The second celebration of Wladek Wagner’s seven year circumnavigation was held in the BVI’s Trellis Bay in early February. Much has been written about this Polish sailor’s amazing voyage in no less than three vessels spanning seven years and beginning in 1932. All three vessels were named Zjawa and the last, Zjawa III was commandeered by the Royal Navy to help in the war effort just as Wladek was completing his epic voyage. His story is related in his book, published in 1986, ‘By the Sun and the Stars’.
But the Wagner story does not end here; in fact it just begins. Some ten years after Wladek’s epic voyage – or series of voyages, which culminated in a circumnavigation, a 77-ft ketch, Rubicon, sailed into Charlotte Amalie harbor in St Thomas. Captain Wladek Wagner with wife Mabel had crossed the Atlantic with the idea of continuing on to Australia. Funds and provisions were in short supply so to raise much needed revenue Rubicon became one of the first crewed charter yachts in the Caribbean, plying the waters of the Windwards and Leewards and shorter trips around the Virgins. Soon, they found themselves exploring the British Virgins and, after studying local charts looking for a secure anchorage, Wladek excitedly exclaimed that Beef Island’s Trellis Bay was perfect. It was 1949 and Trellis Bay was deserted, there being no access to Beef Island from Tortola. Wagner imagined a slipway for yachts, a house, a yacht haven, cottages and a resort on the barren island of Bellamy Cay, once the hangout of notorious pirate Black Sam Bellamy. By the end of the year Wagner had cut a deal with local landowner Haldane Davis to acquire ten acres of Trellis Bay and Mabel had given birth to a daughter, Suzanna.
The daunting task of making a living, maintaining a large wooden yacht, building a house, a yacht haven, slipway, resort and cottages as well as raising a family would have overwhelmed most people, but not the Wagners. Wladek had the dream, the vision, the tenacity and the perseverance. Step by step it became a reality and the story is related in the fascinating book by Mabel Wagner, ‘Lest I Forget’.
Providence lent a helping hand to the Wagners when they struck up a friendship with the Paiewonsky family of St Thomas. Paiewonsky owned land, formerly a rum distillery, which had a disused marine railway on it previously used by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. He offered all the equipment, tools and machinery to Wagner who transported everything on Rubicon to Trellis Bay.
With unerring tenacity they built a slipway for hauling large yachts, they built guest cottages and a fine stone residence on what was then Conch Shell Point (subsequently demolished for the first runway extension in 2001). Finally they built a yachtsmen’s club on Bellamy Cay and were awarded the contract to build, first a raft with docking facilities, and then the BVI’s first airstrip on Beef Island.
During the ten years the Wagners developed their dream, Mabel raised her two children on lonely Trellis Bay. When the stone buildings on Bellamy Cay were completed Mabel became the manageress of the new yachtsmen’s club. This daunting task was made even more challenging by the lack of easy access. Even today the owners acknowledge that ferrying supplies and customers back and forth adds greatly to the demanding job of running a bar/restaurant. When a film company decided to produce a feature film on the romantic isle of Marina Cay, ‘Two on the Isle’, the Yachtsmen’s Club was hired as restaurant and accommodation central.
Later the indomitable Wagner was contracted to build the BVI’s first runway but bureaucratic wrangling brought disillusionment. At about the same time Mabel was suffering from exhaustion and eventually the decision was made to depart from their paradisiacal dream – the children were growing up – a more normal existence was needed, but their dream had been fulfilled.
The couple eventually made a home in Florida and Rubicon was moved to the Lagoon in St Maarten. Coincidentally Wladek suffered a debilitating stroke at the same time as a storm drove the now tired Rubicon ashore where she eventually sank.
This second celebration of the Wagners’ exploits, held in February, brought together a flotilla of Polish sailors who enjoyed a three day festival of one of their countrymen’s achievements.
Editor’s Note: All At Sea would like to thank Mabel Wagner for the wonderful photographs used in this story.
Julian Putley is the author of ‘The Drinking Man’s Guide to the BVI’, ‘Sunfun Calypso’, and ‘Sunfun Gospel’.