a rod.
MB: Oh dear.
X: They ordered the gear, all that, burners, in the shipyard. Because the main thing in a vessel is the keel, and the stem and the stern frame, there must be copper. Copper nails.
X: An old boat-building rule. Further up there go screws, but up to the waterline, it all bloody has to be -
MB: It doesn’t rust or what?
X: Exactly. Our water. Although it’s… but it won’t lick copper. And what is to be above water can be screwed together the usual way. It can always get replaced.
MB: Could you describe your working day?
X: The day begins at two or three o’clock at night. You come. The nets have been prepared by your colleagues, so you shove to sea. Oh, and you set the GPS. And you take the coordinates for each net.
we set four, at least four. – You come over and then the drudgery begins. You must take the fish out.
You sit and peck at it. And change gloves every few minutes, coz the flounder is very coarse and the gloves get worn out in no time. Look, mine are already worn out some. And later it will just bite you, later it’s hard to pick the meshes to take the fish out of the net. And so till you’re finished.
MB: And what happened to your other vessels, because you said that your brother did away with one, and the remaining…
X: I had three. 76, my father’s (the one, you know, when I took over). Then I bought out the shares of its owners in Italy. Later… a vessel from Darłowo… coz I was thinking eel… and that one’s also gone. There, that’s what’s left of it. The Baltic is a damn tricky sea, coz you got a short wave. So it jerks your tub as hell. And then when a dead wave comes, it drags all so slowly… A fisherman, old sea dog… once in a while he’ll bring his dinner up..
MB: But are they dangerous, these waves?
X: They are. Look, the thing is that every boat-builder – every shipyard building Baltic vessels, they have it all calculated: like three waves (you got seven). The next one is such that it can capsize you.
The skipper’s at the helm already (as I used to, on my vessels). If you hadn’t counted good, you were in trouble. An imp overboard, and you gotta turn back and go rescue him.
Human life is threatened. And we, with us it was a family thing – so what if I had sent my son overboard or my younger brother. How would you show up at home? What would you tell your family? That’s not funny anymore. You had to watch it so hard… You gotta watch the net, and the boys, and all the rest. That work ain’t no child’s play, I swear to God. No child’s play to win bread that way, it ain’t funny. Out there, once you’re out of the harbour, there’s no kidding around.
MB: A philosophical question, in a way. How does the sea influence man?
X: It teaches. Discipline. Honour, Honesty. It’s like being on a battlefield. Out there, one would walk through fire and water for another. This gear is worth thousands. If you see that someone’s in distress, he’s drowning or there’s something wrong, you cut that off and you come to rescue. That’s that, no mercy on you.
Janusz B. – a seaman living in Gdańsk. He currently works on ferries between Belfast and Liverpool.
MB: What was the name of your trained profession?
JB: Sea fisherman. (…) This was so, that there were some companies (“Dalmor”, “Gryf” and “Odra”). And the trawling ones, on the Baltic. And some of the fishermen just didn’t want to, or they had families abroad. And since the Communists ruled the country, such people wouldn’t be given international papers. Someone like that could sail but without calling at foreign harbours. After that thing in Canada I got such a letter. I could sail on the Baltic sea, along the GDR and to Russian harbours. The Eastern Block and no further. Three of them finished school before their 18th birthday, so one company in Dziwnów, they used to hire those underage guys who had only a couple of months left [to come of age]. Basing only on Polish bases in those harbors. Later, when “Solidarność” was created, they started going to Bornholm, to the Danes. Those buyers did the choosing. From eastern Poland, so to “Dalmor”; later he [a chosen one] could change this. And that’s how it all began; after finishing school and receiving my school report I was appointed to that “Dalmor” (I had to wait three more months to be 18 years old). After that time, I called to “Dalmor”; formalities, paperwork, collecting clothes, that seabag. I waited for two weeks to be registered on a ship. “Andromeda”. I left for my first cruise.
JB: Yeah. We went to the Lofoten Islands in the North Sea. No fish there, so we went to Spitsbergen. There we were catching cod some, then halibut. Terrible job: not only cold, but sometimes you got the seaweed – it was like glass wool. When you took it out on the deck, you had to pick that…
MB: What was it for?
JB: It came together with fish, from the bottom. Those were bottom fishings, it was growing there. When you grabbed that, it was like glass wool. It looked like cabbage heads, with shoots or two-three metres, it just wouldn’t go out. We were fishing for two-three weeks, and then we flied to Labrador, the Canadian coast. And there in that ice we were fishing for cod.
MB: It was so hard right at the start?
JB: Yeah, hard as hell, straightaway. Sometimes it really kicked my ass – freezing cold, minus 27 degrees Celsius, and it held for a week. Snow is fucking blowing with the wind; if you didn’t have anything on your face, it would simply burn it [your skin] off. But you had to repair the fucking net with you bare hands, you had to put them in hot water, and so on. Often when I came back to my cabin and sat down by the porthole, tears would just come to my eyes: What the fuck am I doing here? Why? How’s it gonna be? Then I slept on it and: Fuck it, I’ll be tough. It lasted for two years, that ice fishing.
MB: What did this job look like exactly?
JB: Hard. When it poured from the stern, from the back of the ship (because they were stern ships, special ones, with such gates with rolls, there were cables) – we were throwing out large nets. We only fished in the bottom system then. Pelagic system wasn’t in yet.
MB: So what, shoaling?
JB: With mackerel swimming in the depths (20-59 meters from the bottom, or higher), we could pull it that way, that’s how the nets were constructed. But on Labrador we only fished cod – and, what’s interesting, there was the most of it where ice was. Some ships were ice-strengthened. If they weren’t, they would fish on non-icy waters, but with poor results. The sounders for pelagic fishing were mounted in Germany. There was three times as much cod under the ice. We often went there, to Greenland, in the summer. We pulled 20-30 tons of cod, sometimes with ice because the propeller blew some in as the ship pushed through. Twice we came across ice which actually stopped us and we had to wait for another ship to come and crush that ice with the propeller, make a runnel for us and then we could come out. That ice was three-four meters high.
MB: And then you had to call a watercraft – Polish or just any other?
JB: In tough cases, some called the Canadian Coast Guard. Those were huge ships. I ‘ve no idea what class that was – destroyers or something? When there was a Polish trawler around, or a Russian one, whatever – to help out simply. We’re sitting in the same fucking shit boat and it can happen to anybody. Fishing is a tough life. After finishing school I used to get 37 cents foreign currency allowance a day, so less than four dollars for ten days, to buy something in Canada. And a bottle of vodka cost 7-10 dollars. Then they started to raise that allowance but still, it was 37 cents at the beginning. We got off in St. James. I was young and stupid.
MB: Why did you run away?
JB: They threatened to fire us because of that incident on a ship, in the processing room. Me and my colleague, we slapped the doctor and the processing engineer in the face. It was our fourth month at sea and we were kinda losing it. It all began when we wanted some sausage from the steward. The doctor and the engineer (much older than us) joined the conversation. We ran away from the ship. Later I was fired, they took away my papers till 1980. I got married, served my military duty.
MB: And when did you get back to sea?
JB: In 1976, after the military service. On trawlers. I had to do six months in “Jedność Rybacka” [a fishing co-op], nailing boxes. It used to be like that: somebody was after the military service and applied – it wasn’t that easy to get on a ship. Usually there were two years of deferral – some job on land. I did six fucking months and went on private trawlers. We did have brushes with the WOP [Border Protection Military] guys sometimes. [One day] we were standing on the boat, a warrant officer from the military came up and he wanted fish. I say, “What do you fucking mean you want fish?” (he was a bit older than me). I had a mate who sailed, and before that he was in WOP. He said once, “If something’s up, put your foot down, just say a word -- I’ll make everything okay”. So I stood up to that warrant officer’s and he’s like, “You fucker, Canada and that”; he knew me – that story followed everywhere. When I went to “Jedność” they said that I was a squealer, that I snitched to WOP, to those services. They would spread rumors like that to screw you up. Because of that, they were unpleasant to me in the army, too – I mean harassment.
MB: Describe the colleague relations on those trawlers.
JB: There weren’t many people there – it depends on a person. People could always come to terms with me and get on with me well, I’ve never been a confrontational person. Unless somebody stepped on my toes. I’ve always been amicable, though. I’ve never had problems in any company. Not like our Catholics – here she prays but she wishes you all the worst.
MB: What are the principles of coexistence at sea?
JB: You have to be conscientious. You can’t put off anything for tomorrow – “If you have to do something today, do it yesterday”, coz it might later come back at you. Or, for example, [if] you don’t know something, it’s better to ask three times rather than having somebody drown or doing something ten times longer. You mustn’t whistle (superstitions, a lot of crap, basically). Conscientiousness – it didn’t exist on the trawlers. In “Dalmor”, where there were 100 people, or in PLO [Polish Ocean Lines], where there were, say, 30, there was always some deadbeat in such a big group. But I never played deadbeat; I always did what I was told. That’s just how I am, I would be ashamed later that somebody had to do my job. I’m gonna sail as long as I’m strong enough. We had a tough time on these trawlers. Sometimes there was shitloads of fish in the Baltic. Sometimes we pulled out 20 tons – from a small vessel. When I was in “Jedność”, I got qualified as first and second shipper. I went as a second, not as the first. Because back then, in order to get a boat, you’d have to join the Party. The conditions on the Baltic sea were very unpleasant: the wave is short and high. The vessels, as they were built (24-metre KF’s), practically could put out up to the twelve Beaufort and they were safe. Even if it fell round its axis, it could stand up. So it wasn’t tragic, but unpleasant still. It’s hard to describe, you’d have to be there and experience what the sea makes out of man. How a person behaves on such a tiny piece of shit – a wave over the prow, you’re all wet, you know, and the deck full of fish. 20 below zero, and you gotta take care of it, so that it doesn’t spoil, doesn’t go bad. It was our money. And oming back to “Dalmor” for a moment, boy, how our people wasted herring at George Bank by New York, or mackerel… You’re going, the processing room makes you go. There are 300 similar vessels on the fishing ground (imagine how much fish must be there if there are so many ships). At that time we already had an echo-sounder. There’s an indicator on the echo-sounder – you should only catch fish up to this level, otherwise [above that] there’ll be problems. No! Just a little bit more. They tug, they pull out and it shows 120-130 tons. It’s impossible to process that much – and they could’ve pulled out 60 tons, right? They would’ve pulled 60, that fish would still live there and wait to be caught. They pulled it out, processed 30-40 tons and threw out the rest. And in the Baltic, there’s not as much herring. We used to catch cod mostly, because it gave the best money. That was what people ate the most of, because it was relatively cheap, and tasty, too. Once here, on the Bay, we pulled out the whole tail-part of a Russian plane from the Second World War. Old torpedoes – once we lifted just a section, without the fuse. But fishermen from the west coast pulled out mustard gas, sunk by the Germans after the First World War. 65 thousand tons of that shit. It’s lying covered in mud, but it does liberate sometimes.
MB: It’s like a bomb, isn’t it?
JB: An ecological bomb, because it’s gonna flow out one day. After all, there already was one such accident in 1978 or 79 – either before or after Nixon visited the Hel Peninsula. A woman and her children went into the water in Hel. They got so burned that they barely survived it. People would gather eel and cod from the beach with pitchforks. There were spots burnt out on the fish, it was gone dead. Because of the that mustard gas. 60 thousand tons left from the war. It lies there and decays. In the Bornholm Depth. A depth -- and it’s fucking 120 meters. The sea itself would wash up thousands of tons of eel and cod, along the entire coast. The Baltic – you’d think a small sea, but there was plenty of fish.
Marian, a retired fisher.
M: For the first time I found myself on the Baltic straight after graduation, at “Gryf” – the deep-sea fishery [and] fishing services company “Gryf” in Szczecin. It no longer exists. State-owned, of course. I never worked in other companies, only in state-owned ones. In the winter, they [“Gryf”] used to send on the Baltic quite many trawler-luggers, as we call them, like “Kulig” and “Mewa”. A trawler-lugger is a vessel which catches fish using both fish numbing tools (that is, trawls) and drift nets. In the Baltic, we only used to trawl, or fish with pair nets, when we fished sprat.
MB: And how old were you when you started working there?
M: I was 24 when I started. I graduated from the State School of Marine Fishery in Gdynia. It had the status of a civil officer school, like the Maritime School in Gdynia. Except that in our school there were mechanics, electricians trained, and we were in the Navigation-Fishing specialisation, while navigators studied Science of Commodities there, in the Maritime School.
MB: What made you decide to get involved with the sea?
M: A book. I’ve always been drawn to the sea. I read Karol Borchardt’s book “Znaczy kapitan” [I mean Captain]. And I ended up in the School of Marine Fishery, where captain Borchardt was our navigation teacher. Luckily, that idol of mine proved even more awesome than I’d imagined. He truly was a man of great stature – he never gave students failing grades, he believed that it was unpedagogical. But we’d feel ashamed not to be prepared for his classes. Mine was the last year group of navigators which he taught. I could speak long about Borchardt…
MB: You mentioned your first contact with the sea…
M: That was on a school ship, Janek Krasicki, it was a two-mast schooner, I took part in a few training trips. Several people dropped out after having passed the exam, because they couldn’t stand the swaying and they’d imagined that work differently. Strangely enough, I’m never sea sick. It’s nothing, though, [no obstacle] because we know that [admiral] Nelson suffered from sea sickness all his life, the same with Fridtjof Nansen, they’d always get sick when the wave got a bit higher.
MB: When did you start your professional career?
M: After finishing school, as I say, on the Baltic. I started on those trawler-luggers, it was a series of “birdies”, as we called them. There was the “Kulik” [Curlew] type. Later it was refit, the masts were shortened and a part of the port board was built up, and that craft type was called “Mewa” [Seagull]. The “Seagull” was the first modernized trawler-lugger. Those weren’t any extraordinary vessels; we sailed in cut-down crews, because in the North [Sea], such crafts had 16-17 crewmembers, and here there were eleven of us.
MB: How long have you been working at sea? What part of your life…
M: More than twenty years altogether.
MB: What did a day of work look like on a voyage?
M: For cod: we put out to sea at small hours, we entered the fishing ground. There was one at the helm – okay, let me start maybe with the crew: the skipper and the steersman or second skipper, who was his assistant. The fisher, senior fisher and junior fisher on the deck, cook, motorman and mechanic – eight people. Directly to fish, though – to cast nets – there went all except the mechanic and the skipper. The skipper was in the steering room and manoeuvred the vessel, and the mechanic was operating the machine, following all instructions from the skipper, given via the telegraph. Full ahead, slow astern ahead! The rest, cook included, were on the deck, pulling out the net. Precise navigation was important on fishing ships due to the fact that there were often wrecks at the bottom, which weren’t dangerous for the crew but could easily tear a net. And when someone came across something, they’d give the coordinates – and we tried to place them, so that we could be careful. When I started to work as an assistant, I’d often get a list of 70 or 80 spots from the captain and I’d sit several hours at night, I was putting them onto the map.
MB: A map of Poland?
M: Yes. We’re catching with a trawl, so we cast the trawl for cod, the crew goes for breakfast, the skipper or second skipper at the helm, the mechanic, and the rest go to sleep early in the morning. Next, we lift the net. We pull it up, empty the net on the deck, cast it back and start cleaning the fish. Fish goes to the hold, in the hold the fisher and junior fisher pack it in boxes. Later there’s time to lift the net again, empty it, have dinner quickly and do the second batch of fish. After dinner, after you’ve done everything, straight away – the third round. Over and over again; depends how long the day is. Oh, and in the morning we tuned to the radio to see who caught what where. Then we’d sometimes change the fishing ground.
MB: I see, so in a sense there was cooperation?
M: There was a radio service, and everyday you’d report where you were and how big the catch was – twice a day. So staying on a listening watch, you knew who caught fish where, if they tore a net or something. We knew the grounds anyway, the question was only if the fish showed up there or not.
MB: How does one function socially on such vessels?
M: Without any qualms, they’d snitch from a neighbouring fishing cutter a spade, some gear, a hammer, a crowbar or something. You colleagues could steal your knife, the fish that you put aside to take home, or something like that. But then if you wanted to borrow some money, “There, there’s my gear there on the left – so just take as much as you need”. Nobody would even have second thoughts about mooching someone’s working gloves, a knife, or something from his kit. On the other hand, when someone wanted to borrow 50 or 20 zloty for a beer from a jacket in which there was 200 or 300, it never happened, it’d hardly ever happen that someone’s money went missing in such unclear circumstances.
MB: Were there any conflicts?
M: Sometimes (I’m talking about Władysławo). If the crew were from Jastarnia, and there was one odd one out among them, that was a hard life. There were even some very unpleasant issues. I remember one story, namely the crew were from Jastarnia, and only one boy… They all planned to put out on Sunday, at midnight, and on Saturday morning the whole crew quietly ganged up [behind his back] and came on the ship on Saturday and reported his absence. This was a very serious thing, because for something like that, he could’ve faced a disciplinary dismissal, an official reprimand, etc. However, by a twist of fortune, there were some maintenance staff there, just then checking the radar (or something else), and they happened to have heard everything. So he could take them as witnesses. The management board just passed over the whole thing. They even speak differently! For instance on the [Hel] Peninsula, they call a bucket petz, and in Władysławowo – wembork. In Władysławowo they say szrebulce for matches, while on the Peninsula it’s knybeci. The words are different.
MB: How does the sea influence people?
M: On the one hand, there’s something like putting things off, “I’m on land, I’ll take care of this after the voyage”. It doesn’t matter if the voyage is going to last a hundred days – after the voyage. Or we would come to the harbour and be surprised that there was nobody there; one o’clock at night, and nobody there, [you can’t do] any errand. You lived around the clock and you saw it differently.
MB: You told me once about superstitions.
M: Many various things, some taken over from the Dutch. That you shouldn’t scrub the deck too much before leaving the fishing ground (that was a Dutch superstition), because it scares the fish away and you’ll get a poor catch. Especially if you use a scrub-brush. Particular fishing cutters had their individual things (an example from cuter 166: they tried never to go to sea on a Saturday, or from cutter 138: chicken for dinner always meant a storm).
MB: And how about the money, did you get paid well back then?
M: Yes, I used to earn quite well. We’d earn the most in the wintertime, during the cod season. Catching sprat went quite fast, to the harbour – unload, take on more ice and provisions, and back, while it lasts. Sometimes we’d sail into [such] a shoal of fish that the net bags would break off. Once we were coming back in a storm, I went to the hold (the fisher cut his hand, so I had to put the fish away for him). Suddenly – a splash of water. “Come on out, Marian – the fish is gone.” A wave hit us and washed the all fish overboard. Sprat. At that time, we used to fish on 24-metre cutters, wooden and metal, with Volunt engines (Danish, excellent). Due to its construction, you could, say, rock that vessel with your foot while standing on the wharf. But to tip it over [it was hard] – it was very well-balanced. There are some such still standing in Gdynia, they’ve been made into fried fish bars or something like that. It had to be cooled with fresh water. Later they started to build those cutters – we’d take them from Ustka – where you fished from the stern. In the beginning, on all those stern cutters you had to lift the nets manually. Later, they mounted trawl winches – such rollers which first drew in the trawl ropes, and then lifted up the net itself up to the bag and you only had to hoist the bag.
MB: You once mentioned an interesting fact about Kashubian hirelings… A cooperative. Maszoperia.
M: On private fishing cutters, there existed the remains of this – let’s call it so – maszoperia. Maszoperia was an association, a co-partnership. Especially on the [Hel] Peninsula, where everybody put in, had to buy or make – a piece of net. The net bag had very many long wings and nine or twelve fishermen had to make that whole bag and each of them would put in a piece of it. And it was all divided up among them; the widows of the former members of the maszoperia also received some share [as if taken straight from Edward Abramowski’s writings: cooperatives offering to their associates certain benefits, including pensions for widows or orphans – MB], because for example my colleague’s mother used to get her share. She’d come on the shore as they were pulling out the nets – only she wasn’t supposed to come until they finished – because if a woman turned up on the shore with an empty basket before the nets were pulled out, it would bring bad luck. The parson, the teacher, and I think the organist would receive their shares as well. These were halves – there in Hel, they used to divide the fish into “mendels” [an archaic measurement unit, 15 pcs], but fishing “mendels”, which were not 15 but 16 pieces. Coz it was easier to divide  into parts. So, one remainder of that system was that on fishing cutters, they used to participate in the fuel costs and some other expenses, which were deduced from their “partum”, whereas we worked in a state-owned company (there were no extra deductions from our pay), and that’s why they’d address us as “you hirelings”. They considered themselves the skipper’s partners, and we were hired workers.
MB: How does working at sea influence the family?
M: With my family already there, I worked on cutters. This was different, because I used to come home two or three times a month. It’s different than with deep-sea fishing, where we’d sometimes go on a 180-day voyage, and then they’d prolong it for another hundred days. It was almost a year. I was a bachelor, the girl that I was dating then got married in the meantime. I did survive somehow, but after these 180 days you kinda went wild a bit. Some people would turn very nervous. Some just the other way round – they’d get completely calm. I knew a mechanic, a very calm man. He came back from the sea, went home and found his wife in bed with a lover. He had a heart attack. They took him away to the hospital, managed to rescue him somehow, the wife came over, bringing flowers. When he saw her, he had a second attack. He went to live on a disability allowance, such a blow it was to him. I used to sail with one captain Tadzio. A very composed man, a very good navigator and fisherman. I sailed with him during the last weeks before his retirement. He was a bundle of verves.
MB: Do you consider a fisherman’s life hard?
M: It used to be hard especially when we fished cod. Sometimes we’d be cleaning fish manually for two days long, including packing it away. The temperature was two or three degrees, or even below zero, and we’d be cleaning that fish. During the first hour of work, a fisher, if he already knew his stuff, would do about six boxes. About 230-240 kilos [in] the first four hours. Later it was less. With other fish, you’d just put ice in the boxes, that was a different job. There were accidents every so often, because cod had to be beheaded. We’d use a knife, a cleaver, sometimes a guillotine shear or an electric beheading machine (resembling a bread slicer). And there were some accidents here, sometimes people would lose their thumbs from being tired.
Przymorze district of Gdańsk. The interview is recorded in the flat of Olaf’s, who began his adventure with the sea several years ago.
MB: Let’s begin with your associations with the Baltic Sea and the role it has played in your life.
O: I associate it with the smell of my childhood; and with the fish that my grandmas always used to buy. There were many sailors in my family – some of them worked on foreign contracts, but they’d all start on the Baltic anyway. As a child, I used to live in the district of Kamienna Góra [in Gdynia], so I’d always see the sea from my window. Later, when I lived in Witomino district, the view was the same, so there was a constant eye-contact. Autumn walks on the beach, swans, storms…
MB: How are the local inhabitants influenced by the see?
O: This was visible in the times of the Communist rule. Thanks to the harbours, these cities were richer in deficit goods. Secondly, you could notice greater cultural diversity. This sounds paradoxical, but it seems to me that today our Tricity is much more culturally homogenous than it used to be back then, when we were in fact a country closed to the world. It was shocking to see a coloured (or any other) sailor, speaking a foreign language. In my family, when a foreign ship put in the harbour, we would all go to look at it. It didn’t matter whether these were Russians, Germans or Danes, what mattered was that ships were coming.
MB: Let’s move to the subject of working at sea: any interesting stories?
O: In the late 1940s, my grandpa on the father’s side worked in Górki Wschodnie, selecting crews for fishing vessels. He told us how the Polish newcomers and the Germans worked together. Germans, those old Germans, for whom it didn’t make sense to go to the Reich, because their homeland was here – they’d been born and grew up here, and had been living here for generations – so why would they have gone. And grandpa would say that they made the best workers that he had ever come across (by the way, grandpa was himself born in the Reich). So he had that German “fetish of work”, though he himself wasn’t so very much into work. He told us about the problems he used to have with the Polish settlers, because our guys would count on becoming the captains of those fishing boats straight away. And it would turn out that they were made fishermen’s helpers at the most, because they were dumb, knew nothing, had to learn. They’d cut nets, now and then a skipper was beaten up, called a Nazi. Grandpa would tell us how he had to intervene, and later he was in trouble for that, because the UB [Security Office, Communist secret service] took him up several times, asking why he stood up for the Nazis, and he’d say that he didn’t stand up for any Nazis but for Germans who’d lived there for generations, and that perhaps it was high time that they did something about those youths who would damage nets rather than persecuting captains and normal employees who earned their livelihoods and made money for the company. This is the story that I remember best.
MB: You mentioned your family… Tell me how such sea-related work influences the family.
O: It depends on the character of a given sailor. In most cases, it [the work] affects the family in a more or less destructive way. If the father goes to sea for two weeks, there’s no problem, there’s this regularity. It gets worse, though, when a longer voyage comes up – which sometimes doesn’t end with going back on land but with grabbing another chance to earn money and using it. Secondly, the absences from home. The father comes home, wants to take care of it etc., be a good father. This ends in terrible rows. Or he wants to come back and rest, and his wife floods him with stories. As for my grandpas, returning from the sea, one would sit for three days in an armchair, without saying a word (the one on my father’s side), and the one on my mother’s side would try to make up for the lost time. This would end in a perpetual quarrel with the kids and a general smash-up at home, because grandpa would start to repair everything around the house and later grandma had to call workmen to fix everything after him. Coz it’s like, if the guy sailed, and the woman didn’t work (she didn’t have to, or didn’t want to, because there was enough money), then this was a sorry thing, because the kids would stay under control all the time. On coming back, the father would get so much telling on that his head went big from listening – and he’d further tighten up the control. Marriages collapsed – I know such cases among my friends. The head of the household sailed, bringing cash home, and the wife frittered it away on lovers. This is understandable in a way, only it’s a shame that these marriages usually didn’t end in a divorce – neither was saint there. In the majority of cases, if both sides were tolerant, it could be hard at first, but later is was OK – in a sense, the tension was eased by the fact that the husband had everything delivered to him on a plate. He rested, he came home as the lord, he had servants, he didn’t have to sweat his ass off doing stuff. He saw different faces… The worst thing about sailing is that you see the same faces all the time. Then there are two ways out: you either socialise full-scale (but then you won’t hold out on land too long, because you miss these people) or become a total loner, because in such a small environment strives are easy to come by, people create some cliques etc. This is a dynamic situation, but it’s terribly exhausting mentally, for example it made loners of my grandfathers (at least the grandpa on my father’s side; he had those pals of his, his family, and that was it; strangers were of no interest to him). The other grandpa always enjoyed the company of other people, but he didn’t like them so very much as to invite them home in large numbers (my grannies were always more sociable). Looking at my uncles, my neighbours, coz I also had sailing neighbours – some managed do find the balance after several years – they knew that some of those people (for instance working at PLO [Polish Ocean Lines], PŻM [Polish Steamship Company], PŻB [Polish Baltic Shipping Company]) they’re gonna keep meeting non-stop, so bonds were established. These bonds weren’t very close, though, as it was clear that they’d see each other once in a while or not at all. But the best solution, I guess, was to go on short voyages. They didn’t bring you much money, as, according to the system, the pay depended on the amount of cargo. Let me put it differently – this wasn’t a paltry sum – for a sailor it was, but for somebody working on land it was a pretty penny. Getting those 30 dollars for a two-week voyage, plus that salary one had, in Polish zlotys, it wasn’t that bad (especially that for a hundred dollars even in the 1980s you could still have good fun for a whole month). It is a fact, though, that many sailors used to go on long voyages just and only to make money. Especially that in those conditions – with that sick dollar to zloty rate – they could live like kings. Maybe except my grandpa, but those who stopped sailing would suddenly have nothing – they found themselves “with bare asses”, because they’d been spending money as soon as they earned it, they hadn’t put any by, they’d been careless. And even more strangely, usually the lower in the hierarchy a given person stood, the more of a high-roller he was. I haven’t heard of spendthrift officers, but rather about common sailors, who’d suddenly feel like lords (and they would lose the most that way). One disadvantage of working on contracts was that although you were PŻM’s or PŻB’s regular employee, the contract period didn’t count into the pension scheme. Sometimes sailors would sail half of their lives on contracts – they were sent over by PLO, PLO, PŻM, PŻB. But then the superannuation wasn’t deducted from their salaries for years. And later there was despair when retirement came, because it would turn out that they’d get 1300-1400 zloty pension – in present money – and not two or three thousand, oh jinx, as followed from their own estimations. Some wise person advised my grandma to pay for grandpa at least the lowest monthly premiums to ZUS [state Social Insurance Institution]; grandpa would get huffy at grandma for spending that money. But today grandpa has over three thousand pension benefit instead of 1,200.
MB: And how does this work influence yourself, from your own perspective?
O: If I were to start a family again, knowing that I’d be sailing – not for all the tea in China, no! I’d choose one thing or the other. I wouldn’t have undertaken starting a family, because it’s too long a time, the bond gets broken. Satellite telephones, the Internet – this is not the kind of a relationship. Especially that it’s like a grass bachelorhood – you’re alone, you can let yourself go. Sometimes it’s shit not true, you often have to work your ass off and you don’t feel like going ashore in a port to take a look around. No, I wouldn’t start a family now, for sure. It’s just that… me and my family, we simply got used to this situation already, but if I could choose – I wouldn’t start a family or I wouldn’t start to sail.
MB: What attitudes does the sea generate, what worldviews?
O: I miss people at the sea. When I’m back on land, I feel like sleeping everything off for two-three days, and later I seek contact with people. I’ve got so much solitude at sea that I don’t miss it when I’m back on land.
MB: You spoke about the question of relations – how do you cope with being isolated from the rest of the world?
O: All my life I’ve been alone, I used to have my own room, as a rule I didn’t see my parents very often. I had my own world, so I know how to cope with loneliness: going on a voyage, I’ll take a couple of books. I don’t even have to read them – the awareness that I can get away if I need to makes me not pay attention to it. On voyages with an international crew, I rather prefer to socialize with people, in order to get to know their ways of thinking. Whereas on short voyages (the Baltic, the North Sea), you sometimes hardly speak at all, you just exchange greetings. You can sit at a table and be silent. It depends on the crew, though, but usually everyone locks himself out on his bunk and thinks his thoughts. If you see that people don’t feel like talking (they’re tired or they’ve had enough), you just take care of yourself. Probably people working on fishing vessels, even big ones (trawlers, factory ships), they’re mentally affected in a totally different way than I, working in ordinary merchant shipping. Because after all, my mother’s brother went crazy on fishing ships. True, his wife was far from saintly, too. He went crazy from too much of hard work. They used to clean fish there for 14-16 hours a day, if they had to. Storms. On four voyages, he lost four colleagues (because a guy slipped on the deck, the wave was 15 metres, he fell over). This also screws up your mind, because you know that in case of an accident, nobody’s shedding tears over you, you get crossed out of the crew list, an accident at work, lost at sea. Here, in merchant shipping, it’s different, people bother with you, because the work is actually quite relaxed, and if suddenly there’s a storm, whatever – there’s panic. Except that the days are gone when ship owners took care of the sailors’ families (I don’t know about Polish ship owners, I’m hired by foreign ones).
Interview with a former sailor mechanic, currently working as an inspector.
MB: Please let us start with your relationship with the sea? What role has the sea played in your life?
X: I was, I am and always will be connected to the sea, the marine economy, and sailing in general. Until last year, I’d been still sailing actively. This year, due to the ownership transformation in the company in which I could’ve worked some more, I lost this opportunity, and frankly speaking, I don’t miss sailing as such. Until last year, however, I’d been working actively at sea as a senior mechanic. The origin of my relationship with the sea is very prosaic. I was born in 1964, I grew up in the time of crises, from 1970 till their end in 1989. I saw the opportunities that the work at sea offered, and I had a passion for mechanics ever since early high school years. I watched my brother, who is seven years older than I and who started sailing as a captain a bit earlier. I realized that if I was to work, I must work in a profession that ensures a higher standard of life in that time [of crisis]. As I say, everything could only be bought with ration cards, there was no access to basic products (and I’m not talking about some luxury goods like a car or a flat). So I decided to choose this profession. My place of residence also had an impact on that: my flat was overlooking the harbour, I lived near the Maritime University, in Kapitańska [Captain] Street.
MB: Please tell me about your first professional contact with the sea.
X: It was during my training period in the Maritime University. Before that, my uncle took me once with him on a ship and he showed me what it was like. Those were still the days when you could speak of the romanticism of sailing, because those were still steamboats and [there were] stories… It was only in 1982 in the Maritime School that I had a chance to put out on a tiny ship for my first “candidate voyage”. Then, there was a four-month voyage on Jarmuszewski and I was slowly growing into the job.
MB: How do you remember that first moment?
X: My mother said that I wasn’t fit for the work at sea. Mothers know best. There’s a dualism: there’s matter and there’s energy. The matter says one thing, and the energy – homesickness… Being away and staying in such a small environment was very hard for me mentally, and generally until 1994, so as long as I kept working on long voyages, it was a real effort for me – mental, especially. I wasn’t bearing it well. In 1994 I got an opportunity to shorten the voyages to two or six weeks maximum. And then the mental burden lessened immediately. I was repelled by long voyages right from the start because I had a chance to see some of the fishermen’s life during my training period on Jarmuszewski ship in 1984. In those days, they would put out on deep-sea voyages nine months long. They wouldn’t see the land for nine months, because they got on a plane, flew to Vancouver, boarded a ship, sailed to the fishing ground, spent nine months there and after that time they went back do Vancouver and flew back home on a chartered plane, so to me it seemed such a nightmare that in 1987, when we were choosing job offers, I went to ship salvage. I did everything I could to fend off going on fishing vessels. There were many offers from all big fishing companies like “Dalmor”, “Odra”, “Nadocean” and “Gryf”. Knowing the situation on fishing vessels, I really tried hard not to go. After graduating from the Maritime University, I started to work in ship salvaging. I finished the Maritime University in Gdynia in 1987; the harbour was close to my place. After this brief stint in ship salvaging, I went away, my father-in-law let me know about it (in 1989, because of the transformation, a sailor could get a passport). Everybody got a passport, and in those days, there was a shortage of mariners. The seamen went to the foreign ships.
MB: During the breakthrough, right?
X: Yes. And since sometimes, for lack of people, Polsteam ships would stand moored several at a time, the company offered employment very willingly. I got accepted to work in 1989. People from Polsteam would say that I was stupid because I had a passport and I could’ve gone straight away. To tell you the truth, I was a bit afraid. My sea experience in salvaging was rather feeble. First, I worked as a motorman in Łeba, on a tiny rescue ship. I didn’t save much of that life, I took part in some two or three actions. Then, I had the opportunity to take part, as a rescue worker, in the voyage of Neptun to Spitsbergen. In that ship salvaging, I already began to work as a mechanic and as an assistant on bigger tugboats. On oceans waters, we would tow shipwrecks from the Baltic area to Turkey (to Izmir) and I took part in the exchanging of scientific personnel on Spitsbergen, in the Polish scientific stations.
MB: Could you tell me more about those wrecks?
X: One of the salvaging activities was towing. Some of the ships going out of service are able to get to the scrap yards on their own. Most of these yards are located in China (those were in Turkey). Some ships simply can’t do this due to their condition (after sinking or burning down, when they are not worth resuscitating). And this is what the tugboat does – it tows the wrecks. Once, we were towing a tanker after fire down from off Ireland to Turkey, across the whole Mediterranean Sea, for five-six weeks.
MB: Please tell me about your work? You were a mechanic, weren’t you?
X: I’m a senior mechanic. A ship is like a small town. Depending on its size and type, it requires certain handling. My father-in-law is a navigator, so he’s responsible for reaching the target, such matters, plus the things connected with loading, care of the load… Also the seamen from the deck department are dealing with that. In the past, a ship used to have more. Now, there are two departments: the engine department and the deck departments. The engine department provides propulsion, electricity plus all the social stuff, connected with living conditions (e.g. toilet service, hot water, all sorts of activities involved with that); it takes cares of fuel quality. It maintains the efficiency of all equipment, does lubrication, overhauls, takes care of the whole technical aspect. On passenger ships, the hotel department is bigger. On ships with 3,000-5,000 passengers there can be up to 3,000 crew members, so there can be even 8,000 people on one ship. The hotel department is responsible for catering, changing sheets and towels, for doing the laundry… Typical hotel activities. Before, there also used to be a radio department. Nowadays, the whole radio apparatus is so uncomplicated that the deck department took this role over. The post of a dedicated electrician is also disappearing, especially on smaller ships; now the mechanics get trained in this field. Besides, the equipment operates in a much simpler way now, it’s more reliable, and hence there’s less demand for such narrow specialization and such workers.
MB: How was your career developing?
X: I started in ship salvaging because I wanted to escape fishery and I gain some experience at sea – that’s why I went to Polsteam. I started sailing on big ships (bulk carriers). I worked for several years and reached the position of second mechanic. In 1992 an opportunity came by for my first contract – under Polsteam, with a company that operated by Polsteam. I went on my first contract and thanks to this I could secure my family, that is get a flat. When I came back, I learned that Petrobaltic (a company which no longer exists) was looking for a mechanic (because they bought a new platform in 1994 and needed new workers). I applied to Petrobaltic because there it was possible to work two weeks on, two weeks off.
MB: In oil extraction?
X: Yes, and I worked on a platform as a senior mechanic. A platform is like a huge power plant – plus the drilling rig and the machines which support the drilling and oil extraction. [I also worked] on big ocean-going tugboats, which are used for delivery services – they’re called suppliers and the deliver all necessary materials to the tankers and to such small stand-by ships moored by the platform to ensure safety. Since there was a kind of a very family-like atmosphere in this company, such lack of professionalism, at some point it started to get on my nerves, and in 2000 I found a job on the North Sea, on stand-by ships. I spent six years in the North Sea, in the British off-shore, working four weeks on, four weeks off. The finances played a big role here, because I had a totally different salary over those six years, and in 2005-2006, my wife and I decided that it was enough. No matter how much you earn, you’ll eat it. An opportunity came by: the Maritime Office announced that they were looking for [a candidate for] the position of inspector, simple control. I applied, I was accepted and since that time I’ve been working in maritime administration.
MB: How does the sea influence a man?
X: A ship is a place of work, rest and leisure. I’ve got some friends who don’t feel well at home. One of them divorced his wife and his adult child doesn’t want to live with him, because they can’t get along (he lives alone, because he can’t get along with his family). After three weeks, he already feels uncomfortable at home: he’s watched all films from the rental shop. Because how much time can you spend on the Internet? He hasn’t got anything to do at home, as he’s done all the cleaning. So he’s pushing back to the sea, because this is where his work is, he identifies himself with it, it’s his life. You are subject to a particular regime for many years, so the changes are quite deep. When I got a job at the Maritime Office, I didn’t think twice about it, despite the fact that my earnings dropped fivefold.
MB: Some put it bluntly: sailing or a family.
X: These two cannot be combined. You know, this is pathological after all. Because later when you think what my children must have felt, when I wasn’t there they missed me terribly, and so did my wife. I would get back home and my ways clashed with what they expected. I didn’t meet their expectations, I wasn’t able to do that. I know many sailors who avoided such experiences as we had. They were able to solve the problems in a better way; I wasn’t, me and my wife both weren’t. Quitting [sailing] was the only remedy. We made it; I’m not ashamed of that: I’ve always been afraid of sailing, I couldn’t ever tolerate it well. I only regret that it happened so late. It wasn’t easy, though, especially in that time. As I told you: I was looking at that luxurious life of my peers, who had everything; and I envied them. And I paid for it (not only me, but my family as well) a dear price.
“Grey Smoke” is the nickname of a fisherman who currently fishes only on a casual basis.
MB: Tell me please, your first contact with fishery?
X: I started when I was twelve years old.
MB: That’s the thing.
X: So it was. My father would go to the bar (here, to “Bałtycka”). There used to be the Fisherman’s House here. Then I was what, eight. So I would sing in the Fisherman’s House. They would give kids some nice packages here from the co-op. And then we paid four, four kilograms of eel we had to give to the co-op. But we had three lines. And then I opened my business, “Fishhook” it was called. I was twelve. I got a boat from my brother-in-law. And I’d go fishing, with my cousin. So we were fishing there, fishing in Przegalina, and we had three lines. We could catch 50 kilograms of eel. The bro-in-law gave me the boat and the lines. We arranged some wire. I had a spinning wheel, so we set everything. And we tied some hooks on and we were catching fish in these nets. We had 20 kilograms of eel in each of the two. We had to get by somehow, right? And what did we have? I went to school, we only had sausage once a year: for Christmas. And normally just margarine to go with bread, and marmalade. As school kids, we used to get only bread with margarine, coz there was no money for sausage.
BROTHER: I started to go fishing with Brat when I got a boat. And once we caught with Brat (how much was it?) some 50 kg of eel. Later Brat left me, so I’d sit with Fillet, with Waldek here on this bank. We’d catch hens and roast them. Later I went to the railway, and I also fished here. In the past it was forbidden to fish here, you had to go to WOP [Frontier Protection Military]. You had to come here, to the port authorities, and report yourself, and the same at WOP. Border zone. I first put out to sea when I was twelve, with my father. They hid me behind sacks, because the WOP guards wouldn’t have let me go. There used to be such bans at that time. During the martial law, we went by sea to Mikoszewo to have a beer (because they served beer from 9’o clock there), and here it was served from one p.m. They took Waldek’s boat (you had to crank the engine to start), they started it and went over to Mikoszewo. One side full of militia, the other side full of militia… And we got handcuffed that time, me and Kotur. They said that we wanted to escape to Sweden. Them other boys that escaped to Sweden in that truck, they made it. And we just went to Mikoszewo for a beer.
BROTHER: (…) At the nets: the net lifter’s at fifteen, you arrange those cork floats, and we throw cod to the side, and then we’re all busy taking the fish out. This must be done very fast – you need to know how. I take the cod out fast enough. So many years I’ve been doing that, it’s really crazy how long. In the past, we didn’t use to fish for cod – only for flounder and for herring. Nobody fished for cod – it just didn’t pay off. You gotta go as far as Hel.
MB: And fuel costs, doesn’t it?
X: Not anymore. Now there are prices. Mainly pet food. But then, we didn’t have seals here before. And today there are twenty. That’s why snatch away their salmon all the time, right? They don’t get any. Those twenty seals… you just sea heads sticking out; they’re so big, some 200 kilos they weigh, yeah.
MB: And how is it now comparing to the 1960s? Is fishing more profitable today?
X: There used to be vimba here in the Vistula. And now there’s none. We dropped vimba nets recently and we caught two vimbas. And in the olden days, we could get even 800 kilos at a time from the delta. We had such big bowls for bathing, because there was no water here. One pump here, and one by the kindergarten, there was one in grandpa’s smithy. In the winter, you’d go to these pumps with sledges. You fetched water in a pot on the sledges, and you washed in those bowls. We only got water supply in 1970… So we kept the vimba salted in the bowls, in the cellar. You had bowls full of salted vimba, so there was food to eat. Coz if you got your vimba salted, you could eat it just like salted herring.
MB: You could store it.
X: You stored everything in the cellars. And now, because of that dam… all you get is a couple of fishes. In the sea, more like. Vimba’s gone. Herring’s scant, too. Almost nothing. The only thing is that there was some cod this year. Neither one boat, nor the other, nor the third, nor the fourth can go, coz they get these EU subsidies.
MB: For the limits, right?
X: Yes, they got money for two months. They can’t put out, they handed over their license. He can go for a leisure sail but he can’t have even one net on him. What a fucking crazy country. They put the eel under protection and they don’t stock with its fry… He’s a minister for agriculture and fishery and he doesn’t even know how to hold a fishing rod. (…)?
MB: At a fishmonger’s or here?
X: From the fisher. [It used to be] 25 zloty a kilo for salmon. And 50 for eel. In the past, eel cost more, salmon was cheaper. The plenty of eel that there used to be… I remember that when my aunt smoked eel, she would smoke 300-400 kilos for Wolonin… When I once went to Szewce lake, I got at once 3.5 tons, right at once there on Szewce, from under the ice. The holes are there but very small, and the ice so thick. You gotta knock good on that ice, oh my: ice-axes in hand, and off you go. We had hole-drilling to the hilt. Then you had to draw a line across, draw it right to the moon (you had to get with it to the end). And through this moon hole you then pulled it out. When we were there, it was 17 below zero. And I saw Waldek fall into that moon. He fell down there into the hole. I look down: he somehow managed to bounce off the bottom and jump up – we pulled him out. “How come you fell in there?” He says, “You told me to reach to you with the line”. He gave him the line and Waldek made just one step. And down he fell into that moon. Coz there at the end we had to cut out a huge hole, to pull out the catch. So we’re pulling that trawl out. There was 3.5 tons, we couldn’t pull it out all at a time – it must be done bit by bit. Little by little it must be emptied. We hauled the fish on sledges, in bathtubs. We dragged it over to the ZiL [Russian truck], Mikołaj took it to the warehouse. The plenty! 21 kilo pike. We brought 3.5 tons here to the warehouse.
MB: And tell me, gentlemen, the work at sea is hard, tough?
X: It’s very hard when it’s cold. I went over to Górki Zachodnie, to the Border Guard, we went up there (coz here you couldn’t get in, it’s too shallow). Nothing to shield you from the wind, can’t properly work in gloves either… One guy put on two pairs of rubber gloves and got frostbite on his hands – not me – I take knit gloves first and rubber gloves go over. We came on the place and it was minus 26 degrees there already. The bay was freezing. There were two trawlers in front of us, and we stopped some 500 metres from the Border Guard, at Górki… And there were foxes running across the ice, and I couldn’t turn the boat in one place for two hours – the ice was setting so fast there at Górki. We couldn’t turn – and they were just telling us through the radio to turn towards the Border Guard. And then we went back, and I ask, “How big’s the frost?”, “Minus 26 degrees”. And me and Lechu were like: one leather jacket, another leather jacket, one anorak, and I had the condom on as well – everything frozen up. So hard was the frost. Here, you can always run away – half an hour on the river and you get back. You often have to work on your knees, though [if it blows hard]. And at the sea, you always do everything on your knees – no other way to work. It’s ten hours there and you spend ten hours on your knees. Only the guy at the net lifter can stand – he’s got something to hold to. But the crew members on one side, on the other – ten hours on the knees. I haven’t spent so much time kneeling in the church as on the boat.
MB: Do women fish?
X: Waldek’s old wife did. So did my ma. She-wolf fished, too. When Waldek’s wife came over on 44, she was such a mighty piece of woman that she’d take her old man piggyback and carry him home. The She-wolf, she was good. Her man, that bastard, would just stand at the helm, and she bloody knew how to fish. You wouldn’t fucking believe it, twenty metres, we lift it up, and there’s fucking 800 kilos. In two nets.
MB: When you put out, are there any superstitions?
X: You mustn’t whistle in the boat. You can’t, because you’ll bring on the wind. You mustn’t take any cheese with you, because there’ll be no fish. But when I once went to fish with Baca (Baca had cheese, and I had cheese), we caught 900 kilos. And Jasiu says, “I don’t know, Grey Smoke and Baca are such lucky fellows. They took cheese on the boat and had over 900 kilos cod, and 600 kilos flounder”. 1,500 kilos altogether, and there was just the three of us. 1,500 kilos, go on Leszek, take the fish out. Flounder picking is fucking annoying. Cod’s okay.
MB: Because it tangles or?...
X: No, you just can’t pull it through. Here the mesh is 72, here 55 in dia. Your fingers hurt as hell when you’ve taken out so much of that fish. But you gotta fold the meshes together, several at a time, if you tried to do it one by one, you’d [sound unclear]. And if we work like this in the winter, on top of it, then we’re totally fucked. And take herring for instance, when we pick it here, right? There’s frost, the usual thing. We take herring out of the nets, it’s snowing, it’s frosty. So at the beginning your hands get cold, normally. But later, when they get warmer from the herring, your hands are steaming. You only gotta get used to this, though. Before, when we were taking out herring, we used to have a brazier here on the jetty. It was burning and there was a bucket of water standing in it all the time. So you just put your hands in hot water for a second – the women do the same, when they work with fish. Now there are some different gloves. Hands don’t get so very cold in them. But if I put rubber gloves on, the hands get stiff at once.
MB: There’s not much other work around?
X: I can make nets. I get thirty-forty nets to make – so I sit at home and I make them. Brat there makes fykes – one does nets, the other one fykes. I get new nets for mending, coz they get torn. And then he’s got to cut all nets. So I sit at home and sew – forty, fifty over one winter. Enough. My mom works, so it’s not that bad. I’ll make forty nets, I take 25-30 zloty for one. I can make three a day. But then it takes me the whole day. But in the meantime I take care of my granddaughter, I’ll make myself a coffee, I’ll make fire in the stove… And I come here in the winter, I set the nets… I’ll catch some four or five salmons, for selling. We’ll somehow survive till the spring.
Piotr is a Navy officer; during the several years of his professional career, he spent most of the time on war ships.
MB: How did you come to perform work directly connected with the sea?
P: It all started with my brother, who was a navy aficionado. In the 1980s, he used to glue together cardboard models of ships, plastic models of cars, various things… I was impressed that my brother made such things and I decided to go into that as well. I would make these models with different degrees of success – and at one point I got interested in what I was building. What is it? What kind of a ship is that? What history was she part of? I was making models connected with the history of wars at sea. In Nowy Modelarz [The New Modeller] magazine, there were very many Polish war ships, which for different reasons won a place in history. I got more and more interested in them, I started to read books about our ships. In high school, I decided to apply to the Naval Academy in Gdynia.
MB: There were still entrance exams at that time?
P: Yes, there always are exams. I decided to connect my life directly with the sea. I’ve always been impressed by the military equipment, the grey hull… The first time, I failed the exams. In 2000, I was admitted to the Gdańsk University of Technology to study Ocean Engineering – there were no tests, the admission depended on your grades on the certificate of high school graduation. I wanted to see what it was like. I was doing pretty well there, but I decided not to give up the following year, because I saw myself in the Navy, period. In 2001 I made it, I passed the exam and was admitted to the Naval Academy. I submitted my papers to the Faculty of Navigation and Naval Weapons. Hence, I was educated to become a marine navigation officer, with the purpose of serving on our ships. The course took five years. At that stage, it already meant being trained to work at sea. University-level education prepares the chief of a division – an expert, a platoon commander, an officer – to manage people on a ship at sea. He is a soldier, subject to the General Regulations of Armed Forces, but at the same time also to the Regulations of Navy Service. Here, you’re not only a soldier, who minds the drill, parade commands and other things connected with being a soldier, but also – unlike a regular soldier of the Land Forces – what we have here in front of us is the element of the sea. As I see it, the bar is set higher if you work at sea, compared to land forces, because you perform the same tasks as an officer trained in the Naval Academy – you command people, above all in order to fulfil the task (using people, using equipment), but you’re doing that at the sea, where, on the hull, you’re in an enclosed space and in a small area. You must cooperate with people whom you see non-stop (you can’t run away from them, you can’t hide in a trench, say, “I’ve had enough, I’m off”). Over the board, there’s water. Moreover, the ship is swaying, she works on waves and not everyone finds it easy to serve there, especially on smaller ships – I mean minesweepers or missile boats. After you’re done with your dissertation at the Academy, you get allocated to a given military unite. I was placed in the 8th Coastal Defence Flotilla in Świnoujście.
MB: You went straight to professional military service?
P: Yes, because during the five years of studying you’ve got the status of a candidate for professional service. You get your pay, that kind of thing, you get promoted… If you do well at the exams, you get promoted to senior sailor, etc. You’re a soldier, you wear a uniform, but it’s still the candidate service, you’re not in permanent service. Only when you’ve been promoted to second lieutenant, you become an officer. With a personal order from the President of the Republic of Poland, you get commissioned to the first officer rank, you became a soldier in permanent service, and you get allocated to a military unit. Fortunately, in the Navy there’s no dispersion over the whole country (if you graduate from the Land Forces Military Academy in Wrocław, it’s all Poland – you could end up just anywhere). I was placed on ORP Kontradmirał Xawery Czernicki, a multitask logistic support ship, in charge of an artillery cannon. I tried in practice my skills in commanding people, navigation, my knowledge of the equipment and weapons. Apart from that, I was responsible for an independently performed watch duty.
MB: Please tell me about the relations among crew members. You’ve said that they’re very hierarchical…
P: The army is a hierarchical institution – without hierarchy, there’ll be no army. I keep discipline on the ship, I don’t fraternise with my subordinates. So far, all tasks appointed to my crew received a positive assessment afterwards, and I didn’t have any disciplinary problems, which I consider to be my personal success. Apart from discipline, what counts is empathy and making the orders possible to fulfil, making them have a realistic level of difficulty.
MB: What meaning does the sea have for you?
P: First and foremost, it’s a workplace. The sole and only reason why I went to the military was that I wanted to work on ships, at sea.
MB: What’s so fascinating about the sea, what does attract you?
P: The element, the fight. The moment, when the ship has already put out to sea, that we lose sight of the shore and suddenly this wind is heard, blasting, blowing at a great speed. The waves start crashing against the hull. It’s such a mighty force. It doesn’t matter whether you’re on an aircraft carrier of on a fishing boat. The greatness of this nature just throws you on your knees. It’s fascinating to experience such force near yourself. I’ll always have the greatest respect for “the underwaters” – my colleagues serving on submarines. They do the hardest work. The sea toughens your spirit. On a ship, there are many people in a small space. Such conditions often lead to tensions, and it’s the officer’s duty to be able to control all that. My longest time at sea was two months. After three weeks in such a small enclosed space on the sea, where you couldn’t go on land and people were together 24 hours a day – this caused tensions, understandable from the point of view of human psyche (and an officer should be a psychologist). You need to fight that, keeping the people busy with various things, and talking to them…
MB: Tell me some extraordinary Baltic stories.
P: I once talked to an American NCO (an American missile cruiser came to us for BALTOPS annual exercise), and this NCO, with quite an experience at sea, working for the US Navy for many years, the first thing he said was that he hated the Baltic Sea. That it was the worst sea that he ever happened to sail on, since it is a small body of water, with a characteristic short wave. Consequently, the ship is not able to adjust to the wave period with her length, and keeps jumping on it. For this reason, sea sickness is especially hard and especially nagging on the Baltic; the wave is irregular – it doesn’t spread as it would on the Atlantic or some other bigger sea. The American was horrified (they came with a big ship – a cruiser), all of them did throw up. The crew of that ship got really sick, because they were not used to such a short wave; the human labyrinth wasn’t able to adapt so quickly. “Baltic Sea no more!” [English] On coming to Gdynia, they kissed the land – it stopped heaving. Perhaps it’s easier for us, because we experience this sea every day and only rarely go on different waters. But when we sailed to the Mediterranean, even those Biscay waves weren’t that awful; a big wave, a long one, but the ship is able to climb it, and although the tilts are quite big, there’s no wave jumping.
MB: It this also dangerous for the ship?
P: I don’t think there’s a big danger… It’s just that the Baltic wave is very uncomfortable and unfavourable for cooperation (but here you’d have to read something about the hydrology of the Baltic Sea). These waves spread out, bounce on different shores (because this sea is rather small), they meet, they go in different directions… That’s why waves hit the ship from all directions.
MB: Describe a day of work at sea.
P: Actually, at the sea all days are the same. Everything’s determined by the duty schedule resulting from the watch system. Ship crew, just like the crew of a merchant vessel, is divided into watch sections; usually it’s a three-section system, with watch duties lasting four hours. You go on duty twice a day and perform your tasks. You get up at the appointed time, you wash, eat, and go on watch, you go back, lie down, sleep, eat… The organism gets used to this immediately, so that… each day is the same. You fall into monotony – you do the same things all the time. Perhaps that’s why those tensions appear? After twenty days of doing exactly the same thing, staying with the same people… Some people hate such monotony. Others get used to it at once. There’s a ship – the ship is going from point A to point B, so we perform the same activities all the time. Almost nothing happens around, in fact it’s only the navigation officer who has to think a lot, because if there’s heavy traffic around, he must make clear and definitive decisions, so that he doesn’t run into anyone. Every day looks the same, though. There’s “entertainment” in the form of various combat exercises on the ship. When the crew get bored, you organise a combat exercise, to maintain their level of skills in performing a certain task at sea, but also to break the monotony. Because there is monotony at sea.
The interview was recorded in the small local river fishing harbour, when fishing boats were berthing there. Ryszard is a retired sailor.
MB: Could you please tell me about your first contact with the sea?
R: It began when I was in high school. My father used to fish, apart from working as a mechanic on a ferry. And at sixteen, I was my father’s apprentice – at least I could earn some pocket money. And later they took me to the army.
MB: And where did you do your military service?
R: In Słupsk, with the “blue berets”. They were just forming that unit then, it was 1963 and they established the 7 DDes [7th “Łużycka” Desant Division]. When I was done with it and came out, my father put me in the way of a job at Żegluga Gdańska [Gdańsk Shipping Company], because he’d worked there for such a long time. So I caught the opportunity, this was so-called “bogey-reed sailing” (on non-propelled barges), because at that time they only had such barges, non-propelled, towed by a tugboat. That was where I started.
MB: And why?
R: I grew up here. All your company here are fishermen. I wanted to be a sailor and I have become one. I worked in PŻM [Polish Steamship Company] for two years. In the past, all bulk carriers belonged to the PŻM, and general cargo vessels went to PLO [Polish Ocean Lines]. I moved to PLO in 1970. I worked there, and in 2003 I was already with the Greeks. Later I had an accident (didn’t sail at all for three years), then I caught one contract, it was a short one. I retired…
MB: Did you fish here, too?
R: I fished with my father, during that apprenticeship. When I had no money, because they wouldn’t take me on a ship (I was too old a prick to work on contracts), I would help my cousin here. I’d put out together with him. When the PLO job was over, I’d been there for twenty years, I went to sail at “Pewex”; and I managed to a the job with Greeks. It was arranged through “Pol-serwis“. I did the Greeks. I went to “Pewex” in the 1980s, I think. And there I stayed till 2003.
MB: What did it look like, your work at sea?
R: Breakfast in the morning, the boatswain screams his head off (the steersman will tell you more about that) and off to work: painting, scrubbing, applying lead paint. And in the port, on a bulk carrier, you don’t have much to do. On a cargo vessel, though, it’s: check the holds, see if some work’s about to be finished, wait… Run around with the paint and mark the sacks (coz there we jute sacks placed there), drag one kind of goods away from another kind – and so your watch duty goes by.
MB: And the work here, fishing?
R: At five in the morning you have to check the set nets. You look where the net is, go over there, and at once start to take the fish out. You take out as much as the time allows, you come to the harbour, berth, and continue taking the fish out. Sometimes the chaps will come over, give you a hand, right. Sometimes if you show them that you’ve got a flask on you, you immediately have many volunteers. One bottle is not enough.
MB: And what about colleague relations at sea – what is it like?
R: It all depends on the people. With some it’s really hard to work, other’s take everything easy. With such people, it’s best. Here you used to work four hours on Saturdays and Sundays were free, and working for the Greeks, you sweated twelve hours a day, every day. Saturday or not, on Sundays you worked your ass off, too. Over there, if the boss was okay, he’d sometimes give you a Sunday off. Otherwise, you always toiled for 12 hours.
MB: What influence does the sea have on man?
R: It had a good influence on me. It seasons one. They say, if you’ve got some salt in your veins, you’ll always be a good sailor.
MB: Do you perhaps remember any extraordinary situations from your time at sea?
R: I was overzealous and went out to secure the anchor during a storm, because it had begun to pound. A wave whammed at me, pushing me against the anchor lift. My leg was all broken. I barely managed to catch hold of the chain, and I saw the wave coming, so I squatted down. I couldn’t get up, though. And the boatswain managed to hide in in time, “Watch out, Ryszard, the wave’s coming!”. I looked and it was too late, it was already above me. When it covered me, I say, “Fuck, I’m gonna drown”. But I was wearing a hooded raincoat, so it kept some air so that I could still breathe. The wave rolled over and I say, “My leg must be broken, I can’t get up”. He grabbed me by the trousers, pulled me in… Another wave came, he fetched the boys. They carried me to the cabin. My leg was broken, there was a fracture from here to the knee. Twelve days with a thus broken leg – and it happened as we were leaving the Panama Canal. The Greeks are thrifty, instead (coz there in the American base in Cuba, they would’ve fixed me in a jiffy), I sailed along, all broken up. Good that I had rum… with the steward: a glass for him, a glass for myself. So I didn’t feel that pain. Later they took me to a hospital in Hamburg, where I was examined by a surgeon. He asked if I consented to a surgery. I say, “Yes, I don’t have a choice”. They put ten screws in my leg. They were laughing that if I went on the ship and a line hit my leg, the line would snap, but my leg would stay intact. I didn’t feel comfortable, though, so I had them take out those screws, back in Poland. It was worst in the knee. One German woman would come every day, bringing me good coffee in a thermos flask, and cake. She had lived in Gdańsk before, so you know, she considered me one of her lot.
MB: Please tell me how you used to fish from barges.
R: On the barges we carried stuff to Malbork, Elbląg… From Nowakowo we carried sugar beets, because that was where farmers from Żuławy region always dumped them. A tugboat towed us up to Malbork (there’s still a river harbour there). There we unloaded (coz there’s a sugar factory near there). And we’d also carry hemp. Coz there’s a drying plant there. At least you could make some money on hemp, coz if you helped load it on the barge, you always got some pennies for that. This was the season, barge after barge going, and there were oodles of that hemp. It needed quick loading. Later I carried sand from Grudziądz, from Elbląg… That life was, you know… Food cost little. I earned 1,000 zloty, and when I was made senior mariner – 1,400. I had nets, so I’d fish from a barge, it sold well, too. I’d go to a farmer straight away and exchange fish for a duck, milk, eggs, such things.
MB: This was in the 1980s?
R: No, it was the 60s. Communist rule. Now they blame it, but under Communist rule everyone had a job. Nowadays, there’s just fishery here, and the farmers. Not many want to work here, though… A farmer won’t give you good wages, either. 10 zloty an hour now, and nobody comes. And you also get your grub with that. And those guys working here for them, it’s all cash in hand. Five zloty an hour. Too little to bother paying the insurance. And there used to be a fishing co-operative here. With one head, it was still quite okay. But then there was a change, and three co-op heads turned up. They fucked everything up, sold the fishermen’s shares, paid them what was due, and that’s it. And they were also selling on the market. First, you had to give to the co-op its due, as scheduled. If you did, you could sell the rest of the fish on the side – the co-op head didn’t frown at that. But you had to do your scheduled share. And now they’re selling everything cash in hand. And those prices, they’re really overdoing it a bit. When I sold fish with my cousin, herring was at three zloty, flounder. Salmon used to cost 10-15, and now it’s 25. I just laugh, “You’ll never make money this way. Got more”, I say, “Sell it cheaper, but sell it. In wholesale, flounder goes at 1,80 zloty.
MB: And then there are those fishing limits on top of that?
R: Right. ‘Though smaller boats have easier limits, coz they can even fish during the protection period. Not cod, but they can do flounder. And they limited the size even further, because you used to be allowed [to fish] flounder up to 25 cm, and then he came and said, “Now you can only take up to 15 cm”. We had a tape measure on board. It was different at the Greek’s. He took Russians on. If he could pay a Russian officer the same as he paid me, a senior mariner, then I’m not surprised he did. I earned 1,200 dollars and a Russian officer earned the same. He also employed Philippinians and Indonesians, who know English well and are skilled sailors. Such monkeys they were, really. There was a breakdown during brown coal loading. The ship was full of those cylinders that they’d brought over. A Phillippinian almost died under one such cylinder, he couldn’t get up. They weigh forty kilos each. I can still lift forty kilos.
MB: Did your work at sea have any influence on your family?
R: The influence was that they had money. “The sea feeds you, gives you riches, what man earns, the woman ditches”. [Or, alternatively, “The sea feed’s you, fills your purse, husband’s income, woman’s curse” – the passage about the wife is ambiguous]. It’s bloody always been that way. You’re not at home. Before, it used to be: one year at sea, one month off. And later they introduced days off for doing overtime, so in the end you’d spend six months at sea and sit six months at home. They paid you for that. It was too long, though. You could feel yourself that it’s time to get the fuck away. Coz you only got your bare monthly salary, a thousand-and-something, and all costs were going up, too. [I also used to work on the side, taking watch duties on ships berthing in Gdańsk.] It often happened that there were parties in town, and someone couldn’t go because he had to be on duty. “Come on, Ryszard, would you go?” “I will, but you know, you’ll cough up. If I’m to take the duty from 4 p.m. till the next day, then”, I say, “you cough up two hundred”, coz that was the price. And I say, “And bring me a bottle from Baltona [in the Communist times, a shop offering Western goods for foreign currency], so that I don’t get sick here on the deck.” It was bare salary that I got, and thus I earned my pocket money. It was a good thing. I took a watch in Gdynia, at Easter. I do the watch, nobody there – he was supposed to come and didn’t. Next watch, nobody there. I go up to the watch officer and say: “Dear sir, I beg your pardon, but I’m not going to work my ass off here third day in a row. Enough is enough.” “So what do we do?” I say, “You call the WOP [Border Protection Military], let them send over a soldier. This will teach the boy a lesson, the WOP will come, encumber the PLO… Coz it’s gonna get fishy for me as well. How long can I to walk this deck?” He called the WOP and told them what the case was… A car pulls over, three officers in active service jump out… They made some notes, checked the watch schedule, “Alright”, they say. Later, I come to Irena and she says, “What was the big fuss that you made over there?” And I’m like, “What, is there no Easter for me?” Especially that I wasn’t part of the crew. If he came to me and said, “Listen mate, something cropped up, you know”. But no, he doesn’t give a shit. Well in that case, nor do I. I called the WOP, they came over, and that’s it. I must stay clean (if they catch you, you’re in for fucking sanctions) – and that guy is having fun somewhere. That’s what it was like in those days.
Retired second officer. The interview took place in Chylonia district of Gdynia, in the interviewee’s flat.
X: I used to sail to Konigsberg – I carried meat horses from there to France. From Poland and from over there.
MB: That’s right, they eat horse meat there.
X: Those horses were herded there from somewhere in Syberia, that far. The ship that I sailed on could take in about 190 horses, plus the delivery ward (because some horses foaled). Above 5 degrees Beaufort, we weren’t allowed to sail – those horses would’ve killed themselves there. – The ship kept moving all the time, because when the horses started to walk, it was as if the ship was on a huge wave.
MB: Could you tell me about the role of the sea in your life? What was your first contact with the sea and when did it take place?
X: I was born in Gdynia before the war, in 1973. I spent the time of German occupation near Warsaw, but since 1945 I’ve been by the sea well-nigh all the time. I began to sail in 1962, for the Polish Steamship Company [Polsteam, PŻM], with coal – to Denmark and back, across the Baltic. All those Belts – Small, Great, etc. Also in the winter – it was such a severe winter, the turn of 1962 and ’63, with Polish and Swedish icebreakers clearing the way to make it possible to reach Denmark. The whole Belts and the Sund were cut off…
MB: Could you please explain that part.
X: These are straits between the North Sea and the Baltic. Along Denmark, there’s the Great Belt, and the Sund, that’s near Copenhagen. Apart from that, on the very edge, there’s a canal called Falsterbo and you can go that way with small ships if all those small straits are jammed with ice and floe. It was very dangerous, because sometimes, when the wind was strong, the floe piling up on the side would go on the ships and we had to remove it quickly, because otherwise the ship could’ve sunk or fallen over. Later I used to worked on a route to Finland, Sweden… In that direction we would carry from Poland just anything possible: bags of cement, different kinds of iron stuff. And from over there, we took paper pulp, which we would unload in Gdańsk. These used to be small vessels with special bows, ice-strengthened. We’d sail along Finland and unload the iron stuff and cement there on the spot (we even carried vodka there).
MB: Why the choice: off to sea?
X: I wasn’t that young anymore and I had to work one way or another. I completed my military service at the age of 25 and I didn’t know how to catch a job here. I applied to the Polish Steamship Company, they took me on and I worked on their ships. Then I took a course – one, then a second and third – and I became an officer. I sailed for about twenty years as a second officer. Later on those bigger ships, 75,000 [tons displacement] (as it was on the Baltic), I would also sail round the world… But as far as the Baltic is concerned, I was a sailor first, then a boatswain on those tiny ships – I’ve been through all those stages.
MB: So we could say that you were born by the sea and…
X: Well, yes, even back in my schooldays, in high school, we used to come here and clean yachts. Because for a dozen hours of work or a bit more you could earn some money. For that dozen or so hours you could later sail in the yacht on the Bay – under the eye of the WOP guys [Border Protection Military].
In the 50s they made sure that you didn’t make it too far (to Bornholm or to Sweden). And such escapes did take place occasionally, my colleague’s father for instance. Later I went to university. Unfortunately, when I was in the second year of medicine, they let me go; it wasn’t much of my vocation.
MB: And the sea was your vocation?
X: Yes, absolutely. That’s what I’ve always been drawn to. So I was happy when they accepted me [at PŻM]. I got married in 1963, I had three daughters. Baltic waterways. As you leave the Bay, it’s interlaced with waterways so you must keep to them. Above the level of Reda, as the waterway goes, as you put out from Gdynia, there are shallows, and if ships get around them, they strike the shoal. And that’s it, then you’re in for pretty trouble. Same thing [on the way] from Gdańsk. Along the whole Polish coast, there are military stretches (sometimes there’s a warning that “in this stretch, shooting will begin shortly” and you need to steer clear of them).
MB: And is working at sea difficult?
X: It is, by all means. Because for example not everyone can stand the pressure. We say “a climate change” which moves very fast. Here, on the Baltic, you don’t experience that. It’s enough to go on the North Sea, though, or the Bay of Biscay – the sun is different, the pressure is different. Fever comes at once. Or when you’re going towards the U.S.A., every other day you change the hour of time [the time zone]. In the Bay of Mexico, the temperature of water is 35 degrees, and the air is scorching hot. Not everyone can bear such temperatures, especially if they work in the engine room. When I worked as the second officer, I was in charge of the whole pharmacy, the whole sick room at the ship – this also belonged to my responsibilities.
MB: Could you then tell me more about the work of a second officer?
X: My watch duties were from midnight till four in the morning and from noon till four p.m. During the breaks, I had to revise maps; the whole navigation was in my hands. This was the worst piece for me, those map revisions: I would receive piles of documents and I had to plot these corrections on the map (there’s a wreck here; this stretch must be bypassed; here they’re laying a cable). It all had to be up-to-date, especially the route maps, as they’re called. It wasn’t bad on a small ship, but on a big one I’d have 200-300 such maps. And I had to revise all that. Then apart from that, there were the navigation books and the constantly updated maritime acts in English. In the harbour, my duties included in addition watching over the unloading and loading – I had to make sure that the ship wasn’t damaged during these operations. And so it went. The time was passing quickly – I’d spend eight months at sea and four months at home.
MB: Please elaborate on the influence it had on you family. After all, you would stay away from home for a long time.
X: That’s true. When my children were little, I tried not to go too far, to come home every other week or every two weeks (if only for a day or two). I tried to spend as much time as possible with my daughters. And once they turned into big damsels, I wasn’t very much needed anymore [he laughs]. Especially when I sailed on foreign ships for some time. Then I wasn’t able to come home at all (but my wife would come to me). In 1984-85 I was sailing on a tanker in the Persian Gulf. This was during the war, and we were just looking where the next missile is going to hit and saying our Hail Marys. We were going back via Grece, and there my wife came to see me. Many wives came on the ship at that time, and she was with me for six weeks. Also my children joined me on a voyage – my eldest and the middle daughter. It was a two-month voyage, the route was Italy-Bay of Mexico-New Orleans and back (via Scotland) to Poland. They weren’t seasick even once.
MB: How does the sea influence people?
X: Very many people can’t hold out – very many. I remember people who wanted to jump overboard.
MB: That bad?
X: I myself took him down from over the board. Okay, true, that was in the roadstead at Świnoujście. Somebody had to stay on the ship. The captain and I from the officer crew, but there had to be two sailors as well. And that guy, one of those two, when the motorboat went away, he ran amok or something – he must go home and that’s it. He dressed and he wanted to jump. Before, there used to be very many signals coming, now it’s computerised already. [The crew members] had to wear headphones and receive those signals. And very often they would get some… well, it was a kind of an illness. Once, on one ship, I go on my watch, look – and there’s something moving on the bow. What’s that? I send a sailor over, and he says: “The radiop’s walking the bow and says that he must go home”. We took him down, several people together, to the harbour – and then – to Poland.
MB: The radiop?
X: There used to be the post of a radio-officer. He received messages, connected private and company calls to Poland. If someone knew how – had enough inner strength… Some couldn’t cope and began to drink. And since in the past they weren’t chased so hard for that, they’d get dead-drunk, though later (when you’d get fired for drinking) it subsided. There were also problems with sexual deviations – with fags, simply speaking.
X: Why, the lampoonery we had with them! Hard even to describe, it’s mind-boggling. We had a steward on one ship – a bloke almost one metre ninety tall – and he had [a fancy] especially for those young boys. The crew chose him their delegate, he’d go the office for them if there was some business to do. And those boys would come to me, “Do something!” – “But what can I do?” He’d do one voyage on a ship and change, he’d leave. We didn’t know why he always got signed on another one straight away. Until we found out, that in fact the personnel department was a that kind of a clique. “Colleagues”, you know. It was only later that they were thrown out of there, but for two-three years it had been like that. But these were often unhappy people.
MB: You listed illnesses and deviations. Does the sea have any positive influences?
X: On some people. Some had it [bad] at home [in the families] – so they’d wait to go to sea in peace and not listen to the buzzing of their wives or children… There were many people like that. Some couldn’t live without the sea. It’s hard to say, I worked on some fifty ships, I think. Every time there was someone new (it rarely happened that I had the same crew members), the crews changed. In the beginning [before the new crew teamed up], they’d try to feel their way, and there was, “Who plays bridge? Chess? Pick-up-sticks?”. And they read books. Ways to kill time.
BB: How come you know about me? I’ve only been working here since the first of November…
AW: Did you have to complete any courses in order to become a lighthouse keeper?
BB: Yes. It’s not so easy. You gotta have the SEP [Polish Electricians Association] – electrician’s papers. There’s an exam… it’s quite hard for a woman, too… And you need a radio-operator’s license, BHP [Occupational Safety and Health], fire precautions regulations – all such papers.
AW: Where did you learn all that?
BB: At my husband’s side, all with my husband. And the exams took place in Gdańsk, Słupsk, Gdynia.
AW: Did it take long to learn?
BB: You know, you learn your whole life.
AW: And before you got this job, did you work anywhere else?
BB: It’s such a funny story, you know… When we moved to Hel in 1995, in the summer the Society of Friends of the Polish Maritime Museum leased the lighthouse from the Marine Office and made it open it for visitors. In the summertime it’s a tourist site. And for a short period of time I was selling tickets here, so I could jokingly say that I was working under a lantern [an untranslatable pun: “to work under a lantern/streetlamp” is a Polish euphemism for being a streetwalker].
AW: You live here? Is it a company flat?
BB: It’s our own now, but it used to be a company flat, yes. Well, in general, we have some ties with the Hel Peninsula. My husband is from Jastarnia, and I was born in Gdynia. So it’s the sea, it’s all about the sea.
AW: Lighthouse keeping was your husband’s first job?
BB: After school, he worked as an electrician in Jastarnia, at the Neptun hotel, then as a civil worker in the army for a short period of time. Straight from there he went to work in the Jastarnia lighthouse, and then from Jastarnia to Hel.
AW: So how long has he been a lighthouse keeper?
BB: Since 1986.
AW: What is this job about?
BB: The first thing is to watch the light. If the bulb doesn’t glow in the lighthouse lamp, then, you know, even though people have the GPS navigation, radars on the ships, is technical equipment infallible? Remember the perversity of inanimate objects. So, in short, there ought to be light in the lighthouse.
AW: And you have a radio connection with the ships?
BB: That’s right, we do a radio watch. And if something – there’s Gdynia radio, and the Port Authorities… You gotta mind your duty, day and night.
AW: And how about the working system? One day of work, one day off?
BB: The shift is 12 h, it’s dayshift, then the next day the nightshift, and two days off.
AW: How many persons work on this lighthouse?
BB: Three. We could do with a fourth one, as there’s one day- or nightshift left without anyone on duty. I’ve met with various opinions on our profession. As I see it, lighthouse keeping is a very old profession, usually passed on from one generation to the next. Let’s hope that one day our son will take up the job after his father, or the youngest daughter will.
AW: This used to be a military zone?
BB: The lighthouse itself wasn’t exactly a military building, but it wasn’t open for tourists at that time. There was barbed wire fencing everywhere, also by the lighthouse. People weren’t allowed to come near. Our house stands inside a kind of triangle, there were the provosts on one side, the defence post on the other, and on the third – the bunkers. But it was great! Personally, I regret that the military is no longer here. First of all, because when it left, a great many people lost their jobs. And I also regret that the promontory has been made accessible. People come here especially to hike it, but they are devastating it. We had many guests from the provost unit. They would climb over the fence, the barbed wire. The most fun was with the cooks. Because, you know, in the army the cook is never a real chef but some sausage-maker by profession or some other gentlemen who knows nothing about cooking. So they would climb over the barbed wire in order to ask how to cook something, how to proceed. I remember that one cook wanted to prepare bigos [traditional Polish sauerkraut and meat stew] once. So I ask him, “What have you got?” And he goes, “Why, I’ve got everything”. So I say, “OK, so take all cured meats and raw meat, cabbage, and dried mushrooms, and put everything in one pot. Just simmer together and it’ll be fine”. The next day he brings some of this bigos of his for me to try. I look at it and see peas and carrots. I say, “What on earth did you throw in there?” And he says, “Everything I had. Jarred peas and carrots, even some dehydrated champignon sauce mix… I put everything in. But it came out fine, the soldiers were gobbling it up alright”. We felt safe when the military was here.
AW: In those days there must have been fewer people around, right?
BB: The tourists are here only in the summer. And when the military was around, a great many people had jobs as civil workers, some settled here for good after completing their compulsory military service. Because what job can you have after all? Fishery is collapsing. People sell their fishing boats, have them broken up, because they can get EU money for this. There are catch limits. Here, in Hel, Koga [fishing company] used to be the second most important institution, after the military. It brought together the fishermen, but they also needed for example accountants. It was an out-and-out institution. And today everything has collapsed. The only kind of work there is in Hel is when somebody opens a shop, some private business.
AW: How many fishermen are still there?
BB: Just a handful. And these a single private fishing boats now, non-associated. At the moment, the vast majority of people get rid of their boats. You know, with this limit on how much he can catch… Everyone around is allowed to catch fish but Poles, everyone but our fishermen. That’s how it is, sadly.
AW: And what are winters like here? How is it like to live here in the wintertime?
BB: Oh, winter is so beautiful. It’s not quite the same as in the mountains, but it’s peaceful and quiet. I love all four seasons, because each season has got something to offer. Take autumn – you see yourself. What beautiful colours! Spring wakes up to life. People who’ve never seen snow in their lives are shocked when it falls. And I like every season of the year. In the summer, we have to make savings for living expenses, for heating fuel, in order to support ourselves. In the summer, we can make some extra money thanks to holiday-makers and tourists. It gives us, the whole peninsula, a chance to survive. The tourist season begins as early as the 1st of May; people start coming for the long May weekend [May 3rd is a Polish national holiday]. In May, for a short period of time, boat trips and water trams from Gdynia and Gdańsk resume their service, on weekends only. Later, from the 24th of June onwards, the water trams run daily. And this is also what saved our lives here in Hel, Jastarnia – the trams bring crowds of tourists. It’s a cheap line. It’s been there for about three, maybe four years. The trams run every two or three hours. It’s a good thing, you know, because the road to Hel is always jammed. A family ticket for the water tram is 12 zloty. That’s not much, and it’s good fun, too. They start off in Gdynia, Gdańsk and Sopot, one goes to Jastarnia as well. Restaurants and bars benefit from that, and guesthouses, hotels.
AW: How long has it been since the military’s gone?
BB: It was, I think, in 1996 or 1997? The first gate was in Jurata, because in order to enter Hel you needed a permit. You couldn’t drive in just like that, without anything. A permit was needed, a pass. The first gate was in Jurata, the second one in Hel. And you had a certain amount of time to get from one gate to the other. It was determined that for example a motor car must cover the distance in 20 minutes, so that it couldn’t make any detours.
AW: Is there anything left from the military units?
BB: Who stayed there? The units were closed, they didn’t even keep the provosts. The provosts went to the Port Authority, and now they’re probably going to close the unit by the end of December. I don’t think there are any people left there, only the provost-marshal. I guess he’s dissolving the unit. There’s probably nobody left.
AW: Doesn’t the weather bother you when there’s a storm?
BB: When there’s a storm – with nine degrees or ten coming, I’m never sure – I get an awful migraine. But a stormy sea is beautiful. With high waves, it’s something incredible. You have to go stand on the shore… You can’t stand by the breakwater, because the waves splash over. But it’s magnificent. The trees sway, some fall down. It’s all wetland here. The groundwater is shallow, so all these trees… They’re bent, very few stand straight. When the storms come, time and again we find fallen trees lying across our fence. And not just one at a time, sometimes more of them.
AW: As we were leaving Gdańsk earlier today, there was a very heavy fog.
BB: It happens now and again that the weather is beautiful, the sun is shining, the visibility here, down, is good. But when we go up, climb the lighthouse – there’s fog at sea. Or the other way round – drizzle here, and up there – a fine visibility. The lantern switches on automatically. There are two bulbs, one thousand Watt each: one glows, the other one serves as back-up. When one burns out, the other one switches on automatically, but then you need to go up and change the first bulb.
AW: And in the evening, you turn it on or does it turn on automatically?
BB: Automatically, when it’s getting dark. Now it does at about four p.m., a few minutes after four. It varies from day to day. On sunny days, it switches on a bit later, when it’s grey, then earlier. When it’s dark, rain pouring, the lantern reacts and goes on. There used to be foghorns but not anymore. When fog set in, you had to run those foghorns. They went like: boooooh. It all had its own charm. Now they’ve been done away with, for money reasons. There was another lighthouse, Góra Szwedów [the Swedish Hill], about three kilometres from here. And from time to time the lighthouse keeper had to go over and check on it as well. Then you would go across the military ground, or along the beach. The lighthouse keepers must have had some pass, I guess… And today only the skeleton has been left from that lighthouse. People seem to be after just anything. They pulled out the cables… That lighthouse went out of use a long long time ago. But the view there is wonderful, because it stands on kind of a hill.
AW: And this is your office?
BB: No, it’s my husband’s, and we stay here when we’re on duty.
AW: That’s the radiotelephone, isn’t it? And this register book, what do you write down in it?
BB: All very important things. Day after day. You put in the shift, your name, date and time. Everything goes into the register when you’re on duty: your name, what time you started, the date and time when the lantern switched on and off, and additional remarks if there are any. We used to hear: what are lighthouse keepers for, this profession is now useless. But lighthouses have been, will be and must be there. We have a colleague, who has a fishing boat in Hel – it used to be the only salmon fishing boat around. But they had to switch to cod because of those catch limits – and you gotta make a living somehow, you gotta keep the boat, and it costs. To get rid of it is easy enough, because at least you get some money from the EU… And he always says, “Let there always be light on the lighthouse, because the equipment may fail. And when I see the Hel lighthouse, I feel safe, knowing that I’m heading home, to the port.”
AW: What’s the signal here?
BB: The light is five seconds on and five off.
AW: Do any fishing boats put out during a storm?
BB: If the storm is really big, they are forbidden to put out to sea, it’s a life threat. There’ve been some accidents lately. The WŁA127 sank down. It’s dangerous. We’ve got friends all over Poland, also in Silesia, and there was always bidding going on: who’s got a worse job, a coal miner or a fisherman? They were saying that a miner has it worse, because if he gets buried there, he has little chance of survival, but the fisherman has got it even worse than that! What chance does he have? If he falls into ice-cold water, how long can he last? – Just a blink and he’s gone. This has always been a heated discussion.
(Up in the lantern room)
I’m in love with this view. When we took a ferry trip to Sweden with the Society of Friends of the Polish Maritime Museum, then, going back, when I saw the Hel lighthouse in the distance, it was like… the heart surges, the soul craves paradise.
AW: So if you were to choose again -
BB: Only lighthouse keeping. Pity it’s for such a short period of time. Let’s hope that life turns is such a way that… But well, my dreams did come true anyway, if only just that much. It could’ve happened earlier but you see how life is… Nobody writes life scenarios for us.
AW: How long have you been working here?
KK: I’ve been working for the Marine Office for 25 years – 10 years in Hel and 15 in Jastarnia.
AW: Why did you leave the Hel lighthouse?
KK: Because I lived in Jastarnia and went to work in Hel, while my colleague, who got a flat in Hel, had to travel to Jastarnia to his lighthouse, we just passed each other on the way, going in opposite directions. It was pointless, so we just swapped jobs.
AW: Why did you become a lighthouse keeper?
KK: By chance. I was working at the construction site of the nuclear power plant in Żarnowiec, and just then this post got vacant. It meant that I wouldn’t have to travel to work, so I came to work here.
AW: You were born here?
KK: Yes, in Jastarnia.
AW: Are satisfied with this job?
KK: It can be very satisfying when tourists come to see the lighthouse and for them it’s a place of interest, or a kind of a goal they want to reach, and then the lighthouse keeper is the one doing the tour, or keeping guard and letting them in. No visitors are allowed into this particular lighthouse, it’s too small, not fit for sightseeing.
AW: How many people work here?
KK: Three. We have one lady lighthouse keeper, and in the whole country there are four of them.
AW: Could you tell me more about the work itself?
KK: It’s mainly shifts, day shifts and night shifts. One has to make sure that nothing bad happens, nothing breaks down. When a bulb burns out, one has to go upstairs and change it.
AW: Have there been any accidents around, any dangers for the ships?
KK: Well, the ships are in danger during the winter storms… But we are passive witnesses of such situations. Through the radio, we can listen to ships calling for help. We can’t help them. This isn’t a recue station. The lamp is switched on for the night, after sunset, it stays on till dawn. This is regulated by a photo-detector. We’re its “guardians”, as if.
AW: Do all your colleagues live here, in the vicinity?
KK: Yes, they all live in Jastarnia. It makes things easier, one doesn’t have to travel to work in the wintertime.
AW: And how is it here in the winter?
KK: Cosy… We’ve got central heating. We make sure it’s warm here. The whole lighthouse construction is metal. This is quite a rare thing, as this lighthouse was made form a previously existing foghorn stand. The majority of lighthouses are brick constructions. There are no foghorns anymore, they used to import them from Sweden in the 1950s. Then they stopped using them, because scrap collectors would steal them and trade them as scrap metal. They would take to pieces steel constructions of several hundred kilograms just to get a dozen or so kilograms of copper or brass parts from the inside. And then the whole device is useless. Or for instance aluminium cables, underground, finger-thick four-strand cords, which extended from Hel and also from Góra Szwedów [Swedish Hill]. The latter is closed now. There were four kilometres of thick cables leading up to it. They used tractors to dig them out to take them to scrap-metal trading yards.
AW: Are there any fishermen still in Jastarnia?
KK: There are. Fishery is slowly collapsing, and the fishermen warn that one day it may die altogether. There aren’t as many fishing boats here as there used to be. I’d say that some half of the fishing vessels had to be broken up for scrap.
AW: So how do people make a living here?
KK: In Jastarnia, house owners have small plots of land next to their houses, where in the past perhaps some farm animals used to graze, and today guesthouses are built there. In Jurata, where the majority of land belonged to the state, in the times of First Secretary [of the Communist Party] [Edward] Gierek, bigger lodging house complexes were built, which were then privatised. And here, in Jastarnia, there’s no land to build on.
AW: How wide is the Hel Peninsula in Jastarnia?
KK: In Jastarnia, from my place it’s about 300-400 m to the beach on the Baltic side and 30 m to the Bay of Gdańsk. Closer to the centre of the village it might be one kilometre wide, or one-and-a-half. When the storms come, most locals fear that something might happen. When the sand dunes are being washed out, water comes up to the former coast station in Jastarnia – such tiny houses, cafés in the summer, which stand right behind the dunes – and then we need to fortify them with sandbags, because otherwise the sea would completely eat the dunes away. And without the dunes, water will rush in in no time.
AW: You say that on one side the beach is just 30 m away from your house, and doesn’t the sea ever reach up to your walls? KK: The bay is not so dangerous, since the waves aren’t as high as in the open sea. It did happen a few times, though, that there was water in my yard, when I was a kid I even paddled in a kayak right in front of the house, but this is not as dangerous as storms from the sea.
AW: And the storms come in the winter?
KK: That’s right, from November to January. Sometimes the fishermen can’t put to sea for two months. These storms come one right after another, but sometimes it can be calm for a week or two.
AW: Which year was this lighthouse constructed?
KK: This one was erected 1952. Before that, there was another one here, a lattice tower built before the war and damaged in the warfare.
AW: And how do you see the future of your profession?
KK: This is a typical question when it comes to lighthouse keeping. When I talk to my colleagues, well, we see our future in the museum function of the lighthouses. We’re set for tourism, even if one day the lighthouses will stop operating. Most of them are already open for visitors. The navigation lights must be kept, I reckon. The captain looks up and must know where his ship is going. I think that lighthouses will last. They function in Sweden, only they’re crew-less. There must be some servicing team, I guess, which just fixes them when something breaks down. Maybe it’s going be like that here as well. We probably won’t pass this profession on to our children and grandchildren.
AW: What’s the power of this bulb?
KK: 500 Watt. There’s one glowing bulb at a time, and there are prism bulbs, made of prism glass, which diffuse light in all directions. In other lighthouses there are several bulbs mounted on boards, and they’re turning around. But in Jastarnia and Hel, there’s just one bulb, going on and off.
AW: And what’s the signal here?
KK: Two short flashes, one long one. The whole cycle is seven seconds, there are two seconds of light. There are three flashes. The light breaker is electric, is used to be mechanical. Nowadays everything is regulated electronically. It could jam up, just like any other device. Here it dies down and lights up again. It’s more vulnerable to malfunction. Should there be a failure of network power supply, the power generator will do its job. This is the distribution board, where you can measure the voltage, the electric current, where you can things switch on and off. These switches here were used to turn the foghorns on and off, now we don’t use them. This device is now historical but it’s being modernised. Manufactured in 1953, if I’m not wrong.
AW: So this is Polish equipment?
KK: No, it’s Swedish, only the power generator is Polish. This device regulates the work of the lighthouse. At this lighthouse, the lighthouse keepers not only control the lighthouse tower itself and the navigation light in Jastarnia fishing port, they’re also in charge of Kuźnica and Władysławowo fishing ports. Sometime one has to take a field trip and go work there. We don’t go to Władysławowo very often, but if we do, we go all together and then we repair something there together or clean something, the whole team. And here, in Jastarnia, one person is enough to go check on the port.
AW: What are these navigation lights?
KK: These are the lights marking the port entrance: red and green one.
AW: Where are they placed?
KK: At the end of the breakwaters, to the right and to the left of the port entrance. When ships enter the port, they pass between these lights. Depending on the port, there can also be the inner lights – they’re usually blue, placed at the end of the pier. We’ve got such lights in Jastarnia, Kuźnica and Władysławowo, and there are also leading lights, that is two lights placed next to each other, one above, one below. They must be visible from the sea, when the captains sees them one above the other he knows that he’s heading straight to the port. If he turned to the side, the lights would move apart and he’d know that he’s on the wrong course. That’s why there are two: one above, one below. These are the leading lights, making it easier for ships to enter the port. And we need to change the bulbs there as well, or make some repairs. Both leading lights in Jastarnia had their ordinary bulbs replaced. Now there are new bulbs, they give brighter light and are more durable.
AW: What ships enter this port?
KK: Jastarnia? Fishing boats and offshore sailing boats from Gdynia. A now and then a hydrofoil, also water trams.
AW: Anything bigger than that ever came?
KK: No, not bigger, no. Before the war, yes, there were some slightly bigger ships putting in here, but they communicated with the shore by means of smaller boats. And now bigger vessels are perhaps some sailing ships, like the one which had been standing in Jastarnia for years and years, General Zaruski. There are no conditions here for big vessels. It’s a small port, shallow, too narrow.
AW: Is there any port crew here?
KK: Yes, there’s the port boatswain, several boatswains working shifts. There always must be someone.
AW: The uniform problem.
KK: All employees of the Marine Office in Gdynia, in Słupsk and Szczecin, and we, the lighthouse keepers, too, as state officials, have uniforms. These uniforms are for official occasions and events. Actually, for regular work as well, but the thing is that a boatswain working at a desk can work in his uniform, but if the lighthouse keeper is to climb some leading light, do some errand in the port, well, he must change into work wear and only then can he work. The late foreman, lighthouse keeper Edward Murza, who worked in this lighthouse, died in a fire in his building, which in fact he set on fire himself because he had family and emotional problems. So he caused such a tragic situation, and it was after his death that I applied for this post. Such tragic situations also happen, and for a lighthouse keeper who sits here through many long nights, with plenty of time for thinking, this can be a reason to write a tale of terror – like the one published this year in an electronic form, in a collection of stories entitled “Halloween po Polsku” [“Polish Halloween”]. This book is available online, you can buy it for free.
AW: Tell me about your story.
KK: „Oct. 31- Polish Halloween”. As for now, it’s just in electronic form. At wirtualo.pl portal.
AW: Was it your debut?
KK: No, I’ve already written a few books. My first novel was „Latarnik” [The Lighthouse Keeper]. It’s gothic fiction, too. It was published 2010 by Wydawnictwo Poligraf. This year they published the second part, „Latarniczka” [Lady Lighthouse Keeper]. Especially the first volume is about the lighthouse keeper’s work. It began as my notes, a diary. It’s not a typical diary, though, there’s a lot of fiction in it, but also a lot about the work of a lighthouse keeper.
AW: Which year was this lighthouse open for use?
AM: 1951, and I came here in ’61. So then it was just 10 years old. A youngling. And so it went on somehow. You know, it’s like they say – you come for a year and you stay as long as you stay.
AW: But how about the previous lighthouse, from the time of German rule. Could you tell me how it happened that is was blown up? So the Germans, retreating -
AM:-mined it, and they [Russian Red Army soldiers] came in and, as it says in the records, wanted to make it work again.
AW: The victorious army?
AM: Yes. They were going home this way. And they went inside, and it all went boom! and there was no lighthouse and no soldiers either. They’re buried here, at this cemetery. Forty-two men. To one lieutenant lying there was his sister coming, a professor from Moscow University. I haven’t seen her this year, but last year she was here. She comes to visit him. You know, nobody can tell you how it really was, because there are no witnesses, because all are in the vast expanses. [The lighthouse] was pretty. The watch room here stands on the spot, on the foundations of the old lighthouse.
AW: So this is the watch room, the white little house?
AM: Yes, this white little house. Only that before it used to be a low building, and then, here it even says when they did it, they raised it and moved the watch room, the staff upstairs. Because before, let’s be straight about it, they would sit right next to the machines. So later, when it was being rebuilt, we made a Faraday cage.
AW: What’s a Faraday cage?
AM: It protects you from radiation and from the currents, so that they don’t come through. You place metal mesh in the walls and ceilings, and ground it, so that these stray currents go down and not go up to where people are.
AW: Where do these stray currents come from?
AM: There used to be big radio beacon transmitters, boards, let’s say devices, for foghorns. Those in the passenger harbour. Three horns stood here – they still do, actually, they weren’t dismantled, they just don’t work – on the dune. Because it was the lighthouse keeper who had to run them. If the visibility was three nautical miles or less, the lighthouse keeper turned the foghorns on. Whether it was rain or fog. That is the keeper, here in Krynica, watched the [Vistula] Lagoon, and looked if he could see half of it. If he could see only half of the lagoon, and the visibility was diminishing, then he’d run the foghorns. So you see, the keeper was always on the go, because he had to mind everything. There was the radio station, he operated it, he watched the radio beacon, that is those transmitters which emitted signals. So you couldn’t freely enter the watch room area, there used to be warning notices there, unauthorised persons were forbidden to enter, as there was quite high voltage there, and the electric current. It was on the antenna, it stood half a metre above the ground and it emitted the signal right from the bottom.
AW: But wasn’t this harmful, like, to your health?
AM: Let me put it differently. When the transmitter was operating, you could take an electric discharge tube and it would glow in your hand from the distance of two metres. So whenever somebody came over to discuss the easiness of our work, you just took that tube and went over, and suddenly there was nobody by the watch room. They all ran away. Today this antenna stands in Rozewie. It’s a kind of a stick with a ball on top, made of metal bars. AW: What was it for?
AM: It transmitted the signal of the radio beacon. That is, the beacon was working at appropriate times and emitting its test signal, and if there was a ship coming, she could thus find her position – if she wasn’t able to see us. She took the signal from me, from Hel, from Rozewie – and she knew where she was.
AW: So it was a sound signal, right?
AW: But there was light on the lighthouse at night?
AM: Both day and night.
AW: So it was like a double signalling system?
AM: Yes, because in daylight you recognise the lighthouse by its shape and colour. At night, by the light, plus there’s the radio beacon operating. Nowadays it’s also like that, only in a different system. That stick there on the right (pointing up). This actually is a permanent beacon, except that it’s a new type, because we used to have – there were 6 in Hel, we had 12 – Swedish transmitters mounted on the lanterns. And in those days the lighthouse keeper had to be a radio-telegrapher as well. He had the papers. Because it all depended on the papers. And he operated the radio transceiver station, that is we would talk to the ships, the port authorities. But only in the case of scrape, when something was going wrong. So the Krynica lighthouse was a relay station.
AW: What does it mean?
AM: It means that if a ship was coming along and couldn’t get a VHF connection, then we would act as relay. The lighthouse keeper would sit there, receive the message from one side and pass it over. We did have quite a far range.
AW: So you would sit there with headphones on?
AM: No, there was a microphone and regular loudspeakers. You could take headphones, too, but what for. So, as you see, the lighthouse keeper was kept quite busy.
AW: There had to be someone there 24 hours a day?
AM: Yes, one shift then lasted 12 hours.
AW: So how many lighthouse keepers were working here at that time?
AM: Three. And the boss as the fourth one. So you’d sit 12 hours on a dayshift, then there was a break, and the next day you came to sit at night. And so it went on, right? With two lighthouses there, you can also determine your position at sea, but it’s more accurate if there are three, when you see three lights. That’s why lighthouses are located in such way that they can be seen. Usually, they’re visible from a distance of, say, 30 km. There’s some more to it, though, because these distances, the light ranges, are measured at moderate atmospheric conditions. And one metre above water surface, there are special regulations, but with clear, perfect visibility, they’ll be seen from greater distances.
AW: And who makes these measurements?
AM: The hydrography and navigation, that is the Navy and the Marine Office.
AW: And they pass this information to the ships?
AM: No, if there are any changes in the conditions, a special register is published, it’s called “loci”, and there all changes are stated.
The keeper can’t be afraid of anything, he’s prepared for everything. When I once went up with him [another lighthouse keeper], the wind was blowing at 140 km/h.
You know how fast we ran downstairs? The whole lighthouse tower was swaying. They called us from Gdynia, saying that we had a 140 wind here. We were afraid that it was going to blow the roof away. Well, nothing happened in the end, but you know, it’s safer down in the watch room than up there at the top. We just ran upstairs to check on everything, if the devices were in order, and then we made off immediately.
AM: In this profession, unemployment didn’t concern us.
AW: And how many lighthouse keepers are there in Poland?
AM: There used to be 150 of us, and now, let me think, maybe a half of that? Even less perhaps.
AW: Is it because so many lighthouses are now automatized?
AM: Some turned automatic, then they cut the staffing, because now there are time limits, not like it was when we used to work. We used to make 240 hours a month. But not now, now a limit is a limit. Eight hours. If he works overtime, he’ll get time off. It’s not like in the olden days.
AW: It seems to me that most lighthouses are red.
AM: Well, they are if they’re built of brick. The lighthouse may be red, but the lantern part is white. That’s what it’s called, the room where the light is. It’s white. Hel is all red. Rozewie has a totally different silhouette. Krynica is red-and-white. Stilo is red-white-and-black. Yeah, and Nowy Port is also made of brick, with a yet different shape. This lighthouse here in Krynica was erected one year after the Gdańsk one. They’re all different. What else would you like to know from me?
AW: If you could tell me about something extraordinary that happened here.
AM: Fishermen got lost once in a storm. It pushed them along past Hel and they landed at our neighbours’, on the Curonian Spit. Everyone was trying to find them but they couldn’t. With the equipment we have today, we’d be able to spot them immediately. But not with that one back then. They were pushed by the current, because it was a major southern storm, and it chased them out almost as far as Hel, and then the Vistula current took them to the Spit. We were sitting here, three of us, and we kept searching for them, the rescue boats were sent out, too, and they couldn’t find them either. Finally they were found and came back without our help. So when they were brought back, it was all top secret, where they had landed. They reported themselves to the Russians, and they canned them. It was nineteen-seventy… it’s all there somewhere in the registers, the whole message exchange, all that. Because the lighthouse keeper has got his registers – at least he used to, I don’t know how it is today – the duty register, the radio register, and if you said anything through the radio, you had to put it down in the register, word by word. And when you received a message from the ship, someone said something, again, verbatim, because later, should there be any fuss, this would go to the Maritime Chamber. And on top of that, it was recorded. Not in our lighthouse, God forbid, but it was all being recorded by Gdynia Radio, Polratok [rescue coast station], Marine Office, and by those gentlemen in blue uniforms [Polish communist militia] as well – they also stayed tuned.
AW: When did you start working here?
A.Włoch: After completing my service in the army.
AW: Why, after the military service, you decided to become a lighthouse keeper?
A.Włoch: Why, they offered permanent employment, and it’s hard to find a job in Krynica. I applied and so I stayed.
AW: Did it require any special skills to become a lighthouse keeper?
A.Włoch: There used to be some requirements in the past, yes. You had to be at least an electrician. It used to be that way. You had to know how to operate generators, that is know about IC engines in general, you had to complete a course. I stayed and I’ve been here for 26 years already.
AW: Do you like this job?
A.Włoch: Well, you know, I got used to it and, well, I do now.
It got automatized. In the past, you had to turn the light on manually, turn it off manually, the power generator – also manually. And now everything is automatic.
AW: And when, more or less, did the technology change?
A.Włoch: When exactly? Let me think.. 1998.
There was a table stating when to turn the light on and off, according to sunrise and sunset times.
AW: So now the lighthouse keeper has got less work to do?
A.Włoch: Yeah, well, a little less, as I’m saying, the automatisation solves many issues, you don’t have to watch everything now. And in fact there are two lighthouse keepers, and it used to be four. Because someone had to come over anyway in order to light the lamp, and now it’ll switch on itself.
AW: And what are the shifts like?
A.Włoch: They’re still 12-hour shifts. And 12 hours at night. There’s a 24-hour break. Then 12 hours nightshift and 48 hours break. And over again.
AW: That must be life…
A.Włoch: Well, you can get used to it.
AW: But you have paid holidays?
A.Włoch: Holidays, yes, we do. Quite normally, as is due, you have your rights. (…)
AW: Have there been any accidents here?
A.Włoch: Well, they happen, yes, but less often now, there used to be more in the past. The equipment is better these days, it’s simply safer. Nothing’s happened for quite a while, nothing bad.
AW: And if there’s a big storm, what is it like?
A.Włoch: What is it like? There’s practically speaking no beach, the sea reaches up to the very dunes. And here it’s windy, the lighthouse tower is a bit shaky, it sways.
AW: Aren’t you afraid to sit here at night?
A.Włoch: I sit downstairs, in the watch room. You don’t go up here very often. Sometimes only, to do some maintenance work or something, an overhaul.
AW: And if there’s a thunder storm?
A.Włoch: The lighthouse is high, but thunderbolts don’t normally hit it. I’ve worked here for 26 years and it hit us only once. Some rumble, a little flash, and that’s it.
AW: So you’re enjoying your work?
A.Włoch: Why, I am. Even if I didn’t, you gotta work somewhere. Here in Krynica, a job is hard to come by, there’s just seasonal work.
AW: So you now have one alternate?
A.Włoch: Right, he replaced Mr Marczyk. The colleague is about my age. (…)
AW: Which lighthouse is nearest to this one?
A.Włoch: Gdańsk. Gdańsk North.
AW: And the next one is on the Russian side?
AW: Where does it stand?
A.Włoch: In Baltiysk.
AW: Do you have any contact with them?
A.Włoch: Nope, none. Same thing, in the past you could sail past the Strait of Baltiysk on the Lagoon, but I’ve heard that now they won’t let you through. I wish Elbląg could become a seaport…
AW: Is it going to happen?
A.Włoch: Nobody knows. Each year or every couple of years the idea is revived and nobody knows. Some are for it, some against.
AW: But it’s a shame that there’s no communication here, don’t you think?
A.Włoch: Yeah, it’s a shame.
AW: The landscape is so beautiful here on the Spit.
A.Włoch: We’ll see, maybe they’ll at least open that border crossing point for bikes. Because there’s this forest bike path down here. So it would be an extension of this path.
AW: That would be great, one could make bike trips there.
A.Włoch: If they manage to do all that.
AW: The weather is deteriorating. There’s fog coming from that side.
A.Włoch: It’s pushing from the west.
AW: Just a moment ago you could see Baltiysk, and the little houses, and now…
A.Włoch: …now you can’t. It’s starting to rain.
(Shows the lighthouse lamp)
A.Włoch: It’s switched on by the photo-detector. When it gets dark, sometimes during the day, too, if dark storm clouds draw near, the light goes on, automatically.
AW: And now, in the evening, what tome does it switch on?
A.Włoch: About 8 p.m. Depending on the weather. Now it’ll be switching on earlier and earlier, in the winter it’s as early as at 3-4 p.m.
AW: And tonight? Do you know?
A.Włoch: Well, it might be 7, 8 p.m. Such here 1000 Watt bulbs.
AW: So these are the two which will switch over if need be?
A.Włoch: When one gets burnt out, they automatically change places, so that the light stays on.
AW: And it’s got this breaking apparatus?
A.Włoch: It’s in this box here, an electronic system which makes it flash.
AW: It won’t break down?
A.Włoch: No, no. I rather works as it should. There used to be such contacts here which would sometimes overheat, and then the bulb glowed steadily instead of blinking. But we had those contact pieces down there, so you just had to switch to another contact and then clean it.
AW: How long have you been here?
AK: Since 1971.
AW: How old were you when you started working here?
AW: And why did you decide to work here?
AK: It was when I left the army, so I had to look for some job. You know, it was in the 1970s… I met my present wife. I come from the south of Poland. I came back to the coast because I’d been at a military unit in Gdynia, and it just so happened that there was a vacancy here, at the lighthouse. And I got this job.
AW: But why, coming from the south, you were looking for a job here, up north?
AK: Because I met the lady.
AW: So, in a word, it was love. (laugh)
And how is it that all Polish lighthouses have red in their colours? Is this a sign that they’re Polish?
AK: Every lighthouse has its own characteristics. The light is white, additionally you can have a green or red colour pane. If a ship coming from the west sees a lighthouse and sees the red sector, it must sail around so as to see green or white light, which marks entrance to the port. Other lighthouses have white light, rhythmic light, turning light, turning-alternating. These are lighthouse characteristics.
AW: Even with the GPS systems, do people still look at lighthouses?
AK: Anyone who sails by looks at everything. They look at the computer, at the GPS, and they look from the sea at the friendly flashing beacon, rather than looking into the void and darkness.
AW: And how about the future? They want to do away with this profession?
AK: So far, no-one has said anything about any redundancy in the lighthouse. In some distant future, yes, it’s certainly going to happen, or it’ll be somehow automatized. But as long as the international convention on the safety of waters is valid… Until they all get together and decide to withdraw from it, well, there’s no choice, each country must take care of the safety of its territorial waters. Our ships and foreign ones sail on our waters, our ships sail on foreign waters, and they must also use navigation systems, satellite or terrestrial, and that’s why this must be kept. Here, in Rozewie, we now have a GPS station, another one is in Dźwinów, and before, there used to be radio beacons operating as a system of three, where two were always working and the ship could determine its position at sea. Then, the signal came from the land, now it’s from the land but actually from the satellite, the ship receives its position.
AW: Did anyone ever lose their way?
AK: No, you can’t get lost on the Baltic. If the ship doesn’t strike the shoals, it’ll run into the platforms or the Swedish shore.
AW: Is it far from here?
AK: About 80 km north. There are those offshore platforms there.
AW: Did any ship ever land on a shoal?
AK: Yes, in 1975. It struck the shoal on the 26th of December, because it had been sailing in twenty-something degrees below zero. It was so cold that the ship went all tilted and they let it drift so that it would stop somewhere. It stopped by Karpia. It was a modern vessel by the standards of that time, ‘cause it was all automatic, only seven crewmembers on it. The crew was taken down by Jastarnia, and the ship was left to drift. It went without the crew. Then, when it stopped on the shoal, some barges came over. First, saw-men from the Marine Office were put on the ship, they were cutting the ice manually, with motor saws, to lessen the weight of the ship a bit. When they got rid of the ice, the barges sailed up with their rears to the ship, they dug a kind of a trough underneath, and it was taken down from the shoal. It was carrying chemicals to Toruń. It was rather dangerous. If there’d been a spill, the chemicals would’ve polluted the sea within the radius of 10 km.
AW: Do you like your job?
AK: Well, if I survived 40 years here, why, sure, how else could a man from the south survive so long by the sea? One half of these 40 years – lived through in solitude.
AW: Did it ever happen that everything suddenly cut out and went black?
AK: It might have happened once perhaps that there was something wrong with the power generator and they shut it down, but still there was a way to keep the lighthouse working. We had our small generator 1,800 Watt, we connected it and the lighthouse was shining. Nowadays we get power supply from the network. We have an emergency generator, but there’s the machine room. In 1978, the lighthouse was raised again. Mr Wzorek was telling me that Swedes had been trying to obscure our beacon, but in fact the beach trees simply grew taller than the lighthouse and that’s why it was raised again. During one day only, the 26th of October, the lighthouse was made higher by an eight-metre cylinder unit. The light in the old lighthouse was put out in the morning, and in the evening a new lighthouse was lit.
AW: Who did this job?
AK: Mostostal Gdańsk. A huge lattice crane had to come, then they brought its arm from the truck. It got set up and went up, the cylinder was already waiting there on the spot – it had been brought on a platform truck and put down using a smaller crane. Everything was already inside; the wiring. During one day they had to take the roof down, take out the glass panes, put the roof on the new unit and lift it up and put it in its place, secure it there, put the glass panes in, and then there came the wind. They hardly made it with folding the crane in time, the wind started to blow at 25 m per second. There were some problems with putting the glass panes in, but luckily in the end they managed to put everything together. This was some enterprise, you know, to do the whole operation of lighthouse raising in one day.
In this room there used to be the lighthouse watch room. They could watch the voltage of the lighthouse power supply, the bulb voltage, engine voltage, what current goes to the engine. The electric current was transmitted here from the machine room. In the machine room, there worked the engine man and his helper. They took care of the steam engine. They watched the battery voltage to make sure that the lighthouse can be sufficiently powered long enough. Here is the lamp, old optics from 1910, which was put in after the raising of the lighthouse. This part was glassed-in, the light shone 27 m above the level of the ground. Turning light, fixed, three seconds one turn, you could see the flash of the beacon every 2.9 seconds. Each turn means one a flash seen by the sailor. There was a 3,000 Watt bulb. The range was 30 nm. This is the power supply and controls. And here are the emergency supply batteries. If there’s no voltage, it switches over to batteries and powers the light from the emergency supply till the standby generator starts to provide it voltage, then it switches back. This is the optical system from 1987, put in after the raising. It’s different from the one we’ve just seen: there, we had one light source, a set of prisms, while here, there’s halogen light, each halogen bulb is 200 Watt, its beam is focused in its own mirror, and the range of one halogen bulb is 19 nm. Here, we’ve got two placed bilaterally, so if the other lamp made 20 turns per minute, this one makes 10, in order to get the same light characteristics.
AW: When you’re on duty, what do you do?
AK: First and foremost, I supervise the functioning of all equipment: the lamp, the GPS station, the back-up generator, to keep it ready. This is the main thing. When this is all done, there’s still some work to do outside, the area must be kept tidy.
AW: What time do you normally turn it on?
AK: At sunset. I don’t turn it on myself, it switches on automatically – there’s a photo-detector. When it gets dark, the light switches on. Back in the past, there used to be two lighthouses in Rozewie. Their kerosene lights shone till 1910.
AW: Why two?
AK: In the olden days, lighthouses didn’t have their light characteristics, so, sailing along, the sailors would see both of them. They couldn’t tell where they were. That’s why another lighthouse was built in Rozewie, both were equipped with kerosene lanterns and the sailors could recognise the lighthouses from the sea by two sources of light. The next lighthouse in this part of the coast was Czołpino lighthouse, which also emitted fixed light. Before, the sailors didn’t know whether they were at the level of Stilo or Rozewie. And when from a distance they could see two points of light, they knew it was Rozewie.
AW: And where about in the south do you come from?
AK: Krosno, Jasło – Bieszczady mountains, where Bieszczady begin.
AW: What are the advantages of working here?
AK: Good health, peaceful work, responsibility.
AW: And if you were to choose again?
AK: Knowing now what it’s about, yes, I’d certainly choose it again, because on coming here, I didn’t have a clue. Well, so there’s a lighthouse – and the lighthouse keeper works there. I’m an electrician by profession, but comparing to electrician’s work elsewhere, this is something totally different, here everything is about operating the devices. You need to get to know all of them, learn the principles of their work, learn how to diagnose information in the case of a failure, how to remove it. After forty years, I’ve been made senior keeper. I’m the lighthouse gaffer.
AW: How many lighthouse keepers are there in Poland?
AK: It’s hard to tell. In the western part of the coast, some were fired: in Stilo, Słupsk.
AW: And are there any women lighthouse keepers?
AK: There are. There’s Weronika in Stilo, and in Jarosławiec there’s Janina, who took the job over when her husband died. Grażyna in Jastarnia.
AW: Was sounding foghorns also part of the lighthouse keeper’s duties?
AK: Yes. A foghorn is a device emitting sound signal, used when there’s fog, bad visibility. These sound signals warned the ships that they’re close to the shore.
(Going inside) These are the foghorns, this device emits the sound, which goes through this part here. You need to have these horns, otherwise the air would escape, going “tsss” and not producing any sound whatsoever. The air goes through a chamber with a spinning fan which makes the air vibrate, and that’s how sound is produced. And here is a piston coupled through a band with another device, the air was trapped and released mechanically with the moving piston, that’s how it worked.
AW: Who constructed it?
AK: I don’t know. It was built in 1867. And it still stands, no rust, nothing fell off, nothing wrong with it. When we pump some air into the chamber, run the motor, turn the crank, the air will flow: a beautiful, vibrant, clear sound.
After primary school, I wanted to go learn to be a cook but I wasn’t admitted so I took my papers to the ZSBO – the Basic Vocational School of Ship Construction. I graduated there with the profession of pipeline fitter. I worked in the Lenin Gdańsk Shipyard, assembling pipelines. But my brother-in-law was working at sea and he asked me if I didn’t want to do that too and travel the world. “Are you gonna keep assembling those pipelines forever or what?” And I said, “Well, why not try?” I’d always been curious of the world, in the shipyard, on ships, I would look through portholes and wonder what it might look like at sea. An opportunity came by, so why not seize it? I was curious of the world, I enjoyed getting to know various places. Very often I went to see the port town on my own. I would go without my colleagues, with strangers. For instance in Dunkirk I went sightseeing alone. I enjoyed that. It was a really nice job that happened to me. I’ve seen a lot: except Australia, Polynesia and Canada, there’re quite a few ports seen and checked. The Mediterranean? – I know it like the back of my hand. How many times I was there: Venice, Barcelona, Italy, the whole North Africa, these are the ports which I used to visit.
I sailed for PLO [Polish Ocean Lines] from September 1973 to 1995, when I was affected by mass redundancy, because at that time they were making people redundant. Then I managed to find a job on foreign ships and I sailed for an English ship owner, on container ships. And again we were sailing round Western Europe and on the Mediterranean. And so I sailed till 2002.
I liked navigation. I liked going with the ARPA – it’s an anti-collision radar, on which you can plot the course and see how a given vessel moves in relation to our ship, whether it’s safe.
I wasn’t an officer but I knew that the position is given by the satellite. I went and took the position on the map. I look and see: okay, we’re here, so at that and that time, say, 3:15 a.m., we’ll be turning right near Sicily, or left by Crete. One would always follow them lines. Here, for example, Ravenna-Venice-Istanbul-Izmir-Piraeus, and back. And the next line was Ravenna-Venice all the way to Haifa-Alexandria-Limassol. One knew the route by heart. We even had some “blinders”, that is stowaways who embarked the ship in Limassol and we dropped them in Ravenna. They were secretly put on the ship by port workers in the port of loading, during the greatest agitation, because it’s almost the end, because we’re about to put out to sea – and at that moment there he jumps from the quay onto the ship and in this way we earned three “blinders” and we took them to Ravenna. There, an international UNO-body took them over, which deals with such human affairs. They were from Iraq. It was also dangerous because they could have murdered us all. The portholes in their cabins were sealed and we didn’t keep watch on the bridge but outside their cabin, so that they don’t come out at night and kill off the sleeping crew. And there were only ten-eleven crewmembers on such ships. This also meant stress and responsibility. And we also had another adventure… In nineteen-eighty-something we took on board from the sea, from a boat which was allegedly broken, runaways from Vietnam. They’d wanted to go to Taiwan. We took them on not far from Vietnam, because it turned out that their engine packed up. They were 37 people, two with polio, they were carried up the gangplank by their comrades, and the youngest was a baby of six months or so.
But we shouldn’t have done it because we couldn’t be sure if some terrorist wasn’t hiding among them. They could’ve been armed, could’ve terrorised the crew and hijacked the ship. We took them to the day-room and they were sitting there. We weren’t far away from the Saigon roadstead, so the captain reported this to the emigration office, and Vietnamese soldiers came over and took them away.
They saddled me once on the ship, there was ten of us, crewmembers, we’re just putting out and it turns out that the chief cook is staying in the hospital and someone has to cook. There’re nine of us in the crew and the “old man” made me do it, as the youngster couldn’t cook, well, I wasn’t an expert either, but the boatswain can’t do it, and the officers have their things to do. So in the evening my colleague says, “Jerzy, you must bake some bread, do you know the recipe?”. And I say, “No, I don’t”. So it turned out that I was to get the recipe from a cook from some other ship. The captain faxed them. The other captain called his cook at ten o’clock at night, saying, “Look, they have a cook there who can’t bake bread”. The other’s eyes went wide open. The captain says, “Look, we bake bread here. Give me the recipe”. And the cook is like, “I don’t know it”. “OK, so off to the kitchen, bake some and we’ll see how you go about it.” – The cook used to measure stuff by glasses. It’s a simple recipe: one-and-half litre water, flour and yeast. With that, you could bake four trays of bread. So then I baked this bread.
Leaky holds, leaky storerooms. Yeah, once we were 98 cm above water surface, with the ship loaded and fully immersed, and the wave was four metres high. On the deck alone we had 120 tons water, as I was standing 30 cm above on pipes and holding on to the ring, and there was one metre seventy of water. And I had to hold through so that I could tell my colleague in the storeroom to pail the water out. He finished his work and said, “We’re not gonna risk”.
The storm was so big that the waves were eleven metres high… We wanted to put in to Bilbao, we were in the Bay of Biscay – we kept going to and fro for a whole day or so, waiting for the wave and the wind to calm down, in order to put in to the port, because the port was closed. It was dangerous but the captain ordered slow ahead and sailed steadily, he couldn’t stop anywhere, this is a deep sea and what would you do in the middle? You must keep going, as far as the sea allows, then the ship makes a U-turn and sails in the opposite direction. And in this way, we were waiting for 24 hours. Okay, the storm is over but there’s the post-storm wave and it’s eleven metres high and is coming down right now. And when you’ve reached past the first breakewaters, you see waves six metres high. I saw this because I was standing on the deck, waiting for the pilot. There comes a six-metre-high wave – well, I must jump up so that it doesn’t wash me away.
Before I left for the PLO contract, I got a two-year holiday break for foreign ships. At that time, I sat at home for eleven months and I didn’t miss the sea. I sat at home the whole summer and then left when the autumn came. I left on the 15th of October. I got a job on a ship which was just then standing in the Remontowa [Repair] Shipyard in Gdańsk, it was a bulk carrier, 24 thousand tons, and off we went to the Mediterranean. That’s how I began: nine-and-half months on one ship, back. One month at home and another contract came by, so I had to go quickly. I went away after one month, I spent six months on a semi-container. I flew to Recife, Brazil. Later I came back in the winter. A month or so again and I went to Rotterdam for nine-and-half months, for the next contract. In this way I used this 2-year-break for foreign ships. I fought for mine and won, I would come back home and tune out. That’s it, a six-month break… Later, when I worked for that English ship owner, it was the same – six months on board, six months at home. Silence, peace.
Oh, right, I need to pack my stuff – alright. I pack my stuff. “Goodbye daughter, my wife, goodbye.” I’m off for six months, I’m back in six months. When I was back, I used to tune out. I kind of switched over to life on dry land. The wives don’t have it too sweet either. They have to switch over, too.
I’ve seen several tornadoes of various sizes but one was really really massive and the captain made a ten-degree left turn, ‘cause it was on our right. When we sailed over to that place two hours later, we saw how wide it was, the water was coming up by two-three metres – pulled by the wind. We were passing by it, some six miles away, so we could see how wide it was.
If we had got caught by it, it might have pulled away some of our containers.
There was a storm on the Mediterranean, too. The bolt slid down the containers on the left board. The whole fire went down along four containers right to the deck. When it hit the antenna, it was burnt. It was pouring so hard that the scuppers couldn’t let the water out and it leaked into the navigation cabin through a ventilation hole. We had to cover all the electrical devices to get them protected from the rain.
There was also a fire of waste material on board. I saw the carbide ignite itself, ‘cause it had been raining on it for two days. They loaded us with everything on the 30th of September, we put out from Shanghai after two days, it was Saturday, Sunday. We were thinking: okay, the sea is calm, no storm. There were some boards, some square timber on this waste stuff. Saturday, 7 p.m.: we hear a shout. We look and see that the garbage under those planks of wood is starting to smoulder. We jumped up and ran to the deck, the burning timber was thrown over the board right away. Later we checked and it turned out that under the deck, in the holds, we had just cardboard and plastic – toys from China.
Ping pong balls, such stuff – flammable enough. Luckily, there was still some room left between the deck and these cardboard boxes, so they didn’t catch fire. – The carbide ignited itself. When you pour water over carbide steadily, when you close it in a plastic bag, it’ll explode. The captain gave it a gush of water too soon, more explosions followed. He stopped the water flow, we shovelled the garbage out and only then we let water run over the deck.
If I could choose my profession again, I’d certainly pick the same one. And to steer a ship? – I could do that anytime. I’d be able to. I’ll know how, because I’ll go take a look at the map, at the GPS, then I know my position and I have my memory.
WT: My name is Witold Tilsa, I live in Sopot. The fishing wharf and the boat which I use are also in Sopot. I pursue fishery. I pursue it, so it’s my profession. My profession is like a generational thing. My father was a fisherman, and he started due to his uncle, who also was a fisherman.
AW: How old are you?
WT: 51. I’ve been fishing since ’84.
AW: So how old were you when you started?
AW: Did you have any doubts about choosing this profession?
WT: Yes, I’d never thought I’d be a fisherman. I wasn’t interested very much in my father’s work. Of course, as a boy I would come now and then to help him but for me it was then basically just like fun, like doing something different, a change in everyday life, learning and fun. You know, like “there, something different! I’ll go to my father, work some”, that kind of thing. No pressure to go help my parents so that they’d have it easier, so that I’d learn something, no, nothing of the kind. I used to do it just for myself. And then, when I got married, and the children came, I had to make a living so I turned to my parents, asking if I could work with them as a partner in their business. And that’s how I became a fisherman.
AW: And how does it function? You put out together with your father or one of you two goes alone? How many persons go to sea?
WT: No, on such offshore boats as here in Sopot there go two persons. At the moment, there are four families fishing here, but it wasn’t always like that. In the past, the owner would go, and he could take his helper along. Two, sometimes three people can go on such a boat as we have. At least two people. So me and my father, we made such a fishing team.
AW: When is the fishing season?
WT: You fish all year, till the sea freezes. Obviously, when storms come, we have time off, too. What is the season? In fact, you could distinguish between two kinds of “season”. We generally call the summer months “the season”, because then the tourists come and there’s a big demand for fish, however big the catch, everything will go. But you can also say that the cod season is “the season”. Cod is a more expensive fish than what we catch during the summer season. In the summertime we generally fish for flounder – it’s a relatively cheap fish, compared to cod. So we also have a better season, money-wise, before Christmas, because then there’s cod in our waters and the price is higher, so fishing pays off better, it’s more profitable. So there are two seasons as if, the summer season, when there are tourists around and they buy fish at fried fish stands, restaurants and taverns. This ends in September, and then there’s less demand for about two months, because then only locals come.
AW: So you do make money selling fresh fish?
WT: We do, selling fish on the spot. Of course the price is higher than if we would give it to a wholesaler. It’s double the price as if, but then we just don’t catch such big amounts of that fish, just as much as each of us can sell on the spot.
AW: And when is the fishing season in the sense that there’s the most fish in the sea?
WT: Well, I mean, you can’t put it this way. The particular fish species… We’re basing on three most abundant species – you catch everything that swims in the sea – but there are three species which are most plentiful here and which we fish for: cod, herring, and flounder. Additionally, depending on the time of the year, there’s also salmon, zander, perch, whitefish, vimba, bream. Here, in the Bay, you come across freshwater species as well, because there’s the Vistula inflow and the Bay isn’t very salty, the water’s more kind of mixed, so that’s why we get freshwater species as well.
AW: So there’s also salmon in the Bay?
WT: Yes, salmon too. And sea-trout. Eels. Turbots.
AW: Eels also swim here?
WT: The eels are simply there, they also sleep in the Bay in wintertime. They get together in clusters and they sleep. Eels are fish which remain in a given territory for about ten years. They don’t’ breed here, they come here as tiny little fish.
AW: Down the river?
WT: No, they only breed in one sea, and they’re carried here with the current, and they just stay here for a decade. Then they go back to that Sargasso Sea, they breed there and die.
AW: They can swim such great distances?
WT: They’re carried with the North Atlantic current, even lake eels don’t breed anywhere else but in that one place, there, in the Sargasso Sea.
AW: All of them?
WT: All eels. It can crawl across land for some kilometres in order to get to water. It’s a strange fish. It doesn’t feed on carrion, as many people think. The eel won’t eat carrion, only fresh fresh fish. When we fish for eel, we use hooks, and we take such smaller fish for bait, sand lance it’s called, and it must be alive, because if it’s dead, the eel won’t touch it.
AW: And do the fishing boats only sail here on the Bay, or also on the open sea?
WT: We’re trying to keep a line between Hel and the Vistula, because there’s a fault there at the bottom at the sea. Let’s say it’s the Bay of Gdańsk, there’s Hel and it’s up to 50 metres deep there, and if we just go a little past this line, there’s a fault, 80, a100 metres. So we’re trying, since we use set nets, we’re trying not to go past that line.
AW: So you put out in the evening to drop the nets?
WT: We put out at night, at one, two o’clock, so at small hours, you could say, to come back here as early as seven or eight in the morning, and there are people already waiting for us, waiting to buy this fresh fish. None of us has a fixed spot, because the fish moves. We look one at another, who’s got how much and of what fish, we know more or less where he fished, so if I don’t have any fish and my colleague does, I get closer to him, and if he’s got less than I do, he comes closer to me, or we both go to a totally different place.
AW: How much fish do you get from one catch?
WT: About a hundred kilograms, on average. Yeah, this is a very good catch, for our boats. Sometimes it’s less, much much less. It does happen sometimes that I have five cods.
AW: What does that depend on?
WT: Different things; currents, salinity, wind.
AW: Salinity can change as well?
WT: It does change, unfortunately. The salinity of the Baltic Sea is getting lower, because it depends on the North Sea storms, salty water is pushed in through the Danish straits. And if there are just a few storms during the whole year, then that’s it…
AW: And what about fishing in the wintertime? Are there any problems?
WT: In the winter, there’s the temperature problem, and the water freezes. We know that salty water doesn’t freeze as quickly as fresh, there are waves on the sea. If the shore isn’t frozen, we can and we do put out to sea. Up to minus five degrees Celsius. If it gets colder than five below zero, it’s hard for us, it’s about the hands. Because you need to take out the fish with bare hands, when you lift the nets up. There are gloves, but wearing them you can’t feel the mesh, and the fish must be taken out, right? You can clean the fish wearing gloves, but you must take them out from the net with bare hands. So this is a kind of a limit: if the forecast is five below zero, we try not to put out, not to cast, only take the nets in and just wait it through.
AW: It’s a risk?
WT: It is, the risk must be foreseen. Let’s say that during this main season, the summer season, we put some money by, then we have to wait and see what the winter’s gonna be like, and only later, in spring, we’ll know how much money is left, whether we can buy any new fishing gear – because it does wear out, too. And that’s how it goes.
AW: And the boat you’re using, it is your father’s?
WT: Yes, this boat is my father’s. I’m trying to get a new one, but it’s hard, unfortunately. It’s not about money, as I would get considerable support from the Agency for Restructuring and Modernisation of Agriculture for the renovation, because I could renovate the one that I have. She’s small, though, she’s six metres long. And since I plan a major renovation, I’d like to make her bigger, I want to make her as big as the boats of my colleagues here next to mine, these are seven, seven-and-half metres. Unfortunately, there are limited possibilities in Poland, the ministry sets limits, it’s called GT, meaning my tonnage. For two years I’ve been trying to obtain the permission to make her bigger, and, unfortunately, they haven’t agreed yet. I just want to enlarge her by one metre, to make her longer, to build a bigger one.
AW: You mean you want to renovate the old boat rather than buying a new one?
WT: Renovate the old one. I’d get a partial money return for that, too – 40%. It does pay off. I hope I’ll get it. There are European funds to be used by 2013.
AW: Is this a wooden boat?
WT: Wooden, and laminated. Constructed in 1970, so she’s pretty old. If it was possible, I’d actually prefer to have a brand new one built, if I got the permission.
AW: Do you reckon it’s an unprofitable profession nowadays, fishing? Comparably?
WT: Well, it’s hard to speak about profits – it is profitable in the sense that we sustain ourselves, you can make ends meet somehow, but you have to be there all the time, right? It’s difficult to arrange any holidays, for example.
AW: When do you go on holidays?
WT: In the winter. But how do I know what the winter’s gonna be like? If it’s going to be a good winter, mild winter – I’ll have to work. You’re like, you know, tied to one place, you need to be there, you need to watch everything. We keep these boats in the open, the equipment is just lying there, people walk around. One person will just take a look at it, and another – why, you just need to be there – could damage it. It’s not a rule, but they could. Various things have already taken place here.
AW: And is your wife also somehow involved in all that?
WT: My wife left. But yes, she used to help, too – she would come and help. Selling fish.
AW: Usually, all family members…
WT: …usually, all family members are involved, as if automatically. My mom also used to help my father, right? That’s how it is. My uncle was helped by his wife, my aunt that is.
AW: So this belongs to the ethos of this profession?
WT: Yes, one could put it this way. There, next to us, it’s the same. The father passed it on to his son, and even to his son-in-law. The son-in-law bought a new boat. And their wives help, too.
AW: And why are there fewer boats now than before?
WT: Well, the older fishermen left, I mean they passed away, and they didn’t have successors – their children didn’t want to take over, so they got rid of the boats; it’s hard work after all, you know… you have to come here in the morning, get up at two a.m., at one or two a.m., stay at sea till seven or eight, then till noon you have to clean the fish, clear the nets, so this work is, you know, stretched in time.
AW: Till twelve noon?
WT: Yes. But you’re not always done at twelve, let’s be clear about that, right? Sometimes it takes longer. In stormy days, the nets need cleaning. There’s always something. It’s not that I go to work, work eight hours from this time to that time, and that’s it, I don’t care about the rest. Even when I’m at home, I have to listen to the weather forecast, consider things. It means being tied down to one place.
AW: You need a GPS?
WT: We have GPS’s so that we can get to a certain spot. Modernity sneaks in, the nets are now different than before. There used to be Perlon nets, and lead weights, if I remember correctly, and they didn’t use anchors in the past but instead they had those big cobblestones to weigh the boat down – so it does sneak in, this modernity, let’s call it, the facilitations. We used to have special poles in the wharf for disentangling nets. Today, the nets are made of Nylon. There’s lead in the line and cork as well, so they don’t get tangled so easily. It’s enough to run them through a kind of a bar, it’s the ladies who do that, or sometimes we do it alone.
AW: And are there also buoys placed for orientation?
WT: That is, when we put out, we switch the GPS on, it shows the direction and how long it’ll take more or less to get to the nets. Then I turn it off, and follow the compass. When I’m five to ten minutes from the spot, I turn the GPS on again. But generally we take a compass with us, a GPS, you know, it’s a machine, it could always break, you never know. So generally the basics are a compass, and a watch.
AW: A watch?
WT: To know the time.
AW: So you count the time?
WT: The time, how long it takes from one place to another.
AW: When we joined the EU, I heard on the radio that the EU wanted to limit the number of fishermen in Poland. Does it mean that they’d pay the fishermen to leave their boats?
WT: It wasn’t exactly like that. The thing was that in this Polish economic area, let’s call it within Polish borders, there were very many fishermen and fishing boats, relatively to other countries.
AW: That’s how it was then in Poland, at that time?
WT: Today, we still have the most, for a given area. Swedes, for example, have 35 fishing boats per the area specified, and we have 600. So how is the quota to be shared? There was hassle. So a proposal was made that whoever wants to…
AW: …give the boat over, close down his business?
WT: That’s correct. And the boat was broken up, you couldn’t fish anymore. You received a financial equivalent. So some of the fishermen decided to go for it and withdrew from fishing. Also here, two or three guys. Some young fishermen, too, they switched over to something else, took on some different jobs, they simply wanted to quit anyway, and they got such an opportunity.
AW: Are you glad to be a fisherman?
WT: Yes, you could say I am. It seems to me that very few people enjoy the work they do. Many go to work because they have to, and they do their job well, I don’t claim otherwise, but they’re not, you know, passionate about it, few do their best just because they like it. And I must say that I even enjoy the feeling of cold in the winter, it’s got a kind of… Each time I put out to sea, there’s something new, and even if I fish for the same fish species again, even when it’s the flounder season and I drop the same nets, every day brings something new, something different. The sunrise is beautiful. There are such happy moments.
AW: Did you ever have any unpleasant adventures, experience any dangerous moments, you know, extreme situations at sea?
WT: There was one such case, it was a very hot summer, the end of summer actually, early autumn, and because it had been so hot, and yet the cold weather fronts started to appear, there occurred a waterspout; this rarely happens in our climate zone, at sea it was something extraordinary. So we saw – we were all at sea, one next to another – a pillar of water, rising up to the sky. It looked astounding and it was getting closer to us.
AW: It could have sucked you up, right?
WT: The point is that we don’t know if it could or couldn’t, if it was that strong. I was just caught in that dropping water, but my colleagues, yeah, they had to cut the nets and sail away full speed. It was an uncanny impression, not fear but, you know, something strange, something’s happening: it’s coming our way! A pillar of water, there!
AW: But how about such great storms as we had lately, there were even twelve-degree storms?
WT: Well, then we usually stay home. These weather forecasts nowadays, we listen to them on the Internet, and they usually prove right. There’s a forecast given every three hours, so we know what time, when the wind’s going to approach, we know when not to put out, not to drop the nets. It used to be harder in the past, because the weather forecast for fishermen was only given twice a day. It was announced on the radio by the Navy Maritime Institute of Fishery at one o’clock at night and at half six in the morning. And so it was all rather uncertain, like ‘will we make it or not’, that kind of thing, though fishermen did listen to these forecasts. My father often listened to the German forecast and that was his main source. But it did happen from time to time that fishermen got caught in a storm. I was caught up once, when I still fished with my father. Actually, it was already after the storm, and it was partly our fault, too. We wanted to save the nets, so we put out. Near the shore, there was the dead wave, as we call it, and it covered us completely, it just rolled over our boat. Luckily, we didn’t capsize and the engine stayed running. We dashed through it, as if. An amazing sight: a wall rushing on. First thought: is this the end? But this kind of thing passes quickly. (he laughs)
AW: If a net gets torn, do you mend it?
WT: We used to. Now you mend only some nets, and some you don’t anymore. If it’s really worn out, we simply get a new one. With these nets that we have now, it simply doesn’t pay off to mend them. We don’t put out now if there’s a storm. We put out to sea at up to 5° Beaufort. If it’s from the West, then up to 7°, if we’re not going far. And with all directions from the sea, that is north-west, north, and north-east to east, even if it blows at 5° Beaufort, we don’t put out, because then the waves beat in our direction and we wouldn’t be able to push off from the shore.
AW: And how about these buildings, they’re fairly new, aren’t they? Was it different before?
WT: At first, the fishing wharf was by the pier. As Sopot was growing as a spa town, the then-authorities weren’t happy about the smell of fish, so they kept moving it further and further away. Where we now stand, in 1965 there were wooden bunkhouses. It all burnt in ’72, so they built a wharf out of concrete plates. The fishermen had one room each – without water, without electricity, without nothing. When I started to fish, about that time they installed running water and a sewage system. Now we’re in a completely new wharf, it’s three years old. It was built in the same place as the previous one, 100% from the EU funds. We won the support of the town council and the mayor; there had been a trilateral meeting: the mayor, representing the town authorities, we, and the Agency for Restructuring and Modernisation of Agriculture. The people from the Agency said that there was money, that the town would get 100% money return, only it had to give its consent for the construction and put out the money. We participated in every stage of the construction. What we wished for, what was needed from the point of view of hygienic and sanitary requirements, they consulted everything with us, what equipment we wanted. So I must say that the town took good care of us then, in putting out the money, in building this wharf. This was a kind of priority wharf, at that time, even though it wasn’t long ago, but other wharfs were far behind, and we sort of opened a door, you know, showing that it’s possible to cooperate with the town, and create something like that wharf with the help of the town.
AW: It’s lease, isn’t it?
WT: We pay a lease, we’ve got a contract signed with the city, signed once but for a period of thirty years. And our successors – if someone from the family would want to – it’s automatically determined that the wharf’s only meant for fishery, nothing else.
CAPTAIN JERZY WĄSOWICZ: Today I’m taking for a cruise the president of the Keja [Quay] Foundation. She has a program called “Let the blind see the sea”, and I believe I ought to help her.
A kettle whistles. Jerzy is making tea.
SYLWIA SKUZA: Good morning everybody, where could I sit down?
TOMEK ŁANGOWSKI: Somewhere over here.
Bustle on the deck, a walkie-talkie.
SYLWIA: We’re sailing to Sopot with captain Wąsowicz.
TOMEK: I’ve never had such an able crew as the blind. Very willing to work and very quick learners.
SYLWIA: And they’re very disciplined.
TOMEK: It’s enough to show them a few times, to let them touch, to, as we call it, “brail” the boat over. You take a blind person by the hand, you show them round, let them touch everything. And they memorise it, just like that.
CAPTAIN: I started dreaming of my own yacht, only I thought I would never be able to afford it. I am a civil engineer, and I also graduated from the Academy of Physical Education. Working as a construction site inspector, I could cut work and come to the wharf. At that time, I was training a group of young people in Cadet dinghy sailing, and I saw an old trawler out of the tail of my eye. I sailed over, I went onboard, and I thought “Kinda old, but well-preserved, and there’s a romantic feel to it”. Well, I had the next training session after a few days, and I sailed to that trawler again.
One day, I saw one of the fishermen walking towards the wharf, and he shouted from a distance, “Maybe you want to buy this trawler? It’s for sale”. “No, no, I won’t buy it for sure”. But it started to bug me, and less than a month later, I became its owner. I bought this trawler from Mr. Lewandowski who got ill and had to stop fishing.
Slowly and laboriously, I began to gather the materials to get the trawler repaired. Unluckily, though, there was a misfortune on the way. All the collected materials, including a very nice dinghy, the engine, everything got burned in the hangar. And in this way, after two years, I came back right to the starting point. It was a deadlock, because I also lost my job. I was considering dragging this boat into the middle of the yard and putting it on fire, and forgetting it all…
One Sunday, I was sitting in the middle of the boat, I wanted to make myself busy, so I started cleaning some tools. And I heard that two young people walked over, coz they had young voices. And a comment: “Look, one more sicko! He thinks he’s gonna make something out of it. It’s still gonna be here in ten years’ time, or he’ll sell it to some other crank”. And they went away.
And I was so stirred up that said “You just wait, dipshits, I’m gonna show you!” And ten years later, we sailed around Europe for the first time.
On the deck.
CAPTAIN: It’s milder than I thought.
SYLWIA: I can feel wind from that side, it gently touches my cheek, and I know which direction to take. We have voice navigation, but I prefer my own sense…
TOMEK: With all the electronic facilities, there’s just one thing that a blind person cannot do.
It’s watch-standing, because he or she will always report “I see no danger!” (laugh).
CAPTAIN: I knew that I couldn’t go back to the system which I’d had at work before, that it wasn’t possible to get on the same train. And so I had to do something with this life. So we devised the next expedition – around South America, to Alaska. That was the initial plan. Unfortunately, we were confronted with life itself – and in the end, we only sailed to South America, around Cape Horn, and we spent the whole winter in Patagonia, in quite harsh conditions.
Later, there were two more expeditions, more than a year long, around the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. And apart from that, for twenty years – as this year is the twentieth anniversary of sailing and expeditions on Antica – every year we make 90-100-day cruises in Europe, on the Mediterranean or its closer regions.
On the deck, they’re discussing the weather.
CAPTAIN: People say that the Baltic is a dangerous sea. But also North Sea is dangerous, and the English Channel, and the seas surrounding Ireland. Since the Baltic Sea is shallow, its waves are quite steep. In the Atlantic, a wave can be up to 300 meters long. Despite strong wind, you can ride up such waves, and slide down, while here in the Baltic Sea, you just crashe against them. You have to either break it somehow or go with it. It’s very irksome.
SYLWIA: Jerzy is an amazing man. We met when he had three blind people onboard. In very hard weather conditions, because the wind was blowing even up to 8. It’s left extraordinary impressions in those people, till this day. When he published his first book describing his fulfilled dream: a cruise around the world, he passed on to the Quay Foundation the copyright to the audio version.
To support the organization of sailing trips for the blind. I know that Jerzy finished his second book and also published it, and I silently hope that this second book will also be recorded in a digital version.
CAPTAIN: The Baltic is an interesting sea. We dream of long cruises in the Caribbean, in warm waters, on the Mediterranean. We don’t notice the beauty that we have here, at our fingertips. Swedish skerries, small Danish islands are lovely. Some ports are so tiny that you have to enter backwards. It’s mostly shallow everywhere, but they’re very charming, picturesque, not damaged in the last war, not damaged at all through ages. Preserved with care. There are most lovely ports and islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Bothnia, the archipelago of Åland Islands, the sole entrance to Tallinn Bay…The Baltic Sea has an extremely interesting history. Beginning with the establishment of the Hanse, through all the 400 years of its activity in the Baltic region.
Here where we are now, there used to be a fish hold. At the bow, there was a separate forecastle for the crew. While at the stern, there was the steering room and the motor.
MŻ: So you’ve actually changed everything?
CAPTAIN: Everything that you see here is new.
MŻ: New?! It looks like it’s hundred years old!
CAPTAIN: It’s because Antica is always on the move, it’s on the run all the time.
I’m always curious, on coming back, what has changed. When I was leaving for the first long cruise, it was 1991. People were sad, uncertain, nobody knew which way this country was going to go. People dressed in grey, and grey were their faces. When I returned after six years, I jolly well liked our youth. Smiling in the streets, joking, a bit unruly, you know. My impression of this country was very positive.
MŻ: You speak of grey people from that Poland in the past; and how about the Baltic sea – is it grey?
CAPTAIN: That’s what people say. The Baltic is not a grey sea. Besides, all over the world, the sea has either the colour of the sky, or clouds, or huge mountains reflected somewhere in its surface. During an anticyclonic storm, there’s sun, the sea is navy blue, whitened by the waves, and it looks really pretty. If there’s an atmospheric low, with low clouds and frequent precipitations, without any clearances in the clouds, the sea looks very grey indeed.
On the deck, at the level of Sopot.
MŻ: That fishing wharf, does it still function?
CAPTAIN: It does, but it’s a bit cheated, because they buy smoked fish in fish companies, and they sell it as their own specialty. For tourists or people who weren’t born by the sea, it’s such an attraction. (he laughs)
MŻ: But why, the fishermen from Sopot do catch fresh fish.
CAPTAIN: Yes, but it’s mostly flounder and herring, if it comes in the Bay. But they can’t fish here for mackerel or salmon, can they.
Once, we were at sea for 10 days, without a break. Since back then you couldn’t visit any countries, we were making crazy rounds on the Baltic Sea. At Trelleborg, we were woken up by the smell of freshly baked bread and cake. It was blown over to sea from a bakery. We sailed up off Copenhagen, regarded the city from the sea, and came back to Gdańsk.
We would approach Bornholm, we saw buses running, heard cars hooting, someone was playing music, someone calling someone else… and we were standing on the yacht, watching the world that was absolutely inaccessible for us…
At Christiansø – it’s a bunch of small islands east of Bornholm – there’s a man who was the policeman, the postmaster, and the port captain, because it’s a small community, around one hundred people. One small shop, selling coffee, chocolate, various sweets. The boys would put in, reporting that they had no water. Indeed, they took a little water there, but mostly everyone took out their foreign currency and ran to the shop to buy something for themselves of for children. Later that policeman got so used to this, that as soon as a Polish yacht putt in, he’d shout “What, you have no water? Come on over here…’ (he laughs)
Nobody bothered us much – neither the Danes nor our guys from the security forces, who finally learnt about it, coz they had to learn. It got more easy already, they didn’t make much of it any more. That didn’t constitute any threat to the system.
The deck, a walkie-talkie.
CAPTAIN: I sail around the whole world, but I have a soft spot for my city and for the Baltic Sea. Here I feel good, here I feel best, because this is my place, I’ve lived here almost all my life.
MŻ: At which point do you start thinking, “I’ll be home in a while”?
CAPTAIN: Practically speaking, as soon as I enter the English Channel. Then I’m 1000 miles away from home, and in long journeys, that’s no distance at all…
We enter the Sopot marina.
CAPTAIN: That’s how we passed the past twenty years of sailing on this refurbished fishing trawler, and that’s also how the 50th anniversary of my sailing has been fulfilled…
GUIDE: Seals eat two-three tons of herring per year, ladies and gentlemen! Seals live up to forty years, ladies and gentlemen! It’s Baltic water, ladies and gentlemen! Every month, the pool is emptied of water…
A WOMAN TOURIST COMMENTS: “All too rarely, perhaps, because it stinks”
…and the staff are scrubbing with brushes this seal sanctuary in the Marine Station of the University of Gdańsk.
SEAL CARER: Balbuś [diminutive from the name Balbina]! What is it?! Everyone must get their fish, go into the water! Balbuś! Look – it’s empty. You take it and away with you.
GUIDE: There are eight seals, ladies and gentlemen. The oldest one was found on the 31st of March, 1992. As it happened to be the calendar name-day of Balbina, the seal was called Balbina, but later she was examined and turned out not to be a girl but a boy.
(the tourists laugh)
KRZYSZTOF SKÓRA, HEAD OF THE HEL MARINE STATION: Somebody found the seal on the beach in Jurata. It was wounded, exhausted, distrophic, meaning that it hadn’t eaten for a long time and it was thin. A while fluffy thing. I knew that first I had to release the animal’s stress. I began to talk to it, I was trying to touch it. The seal was still alive enough to fight back, it was growling, letting me know that it was going to bite. I ordered my staff to prepare a pool for the seal. The only pool-like thing in the vicinity was an old cesspool, fortunately it was not in use anymore. And the seal started to swim in it, she started to take feeding lessons. It was afraid to come take food from the hand. So I’d take a piece of thread and tie a fish by its tail to a stick, and we’d drag it around the pool, as if on a fishing rod, as if it was alive. The seal reacted, it caught the fish, so then we’d quickly break the thread and the seal swallowed the fish. It got the message. And later there was just feeding and feeding and feeding. Balbin was growing and the news about the seal went forth to the world.
GUIDE: We’re visited by fifty thousand people a year, fifty thousand zlotys goes to the sanctuary money box. It’s hard to see the seals in the summer.
FEMALE VOICE: Sadly! I saw that I haven’t seen anything.
GUIDE: Commander lieutenant Edmund Jarczyk, Polish Navy tourist guide. I guide tours in the seal sanctuary at the Marine Station of the University of Gdańsk. In a minute the staff will come here, bringing herring, and they’ll be feeding the seals. Over there, there’s Joel and three young seals, Anna, Agata and Ewa. Krystyna ate one-and-half kilograms of coins and died. After we’ve watched the feeding, we’ll go to back to the coach…
KRZYSZTOF SKÓRA: According to HELCOM’s recommendation on seal protection, there should be established seal breeding centres. And so it got started – looking for allies in this project. But at those Warsaw desks that I reached, they would just make big eyes at me, as nobody had heard about Baltic seals. The help came from our Swedish colleagues.
MAGDALENA PRAMFELT: I worked as a journalist in the Polish broadcasting office of the Swedish public radio. The majority of women emigrating from Poland to Sweden are Poles taking Swedish husbands. Not all of these women have a happy lot. There are many divorces. Some couples, though, are successful, they bring up bilingual children. There are many human marriages, but this seal matrimony is the first one. One day, when we were visiting Krzysztof Skóra in Hel, he said, “I need a seal. A she-seal, because those sent over from Sweden so far all turned out to be male”.
KRZYSZTOF SKÓRA: Joel, named after a fisherman who rescued him. Down here, everybody calls him Julek. He was supposed to become Balbina’s wife. It was only when Balbin saw him that he learned that he’s a seal, because until then he’d only seen us, people. He attacked Julek, they had to be separated from each other, they were put on two sides of a grating, they could only sniff each other. And later they took to each other excessively! It was embarrassing at times! They can’t mate in the literal sense, but they’d court each other all too much.
KRZYSZTOF SKÓRA: They offered Balbin a beautiful blonde Swede. Unda travelled here in a big box, lying on panes of ice which had herrings frozen up in them. Such an arrangement seemed to be the perfect comfort for a seal.
MAGDALENA PRAMFELT: There were reports coming all the time: the seal felt weak, the seal feels fine. And the point was to take pictures of the seal with the officials.
KRZYSZTOF SKÓRA: She arrived clean as a whistle, all washed. Because in the meantime, the “bed” thawed and looked disgusting. The seal was in a very good shape, she immediately charmed us with her beautiful looks. So there she comes, pulling up in front of the consulate, and the press, instead of keeping to the program of the celebrations, making the most important persons feel admired, all run over to the seal.
MAGDALENA PRAMFELT: At the door of the consulate in Gdańsk, there were waiting the Marshall, the Mayor, and several other worthy gentlemen. And it was all very comical: the orchestra, the fanfare, two black cars pull up, and the whole Swedish delegation, ignoring the Polish delegation, which was standing there holding flowers, ran up to the seal. Unda Marina was shown only briefly and locked up again, as she was very stressed out; and then quickly – to Hel!
KRZYSZTOF SKÓRA: The people of Hel and Balbin had already been waiting for her, but Unda’s heat was just ending and Balbin didn’t manage to inseminate her on that wedding evening. The marriage has been sealed, though, and a local paper published a huge portrait of the newlyweds.
MAGDALENA PRAMFELT: Unda Marina dominated all news programmes on the Polish TV, as a Swedish girl come to Poland for matrimonial reasons.
KRZYSZTOF SKÓRA: She was in all papers as the most important news concerning the opening of the consulate. The Swedish consul was very glad, since this creates a good image of a country which minds the nature and at the same time helps us.
MAGDALENA PRAMFELT: The Swedes have learnt that Poland can take care of seals after all, that we can have here an initiative like this, like restoring the grey seal on the Polish coast.
KRZYSZTOF SKÓRA: It’s not our objective to have a seal sanctuary, actually we’ve been trying to close it ever since the first day of its opening, because we want seals on the shore, at the beaches. People destroy nature, and only people are able to undo that. There are really no reasons why the seals shouldn’t bask on the beaches next to us, if you allow me to use a certain simplification. Our Neolithic ancestors settled here at the Bay because there were seals here. It was easier for them to kill a seal that to catch fish, as back then they didn’t know nets yet. Before the war, seals were considered as competition in fishery, because they damaged nets. All Baltic countries used to pay people for killing seals. Nowadays, all countries pay for the protection of seals – this is an interesting precedent.
GUIDE: Seal slaughter in Kamchatka: American doctors have discovered that a highly valuable seal part is the penis, ladies and gentlemen! They cut out the male seals’ penises, bring them to the lab and grind to powder. A sachet of a male seal’s ground penis costs about 400 dollars and serves as an aphrodisiac better than Viagra, ladies and gentlemen! For both women and men.
MAGDALENA PRAMFELT: Unda soon gave birth to their first child.
KRZYSZTOF SKÓRA: The name was agreed on between the Swedish colleagues and us, the diplomatic way: Adam, the first-born. And this year there came the second child, she’s lying over there in her cot, her name’s Bojka [Litlle Buoy].
MAGDALENA PRAMFELT: Unda Marina is a worthy lady, she likes to boss around, so she manages this company here with exquisite skill.
(seals „singing” )
KRZYSZTOF SKÓRA: It’s a sign of invitation, she’s drawing attention to herself. In a minute, the other ones will start calling, too; in a minute, the buckets will come. They’ll get Baltic herring, what they like best.
Nowadays, the golden business for people living by the sea is tourism. And tourists must be caught with a proper bait. Is the beach clean? And is the sea clean? And does anything still live in the sea? And if it does, can you eat it? What seals do is confirm us that the fish is healthy. Not to mention their attractiveness, the visual aesthetics.
GUIDE: Unda Marina means “sea wave”. Those thuggy thug boys climb over the fence and throw coins in, and the seal Krystyna died last year, she had one-and-half kilos of coins in her stomach! About 975 coins, ladies and gentlemen! And she died!
KRZYSZTOF SKÓRA: The beach is first and foremost the seal’s habitat and it’s we who are guests there. The seal is our ally in the ecosystem, it watches over harmony. Exploring the sea, humans fish very selectively, they follow the economy. A seal doesn’t know the price of salmon, herring, cod or other fish. It’ll catch the fish in front of its nose. The Baltic Sea begins in river sources. Actually, it begins in every sink, in every bathroom. Every mountain dweller pisses into the Baltic! And Poles make up 48% of the Baltic population. We have a decisive influence on the quality of this sea. And compare it to the awareness of sea issues…
SEAL CARER: You need to be careful. Balbin here is rather gentle when taking a fish, but he can bite, too, so…(addressing the seal) You want to shake paws? I’ll give you all that I have, but I don’t have any more left. I don’t, look, it’s empty.
KRZYSZTOF SKÓRA: The seals have become, in a way, the ambassadors of the Baltic fauna.
When we let our seals out into the wild, everyone will be able to see the spot where Adam is. All you’ll need to do is visit the website www.grasal.nu
AUTHOR: Adam, born from a Polish-Swedish wedlock, we must stress that.
KRZYSZTOF SKÓRA: That’s right. And Bojka. And Adam’s transmitter has also been sponsored by a Swedish company. The Baltic is becoming a European sea and we’re all going to give such gifts to one another, because seals don’t have national passports. Because all seals are ours and everybody knows that acting for the sake of Swedish seals, or if they act for the sake of ours, and we in turn for the sake of Lithuanian seals, or a German project, we’re supporting our shared interest.
The carers feed the seals, speaking to them softly, like to children, and patting them. The seals bark happily.
Piaski [in Polish literally “the sands”] is a fishing village on the Vistula Spit, between the waters of the Baltic Sea and the Vistula Lagoon. It is the last settlement before the Polish-Russian border and the Kaliningrad Oblast.
DAREK: A very nice village.
Darek Domański is a local councillor, he rents his house to tourists, fishes a little.
DAREK: 150 people, that’s some 30 families. Thirty years ago there were eight families. Now there are also such people as Marysia.
Marysia Milewicz, an artist permanently living in Düsseldorf, fell in love with Piaski and bought a house here, on the verge between the woods and the village.
MARYSIA: The beaches, almost always empty, except in the season, but then in the season you can leave (she laughs). Outside the season, I find here peace… and, washed ashore by the sea, little sticks, birds’ skulls, tiny bones… I make my art out of this, this is my inspiration… The fate threw me here by chance. Sand everywhere, as it has to be in Piaski [Sands] in Piaskowa [Sand] Street; surrounded by woods, close to the sea – this is my place on Earth. I feel very well here, everybody knows everybody else, I’ve lived here for ten years and, touch wood, nothing bad ever happened.
DAREK: Because I watch this house, I’d notice a stranger, and no local would steal from another local. There’s just one road leading here, so they don’t have many opportunities to make trouble.
MARYSIA: Darek is a much needed person, someone close, and very honest.
DAREK: My parents come from near Lublin [easternmost part of Poland], they moved to Piaski in 1962. I was five. There was no light, no paved road, no shop, the school was just four grades. The first tourist in Piaski was Marek Nowakowski, a writer uncomfortable for the Communists. They used to live at my parents’ place, they rent their house to holiday-makers.
MRS DOMAŃSKA: I advertise on the Internet and when they call and I say that this is not Krynica Morska but Piaski, they reply that they’d rather go to Krynica, to have more people around. If I were to go somewhere on holiday, it could only be Piaski (she laughs)…
DAREK: The name of the village comes from these sands, it was impossible to get here by any car, there used to be only sandy roads here and people would always get stuck.
MRS DOMAŃSKA: Only the postman would come here on his motorbike, every day. The post took good care of us, there was a connection with the outer world thanks to papers, he’d sometimes buy something for us, do some errand – a liaison of sorts. Two years after we moved here, we had both the road and the electricity – washing machines and refrigerators went running. We said goodbye to kerosene lamps, I’ve still got two, I keep them like sacred relics. We somehow got by – we had our cows, our milk, pigs, hens. We didn’t lock our houses nor cowsheds nor anything, because here nobody would do anybody any harm… vDAREK: The people here come from different parts of the country. There were also some people hiding here – those with more right-wing views, from the Home Army. After the war, for a dozen years or so, the son of the director of Warsaw Opera was living here, he escaped from Warsaw, he hid here, he was a fisherman. The state wanted to make this a settlement area, the point was to draw here as many people as possible, and they gave considerable funds for fishery, provided the equipment, renovated the houses left by the Germans, they even offered non-returnable loans. There are still a couple of fishing families here, which came in the 70s from Ustka, Słupsk – the Górniks, the Krameks. In the harbour, on the Lagoon, the Krameks sell fresh fish straight from the boxes
KASIA KRAMEK: I help my husband. I’m from Elbląg, I came here for holidays, like most girls come here and meet them. I graduated from high school and straight away – there! Love? (She laughs) Chemistry!
WOMAN TOURIST Good morning! This fish is for sale?
LESZEK KRAMEK: Quite! That’s why we catch it – to sell it.
DAREK: The number of fishermen was increasing, because in the 70s they could earn good money on herring and eel. In the times of [the First Secretary of the Communist Party] Gierek, they’d get about 400 tons from the Lagoon. We don’t know what results the Russians had. The border with Russia is marked by such green-and-red buoys, they’re enormous, sticking out of the water three metres high, you can’t miss them. And at night, there are light buoys, but nobody goes fishing at night anyway, it’s forbidden. I have both sander and eel fykes, but there’s so little of that fish that I don’t set them, coz I’d have to put extra money into that fishing business rather than earning any. The evening; Darek is looking at the Lagoon from the terrace of his house That guy over there was just setting fykes, three hours ago he was going the other direction, now he’s going back, without the poles. He’s standing at the rudder, so we can see him, the other one’s probably sitting, he’s hiding from the wind. I can even tell who’s there – it’s Bolek Górnik, and inside in the boat there sits Mirek Jakimowicz, and from here to their boat it’s about 2 km. The following morning, Leszek Kramek takes me along in his boat, putting out to set the nets
LESZEK KRAMEK: We’ll go over to the fykes and I’ll tell you everything… The fisherman drops the anchor, lifts one of these poles and empties the net of fish, sometimes there’s a bit of eel, herring, but lately there’s nothing… The yard of the Kiehls’ house – they’re Darek’s neighbours. Robert brings a chair for his grandfather.
ROBERT: (musing) Here the sun rises for me, here the sun shall set for me. The woman of my life dumped me after ten years, on the phone. She didn’t want to live here. And I’m not gonna leave. This is my place, I have the nature of a free man. I can’t get up at five in the morning to shove off to work for six…
AUTHOR: But when you go fishing, you also get up at five in the morning.
ROBERT: Well yes, but that’s different.
DAREK: The first newcomers were taught the profession by German fishers who’d stayed here after the war.
OLD KIEHL: I got allocated to two Polish families. They received me as one of their own, those people from the Vilnius Region. I had my own little house in Pasłęka, but would spend more time over at theirs. I returned to Piaski and built a new house.
AUTHOR: And who had lived here before? What happened to those people?
OLD KIEHL: They ran away with the front, with the Germans, they were scared as hell of the Russians! Hans Edwin Wilhelm, that’s what it says in my old papers. I was in Germany for three years with my wife, but we came back. We felt damn drawn to this place here, missing home and the fishing, too. Back there, I was also working as a fisherman, but on trawlers, big fishing boats, that’s not for me. At night, I’d dream about this forest, the lagoon, my fykes… (he laughs) Before, there we no fishermen here. I taught them, and now? The egg wiser than the hen…
ROBERT: Even in 1994 fishermen still called my grandpa capo di tutti capi, the boss of all bosses. He’s the man! He gets up and says, “Władek, we’re setting for salmon, there’ll be salmon”. And there was, every time! He used to have fifty nets, and not such nets as there are nowadays. Each sewn together separately. The nets would stand for two nights at the most, and they were so packed with fish that on the third night nothing more could get caught. And now, after two nights the nets are totally empty, it’s a tragedy, really, the fishing grounds are overfished. The young guys here used to work like dogs, till they managed to build their houses.
DAREK: And now they combine these two ways of making a living: renting rooms to holiday-makers and fishing for what’s left of fish. Coz they couldn’t sustain their families from fishing alone.
ROBERT: Every day, when a fisherman puts out to sea, he’s got no guarantee that he’s coming back. Something can always go wrong. My father and my uncle had to be rescued by a helicopter from Gdynia. Good that they were already at the level of Hel. Fifty metres from the shore, one brother drowned in front of the other’s eyes, he left a wife and three children. He worked cash in hand, had no insurance, his youngest kid was still in nappies… 1.30 zloty – it’s for this much that people die at the sea. Is it worth it? Let everyone answer himself… It’s not worth it for me, that’s why I want to breed dogs rather than sweating over flounder.
OLD KIEHL: In the summer, I get up at three in the morning. We’ve got two boats at the sea, and if I need be, I still put out. My younger son Janek has damaged his lungs, drinking. They cured him up some, but still he can’t work. Jan Kiehl Jr spends most of the time in front of the local shop.
JANEK KIEHL: Come October, there’s nobody here anymore – night curfew! And in the winter, it’s total, really! Darkness; going outside, everybody looks if there are any footprints in the snow, we know one another’s footprints. We meet up by the shop, we have a beer, a chat, and go back homey. If the weather is nice, we put out to sea to fish salmon. It is a bit risky, with the storms, but still we put out. At least you’ll earn some money for bread. And for something else… And again, we wait for the spring, and so it goes over and over again. Towards March, we’re beginning to come to life again, the fishermen already think about herring in the Lagoon, it’s getting busy. When herring’s in – swarms of people in the harbour, the unemployed arrive. The first tourists come on the 15th of June, after the season there are pensioners, and then winter again… I’d never move out of here. Father was there in Germany, he told you, didn’t he? He worked on trawlers on the Baltic. He told us how whenever he saw the sun rising in the east while he was at sea at the level of Piaski, tears would swell up in his eyes. And there in Germany you couldn’t fucking – excuse the word – you couldn’t find someone to talk to like a friend. A German is a German! His flask (he taps a bottle on the table), his beer – he’ll be drinking it for half an hour, alone. Maybe my father didn’t mention this to you, but when he felt like drinking, he’d take a quarter of vodka and go drink on a cemetery.
AUTHOR: But Jan, your father was born a German.
JANEK: That’s not true, he’s a Native! Neither Polish nor German. He feels Polish. He doesn’t drink now, but before, when he got drunk and looked around, he’d cry for our Polish land, he really would! And he still goes fishing. I tell him, “You’ve got your 600 or 700 zlotys pension benefit, it’s enough to buy you bread, why keep going?”
OLD KIEHL: In winter, the lagoon freezes up, we go on the open sea, for salmon, for cod. They even pay you good money – seven zloty for cod, you catch 100 kilos and you can earn 500 zloty. You need two days to catch 100 kilos. We’ll see what comes. They don’t stock the lagoon with fry, the lagoon’s dying. The Russians fish to the hilt, there’s no fish protection there whatsoever, and fish don’t know the border (he laughs). Yeah! And fish is cunning, too, it won’t go into just any net (he laughs). I didn’t have it bad in life, can’t complain. Now I’ve got cancer on my nose, from the sun.
AUTHOR: Do you take treatment?
OLD KIEHL: Nah, it doesn’t hurt me, I don’t give a shit, (he laughs), what must be will be… We’ll see, my dear, though, as they say, I’m closer now than further. No point worrying, when the time comes – goodbye, and that’s it. The following morning the sun has come out and the storm calmed down, the fishermen put out to sea
OLD KIEHL: There, finally (he’s ordering his colleagues about). Autumn fishing is kinda storm fishing, today they’re only pulling flounder. When there’s water movement, this fish is pushing into the net by brute force. Oh! flounder is cunning. All your life you fight with fish, and it fights with us. Up, boys, up! We’re pulling up!
Latin text …
ARCHIVIST: … „On St Martin’s Day the Council heard a complaint from merchant Stenzil, citizen of the Town of Mlawa, accusing merchant Bernard Kromer of Gdansk of selling, via middleman Peter Bulox, a consignment of false herrings.”
Municipal Archive in Gdansk
ARCHIVIST: (coughing) Dust everywhere, I’ve developed an allergy over the years.
And our herrings should be in these boxes, they replaced the old drawers in the Town Hall archives… And it says here – the barrel contains cod instead of herring, while the barrel label indicates ‘herring’
Marketplace in Gdansk Wrzeszcz
FISHMONGER: Well, as we remember, on the Amber Road salt used to be a medium of exchange. (he serves a CUSTOMER)
CUSTOMER 1: I haven’t got any change, damn!
FISHMONGER: (aside) “Damn” who?! My name’s “Adam” (addressing MŻ) You work in fish so you get interested in certain aspects, not all of them, mind you, because I’m not some Mister Professor or graduate… I know that in the old days – in the 14th, 15th, 16th century, these were the Hanseatic times if I’m not mistaken, people used to cheat, just as they do everywhere in the world; the drive for money is so strong that unfortunately some things get falsified, and that’s how it is…
Municipal Archive in Gdansk
ARCHIVIST: In Hanseatic times, salted maatjes herring was shipped to Lübeck, Hamburg, Gdansk, Riga, Tallinn. And then sold on to other places. So people devised ways of falsifying the herring, selling poor quality stuff at the same price. And as salt was expensive they added less salt and that was the first possible way of herring falsification: the fish didn’t last so long, it would spoil sooner. …
Marketplace in Gdansk Wrzeszcz
MZ: I’d like to talk to you about herrings.
FISHMONGER: As you can see, my colleague is laying it out here – this is lightly salted salt-herring. You just let it soak for two hours and it’s ready to eat. Real salt-herring is hard as rock, it contains so much salt. It requires four to five hours soaking, but it does taste different… This is our most popular fish, our biggest selling item.
CUSTOMER: How much for the herring?
Text in Old German – Reading by German Consul
CONSUL: „That one Bartolomeus Gaudens is granted all rights to represent/ in the name of one, one…”
CONSUL: „Dorothea”, she's probably an heir, maybe somebody died here in Gdansk, maybe her father or somebody?
MZ: But nothing about herrings?
CONSUL: No, nothing. (laughing) But maybe he sold or bought herring, I don't know. (laughing)
Marketplace in Gdansk Wrzeszcz
FISHWIFE 1: Wouldn’t you like some maatjes? Our herrings are delicious!
FISHMONGER: You can sometimes get herring from France or from Germany but 90% is Baltic herring, large or middle-size, and sprat of course.
MZ: And how much is sprat?
FISHWIFE 2: 2.50.
MZ: Any other sorts of herring?
FISHWIFE 2: Baltic herring – that one at 4.50 and the other at 5.00, cut herring for 8 zlotys.
FISHMONGER: You can get herrings 200 to 400 grams in weight, but they are mutants, very large herrings. The average size is approximately 70 to 90 grams. Of course sometimes there’s none, during a storm, and then the price rises automatically, even to 7-8 zlotys per kilo. Cod is plentiful in the Baltic, from 9 to 14 zlotys. It all depends on fishing conditions, that’s the basic thing that determines the price.
CUSTOMER: Excuse me, what’s this here?
FISHMONGER: Cold-smoked mackerel, m’am, fillet.
MZ: So how about maatjes herrings, the real ones?
FISHWIFE 1:You can get the original maatjes, but not here; we explain that what we sell is “à la maatjes”, “maatjes-style”, but the customer always knows better anyway. They’ll come and say that this is maatjes herring, that’s what they want to get. People can’t afford to pay 40-50 zlotys per kilo – and they’re right.
FISHMONGER: Maatjes is hard to store, because that herring is caught at exactly the right time and is so fat that it won’t absorb salt, the salt simply doesn’t go into the flesh. This is the real maatjes herring as our mothers and grandmothers remember it from the old days. Our society is simply too poor to afford it.
MZ: And how much does it cost?
FISHMONGER: Depending on which kind-there are six kinds or nearly seven-from 30 to 120 zlotys per kilo.
ARCHIVIST: Also from the 15th century, a non-dated document… asks Gdansk City Council to help a citizen of Kozmin by the name of Stencel Caldator in his efforts to obtain compensation from a Gdansk merchant, from whom the said Stencel had bought four barrels of herring, which, under closer scrutiny, turned out to be falsified… A document from the late 15th century -issued by the City Council of Gniezno – asks the authorities to ban bringing falsified herring to the market and to assist the bearer of this letter, Andreas Nayman, in his endeavours to obtain compensation. These are in Latin, whereas, in the exchange of letters with Cracow, international Hansa language was used, that is Old German, a little like Friesian or perhaps Dutch. Translating often involves consulting special 19th-century dictionaries, sometimes you just don’t know the exact meaning of certain old words. Pelplin Diocese High Seminary, Northwest Poland
PRIEST: Perhaps we could find something relative here… I was of course guided by what you said about carp being faked for herring, right?
PRIEST: Cod. So as to the herring or some other product, it says that the matter was widely discussed and made known to the envoy of the king of Hungary, and the king’s secretary was informed about it, too, but … “we have no other products”… so this is the gist of the text. If it’s all about herring, it looks like a really serious business altogether, everyone’s involved here: the Hungarian king’s envoy and the royal secretary. Indeed – in order to understand this text you’d need to discover what “nona” means. “Nona.”
Marketplace in Gdansk Wrzeszcz
FISHWIFE 1: Ein Moment, let me just wipe my glasses, okay, because I can’t see my customers. Wait – now I recognise you.
CUSTOMER: No, give me the fresher ones, please.
FISHWIFE 1: They’re the same!
CUSTOMER: No they ain’t, this one’s turning red already.
FISHWIFE 1: The large ones always do.
FISHMONGER: He thinks that what costs more is fresher.
CUSTOMER: What do you mean costs more? I haven’t even glanced at the price!
FISHMONGER: They’re exactly the same, it’s just that the big ones always go like that.
FISHWIFE 1: Exactly! They’re the same, that’s what I’m saying, a big herring will always get like that. Here you are! Anything else for you?
CUSTOMER: Same again, only smaller please.
Fishwife 1: Okay.
MZ: So you like smaller herrings?
CUSTOMER: I like bigger ones but the missus likes them smaller, so let her have smaller ones. … Every fish should be shiny, then it’s fresh; but when it’s dull, it’s kind of lifeless… And it’s better to get a whole fish and not fillets, because often they cut the fish when they see it’s about to go bad...
FISHWIFE 1: There, just look at that big one in that box? Already red at the head! … Communist! Reminiscing about Communist times…
CUSTOMER: Not reminiscing about anything! I should know, I used to be a fisherman myself!
FISHMONGER: We’re talking about the herring, not about you!
FISHWIFE 1: (counting out change) There you go, a tenner.
Municipal Archive in Gdansk
ARCHIVIST: And here’s another example, the date is 20 November but no year is given… this must have been a very quick intervention. The Board of Aldermen from the Town of Klecko, is asking the City Council of Gdansk to help the bearer of this letter-no name given-get compensation from Gdansk merchants who had sold him spoiled herring… This is incoming correspondence, whereas the letters dispatched from Gdansk, if they survived, probably went to the archives of Mlawa, Kozmin, Gniezno and Cracow. So you should check for Gdansk Council’s reply in the National Archive in Cracow, National Archive in Poznan, and in the Central Archives of Historical Records in Warsaw.
VOICEMAIL SYSTEM: Welcome to Central Archives of Historical Records. Please dial the extention number or wait for the operator.
MARIA SIEROCKA- POŚPIECH: I’m the director of the Department of Information and Access to Records. It seems that the herring case, if I may call it so, can’t be pursued any further than the documents found in Gdansk, because our archive doesn’t possess any such papers.
MZ: So I have little chance of finding any confirmation?
MARIA SIEROCKA-POŚPIECH: There’s next to nothing!
VOICEMAIL SYSTEM: Hello. This is the National Archive in Poznan. Please dial the extention number or wait for the operator. Thank you.
ZOFIA WOJCIECHOWSKA: I’m a senior curator at the National Archive in Poznan. In 1537 Kalisz burned to the ground, all the houses, churches, the castle and the town hall, along with the municipal archive. Around the same time a great fire broke out in Gniezno. Also Kozmin was damaged by fire.
VOICEMAIL SYSTEM: Hello. This is the National Archive in Cracow. Room number 10, thank you.
MZ: Hello, it’s Malgorzata Zerwe again. I’d like to talk with the director, please.
SECRETARY: Just a second, please, I’ll put you through.
MAGDALENA MAROSZ, DIRECTOR OF THE NATIONAL ARCHIVE IN CRACÓW: We have almost 1300 parchment documents. Quite surprisingly, only one comes from Gdansk: the mayor and councillors confirm that Cosmus Schwabesdorf was made executor of the property and children of Merten the Smith.
LESZEK ZYGNER, PH.D., FROM THE CHAIR OF CHURCH HISTORY, UNIVERSITY OF TORUN: It was a long search indeed, I must say, including the Teutonic archive, which is now kept in Berlin-Dahlem.
One has to keep trying. Recently one of my colleagues came across a circular letter from the early 15th century – he was reading a manuscript in the Jagiellonian Library of the University of Cracow and there it was, inside the book cover made of old parchments. So let’s hope that perhaps something like that might happen here and…
MZ:… and we’ll find out whether merchant Johann Ropyl, who bought herring from Claus Heyssit in Gdansk, received his compensation or not.
LESZEK ZYGNER: That’s right! For now, this question has to remain unanswered… Marketplace in Gdansk Wrzeszcz
FISHWIFE 1: What did you say you wanted, please?
CUSTOMER: Two kilos.
FISHWIFE 1: Beautiful, very beautiful herrings.
CUSTOMER: Beautiful? They were beautiful when they were alive!
JJ: I graduated from the Gdańsk University of Technology, Faculty of Civil Engineering, and there at the university I met a group of young people who founded a diving club, later to be called Shark. And so I’ve been playing diving, if I may use this expression, to this day…
Yesterday, for instance, we had a very nice expedition on the Bay of Gdańsk, where we were preceded by Hydrograf 10, a Marine Office vessel, searching large parts of the seabed and detecting all residual bits and pieces which had fallen down from ships. They found a beautiful admiralty anchor, probably from mid-19th century, well-preserved. It’s very big, very heavy, weighing around 8 tons, so that the lifting equipment in the ship was actually squealing with effort.
MŻ: How big was it?
JJ: Well, it’s about 3.5 metres tall. Really very big. The intercrystalline corrosion showed the whole structure of metal, so to say; it was really fascinating. If one’s interested, of course…It had been lying in relatively shallow waters, at about 18 metres…
his action is about clearing the Bay from all debris. By the roadstead, where ships wait before they enter the port, where they drop their anchors, there can’t be any mess underwater…
Is this a fragment of a pipe, or a German torpedo still waiting for someone with its load of 300 kg dynamite? It that round thing lying there at the bottom a naval mine, or is it something else? Everything must be checked, examined.
MŻ: Is there still much of that left in the Baltic?
JJ: Well, unfortunately I must say that there’s quite a lot. Of course we can say that a rather significant amount of all that has already been removed, but recently off the village of Piaski there has been a barge discovered in shallow waters, all full of ammunition. Near Babie Doły, a sunken vessel was found, almost completely corroded, but filled with artillery shells. Several years ago we pulled out of the sea a track vehicle. At some other time, after a storm the sea revealed remains of an airplane. Our friends fishermen notified us at once, we went there and it turned out that it was a crashed German Messerschmitt 109. The most popular German aircraft, we could say, from the time of World War II.
MŻ: Do you remember your first time? The first time you went under in the Baltic?
JJ: No, hand on heart, I can’t recall that. But in any case, the first instances of our diving were, as I now look back at them, really so strikingly inept (he laughs). I can’t help wondering how come we survived that… I don’t know, really, the good Mother of God must have guarded us and we never crossed that thin line separating life from death. Though we would kinda push towards that line ourselves.
Looking at a diver today, we see that he’s really equipped with everything that won’t let him die. Our equipment during this, we can say, greatest Polish sea-diving expedition, that is the expedition to the wreck of MV Wilhelm Gustloff, today would be disqualified right at the start. What we were wearing at that time, today would be simply classified as life-threatening, we wouldn’t be allowed to go into the water in such gear.
That really was real free diving. Flippers, mask, that wetsuit – they were just beginning to be used.
Back then, the basic diving equipment was that heavy metal helmet, lead boots, all that gear that weighed about 100 kg. This diver was connected to the surface by means of hoses, which were linked to the base. In our case, there was really no connection, no Ariadne’s thread linking us with the shore.
The diver would just take a cylinder with a supply of breathing air, jump into the water completely freely. He was swimming like a bird…
Nowadays, you’re not allowed to dive in the beautiful wreck of Wilhelm Gustloff. Is it also forbidden to walk on a cemetery at midnight, at whatever time you wish? And how about archaeologists who dig into all those barrows with passion, pull out those people’s bones? And pyramid explorers, who take sarcophagi out? And this we don’t find improper, this doesn’t hurt us, but all of a sudden diving to Gustloff must be forbidden, because the diver disturbs the peace of the dead…
Goya, Steuben and Gustloff were three war ships, not leisure boats – at the moment of sinking they were sailing under Kriegsmarine flags. Steuben lies to the north of Słupsk Bank, on which also Gustolff lies, because it was the same commander, Alexander Marinesko, who during one attack, only days apart, sank both Gustloff and Steuben.
MŻ: And Goya?
JJ: Goya put out from Hel. Admiral Konovalov got her at the level of Rozewie and she was sunk there. It all took place during a huge action of Kriegsmarine, the evacuation action for German population fleeing from the advancing Soviet front. Within a few months, they managed to carry 2.5 million people, with a loss rate of 1.5%. It is in this 1.5% that those three ships belong: Steuben, Goya and Gustloff.
The summer of 1973. Communism at its peak, and yet we managed to find a perfect key for this expedition.
Namely that we, the divers of Shark Club, want to find in the wreck of Wilhelm Gustloff the Amber Chamber, retrieve it and hand it over to our great friend, the Soviet Union. The party notables of the time, whom we had to reach in order to obtain some permits, were totally flabbergasted indeed. Coz you know: it was risky to say no (laugh). After all, those students from the Shark have such a noble aim, how to forbid them .
MŻ: And where is the Amber Chamber?
JJ: The Amber Chamber, I’m sure of that, was burnt by the Soviet Army during the capture of Konigsberg on the16th of April, 1945. There exist accounts describing the reds – Red Army soldiers – who were capturing the city, and when they burst into those cellars, looking for Germans, they saw smouldering, burning wooden boxes and, oozing from them, brown goo, which then burnt off. We all know that amber melts, that amber burns. So such was the end of the Amber Chamber…
(Jerzy reaches over for one of his many underwater findings.)
Now I’ll show you the Messerschmitt oil pump. Does it look like something that had been lying in a lake for 60 years? No! It looks new, as if taken straight from a shop shelf.
The first time we went to Gustloff, let me return to that again, we were greatly surprised to notice that the water transparency there was up to 15 metres. It was shocking for us, because it actually says in reference literature that it’s several metres, and here suddenly we can see even up to 15. It turns out that in fact the water in our Baltic Sea isn’t that bad. True, the clarity of the Red Sea, the Mediterranean sometimes reaches 30-40 metres, but this is something totally different, there’s no comparison…
Of course I have both a dry diving suit and a wetsuit, but very often I choose wetsuit diving. And it’s not about, you know (laugh) torturing yourself. Okay, true – this water is not the most pleasant on Earth, but as the saying goes, “cold water will keep you healthy”!
MŻ: Indeed, Baltic is cold!
JJ: It is. Of course the first moment is not pleasant, when water goes between the suit and your body, especially along the spine, and just puts you all upright, but that’s just a moment, then the water gets warm from the body, and we can say that the wetsuit fulfils its function. Because in such a wetsuit, foam suit, you can frolic in an ice hole for an hour, with the temperature of air outside at minus 10 degrees Celsius, and water at only plus four. I mean, as much as plus four. That whole assistance team who guard us so that we don’t get lost underwater, as every diver is kept in the ice hole on a kind of a cord, they get cold, not we. You can easily hold out for an hour…
Here, in our Baltic, wrecks don’t get damaged as badly as in the warm, so to say aggressive waters of the southern seas. Because look – take shipworm, which is great at eating up wood, so that any wooden shipwrecks have little chance to survive in a warm sea. There are no shipworms here, though, so it can be said that wood is decently preserved here for hundreds of years. Such wrecks are discovered, take the Swedes’ latest hit, they found that beautiful ship, a huge sailing ship several hundred years old. Swedish divers discovered a magnificent wreck at the depth of 70-something metres, we can say that it’s comparable to that famous Vasa ship. Using these state-of-the-art electronic devices, we’re able to find more and more. After all, it was only a few years ago that that huge wreck of Graff Zeppelin, a German aircraft carrier, was discovered. A giant, a quarter of a kilometre long, which had been resting there unnoticed by anyone!
It was found by accident, 80 km north of Hel, by a team from Petrobaltic company, who had been just checking another spot for a planned drilling platform, to make sure that the platform leg doesn’t step on something. They had to examine the bottom carefully, and they found it.
(Jerzy Janczukowicz and Małgorzata Żerwe go outside and stand in front of his house.)
I’ve always felt attracted by the sea and I generally tried to find employment in companies which had something to do with the sea.
MŻ: You’re retired now?
JJ: Yeah, now I’m a pensioner. (laugh)
MŻ: But there’s not going to be any retirement from diving?
JJ: As you can see. We’re pretty active, as you’ve seen yourself. Yesterday, we worked for the sake of the Bay of Gdańsk, cleaning the seabed from beautiful anchors. Speaking of which, I do hope that the anchors will be exposed somewhere in Gdańsk where you can see them, as they’re really magnificent objects. As I said, I’ve never seen such big anchors in my life. It would be a shame to give it all up for scrap, to throw it to death…
The shipyard workers with whom I talked were employed at Gdansk Shipyard in 1980, when Solidarność was being born. They still work there, although the shipyard is not the same any more. The interviews are accompanied by the sounds of the shipyard at work.
STANISŁAW KAMIŃSKI, DEEP-SEA DIVER, SHIPYARD FILE NUMBER 693: (Showing a newspaper photo) This is the background of the shipyard, and this is the diving suit that I work in. It’s historical gear – literally a museum piece. The doggy in the photograph was found by a colleague on his way to work, and so he grew up with us, a crew member of a kind. A real sailor he was. How many times he bathed in the canal because he fell into the water. But how faithful he was! But he got lost somewhere. His name was Morusek [“Blackie”], ‘cause he looked like that. All black, so – Morus.
MŻ: How many divers work in the shipyard?
SK: Divers? One.
LUDWIK PRĄDZYŃSKI, FITTER, SHIPYARD FILE NUMBER 1093: I come from a rural background. In the 1970s, there was a urban trend, and that mobilised students in vocational schools. I was lured here by the illegal literature, which appeared at Gdańsk Shipyard, and I wanted to get to know this environment.
JAN KACZOR, SHIPYARD RAILWAY SHUNTER, SHIPYARD FILE NUMBER 779: I’m the second generation of shipyard workers in my family, my father died in the MS Konopnicka, there was a huge fire there in 1969 on the 13th of December [in fact, it happened in 1961]; the ship caught fire during the final equipping of MS Konopnicka.
“Thanks to” the actions of our officials who were calling to Warsaw for instructions, 21 people died. Many more could’ve been saved, but the politics prevailed.
MŻ: How old were you at the time?
MŻ: And it didn’t scare you off from the shipyard?
JOLANTA MEKKA, GANTRY CRANE OPERATOR, SHIPYARD FILE NUMBER 5798: There aren’t many women working on cranes. I’m the only woman on the team.
MŻ: Do you enjoy any privileges thanks to that?
JM: No, I work as everyone else. It’s a terrible responsibility, because it’s even up to 40 tons that I carry here in the hall.
ZBIGNIEW STEFAŃSKI PAINTER-SANDER, SHIPYARD FILE NUMBER 1038: When I say “painter”, everyone sees a brush, or a spatula. And it looks rather like: many times I go under the sander’s mask – and I sand. A pneumatic grinder in hand – I grind, and after that, a paint spray gun in hand – I paint. It’s not liters, but tons of paint to be used.
ALEKSANDRA OLSZEWSKA, MRS. OLA, SOCIAL WARDEN OF THE MEMORIAL TO THE MURDERED SHIPYARD WORKERS. SHE RUNS A SOUVENIR-KIOSK AT THE HISTORICAL GATE OF GDAŃSK SHIPYARD: I’ve been in the shipyard since the very beginning, since 1970. I would always come here after work, and the next morning the director would take me to task: “So you’ve been at the memorial again”. I was! After work, I can go stand on my hand if I wish to. It was just so natural, because my husband died, one could say, suddenly. On his deathbed, he told me, “Go to those boys”. To the shipyard workers. I came to these boys and so I stayed with these boys.
SHUNTER: On some days, there could be 118,000 people on the bridge. Nowadays, when you come to work on Saturday, you won’t meet anyone.
DIVER: This is the K2 area. Kinda not the shipyard anymore. In the past, we used tp dice, everywhere around here, and there, at K3. There were ships mooring at all the wharfs. Now, all the decks are to be dismantled. The ones that are left are closed; “No entrance” signs everywhere. It’s not mine, you know, not my private thing, but one works here, looks at that and his heart breaks. The heart breaks for real! Because I would like it to have an image. The world is different now… But what? It can’t be helped – one has found himself here at this specific time and he has to cope.
FITTER: What has changed is that the shipyard was created as a new entity. But in my opinion it’s only in theory, ‘cause it all requires a major repair.
SHUNTER: I got 0.12 zloty pay rise. The boss must have been ashamed to offer me such an advance. The chap was ashamed, I was ashamed to take it, but…
MŻ: What have you decided? To leave the country?
X: I’ll go – I’ll see.
MŻ: Where are you going?
X: To Scotland, to work at a refinery repair. But there are also those who hold on to the shipyard, and it’s hard for them to leave. When one becomes a bit older or is afraid of risk, then it’s harder for him.
GANTRY CRANE OPERATOR: I first worked in Gdańsk Shipyard from 1979 to 1996. Then I was bringing up the kid, and then for two years I worked at Carrefour. I laid out products on the shelves. They paid very little money for such a drudgery. So when a vacancy opened here, I came back.
I was a bit scared at the beginning, ‘cause I hadn’t operated the crane for 15 years or so. But it turned out that I remembered how to do that.
MŻ: And you, Mr Kamiński, haven’t you ever been fed up with the shipyard?
DIVER: There were moments, there were such moments, but, as they say, I came and kinda stuck around, you know.
SHUNTER: The shipyard has its own ambience of a kind, and when you start working, it’s hard to leave. With time, it’s not really about regretting the job, money, but rather the colleagues. Even today, as I’m going away, there’s regret. The shipyard was there, is, and whether it shall be, that’s a matter of politics.
FITTER: I don’t feel anger against the shipyard. I’m even quite poor, but not angry. Because it brought me up, it taught me my profession. I can’t say I’m running away from here ‘cause I’ll earn more abroad, and it’s bad in Poland. Money is not the most important thing. Sometimes the most important thing is to get back this plant workplace that’s been lost. Lost by us, unfortunately. We were being cunningly deceived. The declarations were different from the actions that followed. Unfortunately, it doesn’t justify us from having chosen the authorities as we did. Some were even choosing post-communists! And deliberately, to spite the right wing.
SHUNTER: I’ve already stopped playing politics. I’ve stopped playing a horse in the politicians’ cart I’m completely sick of them. They treat the shipyard as toilet paper for wiping their own thingies. Even recently, during the presidential election, there were two candidates giving interviews in the shipyard. And what for? They will split it anyway into lots of small entities which won’t make a political hinterland for anyone. Because such a hinterland can be convenient at times, at times dangerous. Because at some point, these people will find the determination and then they constitute a force. And then there’s also the history and the charisma that the shipyard has had, and it becomes a stimulus and an encouragement for others.
SANDER: Hm… How did it go? (Plays the guitar and sings) I saw, I saw, I saw. A shipyard worker fall from a bullet. I saw, I saw, I saw the other one cuffed up. I saw, I saw, I saw flags bloody with workers’ blood…
FITTER: The security service got interested in us very soon, as it’s known there were plenty secret collaborators around. But that didn’t intimidate me because our cause was right and that was what mattered most. I thought justice would come, but what came in 1989, when we regained independence, was a disappointment. And there’s still no justice.
SANDER: Do you remember… oh, I can’t remember the lyrics.
LOCKSMITH: Back in those days, it was worthwhile to risk one’s neck for Poland, for the shipyard workers. Because the society was demonstrating solidarity then. Today, this is not the case any more. Back then, there was more solidarity in the society.
MŻ: And how about you, did you belong to the Solidarność movement?
GANTRY CRANE OPERATOR: I did.
MŻ: And now?
X: No, now I don’t. Back then, in 1980, people were proud that something like that was created in the shipyard. One is aware that one worked here at that time, right then at the very moment that it was all going on.
DIVER: At that time, when you said “shipyard worker”, people would tap you on the back. And now you have to be careful, because the opinions are divided. Especially among younger people: the worst thing, to be born a shipyard worker!
SHUNTER: Some praise Wałęsa, and how many still scorn him? He was great, for those times, because if there had been someone else in his place, even a professor or a reasonable politician, the Russians would’ve stayed in Poland till this day. I personally think so, I consider him to be a very great man. Only he shouldn’t have run for president the second time; had he done his job, closed the door and said, “thank you, I’ve done my job, I couldn’t do more now, let wiser people come”, today he would have memorials like pope John Paul II.
SANDER: Everybody only talks only about the 1980 strikes, and it was harder in 1988. Because we were few in number, few people supported us. Just handful of us stayed over at the shipyard.
(Plays the guitar and sings)
You know how hard it is for us… Wait a second. We’re very far from victory! Especially that lots of people waste that which we’ve already won.
MRS. OLA: What these crosses mean – I received this poem from one girl, Hania. (reads)
For my colleagues, shipyard workers murdered in December 1970.
Daddy, what these crosses mean?
Why are they so high,
Reaching to the sky
as if holding hands
fettered with big chains.
And this Lady folds her hands
as if she were in a prayer.
Daddy, is this here a grave?
Did Germans kill here?
No, my son, Poles.
Why are you silent, daddy?
Are these tears in your eyes?
What, my daddy cries?
(crying) This is all my life. I know every stone, I knew who died where at this memorial.
SANDER: When the martial law came, a some of us got arrested, we were forced into the army. (Shows his tattoos).
Here, the eagle. Here, veni, vidi, vici, i.e. I came, I saw, I conquered. I believe that everyone who lived back then and who’s been through what I’ve been through should have this inscription. Here, on the right arm, a swallow – it means spring. And spring always means a new life. A hope for the better. Why do I write lyrics for the songs, why do I compose music? I stop the time. I also have airplanes tattoed. Here, for example a Spitfire, it looks like a shark. History should be a kind of warning for us, it should teach us. And that’s why I’m wearing these symbols.
DIVER: It’s visually visible – when it’s empty, the emptiness remains. So down in the soul, there’s also such emptiness. ‘Cause one is sort of lost. What will be next?
Seagulls are circling over the canal, screaming.
A port wharf in Gdynia, wind, waves, seagulls; the interior of R/V Baltica, research vessel of the National Marine Fisheries Research Institute; Adam Buczyński rustling with maps
AB: There! We even have it put down here: Jan 15th, 2010, 3:50 p.m. he was hauled up. And he was drifting from here, from Wisłoujście.
MŻ: So that’s where you spotted him?
AB: Yes, and at 3:50 p.m. it was already getting dark in January! There were seals “basking” on the ice, and on one chunk of ice floe there was he, skipping in place. The watch officer spotted him.
MŻ: He’s a small boy, isn’t he, smaller than a seal.
AB: That’s right.
…Four long days and four long nights
The doggie drifted trapped on ice
Good people saved his life…
„The doggie called Baltic” A poem for Captain Jerzy Wosachło
(dog barking in the background)
CAPTAIN: There! That’s our boy calling, he’s downstairs. He probably drifted down from as far as Grudziądz, so they say. If nobody had seen him and he’d kept floating north, with that frost reaching minus 15 degrees Celsius, he couldn’t have survived.
AB: We had trouble lowering the pontoon, since we just found ourselves in an ice field.
CAPTAIN: There was a lot of floe around and we feared that we would shove this dog off from his floe.
But somehow, slowly slowly, moving forward-and-back, we managed to shove the floe aside and Mr Buczyński hauled him up just in time.
AB: As we were manoeuvring the ship, the floe was heaving, and he slipped into the water several times, but he kept fighting, he paddled with these little feet of his, he climbed the of floe. And when we’ve cleared the way, we lowered the pontoon and I tried to get as close to him as possible.
CAPTAIN: Mr Buczyński was in danger, the ship itself was safe.
AB: I splashed up to him using oars and a pike pole, and then there was this uncertainly – is he going to bite me or not? But I came up closer and I saw that he was on the edge of the floe, and he slipped down into the water again, and if I hadn’t lifted him up just then, that would’ve been his end. But he clung with his forelegs to the pontoon lifeline and I just saw his eyes going like “help me”, eyes begging for help… I first grabbed him by his back, but it was all covered in ice, it was twelve below zero that day, so I had to lean forward and down, and by the tail, by the hind legs I dragged him up into the pontoon and we returned to the ship, and here the crew were already waiting for him, they started to dry him with towels.
CAPTAIN: Mr Buczyński is a trained paramedic and it was he who brought the doggie to a state of usability, so to say. The dog recovered already after a few hours.
AB: We gave him water, something to eat – but he didn’t want anything. For three hours’ time or so he lay on those towels. Then I took him for my watch duty, we sat down here in the wardroom, I started to stroke him. And then he began to come to himself. Ever since that time, he follows me everywhere, even to the bathroom. He wants to be near, feel the closeness.
CAPTAIN: I’m full of admiration for this little dog, that he survived, if he had lain down on the ice, he’d have frozen to it, but he kept moving his feet…
AB: Rather than living in the house, he must have been kept outside in the yard, he’s a tough, seasoned dog. A lapdog wouldn’t have survived. People write rhymes about him, one Mrs Grzesińska from Wejherowo called us recently (Baltic barks)-Quiet now! … saying that she’d sent us some stories about the dog Baltic.
“Many people claimed the doggie since
But from them he would just wince.
It’s on the ship that Baltic now has his family
Mr Adam Buczyński saved him from the depths of sea.
CAPTAIN: When the news spread through the media, we had many people claim him as their dog.
AB: But as soon as he saw them, he would run away, hide behind my legs, he didn’t want to talk to anyone.
CAPTAIN: There even came two gentlemen from the Czech Republic, they brought pictures of their dog and true, he was very similar, but it wasn’t him.
AB: They came into the wardroom where I was with Baltic, and they started calling: “Pepicku, pepicku!” [“Pepicek” is a diminutive from the Czech name Pavel] And he just gave them a funny look… (laughs) turned around and clung back to me, he didn’t know Czech. (laughs)
Captain: There was no point giving the dog to people who weren’t his owners.
AB: One lady came as far as from Inowrocław, she brought a collar and a leash, claiming that they were his. But that collar?! He could wear it as a waist belt, it must have belonged to some German shepherd, to a big dog.
And she also started to molest him, he was running away from her and she was chasing him on all fours! Finally, people lost patience with her, we just had a TV crew hear at the time, so she had to admit that it wasn’t him and leave dissatisfied. She wanted to cheat us, she didn’t even know his name. Perhaps she wanted to be on the TV. (laugh)
MŻ: The dog was so famous that you might have even made some money on him.
AB: There might have been such a possibility, That’s correct!
MŻ: We’ll never learn his story…
Mr Buczyński asks the crew if the dog came back, because he’d disappeared somewhere, but Baltic is not there on the ship.
AB: He must have had a rather hard life, you can tell from his behaviour. He’s much calmer now, but at the beginning, whenever he heard any a bump or knock somewhere on the ship, he wanted to bury himself under the deck, he was scared. He didn’t trust people at all. When someone reached to him, he would cower down in fear, as if he expected to be hit and not stroked.
He could’ve ended up on that floe because of the New Year’s shooting; last year he was terribly nervous on New Year’s Eve! He was all shivery, I had to give him tranquillizing pills. He hid himself in the bathroom not to hear those firework explosions. He must have had some very unpleasant experiences.
He found his place here on the ship. Well, now he must be on some cat-hunting expedition. One night he left at eight and came back after midnight. He’s got his favourite paths around here, (laugh) he summons the cats for assemblies, counts them, checks if all are there… (laugh)
We’re going outside to look for Baltic. Port ambience, Mr Buczyński whistles, call’s the dog’s name, tells the story.
AB: But the hunt we had here! When we fished him out and I was packing him into the car to take him to the vet, he stole away and we had a veritable raid! He was chased by two TV-cars. He escaped, but one journalist got him and lo! how she plunged over him! And she was rather plump so when she pressed him down to the ground laugh/ you could barely see his nose sticking out (laugh)
We return on the ship, in the meantime Baltic has come back and the mariners locked him in a cabin.
AB: So that he doesn’t run away again, enough walks for now… Look at you, all mud-dirty! (barking)
And he sleeps in here, in my cabin.
Mr Buczyński’s roommate: Baltic is a good dog.
AB: Every night I spread a blanket for him here on the couch and he sleeps here.
CAPTAIN: He’s such a sweat boy! Always comes to say hello to everyone.
AB: The cook always prepares something yummy for him.
Cook: Let’s go get another chop, shall we? (Baltic smacks his mouth)
AB: (to the dog) Gimme a bite!
The scientific board of the Marine Institute of Fisheries acknowledged him as a crew member of R/V Baltica. So now, even as we’re coming back from the sea and the captain reports “22 people on board”, there’s a question from the harbour board, “And the dog?” “He’s there.” (laugh)
In the summer, he’s got his place on the deck, there he basks in the sun, and takes care of his needs. But in the autumn or early spring, when we sail in stormy weathers, he stays in the Institute office, he doesn’t put out with us. He could get washed off the deck, he’d have it hard, why make the dog suffer.
But the moment we’re back in the port, he’s on the ship with us, jumping up half a metre, like a spring. And when he sees me, they can tempt him with sausages, snacks, but he’s at my heel. He chose me, he probably recognised by the smell that it was me who had first helped him out, and ever since then he considers me the leader of the pack (laugh)
Adam and Baltic are a pair well-known
Recognized by kids and by adults too.
The citizens of Gdynia love them both
The doggie and his master, here’s to you!
AB: They recognize us in town, “Is that the dog?”, they ask. “Yes, it’s the dog”. Even when we were going somewhere in a taxi recently, the cabby wasn’t so sure about letting a dog in the car, because he didn’t drive dogs, he said. But when I told him which dog it was, he immediately went like, “Oh, but please, please, there, let him jump in”. (laugh)
He got a medal from the mayor of the city, “The Honorary Dog of Gdynia”.
Baltica found him, so let it be “Baltic”. There can be a thousand of Jack’s or Max’s, but there’s only one Baltic!
Sometimes after our watch, we go to one beer tavern, and he gets treated there like a regular customer, he always gets a cookie from the ladies who work there, everybody knows him there. He once stole away from me and they called from the bar “The dog’s waiting for you.” He must have lost me for a while and then he thought that I’d gone to this tavern, and he ran there to look for me. (laugh)
MŻ: Does he like beer?
AB: Nah, he’s resistant to sailors’ addictions. He doesn’t drink beer or smoke a pipe. (laugh)
We go to meetings with children in schools and kindergartens. The kids are happy that they can stroke such a famous dog. Now he’s got used to crowds, but at first he’d try to shirk away when he saw too many people. Now, though, he became such a… media star. (laugh)
MŻ: After all, he’s the most famous Polish dog since Szarik [German shepherd from an immensely popular Polish 1960s TV-serial about a tank crew during world war II]
AB: That’s right, and Cywil. [another German Shepherd from a Polish 1970s criminal TV serial]
Back in the steering room, Mr Buczyński opens a decent-sized folder with Baltic’s documentation: newspaper cuttings, photos, letters
AB: We have a letter here from Brigitte Bardot!
„My dear Adam, how am I to express my gratitude for saving this poor dog? You are a hero, you are my hero. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for rescuing him from a terrible death and for keeping him with you. Creatures of your kind are rare, as we live in a world where humans have lost the sense of the value of life, unfortunately, we’re used to the atrocities of life and nothing shocks us anymore… Please accept plenty of kisses, fondness and gratitude, Brigitte”
MŻ: That’s right, Adam, if you hadn’t made it, he wouldn’t be here.
AB: Well, he wouldn’t … And here, look, we have a thank-you letter from the late President Lech Kaczyński… And here a picture of us in Toruń, at “Fafik’s Days” [Fafik was a canine protagonist of a comic strip series in a popular Polish weekly paper]
MŻ: So in fact your life has changed, hasn’t it, now that Baltic is with you?
AB: It has indeed! I couldn’t even stand the mere idea of giving him away into some strange hands. I was thinking, What if he has bad luck, if someone really takes him just to get some publicity, and later, excuse my words, kicks him and go! out with you?
Mr Buczyński strokes the dog, speaking to him softly.
Speak, Balitic, say woooof, will you tell me where you’d been? Where have you come from? Okay, boy? How have you been? Will you tell me? …