Slavic Sailor Wants to Knock Out Record

When Polish sailor Zbigniew Gutkowski introduces himself, your hand vanishes into a massive palm that could engulf a football better than most quarterbacks.

“Gutek,” he says, and for a moment you think perhaps one of the Klitschko brothers has commandeered a 60-foot sailboat. Gutkowski is more boxer than sailor, with a wide frame that towers several inches beyond six feet. Stuffed into big red gloves, those hands could pack quite the punch.

But they’re usually busy with ropes or navigation software, at the helm or fixing yet another repair. They’ve been primed by years of sailing on the rough waters of the Baltic Sea. Blustery Polish winters were no barrier to getting out on the ocean; nor were the scarce resources of communism. “You didn’t have the best gear,” he says, remembering how cold his hands would get after a wintry day at sea. “Then when you go inside, they burn.”

Still, those hands are as agile and precise as a surgeon’s. On one leg of the 2011 Velux Five Oceans Race, Gutkowski’s wind generator sliced a gash in his forehead. “Blood everywhere,” he says, showing me a picture of the wound on his iPad. When I ask about medical attention, he makes a whirling motion over his forehead: “I sew it up.”

Now Gutkowski is trying his hand at the solo transatlantic monohull record – currently held by Alex Thomson — with his IMOCA Open 60 Energa. And he’s attempting it with one of Thomson’s former boats: Energa was re-fashioned from the ‘black and white’ Hugo Boss.

Gutkowski is from Gdansk, one of the most important shipbuilding centers in Poland during its heyday, providing vessels for Eastern Europe and some Soviet countries. The city is famous for its role in the Polish uprising: In the 1980s, Lech Walesa led tens of thousands of shipyard workers in strikes that are credited with ultimately leading to the fall of communism in the country.

When Gutkowski was growing up, membership in the local sailing club was reserved for shipyard workers, so he could only press his nose up to the glass — until his geography teacher, who was a member of the club, brought Gutkowski and some other students there for geography club trips.

Gutkowski was 10 at the time and took to the sport instantly. His talent was eventually recognized by a member of the sailing club and he was plucked to train with local competitive teams. By age 14, he was sailing with the Polish national team.

“Finally,” he says, “we have good equipment for sailing.”

But sailing the Baltic was still a challenge. Gutkowski recalls spring days spent waiting for large ships to cut a path through icebergs so he could sail.

“It is difficult and tough area to learn,” he says. “But it’s really good. If you can sail there, after that you can sail everywhere” – even in long offshore ocean races: which he started to do in 2000 in The Race, a non-stop round-the-world aboard the catamaran Warta-Polpharma.

His next step was a 2004 round-the-world speed record on an Open60, then a single-handed try in the 2005 Nokia Oops Cup aboard the ORMA 60 Bonduelle. After one other offshore event in 2007, Gutkowski set his sights on the Velux Five Oceans.

The prep time paid off because he took second place in that race in 2011 with the IMOCA60 Operon. He fought hard in the multi-leg race, suffering not only the forehead gash, but also two cracked ribs. A doctor in Brazil, where he stopped to recuperate for a mere 10 days, told him he was lucky to not have punctured a lung.

After the Velux, Gutkowski and his entourage, which includes the sailor Maciej “Swistak” Marczewski, convinced Energa — an energy company headquartered in Gdansk with a bent for alternative power — to sponsor a new IMOCA60. This time Gutkowski purchased an old boat off Alex Thomson, the ‘black and white’ Hugo Boss made famous by Thomson’s tailored-suit-soaking keel dive.

Gutkowski’s next plan: The 2012 Vendee Globe.

But like many others, Energa dropped out of the race after only 11 days. The trouble: autopilot malfunction.

Now Energa’s objective is to reclaim a record from her former owner. Gutkowski is hoping to smash Thomson’s 8-day, 22-hour, 8-minute record, which was set in the summer of 2012 as preparation for the Vendee Globe; albeit with a newer incarnation of Hugo Boss.
In purple, green, yellow, and orange, Energa leaves hardly a trace of the monochrome Hugo Boss, except for her reverse navigation station. And Thomson surely didn’t dine on the vacuum-sealed, dried Slavic specialties onboard: beef stroganoff, pork loin in dill sauce.

Gutkowski may encounter other traces of the Baltic Sea on his journey to Cape Lizard: icebergs are still in season in north Atlantic, and it’s unlikely he’ll have a cargo ship to clear them from his path. Fog and whales are two other tough opponents. But that’s no matter for Gutkowski. He’ll fend them off with a combination punch.