Interview with Piotr Sadurski, photographer and archaeologist, honored in this year’s Sony World Awards. Peter builds and uses traditional river boats. The boating season is just beginning, so you might want to think about an alternative means of transportation on inland waterways.

Leszek Naziemiec: I would like to buy a wooden boat for recreational river cruising. What choice do I have?

Piotr Sadurski: It should be noted right away that we are talking about traditional wooden boats. What to consider when choosing a boat? First you need to think about where you will sail, on what bodies of water. It is the water that gives shape to the boat, the boatbuilder only fulfills its will – then the best specimens are created, perfectly adapted to local nautical conditions. If we think of artificial reservoirs, such as canals, then conditions on the Elblaski or Zeran canals, or on the 18th century regulated canal. Notts are no different.

Natural reservoirs are a completely different swim. The Vistula River near Kazimierz or near Warsaw, the Oder River near Kostrzyn, the Szczecin Lagoon or the Vistula Lagoon are fundamentally different from each other, and as a result, a boat from the upper Vistula looks different from one built in Murzynow, a boat from Kazimierz does not resemble one used in the Szczecin Lagoon. If you are thinking of buying or rather building a traditional boat, look around you, because there are still built copies floating around on the rivers and lakes. This solution will be the best.

If you have an upper Vistula nearby, try to build a single lane boat, if a middle one, near Warsaw or Plock, it seems to me that a funnel would be the best choice, but farther north half-lanes or nieszawki appear. On the Vistula Lagoon, a fantastic choice would be a fisherman’s jaunt. On the Oder River, on the other hand, in my opinion, one should try to build a pickerel, and on the Szczecin Lagoon or Lake Dabie the best idea would be to recreate a small fishing boat of the hojer type. This is an absolutely fantastic design. Such boats, built in the traditional way from traditional raw materials, will, I am convinced, provide an unforgettable experience of sailing on selected bodies of water.

L.N: With this answer, we sailed right into deep waters! Let’s try to clarify things. What is a one-lane road? Suppose I want to sail on the Vistula, from Sandomierz to Gdansk. I want to take 3-4 people on board and do camping along the way. So I order a boat from a boatbuilder. How long will it take to build it? The boat probably weighs a lot. Will I be able to handle it? And the matter of the drive. There are long push oars, traditional – double oars, and sometimes even sails. Should I have an engine to begin with?

P.S.: A little too much detail. There will be time to deepen our knowledge when we start sailing traditional boats. Literature is plentiful. It’s not readily available, but with a bit of willingness, you can find interesting information, including about single-passenger boats. There is a lot of hermetic vocabulary in folk boatbuilding, and that’s where the ambiguities come from. The planks of the side planking are strips; joining successive strips with nails is sewing. My depiction of the details is a way to show the variety of designs and a suggestion to look for a boatbuilder in your immediate area. He will know best what will work in the region. Just getting to a specialist is an adventure.

My first pusher was 150 km of exploration. I checked village by village, drove along the Vistula, and asked at local museums, communities, and randomly met older residents who still remembered how to use oars, a push and nets. I’ve heard great stories.

In the end, I ended up outside Plock, in Murzynów. This is where boats have been built since the 1920s. In the 1970s. A wonderful continuity of tradition. In the same workshops, with old tools, constructions with an unchanging form. I managed to persuade Andrew Gurdinski to build it. What emerged was a semi-plejt – a fishing boat from the middle Vistula River, 730 cm long, 70 cm wide in the bottom, 140 cm in the sides, beautifully bent at the bow. Just right for individual use. The size of the boat is important here.

For example, 7-8 m is enough to take 2-4 people on a cruise, but 2 people are enough to take her out of the water and turn her upside down for the winter, and transport her on a small trailer if necessary. Oars, the so-called pojezda, a push oar – pojezda, a spruce mast, a sail with a characteristic rectangular shape, a strut often called a barb here, and we have almost everything. Is an engine needed? Maybe. But not a big one: 2.5-5 hp. It will be cheaper, lighter, more economical, and the power will certainly be enough. Keep in mind that a push boat is best sailed slowly and with sail and oars.

By wooden boat
pic. Piotr Sadurski

L.N: How do you maintain the boat? Can you use canola oil for this to make it cheaper? How often does it need to be done? How to patch leaks?

P.S.: A traditional boat is a philosophy of life, different from a laminate yacht. The new boat, built from pine brett, must be soaked. For this purpose, it is best to use linseed oil with pine tar and a small addition of turpentine. Paint the boat a couple of times until it stops absorbing the product. Then it must dry thoroughly. Let’s not rush. The longer, the better. Only then can we launch.

A new boat generally leaks, so you have to sink it for a few days. The wood will soak up water, swell, the gaps between the moles will disappear and the boat will seal itself. Such a process should be repeated at least once a year, preferably in the spring, before the next season. Annual washing, painting with an anti-fungal product and oiling will certainly prolong the life of our boat. It is still worthwhile to carefully inspect the condition of the dichthong and, if necessary, fill in the gaps. Traditionally, pakulas are used, but animal hair is also great for this purpose (this is also a tradition). After the seal is struck, it is essential to pour hot tar over it.

Can other preparations be used for boat maintenance: canola or sunflower oil instead of linseed oil, beech tar instead of pine tar? You can, but the savings will not be large, and the differences in chemical composition, and therefore in the effect on the wood, will be significant. We can experiment, just why? After all, we’re talking about tradition here, and that tradition gives peace of mind, limits the daily hustle and excludes innovative activities.

L.N.: I have heard that it is possible to sink a boat for the winter.

P.S.: I think that if we don’t intend to sail all year round, it’s a good idea to take the boat out of the water in the autumn, wash it thoroughly and put it on the maelstrom until spring. Sinking for the winter is not the best solution. Wood in water is a good place for microorganisms to grow. If you’re boating, the current of the water, the friction of the bottom against the sand, and cleaning before going out reduce their occurrence. A couple of months underwater, in a standstill, can leave us with a lot more work to do in the spring.

L.N: Once again, I would like to touch on strictly practical matters. Does a traditional wooden boat have an advantage over a laminate construction? Keep in mind that pulling it ashore and maintaining it are more difficult. It’s not easy to persuade people to use old technology when there is something simpler and more convenient at hand.

P.S.: A farmer, but also a folk boat builder, Stanislaw Waszczuk from the village of Hanna Kolonia, who back in the 1980s. built and sold single-propeller boats, and considered the longboat to be the best design for fishing on the river. Tadeusz Szymanski of Kromnowo on the Vistula and Andrzej Gurdzinski of Murzynowo say the same about their boats. They emphasize the strength of wooden structures. Stepping on a rock reef or hitting a bough lying in the current does not mean damage to the planking.

Stanislaw Waszczuk also mentioned that wooden boats are quieter than modern laminate constructions, which is important with the peculiar, riverfront way of setting nets. Ecology can also be mentioned. A wooden boat is not durable. It serves 10-14 years, but never litters the river. It falls apart and disappears. Sailing on traditional boats, we are in a different cultural space, communing with something timeless. This is important for those who can appreciate it.

L.N: You recently sailed a traditional boat on the Danube River. Tell us what kind of episode it was and whether you used the engine. What surprised you?

P.S.: Me and my friends managed to realize an interesting Danube cruise in 2023. We took my boat to Inglostadt and, after covering more than 800 kilometers, ended the adventure outside Budapest. The Leytak, a typical Vistula boat, has no transom. The sides and bottom of the pile connection are finished with a bar. There is no way to mount the engine there. And very well. Cruising on a big river on oars and sail is an unforgettable experience, especially since, for example, in Austria we encountered similar boat-building constructions – zillas (propelled by wrought-iron poles on the way upstream and long paddles on the way down). A very efficient way to propel a small boat. And the surprise? This is certainly a huge traffic on the water and the associated noise and ripples – felt especially at night.

Moving against the current, you can hear the barge for more than an hour, and the wave turns the boat moored at the shore and you get the impression that the water will pour into the tent. These are details that fade into oblivion. What remains is the image of the river – complex and multi-layered. History, monuments, cities, modernity, navigation, flow dynamics, space and freedom are the most important things we experienced on this trip.

L.N: Thank you for the interview and for all your advice and help in my personal adventure of using the Rowan boat.

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