Landlubbers and Seadogs
Poland’s Disco Polo music, lyrics and videos are all notorious for being banal as a bland barszcz. One video that stands out is about a group of people who go onto a ship in Gdynia, set sail, and lead the sailor’s life, while an unlikely glamorous woman flirts with them on the deck. The last time I saw this, I was writing an article on the spluttering, and now dead, ‘phenomenon’ of Disco Polo for an English language newspaper in Poland. The ship in the video, rather than the unmemorable music, and the string of visual cliches, reminded me very much of a visit to Gdansk and Gdynia I had recently made.
Gdansk is the glamorous port of Poland – it has history in abundance, a fine cathedral, a pretty, historic market square, and loads of street-cred, as it was the free trade port of Danzig before the second world war, where Gunter Grass set his classic novel the Tin Drum, and, more recently, its shipyards were the birthplace of Solidarity.
Gdynia, its ugly sister, and naval base, does not have such claims to fame. But it does have Dar Pomorza. This is a beautiful, old tall ship, which has won many international awards, and is now a museum and a tourist attraction. I had the chance of visiting it with a group of Polish friends, one of whom actually did service on it when it still sailed in the seventies. We wandered about it and he recounted his days working there. First he told us its history: the ship was built in Germany in 1909. It was nicknamed ‘the white frigate’ because of its colour. It was sold in 1929 to the Polish Government, who used it as a training ship. Its 50th year as a Polish ship – and its 100th voyage – was in May 1979. They ended up in Denmark, which in those days meant hard cash and other privileges. There were about 40 young people who had to pass an exam about maintaining the ship – only 25-28 passed the exam. Slawek was one of them.
The lads saw it as an honour, and were prepared to work very hard. They laboured in four-hour shifts. All sleeping was done in hammocks, which managed to rock with the sea without bumping into each other, and the hammocks were stored away in cupboards during the day. They were awoken with affectionate brutality at 5.00 a.m. by a man with a hard cane, who would hit them only quite hard first time. If they failed to get out of the hammock, then the second whack would come, and apparently much, much harder. One of their first activities was climbing up the terrifyingly high rigging and back down again. This meant that every day they went up to the top of the rigging up a dodgy rope ladder and stood there on the yards like acrobats, checking the sails and the sea around, before clambering back down the other side and onto the safety of the deck. This was obviously not the job for anyone who suffered from vertigo or had a poor sense of balance. Ironically, for Slawek, the best place was right at the top, because lower down the sails were thicker, and the thickest sails were the hardest to catch hold of.
Apart from these acrobatics, their other jobs were a little more mundane. They did a lot of painting, as the ship had to be kept white all over. They kept an eye on the dials and instruments in the engine room. The lads were still school age, so they had ordinary classes on board, and often did their homework sitting on the floor, leaning against the walls and resting the books on their legs as they wrote. One of their duties was waiting, both on the other members of the crew, and the officers. Slawek got friendly with the ship’s cook, and often had to do waiter service for the officers. Once, during a particularly bad – and terrifying – storm, he lost balance, and fell down the steps leading into the gallery, and spilled soup all over the floor. Other people came in as the ship rolled and pitched. Trying to keep their balance, but failing, they slipped up in the soup and fell on their backsides. It became carnage as more and more people skidded and slid, spreading the soup further and further along the floor, the ship rocking, the pile-up as inevitable as the high waves of the sea. This was not lip-service to Karl Marx; it was more like lip-service to The Marx Brothers.
Another incident he recalls was the ship arriving in Denmark. The young men were assigned the difficult task of repainting – in perfect white, of course – the masts and yards of the ship, as they had developed rust and rot. The Captain was anxious that the ship should arrive on such an auspicious occasion looking spotless, especially as an official ceremony would take place on the decks. Unfortunately, the yards had little gaps and cracks in them, that you couldn’t get the paint to, and nor could you prevent the paint from escaping. The paint dripped through the gaps and fell right onto the deck, creating little white splotches which they had no time to remove. Before long, the Danish mayor and his wife and the good burghers of Hanstholm all breezed onto the deck and stood to attention as the Danish and Polish national anthems were played. The mayor’s wife did not move an inch as paint splattered onto her hat, leaving it as spotty as a dog.
The ship is now a museum, so you can walk around and imagine what life must have been like on the seas.