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Home > Editorials > Yacht & Captain – Janusz Walinski

Yacht & Captain – Janusz Walinski

Captains of Ships – Janusz Walinski

When Janusz was 13 he went on a 20km guided hike around the captivating Polish countryside.  They ended up at a lake and he took one look at the sailing boats glistening in the sunset and thought ‘I should try that’.  Almost immediately upon his return, Janusz signed up to a sailing racing school close to home in north Poland.

“I joined as the season was just finishing,” explains Janusz, “so the coach sent us down into the basement and asked us to build our boats from scratch for next season.  Quite the baptism of fire.  Mercifully they were just Optimist-sized eight footers, but it taught me a lot about naval architecture from the get go.”

“The first time I sailed on the lake, a light breeze washing over me, I had a feeling that I had found what I was looking for.  As a 14-year-old I couldn’t name it or put my finger on it, but I now know that I had fallen for the free movement with nature, pulling the sails to harness the wind, it’s an unbeatable sensation.”

Unable to sail in the harsh Polish winter, Janusz turned his attention quite heavily to judo, a sport that he practised for a decade.  But, needing more commitment and dedication, his sailing coach eventually asked him to choose between the two – Janusz chose sailing.

Janusz started racing the 420 class dinghy (just shy of 14 feet) and not only became passionate about it but he was also rather skilful, competing nationally and internationally.  Such was sailing’s lure, he even jumped ship from a five-and-a-half year Naval Architecture degree after just three years – “It was boring, I wanted to be a yacht captain”.

Having cut his teeth on various sailing vessels, age 22 Janusz was offered a captain job on a 21 metre gaff rigged ketch, taking her from Split in Croatia down to Athens.  A few months later, he became first officer on a 42 metre three-masted schooner he’d been a trainee deckhand on five years previously in The Cutty Sark Tall Ships’ Race, and made the long crossing from Athens to Singapore.

Next on the agenda was a qualification event for the ¾ ton class European championships in the South of France (he would wind up skippering Poland to tenth place out of 30 or 40 nations).  As he was ‘in the area’ he headed up the Atlantic coast to the seaside town of Les Sables-d’Olonne and helped prepare an 18 metre sailing boat for the single-handed round-the-world BOC Challenge (predecessor to the now-dormant Velux 5 Oceans).  Next, Janusz took an 11 metre sailing boat on a delivery trip to Madeira and back to Vilamoura – she never made it.

“It was December and we were caught in a huge storm.  Our mast was 15 metres high and the waves were breaking over it, so they must have been 16 metres or more.  Hit by a huge wave, the boat capsized and the mast was ripped off tearing a hole in the hull.  When a sailing boat capsizes you can imagine the mayhem, everything goes flying and we ended up lying on the ceiling.  I told the elderly owners to wait, the boat would right itself, and it did, giving me just enough time to grab the life raft I’d inflated minutes earlier.  We literally stepped up from the yacht into the raft.  In the next wave, she sank.”

“I had sent a position and mayday signal from the yacht but, with the antenna on the mast and the mast underwater, I was just talking to the fish.  Nobody was looking for us.  We spent about 24 hours in a life raft some 200 miles off the Gulf of Cadiz.  In our favour, a couple of large cargo ships also sank in the storm so a Portuguese frigate was out searching for 17-or-so missing crew.  20 or more navy officers were on lookout on the bridge, binoculars in hand, but an off-duty crewmember in the officers’ mess spotted us bobbing about a few hundred metres from his window.  We were lucky, we were rescued.  What I learnt from the experience was when the sh1t hits the fan I remain calm and follow the principles of sea survival without hesitation.”

Having lost everything, the Polish embassy paid for Janusz’s ticket back home where he got a new passport and, in July 1990, he headed back to the South of France to find a job in the superyacht industry.

“I slept on a beach in Antibes, a beach I found out had earned the nickname ‘junkie beach’, and had only enough money for a single bottle of water and a baguette each day – a dry baguette, no filling.  I had minimal possessions as I’d left my bag in concierge and couldn’t afford the francs to settle the bill to take it out.  With Google still eight years off in the future, I physically walked into an agency, Yachtmaster Ocean qualification in hand, and four days later got a job as a deckie on 37 metre motoryacht Sea Crest.”

Given Janusz’s sailing background, it seemed incongruous that he would enter the world of motorboating.  “While I was dock walking I told a yacht captain that I preferred sail boats.  He said, ‘Don’t do it, they always think you’re doing it as a hobby and pay you less’ – and my decision to go motor was made there and then.”

Janusz spent two years on Sea Crest, wintering in Mallorca, his first introduction to the island, and then a few months as first mate on 40 metre Hakim before taking chief officer on 52 metre Feadship Pilar (now Illusion) – pretty good going for a 26 year old.  Pilar also wintered in Mallorca, in Puerto Portals, and his bond with the Balearic island grew stronger.

After a year and a half on Pilar, Janusz had a girlfriend and decided he wanted more of a private life so downsized to 24 metre Samar where he gained his first captaincy.  Of course he ended up working double the time and broke up with his girlfriend – but fate would soon lead him to his now-wife.

Samar was based on the capitania quay in Portals and I had rented an apartment close by, so was nicely settled on the island.  I got introduced to my Spanish wife-to-be at a brokerage event in Valldemossa.  She already had a baby daughter and, after a brief courtship, we got married in June 1996.  In the meantime, Samar got sold, twice, and in December it was time to look for a new job.”

“I had an interview, in English, with the elderly German owner of 34 metre Xanadu which was in-build at the Moonen shipyard in Holland.  I got the captain job, and was promptly told they would never speak English to me ever again.  I was sent on a six-week intensive language course in Frankfurt and after that everyone was instructed to only communicate with me in German – including the shipyard.  I learned Italian in a similar manner when I oversaw the last stages of construction of Sanlorenzo Carom.”

“The idea was I would spend two months in Holland and then return to Portals and my new wife.  Instead it was eight months in Holland immediately followed by two years in Turkey.  I saw my family only 40 days each year, so any plans for more children were put on hold.”

In 1999, Janusz finally made it back to Mallorca and joined aforementioned 30 metre Carom – also wintering in Portals.  Seizing the opportunity afforded by two years stability, the couple had two children, two boys, just 18 months apart.  This was followed by a further decade of permanency captaining Portals-based 38 metre Indigo Star, during which time they had another girl – the family was complete.

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In February 2011, Janusz made the biggest step-up of his career and upsized to very busy commercial charter yacht 62 metre RoMa.  He joined her in Antigua for the tail end of the Caribbean season and in March crossed the Atlantic to the Viareggio shipyard for some warranty work (by now RoMa was barely a year old) before entering a summer Med season.

“The owner employed me as he too needed stability.  He was the nicest guy I ever worked for but somehow in year one he had managed to get through five captains and a hundred crew and RoMa was earning a name as a high turnover yacht.  He saw that I’d remained a whole decade on Indigo Star so could hopefully bring some calm to the yacht.  I showed up on day one, wiped the slate clean, and asked the crew to get on and show me how they worked.  Inevitably, some fell by the wayside, but I implemented structure and earned retention.  The millennials are the easiest to manage as I have children the same age – 25, 18, 17 and 14 – so I know where they’re coming from.”

More than seven years down the line Janusz is still on RoMa.  Aside from memorable trips from Abu Dhabi to the Maldives, in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, she is a mainly Mediterranean charter boat.  Equipped with the full gamut of tenders and toys, including a giant inflatable slide, RoMa is also a certified PADI dive centre and a RYA personal watercraft training centre – a great USP.  As a PADI and RYA instructor, Janusz is at the helm.

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“I and my 17 crew are always diving.  I am a big advocate of the ‘Dos Manos’ beach clean-ups and have taken its essence to snorkelling and diving.  If we dive, we pick up any plastic waste we find.  We explain what we’re doing, guests join in, and together we help raise awareness.  It was a proud moment when I took charter guests to a nature reserve in Sardinia – they took one look at the pollution and unprompted said ‘Janusz, they really need Dos Manos’.  If I leave RoMa I certainly won’t be going to a non-diving boat.”

Would Janusz ever leave RoMa?

“I have no immediate desire to not work.  If my health and fitness don’t let me down I will work ‘til I am at least 60.  The next move, if there is one, would have to be another big jump to a far larger vessel.  I did the leap from 38 to 62 metres and my ticket will take me up to 90 or 95 metres.  It could actually make my life easier.  I believe a 62 metre is slap bang in the middle of the pure hassle size range.  As a captain, I am hands on with everything from helping deflate the slide to managing the paperwork.  With a 90 metre I would get an IT specialist, a purser… you name it.”

“During the season it is hard to get away, but in the winter I work 8am to 5pm Monday to Friday with weekends off – in theory.  I say ‘in theory’ because, even though I sleep at home in Costa d’en Blanes, if I hear my shutters rattling in the wind I call the guys on the boat in Port Adriano to check the lines and so on.  And if the weather is really bad, I stay on board.”

“In terms of hobbies and interests, my problem is that if I get into something I get obsessed, and have to be the best.  I tried golf, but only took it up age 36, already with back problems, and with so much time lapsing between rounds my game got rusty.  So I turned to horse riding.  My daughters are incredible riders, both have won various medals and been Spanish champions in dressage.  I went from zero to riding six times a week, then promptly fell off and broke a vertebra.  Six years later I got back on a horse and now only ride when I am in a good mood, the horse is in a good mood, and the weather is set fair.”

Aside from fair-weather horse riding, Janusz has taken one other sporting measure in order to safeguard his health and his career path – no more beach football with guests and crew.  Incident one involved a lucky-not-to-be-sacked crew member taking Janusz down in a fierce tackle resulting in tendons being stripped from his shoulder and some hard-core surgery.  A second tackle snapped his Achilles.  His wearable activity tracker told Janusz he walked 5km a day on a broken Achilles until he could see a doctor five months later – unsurprisingly it was deemed too late for surgery.  And they say worse things happen at sea…

Sarah Forge, sarah@purplecakefactory.com