POLSKO-KANADYJSKI JACHT KLUB - "BIALY ZAGIEL"
Janka Bielak’s voluntary dedication to the STA/ISTA and Cutty Sark Tall Ships’ races, especially with regard to east/west relations and Eastern European participation in the fleet, has been outstanding. Facts not unnoticed in Poland Russia where she has been honoured by receiving national recognition and awards for her extraordinary contribution.
In August 2001 she was invited to the Presidential Palace in Poland. Recently restored the Belvedere in Warsaw was a stunning setting on a beautifully sunny August 15th, the National Army Holiday in Poland. The occasion was described by Alex Bielak who was there from Canada with his nine-year daughter, Janka’s namesake. "Janka was the only civilian and also the only woman being honoured at the ceremony. Officers, Generals, Admirals received promotions and honours. The President of Poland, Mr Aleksander Kwasniewski, bestowed on Janka one of Poland’s highest Orders, The Officer’s Cross of "Polonia Restituta". This Order, which translates as "Poland Restored" is awarded to those contributing to the restoration or building of Poland and Janka was specifically recognised for over 25 years of service to Polish sailors and vessels through her work with the ISTA. Unusually for a civilian, the nomination for the Order came via the armed forces (specifically the Navy).
Vice Admiral Jedrzej Czajkowski (then Chairman of the Board of STA Poland) was a driving force behind the nomination and joined many family and friends in celebrating Janka’s achievements." As he said: Janka "is extraordinary", adding that "he was very happy that the President had bestowed this high honour on her". Captain Andrzej Szleminski in his capacities at the time as Vice-Chairman of the Board of STAP and as a Director of the Board of the ISTA represented both organisations.
Janka was born in a beautiful province of eastern Poland called Volynia (now part of Russia). The rolling green meadows she grew up in were only 100 km. away from the Russian border, while the Baltic Sea lay a few thousand km to the north. Her first fascination with the sea was through reading and listening to her eldest brother, Julian. He joined the Polish Navy Academy serving during the war as a Sub-Lieutenant Navigator. As a young girl she greatly admired him and never tired of listening to his stories about his sea adventures. Her first love then was horses. Always rebellious, she decided early in her life that one day she would be a sailor herself.
The war and cruel fate of Janka’s family shattered all dreams. The school of life started, scattering Czerwinski’s six children all over the world. Janka was forced to leave Poland for political reasons in 1950. She settled in England in 1951.
1973 was the beginning for Janka. She received a letter from and then met Cdr. Greville Howard, Chairman, Sailing (Overseas) and he told her about the preparations for Gdynia and asked her if it was possible for her to go with him and to help him. He had met her brother in Gdynia. Unfortunately she was unable to go to Gdynia ‘74 because of the political situation. Instead Greville asked her to help in Portsmouth where the two fleets arrived, from the the races from England to Spain and back and from the Baltic Race, for the prize giving. 1974 was the first year that the two big Soviet square rigged ships, Kruzenshtern and Tovarisch, joined the STA Races. This was the second time that the Polish Dar Pomorza had taken part. Thus it was important to find someone who spoke slavonic languages which were rarely taught in Britain at that time. Janka met this criteria and went to Portsmouth to help. That was the Prize Giving port and the STA Patron, HRH Prince Philip came to visit the fleet and to present the prizes. He visited Dar Pomorza and had lunch on board. It was Janka’s first main task and a success. Legendary Captain Jurkiewicz of Dar Pomorza invited Janka to stay on board Dar and adopted her immediately. As to the two Russian captains, Captain Schneider on Kruzenshtern and Captain Vandenko on Tovarisch - both of them not English speakers - were sure that Janka was a spy and accepted this as normal. Anyhow, they were always graced by the presence of their KGB’s "Guardian Angels", but Janka knew very well the Rules of the game of the "Cold War".
Portsmouth was a big success for Janka and Greville asked her to help him in future STA Races. He explained the aims of the STA to her: trying to help young people from all over the world, to communicate and reach each other through adventure and hard work when sailing in friendly competition. She has often noted her feelings: "After the horrors of the last war it was so urgent to rebuild European and international cooperation".
The prospect of working with Germans and Russians was not very easy for Janka because during the war she had lost her parents, brothers, and many members of her family and friends, and her home. It was Greville’s enthusiasm which helped her to make up her mind to work for the future and not to look back in anger. She had so much to contribute with her valuable command of languages, special knowledge of Eastern Europe and her enthusiasm for the ideals of sail training and the races. Her dream came true. She was sailing!
1976 was the year of the big race across the Atlantic and Janka went to Plymouth for the start of the races and rejoined the STA at Newport. She says of 1976: "I think of all the years I took part since 1974 that 1976 stands especially vividly in my mind. I understood the importance of bringing those ships from the communist world into our STA family. At the beginning it was very difficult because the Russian ships were totally closed but soon Greville Howard, Lord Burnham, James Myatt, Robin Duchesne and others started to change their attitude and year after year they came closer and closer to us. The apolitical policy of the STA and Janka’s quiet diplomacy brought to the STA the faithful Polish fleet and the largest Russian square riggers and a very large fleet of Class C yachts from Poland and Russia, with their enthusiastic young crews.ver the years Janka has worked with six Chairmen - Greville Howard, Lord Burnham, Admiral Sir Rae McKaig, Sir Patrick Howard Dobson, Sir George Vallings and Nigel Rowe. She says that: "Each of them brought something extremely good and fresh to the organisation and I was privileged to work with them and see them at close quarters. Of course, Greville being first was the most influential on my then young mind. He formed me and instilled in me the will to do things really well. In those first years of my work in the STA, Greville took me with him everywhere and I was able through him to meet many important people and to learn how things should be done. I gained the confidence and belief that I represented something very important." Janka met her first King in 1978, in Oslo, King Olaf of Norway. He impressed her very much by his simplicity and direct approach.
The next major year was 1980 with Kiel, Karlskrona, Frederikshavn and Amsterdam. It was the last year that the legendary Dar Pomorza won the Cutty Sark Trophy. In 1981, Janka was the first woman to be invited to participate on the STA’s Sailing Committee on which she served until 1999 when it was dissolved. She then became part of the Race Operations Committee. 1982 was a special year for Janka as Poland built a new square rigger, Dar Mlodziezy, in spite of a very difficult political situation. The terrific bravery and goodwill of the Gdansk Shipyard prevailed and Janka was sent to represent the STA at the commissioning ceremony.
Janka has voyaged aboard a number of vessels in the ISTA Family fleet sailing on various occasions aboard Dar Mlodziezy, and the Russian square riggers. In 1995/96, she joined ORP Iskra during a passage of her Round the World Voyage, which included crossing the Tropic of Capricorn and the Equator. She treasures her designation as an honorary crew member for life of this vessel, which is the successor to the schooner of which her brother was in command.
Janka says that over the years she has met so many marvellous people and can recall many legendary captains, too numerous to mention. Her memories evoke something which Janka could never have imagined in her own youth. As she says: " I find myself extremely lucky and very privileged to have done something so positive and extremely important. Simply I can tell you that during my difficult six years in the labour camps, if a good fairy had said to me, "Don’t despair, in front of you lies a marvellous path." I wouldn’t have been able to imagine it - well it happened to me and I encourage young people to believe
in good fairies!"
Photos: Alex Bielak