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A Polish sea captain finds heroes, history in Buffalo’s Polonia

Skipper Andrew W. Piotrowski and filmmaker Peter Rudzinski faced down hurricanes, tropical storms and ferocious heat during their 4,000-mile nautical journey that started in Chicago three years ago.

Their goal was to find Polish heroes who have made a difference in America. They stopped in St. Louis, New Orleans, Savannah, Ga., Charleston, S.C. and countless other ports.

And they struck gold in Buffalo.

Motoring along the Niagara River this week in a Morgan-46 yacht, the sailors traveled under the International Railroad Bridge designed by Casimir Gzowski, a Polish-Canadian engineer.

An afternoon was spent driving to Niagara-on-the-Lake to visit Haller’s Blue Army Cemetery, where Polish-American recruits for the Polish War of Independence are buried.

And from the observation deck at Buffalo City Hall, they viewed an army of church spires rising above the old Polish neighborhoods on the city’s East.

“The Polish spirit in the United States goes through us,” said Rudzinski, who is making a documentary of their water voyage. “We care about our history. We care about our heroes. We try to go where history matters.”

The mission

To tell the story of Polish heroes in North America, Piotrowski and Rudzinski are traveling a route known as America’s Great Loop. It combines the country’s inland river system to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. The voyage takes them on the Mississippi River, around Florida, up the Atlantic coast, the Hudson River, the Erie Canal and finally the Great Lakes.

Piotrowski and Rudzinski met in 2012 in the British Virgin Islands. Piotrowski, who grew up in Koszalin, Poland within eight miles of the Baltic Sea, and now lives in Chicago. He had the Great Loop on his bucket list.

Rudzinski, who is from Ostroleka, Poland and now lives in New York City, was searching for a film project.

They began their journey in 2013, going port to port, chronicling their search for Polish patriots.

“We’ve been through everything,” Rudzinski said. “A month ago we were in Charleston and a hurricane warning was issued so we waited it out for a few days. We were not sleeping during the night because we were watching the boat, making sure it was still attached to the dock. It was scary out there. We’ve had a lot of adventures.”

In Chesapeake Bay, their vessel - Kpt. Wagner II - got caught in shallow waters. The men fought relentless waves from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.

“We were stuck jumping the waves – 2 feet, 2 feet, 2 feet,” recalled Rudzinski. “Finally, we got into deep waters, but during the whole night we maybe traveled 100 feet.”

An invitation to Buffalo

Andrew Golebiowski discovered their saga on Facebook two months ago and reached out to them. Golebiowski, who helped create the Polonia Trail through Western New York, wanted to showcase Buffalo’s Polish American history.

“I told them there is a Polish community here eager to meet them,” said Golebiowski, board member of the Polish American Congress.

At the time of the Buffalo invitation, Piotrowski and Rudzinski were on the Mississippi.

The Memphis to New Orleans leg – more than 650 miles – was a treacherous stretch compounded by the lack of mooring spots for yachts, Rudzinzki said.

In Memphis, a third crew member Beata Moryl, photographer and Rudzinski’s wife, boarded.

In Mobile, Ala., they discovered the tombs of Confederate Col. Hippolytus Oladowski and Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg in Magnolia Cemetery. Oladowski’s will requested that he be buried next to his friend in arms.

“This was a big story for us,” said Rudzinski.

In St. Louis, they found major league baseball legend Stan Musial, who played for 22 seasons for the St. Louis Cardinals.

“Piotrowski just spends his life on the water,” said Przemyslaw “P.J.” Moskal, associate professor and Digital Media Arts Program director at Canisius College. Piotrowski is a seasoned sailor with a wanderlust that spurred his crossing the Atlantic Ocean 14 times, said Moskal.

A member of maritime center, Moskal arranged a speaking event held Wednesday at the center on Arthur Street. It featured the two sailors and their sea stories.

Sailor hero

There is much history behind the name Kpt. Wagner II, said Rudzinski.

Wladek Wagner became the first Pole to circumnavigate the world. His journey using various small sailing boats that he designed and built sailed from 1932 to 1939. In a published interview in 1988 from his home in Winter Park, Fla., Wagner recalled sailing into ports where the local sailors had never seen the Polish flag.

“He is a hero to all Polish sailors,” said Rudzinski. “It was his dream to return to Poland but he never did. He was on his way back to Poland from England and World War II broke out so he never returned to his home country.”

An article in the Orlando Sentinel stated Wagner’s crew changed several times during his seven-year voyage. Wagner’s feat, for the most part, was accomplished without advanced navigational devices. It was only toward the end of his voyage that the Polish Navy gifted him a sextant and liquid compass, according the Sentinel.

Wagner died in 1992 in Winter Park.

The documentary

“Great Loop Polonia: Tracing Polish Heroes in America,” is half complete, said filmmaker Rudzinzki.

“The first part of the documentary will air on Polish public television,” he said. “When the second part is finished we plan to return to the U.S. to show it in select places. The boat will be renovated in Chicago, and next April we are planning to go back to Poland.”

As for Piotrowski, he has his sight set on the scenic canals and rivers that crisscross France.

“He said he’s sick of the Atlantic,” said Goliebewski.

email jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com

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