There is now a little piece of Poland in the BVI.
A group of Polish sailors recently honored Wladek Wagner, the first Pole to sail around the world and former BVI resident.
On January 21st a plaque unveiling ceremony was held on Bellamy Cay. More than 30 charter sailboats in Trellis Bay flew red flags with a white eagle crest, as Polish music blared from the small island. Guests arrived by dinghy with some wearing captain’s uniforms and historical naval costumes for the ceremony. Before the arrival of the guests, final preparations were still being made to the Wagner memorial—a seaside seating area around a plaque atop a stone podium.
Wagner would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year. It is also the 20th anniversary of his death, and the 80th anniversary of his departure on a voyage around the world.
“We have declared this is the year of Wagner,” said Jerzy Knabe, Commodore of London’s Polish Yacht Club and organizer of the Wagner Sailing Rally.
“We decided it was time to get the memory of this Polish sailor back to the public,” Knabe said. “He was forgotten because of historical events.”
Wagner was the first Polish sailor to circumnavigate the world without an engine. It took three boats—Zjawa, Zjawa II and Zjawa III—and seven years to complete his voyage, according to the organizer.
However, he could not return to Poland after the journey because World War II had broken out by 1939. While in England, on the last leg of the trip, he received a telegram from the Polish General Consul ordering him to abort the voyage because the Germans had attacked Poland.
Zjawa III was requisitioned by the British Navy for war efforts and was later returned to Wagner, but he still did not return home because of the communist occupation of Poland. During the war he served on a merchant ship for the Polish Navy.
After the war, he started a fishing business and met his wife, Mabel. By 1949, the couple decided to sail from Dublin to Australia, after selling the fishing business and Zjawa III.
They purchased a large yacht, Rubicon, and set sail. After they arrived in Port of Spain, Trinidad, however, they realized Mabel was pregnant with their daughter Suzanna. They abandoned their trip to Australia and eventually found themselves in the Virgin Islands.
In 1954 the couple bought Bellamy Cay, which is now home to the restaurant Last Resort, for $75.
The Wagners called the BVI home for nine years, and their son, Michael, was born there. Wagner built a shipyard, a home and a clubhouse on Bellamy Cay. Today, a stone structure he built houses a portion of the Last Resort restaurant. He also helped in the construction of the airstrip on Beef Island, Knabe said.
In 1958, the couple moved to Puerto Rico, where Wagner also built a marina—Wagner Shipyard & Marina. Eventually, they moved to Florida for health reasons. Wagner died there in 1992, never setting foot in Poland again after leaving for his around-the-world voyage.
During the ceremony, the Caribbean Republic of Sailors of Chicago, the Polish Yachting Association of North America and the Brotherhood of the Coast of Poland were among the organizations represented.
Obel Penn, a BVI-islander who worked with Wagner on construction projects and as a crewmember during a charter to Trinidad, attended the ceremony with his son Ephraim Penn, daughter Juliette Penn and grandson Marlon Penn, the Eighth District representative.
“He employed plenty of people from the villages,” Penn said of Wagner during a speech at the ceremony, adding, “When he left, we all missed him, especially me, because he was a very kind and friendly gentleman.” Penn took part in the ceremony during the raising of the Polish and BVI flags above the memorial.
Wagner’s widow, who lives in Florida, was unable to attend the ceremony due to health reasons. However, a letter she had written was read on her behalf.
“With his countless abilities it seemed there was nothing he could not do, no problem he could not solve,” she wrote. “He never gave up. This was evident not only with his endeavors on the ocean, but also on land here at Trellis Bay.”
The tall ship Fryderyk Chopin, named after the Polish composer, was anchored between Bellamy and Marina Cay for the event. After the ceremony organizers and visitors toured the 180ft training vessel.
“For us, Mr. Wagner was the first Polish man to sail around the world—it is very important for us to be here,” Fryderyk Chopin deckhand Stefan Wronski said.
The rally was the first of several events scheduled to pay tribute to Wladek Wagner. A celebration will be held in Poland later this year to commemorate the start of his around-the-world voyage.
Todd VanSickle is a journalist living and working in the Virgin Islands.