16th Century sailing ship arrives

Dec 20, 2003
Author: P&S

A few weeks ago the Indonesian 8th century Borobudur sailing ship arrived in South African waters with little advance fanfare (see several reports in the News section dated 2, 4 and 7 December). This time it is a replica of an early 16th century Polish sailing ship. Gwenyth King and Chris Jenkins both visited the little ship in Richards Bay.

Earlier today (20 December 2004) Victoria arrived in Durban and is moored at the Point Yacht Club.

Sailing where the winds blows
By Gwenyth King

Sipping a long cool drink at one of the many watering holes along Durban’s Point, watching the graceful movement of yachts in and out of the harbour, one could almost wish to be on board, sailing for exotic destinations, far away from the traffic noise and the daily grind.

On a visit to Richards Bay harbour recently, I met five guys who have realised that dream, but not aboard a pristine, shiny fibre glass expensive work of art. Their ‘home on the water’ is a 50-ton, hand-made wooden replica of the Victoria, a ship that sailed in the early 16th century. The wood creaks with the movement of the boat and when it rains, the cabin leaks. There are no toilets, no showers and very little living space.

Building of the replica started almost 30 years ago in Poland, but after 3 years, with just the ribs and bare skeleton completed, they quit. The boat stood for 20 years before another adventurous group took over and completed the project. Of the original twelve, only two remain, Captain Jindrich Kuchejda (previously a coal miner) and Ivan Orel, who describes himself as a ‘student of life’. From Poland, where the boat had been standing, it was towed 600 km to Czechoslovakia.

Their achievement in finishing the Victoria is made more remarkable by the fact that none of the 12 had ever sailed. In fact, some of them never sailed at all, their only interest being in building the boat. Their research including looking at pictures of pirate ships.

It is a remarkable piece of workmanship. The main mast was hewn from a single tree and it stand strong and tall with the wood grain showing clearly. Everything is handmade, every piece of planking, every piece of rigging. Sails are made and repaired using an old Singer sewing machine which stands on deck. The anchor winch (the only winch on board) was converted from a piece of machinery found in a railway yard. The anchor itself once stood as an ornament outside a Czech brothel!

After being shown a log of their journey, which is drawn in felt pen across a blow-up beach ball decorated with a map of the world, I asked if they had any modern equipment on board. “We do have GPS and a radio of sorts,” said Capt Jindrich, “and some navigational charts”.

I asked about their reception when they pulled in at various ports around the world, “At first, some of the authorities do not believe our boat is seaworthy, but after they come on board and see for themselves, they are okay. People are very friendly. Some give us donations of food to keep us going.”

Current crew members include Michael Nikl (an engineer from Czechoslovakia), Phil Watson (from Glasgow, Scotland, who met up with the boat in Australia) and Jason Bailey (a house painter from Australia).

The longest journey to date was a nine month haul from Chile to New Zealand. From Richards Bay, they plan to sail to Cape Town with a short stop at Durban.

I asked Capt Jindrich if he had known when he started that it was going to be such hard work, “If I had known,” he said, “we would not be here talking now, you and I”

So next time you watch a yacht sliding silent and graceful across the water, remember Captain Jindrich and the crew of the Victoria with its creaking timbers. They really should have the Jolly Roger flag at the top of that hand-hewn mast.

Some background

Chris Jenkins, the Mercury’s Empangeni Bureau correspondent filed this background:

Name: Victoria
Length: 20 metres
Beam: 5 metres
Draft: 3.2 metres
Weight: 50 tonnes
Average speed: 3 knots
Main mast 15 metres
Structure: Oak and pine
Distance sailed so far: More than 37,000 nautical miles
Departure from Poland: August 1999

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