Polish seafaring yarn gets Canadian reboot

André (Andrzej) Bohomolec lived an incredible life, travelling around the world and documenting his adventures in Polish. Fast-forward to modern-day Ottawa, his stepson Anthony Keith untangles the mystery, with help from local Polish translator, Irene Tomaszewski.

Ottawan rediscovers stepdad's 1933-34 adventure as told in The Voyage of the Yacht, Dal

André (Andrzej) Bohomolec, left, and navigator Jan Witkowski, right, aboard the 8.5-metre sailboat Dal on its journey from the Baltic Sea to Chicago. The pair were photographed by crewmate and navigator Jerzy Swiechowski. (Jerzy Swiechowski, courtesy of Anthony Keith.)

It's a story that bridges centuries, continents and languages, and it was almost lost forever. 

A Polish cavalryman and adventurer, André (Andrzej) Bohomolec, sets out on a nearly fatal trans-Atlantic journey in a not-quite-seaworthy sailboat, the 8.5-metre Dal, navigating only by the stars and a sextant. He and his small crew survive a deadly hurricane and are hailed as heroes at the Chicago World's Fair.

Bohomolec wrote a book about his 1933-34 trip, The Voyage of the Yacht, Dal

The mast is gone. Only a short bare stump is left. The rest is in the sea attached to the yacht by the rigging. With every toss the mast hits the hull like a battering ram and may well smash it at any moment. We feel as though we're on some heaving tossing sea monster rather than on a boat.- Excerpt from The Voyage of the Yacht, Dal, by André Bohomolec

It was published in Poland in 1936, and became a bestseller, making Bohomolec a household name in his native country. 

But when the Germans, and then the Russians, invaded, the book disappeared. Sailing was not the sport of the proletariat, and Bohomolec's book — and the sport of sailing itself — was banned.

In 1957, a few years after the death of Joseph Stalin, the ban on sailing was lifted and the book was republished. The Voyage of the Yacht, Dal again became a bestseller, but only in Poland, and only in Polish.

A 1957 copy of The Voyage of the Yacht, Dal by André Bohomolec. (Courtsey of Anthony Keith)

Long after the Dal was decommissioned, Bohomolec's adventures would continue, as a diplomat in Shanghai and as a soldier, fighting for the British and the French during the Second World War. He lost fingers fighting the Nazis in North Africa and parachuted into Italy as a commando.

Later, living in exile in Bermuda, he would eventually meet and marry Kate Stuart. Stuart had fled wartime Britain for Toronto with her four children. The couple, then in their 50s, relocated to Alberta and became cattle ranchers. One of Stuart's children, Anthony Keith, is a retired wildlife biologist in Ottawa.

This 1936 first edition of The Voyage of the Yacht, Dal, held by translator Irene Tomaszewkski. (Courtesy of Anthony Keith.)

As a teenager, Keith spent summers on the ranch and evenings conversing with his stepfather. 

"[Bohomolec] was interested in flying saucers. He was interested in Greco-Roman history," Keith recalled. "They were fascinating, fascinating evenings. He was the most interesting person to talk to that I'd ever met."

Keith was going through family papers when he found a 1957 copy of The Voyage of the Yacht, Dal.

"He told me he had made a trip across the Atlantic in the 1930s, but people in those days didn't talk about their past. They didn't boast. So that's all I knew." 

He was a mystery here — and he had a fan club over there.-Irene Tomaszewski

Unable to speak or read Polish, Keith reached out to Irene Tomaszewski, a local editor and translator. She connected with a friend in Warsaw, who found a sailor willing to help translate technical sailing terms.

When Anthony Keith needed help reclaiming his stepfather's story, he reached out to translator and publisher Irene Tomaszewski. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

"He said, 'André Bohomolec? My hero! It's because of him I'm sailing.... Every sailor in Poland knows about him,'" recounted Tomaszewski. "So I thought, he was a mystery here — and he had a fan club over there."

That same friend in Warsaw combed antiquarian bookstores and finally found a dog-eared 1957 edition of Dal.

The Voyage of the Yacht, Dal can be found on Ottawa Public Library shelves, or at local independent bookstores, Octopus Books or Books on Beechwood. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

The result is an English-language translation of the harrowing voyage, which is available to borrow from the Ottawa Public Library, or to purchase from Octopus Books and Books on Beechwood.

"They were hit with a hurricane and the boat was just about destroyed," Keith said.

"After the hurricane, he figured they were about 700 miles away from Bermuda. The hurricane had blown them well off course. They jury-rigged some kind of a mast. With the sextant … the crew managed to figure out a direction. But here's the catch. If his watch had been off by one minute, so would his reading, and they would never hit Bermuda."

André Bohomolec's route, as told in The Voyage of the Yacht, Dal, from Gdynia to Chicago, 1933-34. (André Bohomolec, courtesy of Anthony Keith.)

"It's one hell of an adventure. A lot of danger and a lot of humour in it. But it's so coolly written," said Tomaszewski.

"This was not the Facebook generation. They didn't jump up and down. They could have almost drowned, but they took it in stride."

Anthony Keith’s stepfather André Bohomolec published the story of his trans-Atlantic journey in a small yacht in the 1930s, during which the three amateur sailors found themselves caught in a hurricane. 1:59

And for Keith, who has succeeded in preserving a family legend? "How absolutely wonderful to be able to feel and see the details of what this guy did, and what it was like going across the Atlantic."

Keith and Tomaszewski will read excerpts and share stories on Monday, Feb. 24, from 7 to 8 p.m. at Rockcliffe Park Public Library, 380 Springfield Rd. Doors open at 6:45 p.m.

André Bohomolec lived an incredible life, travelling around the world in the 30s and documenting his adventures in Polish. His book was a hit -- but it was banned after the Second World War, and his story largely forgotten. Fast-forward to modern-day Ottawa, his stepson Anthony Keith untangles the mystery, with help from local Polish translator, Irene Tomaszewski 5:55