Celebrities back campaign to restore yacht of Cold War spy Ryszard Kukliński who was forced to abandon it after defecting to the West
Still dividing people even years after his death, Cold War super spy Ryszard Kukliński has returned to the news after a celebrity-backed campaign was launched to restore a yacht that once belonged to him.
Often described as “the first Polish officer to serve in NATO”, Kukliński is widely hailed as the most important CIA agent of the 20th century.
“In the last 40 years,” wrote CIA director William Casey in a memo to Ronald Reagan, “no-one has done more damage to Communism than that Pole.”
Born in Warsaw in 1930, Kukliński rose rapidly through the ranks of the Polish army and by 1963 was appointed to the General Staff.
However, his simmering resentment of Communism was close to tipping point, and when a string of civilian protests in Poland were callously suppressed in 1970 his patience finally snapped.
Contacting the American Embassy in Bonn, a meeting was later organised in Holland. As cover, Kukliński used the guise of a military study cruise around Northern Europe; given the code name Jack Strong, for the next nine years he worked as a double agent and successfully passed an estimated 35,000 pages of documents to his CIA handlers.
With his cover in danger of being blown, Kukliński was smuggled out of the country in 1981 before being resettled with his family in the USA.
An avid sailor, Kukliński was forced to leave his pride and joy behind, a prototype yacht built in 1965 in Gdańsk’s Joseph Conrad Shipyard. Fourteen metres in length, the two-masted, mahogany Opal-class yacht was the first of its kind produced by the shipyard.
Designed by Edmund Rejewski and Wacław Liskiewicz, the yacht was initially purchased by the sailing section of WKS Legia Warszawa, before then passing into the hands of the Atol Klub in 1969, a Warsaw-based sailing club that could count Kukliński as a member (and later its head).
For PLN 36,000 – three times the average officer’s salary – Kukliński bought the yacht for his own private use in 1980.
Although much of its history remains shrouded in rumour, it is known that Kukliński did conduct some of his espionage activities on it.
His daring escape to the west left the boat in limbo; seized by the state, for a short time it was held by the Central Maritime Museum before then being purchased by the Polish Yacht Club in Gdynia in 1986.
However, with the fall of Communism lying around the corner, the yacht’s next chapter was about to be written.
Snapped up by a Gdynia-based firm called Atlas in 1997, they spent a year renovating it before formally handing it back to Kukliński the following year in honour of his service.
Though lionised in the west, and sometimes credited with averting WWIII due to the importance of the secrets that he leaked, back in Poland many refused to see Kukliński as anything but a traitor.
Marked by protests, his fleeting return to his homeland was not short of controversy, so the ceremony that saw his boat returned represented one of the brighter, more innocent moments of his trip.
Looking visibly moved as he clambered around his vessel, it’s known that a sentimental Kukliński at first pondered sailing the yacht back to the United States.
For whatever reason he relented, and it remained in Poland and in 2001 he altered his will so as to bequeath it to the Christian Sailing School so it could serve as a training yacht for a new generation of budding sailors.
Although Kukliński passed away in 2004, already his wish had been granted – rechristened the Strażnik Poranka (the Morning Watchman), the vessel found itself almost immediately pressed into service as a training boat.
Over the following years it would undertake hundreds of trips, not least during the seven years it found itself moored in Croatian waters.
By 2015, though, wear and tear had taken hold to such an extent that another renovation was needed. However, having initiated this process, money soon ran out and work ground to a halt. Left to fester and rot, the boat had appeared to have enjoyed its final swansong.
Now, though, hopes are again high that it will be reborn anew after the Jack Strong Foundation entered the frame with plans to revitalise it and return it to its training function.
Co-founded by Leszek Pochroń-Frankowski and Adam Sobczak, the foundation has announced plans for a two-stage restoration (undertaken in the same yard as it was built) that could cost as much as PLN 2.5 million.
Speaking to TFN, Pochroń-Frankowski said: “Above all else, Adam and I are motivated by the idea of creating a training boat on which today’s youth can learn to sail. This boat in particular stood out though as Adam himself sailed on it around fifteen years ago.
“But on top of that, we were also keen to save a piece of national heritage whilst also honouring the memory of Ryszard Kukliński.”
Although much work awaits, Pochroń-Frankowski is undaunted by the challenges. “It probably looks worse than it actually is – when the restoration was first started, the masts were removed, so too was the paint.
The interiors were also gutted before the money ran out. That means that from first sight it does not look too good, but when you look at the overall cost it actually isn’t all that much when you think about the kind of money involved in the yachting industry.”
Costed at PLN 1 million, repairing the hull has been targeted as the first priority, and the duo have recruited a slew of public figures to raise the project’s profile: songstress Natalia Przybysz, sailing legend Roman Paszke, explorer Marek Kamiński and the celebrated author Professor Norman Davies.
“As a huge fan of his work, meeting Norman Davies in Oxford really lit a fuse,” says Pochroń-Frankowski. “That said, to have so many other big names also backing the project, that really helps us believe in what we’re doing.”
Offering various levels of incentives, the various donation packages include the chance to have your name engraved on the yacht, private cruises and sailing courses. For Pochroń-Frankowski and Sobczak, though, their vision has been driven by something altogether stronger.
“I’ve heard people ask why we don’t just invest in a brand new yacht – but this is the yachting equivalent of a classic car. It might not be perfect, but it has real history and beauty,” says Pochroń-Frankowski.
Moreover, by engaging in this project, the duo are continuing the vessel’s story. “Atlas gave this boat back to Kuklinksi for free,” says Pochroń-Frankowski.
“He in turn also donated it for nothing in return. When we took ownership of it last year, that was for free as well.
“Ultimately, both Adam and I want to carry this tradition forward by using the yacht for teaching youngsters, before ultimately handing it on to someone else.”
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