| Maja Czarnecka |
WARSAW (AFP) — Gliding down the river on a sleek wooden hull, its white sail gleaming as it catches the breeze, the vessel could easily be mistaken for a traditional Egyptian felucca sailing down the Nile.
But this mighty river, the Vistula, runs through Poland and in its capital Warsaw, rigged skiffs first built centuries ago for trade on the wild waterway are making a comeback thanks to a new breed of sailing buff.
“Our boats look a little like feluccas. They have what Egyptians call a ‘crab claw’ sail with one spar along the lower edge,” photographer Jacek Marczewski, who built his own boat from scratch, told AFP.
“In other ways, our boats are quite unique, just like the Vistula is special,” he says of the traditional “pychowka” or “push-boat” in Polish, named for its long pole reaching the river bottom that is used for navigation, much like on the famous gondolas of Venice.
To avoid any accidents, police escorted his 8.5 metre-long (29 foot) vessel through the streets of the capital to its launch site near the impressive national stadium built for the Euro 2012 football championships.
Marczewski waded waist-deep into the river on his 55th birthday to launch his boat, named “Slawka” after his late mother.
It’s a sleek but sturdy design and the 12-square metre (129 square feet) sail is fixed to a five metre high mast.
He used three different types of wood to build it: acacia for the frame; oak for the bow and larch for the hull.
“We built it based on the design of traditional skiffs used for centuries on the Vistula to transport goods or for fishing.
“Larger boats were used to dredge sand from the river bottom used in building, or to ferry goods up the river from Krakow in the south to Gdansk, on the Baltic coast,” the tall, husky Marczewski told AFP.
Pychowki boats moved everything from wheat to potatoes and textiles up and down the Vistula as far back as the 17th century, but river transport fell out of favour with the advent of railways in the late 19th century.
Marczewski is captivated by the Vistula, which he dubs “wild and changable.”
“Areas that are deep can become shallow from day to day and islets of white sand appear and disappear with the seasons,” he told AFP.
He dreams of sailing the Vistula and its tributary the Bug, on Poland’s eastern border with Ukraine, as well as the Oder on its western border with Germany.
He and fellow “pychowka” fan Lukasz Perkowski, who helped Marczewski build his boat, want to sail it at the “Festival de Loire”, an annual event in Orleans, central France, drawing river boat enthusiasts from across Europe.
A ceramics artist, Perkowski uses a carpenter’s shop in Warsaw just a stone’s throw from the Vistula to feed his passion for building boats.
He honed his skills while refurbishing a traditional skiff he acquired from the police, who had confiscated it from poachers.
“Because these boats have flat bottoms, they are very stable and nothing dangerous can really happen,” says Perkowski of the traditional “pychowka”.
“There’s no keel or centreboard and you can easily come ashore in sandy or rocky areas,” he explains.
“That’s also why the boat can only use a back or side wind.
“The Vistula has the reputation of being a very dangerous river and people are afraid to navigate it,” he adds.
Over 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) long, the river spans Poland from its source in the southern Tatra mountains to its northern delta on the Baltic coast, but unlike centuries gone by, there is little traffic on the Vistula today.
The real attraction of the “pychowka” for weary city folk is the quick escape it offers from the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life.
“All you need to do is get in the boat and push off the river bank,” says Perkowski.
“You’re still in the centre of a city of well over a million people, but you’re in a completely different world and you see the city differently,” he says.
“An hour downstream from Warsaw, you discover the peace and quiet of the wilderness, of nature,” Perkowski told AFP.