For Polish yacht club, solidarity
In wake of tragedy, visiting boaters find sympathy from Benicia brethren
By Donna Beth Weilenman
The San Francisco Polish Yacht Club had intended its cruise across the Bay this past weekend would mark its first get-acquainted trip to Benicia. Members of the Benicia Yacht Club were looking forward to greeting the visitors.
But the day turned somber. As they pulled into the Benicia Yacht Club and Marina on Saturday, the Polish Yacht Club boats had their flags lowered. Members were mourning the loss of Poland’s president, Lech Kaczynski.
Kaczynski and 95 others, including many of Poland’s top leaders, had been killed in a plane crash at Katyn, near Smolensk, Russia. They had flown to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the execution of thousands of Polish prisoners by the Soviet secret police.
Among those killed were war veterans, survivors of the massacre, and leaders of the Polish Solidarity movement against communism.
Lorie Campbell, Benicia Yacht Club port captain, had been corresponding with Chris Owczarek, vice commodore of the Yacht Club of Poland, or Yacht Klub Polski-San Francisco, who had asked permission March 7 for the cruise-in to Benicia.
As she usually does for visiting yacht club cruisers, Campbell prepared gift bags of Benicia information for the visitors. The club was ready to make the traditional burgee exchange — a swapping of small insignia flags — when the YKP arrived, she said.
But Campbell knew the tone of the visitors’ arrival was different when she saw the lowered flags. “We lowered our flags half-mast when they entered the club,” she said.
A Benicia club member, Rob Cline, “gave sincere, touching condolences,” she said.
Tim Rose, the Bencia club’s secretary, was the highest-ranking official on site when the YKP members arrived. After talking with the visitors, he decided the best way to mark the tragedy was a longtime tradition — the eight-bell ceremony that honors fallen sailors.
That ceremony frequently comes after dinner, and dinner is part of the cruise-in. “I just thought it would be good protocol,” Rose said. “Everybody had heard the news and had extended condolences.”
“The club did a beautiful thing,” said Owczarek, whose mother and sister still live in Poland, although he’s been in the Bay Area more than 20 years and currently lives in Sunnyvale.
The warm welcome of fellow sailors impressed members of the YKP. “We weren’t like strangers. We were among sailing friends,” Owczarek said.
His club is tied to the YKP founded in Warsaw in 1924. Although the club survived World War II, it was disbanded under Communism and resurrected when that era ended. The revived club has spread beyond Poland to London and Bremen, Germany; the San Francisco chapter started in 2000.
“I feel very sad,” Owczarek said of the fatal plane crash. “They were going to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the mass murder of Polish officers in World War II by the KGB.” That event had long been kept secret, even after the war, and only recently was being commemorated.
Many Polish people were glad, or at least relieved, to have the executions commemorated, Owczarek said. It meant the world recognized “you suffered.”
Ironically, the plane crashed near the site of the assassinations. “That whole area is sucking Poland’s blood,” he said.
Poland lost millions in the war. “We had tremendous losses. People got killed, or were thrown into camps.” Owczarek said the war is one of many of the traumatic events in Poland’s history.
He described the late president as more conservative than some of the nation’s leaders. “He is viewed as a person who taught the Polish people to be proud of their history and heritage and to stand up to bigger nations. And to be proud of who you are.”
He said his homeland has often been used as a doorway between Eastern and Western Europe. Because of that, Poland has a variety of cultural customs. “They have defined our culture,” he said. “We’re proud of it.”