Joseph Conrad Yacht Club Chicago


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How It All Started

By Henry G. Luber

On Saint Nicholas Day, December 6, 1965, I arrived in Chicago from a small town in Poland. Since my early childhood, lakes, rivers, and the Baltic Sea have always fascinated me. Growing up, I spent a lot of time fishing, swimming, boating, and later sailing. My hometown, Sianow, is situated near the Baltic, with two good-size lakes nearby, and a couple of small rivers running through town. Most of my sailing in Poland took place on Lake Jamno, and that is where the passion of my life was born.

On arrival in Chicago, the first thing I wanted to see was Lake Michigan. In order to save on bus fare, I decided to take a walk from Humboldt Park, along Division Street, to the North Avenue beach. Little did I know that my path had to cross the Cabrini Green neighborhood, a very dangerous area. That is where my adventure really began. Needless to say, I almost paid with my life. Luckily, I survived due to a quick action by a Chicago police officer who quickly removed us from that neighborhood. I came back home by bus with my face swollen and barely able to see. I did not see the lake that day.

The summers of 1966 and 1967 were beautiful. Lake Michigan was the place to be. I spent a lot of time at the beaches with friends from Wells High School talking and dreaming of sailing on the lake. Soon enough the dreams came true. On a warm, sunny spring day in 1968, while sitting on the new grass outside Wilbur Wright College with fellow students Albert Lada and Mark Sokolowski, the decision was reached that we needed to be on the water that summer. After a short discussion we came to a conclusion that we needed to buy a sail boat. Within a week we became proud owners of a 19-foot sloop.

The three of us put in $250.00 each. She was a fixed keel boat with ballast. The hull was made of mahogany veneer covered with fiberglass. She was a beauty; all she needed was a fresh coat of paint and a 5 hp outboard motor. Mark Jozefowich, also a student at Wright College, joined us in preparing our boat for the season. Within a month she was ready to sail. Christening took place on Lake Geneva in southern Wisconsin with Danuta Bijowska as God Mother. We named this boat s/y Kormoran.

The summers of 1968 and 1969 were great. There were numerous sailing trips on Lake Geneva and later on Lake Michigan. Many other friends and fellow students joined our sailing club: Lester Krajewski a high school friend, Casey Wytaniec, a fellow student from Wright College, and also our college girlfriends and future wives: Danuta Bijowska Luber, Hanna Jezierska Lada, Anna Chlebowska Sokolowski, Dorota Jezierska Krajewski, Danuta Pelc Jozefowicz and Krystyna Lechniak Wytaniec.

With all that enthusiasm and so many friends, our circle started to expand. In the early summer of 1969, we met Isidore Ryzak at the Monroe Street Harbor. He was the owner of a 25-foot sloop named s/y Aeolus. During this meeting the idea of creating Polish yacht club in Chicago was borne. That summer Stan Kostecki, a fellow students from the University of Illinois at Chicago also joined our club. Stan sailed an Olympic class racing boat, The Star, which he received from Isidore. With our group growing so fast, in the fall of 1969, we decided to formally establish the first Polish yacht club outside of Poland. Besides many young students from the U of I, some older salts also joined: Isidore Ryzak, Rene Geblewicz, Waldemar Flanczewski, Jerzy Krzaczynski and Janusz Glinski. Both Isidore and Rene were very helpful in formalizing our organization. It became known as The Joseph Conrad Yacht Club. At that time we were proud owners of four sail boats: The Star, The Eel, The Aeolus, and The Karolinka, a gaff rigged 34-foot sloop owned by Isidore.

The club activities started that fall. Most of us at that time were students at the U of I at Chicago. We began to prepare for the upcoming sailing season. Formal courses in seamanship and navigation took place at the University. Lectures were conducted by Janusz Glinski, Jerry Krzaczynski, and me; all of us had formal training in Poland. More students joined our club. Among many were Kazimierz Chlebek, Zbigniew Kubit and Adam Salwinski, who became the first club representative at the Polish American Congress, (at that time the club was very active supporting the PAC in the fight against communism in Poland), Tad Pacyniak, the future Polish architect, and Walter Kotaba, the future Polish businessman in Chicago.

We spent the spring of 1970 at Larson Marine in Waukegan working on s/y Eel. She was a 39-foot sloop of a classic Swedish 30-square meter design. We decided to restore this boat to the original looks. After removing several coats of paint and sanding her down to bare wood, seven coats of varnish were applied this brought the beauty of mahogany to luster. Rene Geblewicz applied the varnish while we did the sanding between the coats. The boat was launched in early May of 1970 and sailed to Monroe Street Harbor with an overnight stop in Wilmette due to a heavy line of thunderstorms to the south. On board was a bunch of U of I students in full euphoria.

Our original partnership was split between two boats. Casey Wytaniec and I stayed on s/y Eel while Albert Lada and Mark Sokolowski took s/y Aeolus. It was a great summer. The Eel was a fast wet boat. Many club members and fellow students participated in numerous daily excursions as well as several overnight trips. She was a popular boat. New club members received training in basic maneuvers and seamanship.

The club was growing very fast. Our boats were small; we needed bigger boats so more of us could sail together. In January, 1971, we purchased s/y Fraja. The proud owners were Waldemar Flanczewski, Walter Kotaba, Kazimierz Wytaniec, and I. She was a 48-wooden sloop (classic 8-meter) designed by Hans Anker and built by Chris Jensen in Oslo, Norway, in 1918. Her parameters were: length 48 feet, beam 10 feet, draft 7 feet, mast 65 feet, sail 120 square meters, ballast 13,000 lbs; material: mahogany planking over white oak frames and 45 hp Gray marine engine.

The Fraja was built for King Olav V of Norway, who as a prince sailed to Chicago for The World Fair of 1933. She was also later known as s/y Dansker. While in Chicago, she participated in several Mackinac races and belonged to the US Navy for many years.

She was in bad shape when we acquired her. Many planks and frames were rotten, and the mast was delaminated. It was a big project to get her seaworthy by mid June. In those days if the boat was not in the harbor by June 15, the Chicago Park District would revoke the mooring permit. It cost me one semester of college plus a lot of labor. Luckily, I had plenty of club members helping. However, Isidore Ryzak was the most helpful. His woodworking skills, common sense, and resourcefulness were greatly appreciated. The old boards with dry rot were replaced with new mahogany planks, and new epoxy laminated white oak frames replaced rotten ones. The mast was glued together even though many experts said it could not be done. We did it. The boat was in the water on time and the great season started.

The first cruise took place over the 4th of July weekend across the lake to South Heaven, Michigan. On board were H. Luber as captain, Danuta Bijowska, Walter Kotaba, Monica Redwanska, Waldemar Flanczewski, Kazimierz Wytaniec, Krystyna Lechniak, Janusz Glinski, Andrzej Buszkowski, and Rajmund Cygielski. It was a very interesting cruise for every one, especially for Henry, a 23-year young captain in charge of an ocean going vessel. The weather was beautiful on the way to South Heaven; the crew was laughing, singing, and having a good time. All that work paid off. On the way back we sailed through several thunderstorms. The boat started to take water. First, the electric pumps failed, and then the overzealous crew broke the hand pumps. Finally, we discovered that nothing was faster than scared sailors with buckets which kept s/y Fraja on the surface. All these problems were corrected in Chicago.

Preparing the boat for the 1972 season was a little bit easier. We had some experience and Janusz Barsh joined us. He was great in woodworking, especially in replacing long planks that had to be fitted by bending and twisting. There was no room for errors since the planks were very expensive and had to fit in perfectly. Walter Kotaba was able to buy supplies for our boats at the wholesale price which helped all the boat owners in the club a lot. Again, it was a great season. As usual, on the 4th of July and the Labor Day weekend we sailed across the lake. Other weekends were dedicated for sailing waters near Chicago. Many club members learned basic maneuvers and sail handling. Also many new faces joined our club. Among others were Dr. Don Lemke, a professor at the U of I, Mirek Niedzinski, who later with his brother, Albert, bought a yacht, the Rascal, a 52-foot Q boat, Leon Omel Janowicz, a dentist and sailor from Szczecin, Witold Nowicki, the future owner of the sailboat The Monica, Marek Koszalka who replaced all the wiring and built a new control panel on The Fraja, and Janusz and Elzbieta Ciurla. Janusz was kind enough to let us use his mother’s restaurant, Patria, for club meetings and dances at no charge. The club grew by leaps and bounds.

During the marshal law in Poland, club members helped organize and took part in many protests against the communist regime. There were protests in front of the Polish Consulate in Chicago; over 50,000 people participated blocking Lake Shore Drive. Personally I and most club members were involved in these protests. I was also responsible for donation of four artificial kidney machines from Baxter Corporation to Solidarity movement. Mr. Walesa attorney Mr.Gryszkiewicz accepted them on behave of Mr. Walesa.

During the Venetian Night celebrations in Monroe Harbor in Chicago in 1982 and 1983, S/y Fraja took part in protests with Alderman (ex Congressman) Roman Pucinski on board. Also, there were many young girls in polish costumes who were throwing white and red carnations to people on shore with “Solidarity” buttons attached to flowers. There was a large banner “Solidarity” covering the starboard side of the vessel while loud speakers on board played “Zeby Polska byla Polska”, a “Solidarity” song. Several hundred thousand people on shore were watching; many responded by joining in singing.

S/y Fraja as a club flagship was the focal point of club activities for 12 years. Several hundred members and guests had the pleasure to enjoy time under her sails. We would meet at 10:00 AM very Saturday and Sunday (unless the boat was on a cruise somewhere else) at Monroe Harbor on the wall across from The Buckingham Fountain. On the way back s/y Fraja would pick up the mooring line while the crew would clean the boat throughout and then she would dock at the shore to disembark. All the long weekends were spent sailing across the lake visiting harbors in Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin including Holland, Saugatuck, South Heaven, Sweet Cherry, St. Joe, Michigan City, Burns Harbor, Waukegan, and Milwaukee. But as the story goes, all the good things come to an end. All of us graduated from the university and pursued professional careers. S/y Fraja still needed a lot of tender loving care, a lot of time and work that we could not provide. For one weekend of labor there would be only two weekends of sailing, so with many regrets she was sold. The new owner moved her to Milwaukee Harbor in 1985 where on November 10, during a strong gale, she broke her mooring line and hit the rocky shore. Nothing was found but the engine.

S/y Fraja satisfied our sailing needs during summer months. In the winter I organized many sailing cruises around the world starting in Florida and expanding to the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Hawaii, the South Pacific, and Europe. Hundreds of club members had the pleasure of discovering exotic lands and waters, mainly islands. Some members like Jerzy Jablonski, Andrzej Piotrowski, and Andrzej Rychlak learned the ropes of chartering from me and organized trips of their own so even more members had the opportunity to sail interesting areas.

Presently, I am retired and reside on an avocado plantation on top of the mountain overlooking Pacific Ocean and Saint Bernardino mountain chain in Southern California. I go sailing several times a month year round, mostly out of San Diego. In the summer I go sailing on regular bases with friends out of Chicago, and in winter out of Florida. At list once a year I organize “Old Boys” race in Chicago and charter cruse somewhere in the world.