Setting sail from the Canary Islands in 1976, returning in 1978, Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz became the first woman on Earth to sail single-handedly around the world, 80 years after Joshua Slocum became the first man to do so. It was an epic and arduous adventure, one that Krystyna battled hard to finish. She circumnavigated 31,166 nautical miles in 401 days, that’s 56,719 kilometres… on her own. It was total madness but it was a journey Krystyna was determined to accomplish. Just how did she manage this? What beautiful and untouched gems did she uncover? And how did she defeat the weather that nearly killed her? This is the story of the ground-breaking feat of Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz…
Born on July 15th, 1936 in Warsaw, Poland, was one Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz. Shortly after the Second World War had ended, her family moved to Ostróda, where Krystyna attended the local high school. But one thing took her fancy more than anything else… she loved to sail, she LOVED it. She learnt her trade on Lake Drwecki and it was then she knew that the sea was to be her life.
She studied at the Faculty of Gdańsk University of Technology, earning her shipbuilding and engineering degree, soon finding work designing ships at the Gdańsk Shipyard. Krystyna loved her ships, her walls were adorned with photos. They left a lasting impression on her and in 1966, she received her captain’s certificate. She soon married Wacław Liskiewicz, a fellow student from her university. He would go on to play a pivotal role in Krystyna’s life…
1975. The United Nations declared this International Women’s Year. This perked up the Polish Sailing Association, who decided that, to celebrate, they would send a Polish woman on a solo voyage AROUND the world. No woman had done this before. It really would be the first journey of its kind. Krystyna was a modest woman but she felt like she had as good as chance as any other woman, so she applied. What harm could it do?
One day, whilst at the shipyard, a phone call came in for Krystyna. It was a day like any other. At first, at least. But soon, Krystyna was stunned into silence; she held the phone to her ear still but no words came out of her mouth. Her eyes were wide and her jaw drooped a little. Are you alright, Krystyna?
Well, no. Not, really. I’m better than that… I’ve been chosen to be the first woman to sail around the world…
This news came as quite a shock to Krystyna, but she was the ideal candidate. A sailor with seafaring experience, including one escapade with an all-female crew from Poland to Scotland, and another escapade, with a friend to the Gulf of Bothnia in the Baltic Sea. She did love her escapades, did Krystyna. But her trip to Bothnia, in which she had to sail for many hours on her own, gave her the perfect opportunity to learn how to sail solo. Even then, as the ‘70s approached, Krystyna often met more obstacles that she perhaps expected.
She really was one of the few women leading these all-women voyages back then – during her trip to Scotland, in the town of Skagen, she encountered one Danish fisherman who tried to make her abort the trip. “Who wants to sail in such a little boat to the North Sea? And also, you’re all women. Go back home, it’s well enough that you’ve made it on one piece to Skagen,” he said.
But there was more to Krystyna than her experience and her fierce determination… she designed and built ships, a capable engineer with in-depth knowledge of how to service boats and, especially, the yacht she would need to sail the world. Krystyna was also committed to proving that a woman could sail across the world on her own. For her, it was a matter of national pride.
“The yacht was fully adapted to my needs,” she said. “It was like I wanted it to be… it’s deck was as smooth as possible because that increased safety. It had a specially attached helm with a bolster. It was built in six months and was 9.5 metres long and almost three metres in width.”
She named her boat the Mazurek, a traditional Polish music genre. Krystyna knew everything she needed to accomplish her mission… the route and timeframe were planned so as to ensure maximum safety for her, such as planning the best routes to avoid bad weather. It’s how her yacht ended up being transported from Gdańsk to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, from where Krystyna would begin her voyage. She had everything she needed. Provisions, tools, a radiotelephone, maps, navigation books, operating manuals… oh, and a shotgun. In case there were any pirates. You know, the usual.
On March 10th, 1976, at exactly 2pm, Krystyna set off on her trip around the world…
Or did she?
The Endeavour of a Lifetime
The problem was… her yacht was a bit knackered. A malfunction of the autohelm forced her to return to Las Palmas where it could be repaired… and so she actually ended up setting off on March 28th. She was at sea for nearly a month before she reached Bridgetown in Barbados, her first destination. Such a long trek was not uncommon in these things… in fact, Krystyna would encounter many epic crossings, suffering from the effects of loneliness, an unavoidable feeling. But she did whatever she could, all to keep herself busy.
“Each day of the week, I’d do something different. Mondays and Fridays I devoted to the maintenance of the propulsion, that is the mast, riggings and sails… on Wednesdays, I’d work on the maintenance of the electric appliances and systems… on Saturdays, as a good housewife, I cleaned the yacht’s interior… that way, each day offered some additional attraction, so I wouldn’t feel the loneliness so much.” Krystyna.
In Barbados, Krystyna had to get her yacht’s engine repaired… it was hardly functioning, struggling along on a fraction of its full power. But disaster! Nobody could fix it. The locals told Krystyna of someone who could, but the slight issue was… he was in Panama. Which is around 1,400 miles away or 2,300 kilometres. With her engine gone, Krystyna was now reliant on her sails alone. And she did it. It took great effort, but she managed to reach a port in Panama where it took FIVE weeks to fix her engine. On July 12th, she finally crossed the Panama Canal and only five days later, she set sail into the Pacific Ocean…
The Galápagos Islands were the next nearest port of call, but Krystyna decided against this, pushing on to the Marquesas Islands – onboard, she had two months’ worth of fresh water, so she could just about get away with this. Every few days, she spoke to her husband on the phone, but their conversations were often about technical and maritime issues. But Poland was quite far away and on many days, Krystyna could not get through to anyone. On those days, she was truly alone in the middle of an endless ocean.
“Soon, the entire ocean up to the horizon was full of dolphins. They were moving along my course toward the Marquesas. The big and mid-sized one were rushing forward and the young ones began to play with the Mazurek. They were jumping next to the boards, in front of the bow, in pairs, in threes and one by one.” Krystyna.
August 26th. She did it! She reached Taiohae Bay in the Marquesas – here, she replenished her supplies and threw herself into the local Polynesian culture. It wasn’t a long stay, however. She had to keep moving, moving on to Tahiti – she described it as the most beautiful place on Earth. But even then, she had to keep moving, on to Fiji, arriving on October 25th. But more problems hit Krystyna – the locals did not trust this strange, strange woman. They insisted on checking whether or not she had any drugs onboard… she didn’t, of course, but it did leave a bad taste in her mouth. It was so bad she didn’t depart until December 10th, heading for Sydney, Australia.
Krystyna was greatly enchanted by Australia, falling in love with the local Polish community and deciding to spend Christmas with one such family, the Zdanowski family. The hospitality was indicative of the kind of warmth she received across our world – the locals, wherever she went, were very friendly and she always found a Pole, regardless of what port she was in. The press were all over her, too, greatly curious about this amazing feat never undertaken by any woman before. Krystyna did love the spotlight, giving press conferences and ending up on more than a few television shows. She knew how important what she was doing was. She wanted the world to know it was possible. And that any woman was more than capable of accomplishing great things.
It was in Australia where Krystyna was reunited with her husband, who had travelled all that way just to meet her. And he helped out with repairs to the yacht, of course. They enjoyed a great time together in Australia, because, as it turns out, the repairs took three months. The generator had exploded. The couple visited all the sights of Sydney and Adelaide. With a very heavy heart, Krystyna left Australia and her husband behind on May 21st, 1977. She had left Sydney and faced the perils of sailing through the Great Barrier Reef – she had to use all her expertise to navigate between the treacherous shoals, islets and reefs and at one point, she almost collided with another boat.
“The trade wind brought intense showers that veiled everything. It was in such conditions that, after leaving Cooktown, I came bow-to-bow with another ship in a gateway made from two islets. Both were perfectly signposted and shown on the map. But I had not noticed the ship, the signs and the islets, even though it was midday.” Krystyna.
And it was not to be the last of the chaos…
The End of the Sail
Krystyna reached Portland Roads on July 23rd, but immediately, she started having painful cramps in her stomach… it turns out, she had kidney stones and had to be airlifted to hospital. She didn’t take very long to recover because she didn’t like not doing anything, she had to keep busy. As best as she could, she left the hospital to return to her yacht and… oh. It had gone missing. It had gone missing! How does that happen! Turns out, the anchor had broken free and the boat had drifted off to sea. Fortunately, Krystyna had friends in high places and a search was hastily organised…
Concerned seaman went out looking for the yacht and they found it, only yards away from pointy rocks that would have certainly sunk it. Much to the relief of Krystyna, the yacht was returned safe and sound so she could, once more, set off on the final legs of her incredible journey. And, on September 2nd, she arrived in Darwin. Once more, she replenished her stocks and prepared for the final push. She was now in the Indian Ocean, a violent and vicious place, with extreme waves and extreme wind. Nobody knew if she’d make it through in one piece.
Shortly after leaving Port Louis in Mauritius, something remarkable happened. The weather calmed down. It was unheard of, unseasonably calm… luck was finally on Krystyna’s side. It was plain sailing to the finish line, reaching Durban in South Africa on December 12th. This was another Christmas away from home… but she, once more, found a large group of local Poles and settled in for Christmas with the Orzechowski family. She left on January 3rd, 1978 but just five days later, once more, the autohelm failed. Screw it, she thought. I’m not going back now. I can’t go back now. I will push on WITHOUT having it repaired. She took over manual control.
If you’ve never been in a yacht, that’s hard to do on the best of days, never mind off the coast of Africa, some of the most dangerous waters on Earth, at the end of a long journey across our world. It required constant attention, any slip-up and it would spark disaster. She could only sleep for two hours a day, that’s how bad it was. But she managed it. She managed to keep control, one of the finest sailors the world has ever seen. It was a feat like no other. But Krystyna was not Supergirl. She was growing tired, her limbs aching and her eyes so very heavy. She was absolutely exhausted. But God bless her, she pushed on… she pushed on as much as she could. But then a storm hit, whilst passing Cape Agulhas.
“The storm was moving between the north and south west. The wind speed was consistently above 40 knots (46 miles-per-hour or 74 kilometres-per-hour). I was tacking once to the north and once to the south. Often, I had to tack quicker because of other ships… the waves concealed them up to the tops of their masts. The same was happening to the Mazurek. The ocean grew tremendously.” Krystyna.
With hardly any energy left, Krystyna hung on for dear life, knowing she could not stop – she HAD to keep moving. I honestly don’t know how she wasn’t killed but somehow, she endured the storm. And on January 21st, she arrived in Cape Town, safe and well. But she could not rest. Naomi James, of New Zealand, had set off, aiming to become the first woman to sail across the world. This was now a race and after everything she had given, Krystyna was determined NOT to lose this now. With her autohelm repaired, on February 3rd, Krystyna set off on the final leg of her journey. From now on, she would not stop…
She enjoyed good winds and weather. On March 20th, 1978, she saw it… THERE! In the distance! There is bloody is! Las Palmas, a few miles away. She could hardly believe it. She had done it. She had only gone and done it. The very first woman to sail around the world. She was so determined she never really stopped to think about her name being cemented in the history books, but it was. It was overwhelming. Completely and totally overwhelming. She had become the first woman to sail around the world. She covered a distance of 31,166 nautical miles or 56,719 kilometres, over two years, single-handedly. Often quite literally.
Naomi James finished her round the world voyage only 39 days later. Also an incredible achievement.
“There were times when I thought I would never manage it,” remarked Krystyna.
At Las Palmas, Krystyna was greeted by a huge crowd of adoring fans, including Poland’s ambassador to Spain, as well as the governor of the Canary Islands. When she returned to Poland, the crowds were even bigger. Well-wishers, film crews and journalists, all there to document the arrival of an absolute legend. Later, Krystyna was awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta for her achievements, one of Poland’s highest honours, also chosen as Gdańsk’s Citizen of the Year in 1978. And best of all… she received a brand new… Fiat 131 Mirafiori. Ah, the perfect gift for the sailor in your life. A car.
Shortly after, Krystyna published a book documenting her adventure, one she rather wonderfully named, First to Sail the World. Yes she did. She later found work at the Radunia Shipyard, going back to the life she once had. She retired to live out her days with her husband in Gdańsk. And best of all? She’s still alive. 83-years-young, married for over 50 years. Krystyna and her husband still sail, too. More recreational than ground-breaking, but Krystyna still lives her life on the waves. She dedicates her time to promoting sailing and encouraging young women to take up the sails. I’m not sure if she still has the car…
Krystyna was the first, but most importantly, she wasn’t the last. Countless women have since taken on the journey Krystyna started, but it was her who proved that women can sail the seven seas with every bit of courage, stamina and resourcefulness as men. Krystyna is one hell of a woman, she really is. She remains a shining light of Polish pride, even to this day, considered a national hero. She once said, “I’m not afraid of what I don’t know, although normal people are said to have it the other way around. I didn’t know how one sails around the world, so I wasn’t afraid of it. After I set out, I began to feel true freedom. This is what it was like: I only did what I wanted to do and sometimes what I was supposed to. There were no limitations. At no other place and at no other time did I feel so free.”
Little more needs to be said. She had a mission and she completed it. And in doing so, she changed the world…
“I think I can do without sailing for some time now.” Krystyna.
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