Bang for buck, it’s hard to think of a big boat project that scores more highly than I Love Poland. The VO70 that was originally constructed for US skipper Ken Read’s Puma campaign in the Volvo Ocean Race, Mar Mostro is now enjoying a fulfilling second life as the 70-foot platform for an extremely successful and well-run tour of the offshore racing circuit. And a lot more besides.
Earlier this year, the young Polish crew sailed I Love Poland to line honours and IRC Super Zero class victory in the RORC Transatlantic Race. It’s just the latest in a long list of achievements, such as winning line honours in the Rolex Middle Sea Race, the Gotland Runt and the Roschier Baltic Sea Race.
The project is spearheaded by two ambitious 27-year-old Poles, Maciej Patoka and Konrad Lipski. Patoka is the business brain, the man who brings it all together on shore. Lipski is the navigator on the boat, and the one who coordinates the sailing team and helps point the boat and the project in the right direction on the water.
The project has come a long way from its beginnings in 2018 and its purpose and direction have taken a few different turns too. ‘The original aim was to promote Poland abroad,’ Lipski says. ‘The Polish National Foundation financed the purchase of a state-of-the-art third generation Volvo Open 70, and the project began in September 2018. The boat was sailed across the Atlantic to Miami to act as a promotional platform for Poland.
‘I got involved at the end of 2018 but I could see that the project was struggling with a clear purpose. Because of course, it’s an amazing boat, amazing for racing, but also very demanding as well. I grew up racing in Optimist, 29ers, 49ers, so for me, it’s it was always about the racing, about making the boat go fast. So together with Maciej Patoka in cooperation with Polish National Foundation, we decided to shift the focus of the project to participating in prestigious regattas worldwide, which of course also indirectly helps with the broader goal of promoting the country.’ Today, they point out three separate, but connected, goals of the project.
The training and educational aspect of I Love Poland emerged organically out of the original project but has now become a core part of the programme. ‘Usually at the end of an Olympic campaign or at the end of your dinghy racing career, there are two choices in a country like Poland: become a coach or just quit sailing and go to another industry,’ Maciej Patoka says.
‘For me, to jump on board a boat like a VO70 was just a dream,’ Lipski adds, but how do you make that experience more than a oneoff? How do you turn it into a lifelong career in the marine industry? That’s what we’re aiming to achieve with I Love Poland.’
The programme encourages applications from young Polish sailors. In its first four years, I Love Poland has received more than 1,100 applications from people with very different backgrounds Some, like Tokyo Olympic silver medalist Agnieszka Skrzypulec, bring a lot of experience from other backgrounds, while others are far less decorated. Lipski says the overriding factor they’re looking for is a willingness to learn and put in the hard work to improve.
‘We’re very proud of our team members, and I’m not only talking about current ones, but about everyone who joined the team at any stage of the project. We can see that most of them use this opportunity to boost their careers. To give even more value to our sailors, we organise multiple pieces of training and courses like Sea Survival, Medical, SRC, PADI Diving, RYA Yachtmaster and many more, so besides being great sailors, they get many useful skills that are wanted at the market’.
Lipski says the second goal is take part in what he describes as “iconic” events. ‘Events such as the major RORC competitions, the Rolex Fastnet Race and the Rolex Middle Sea Race. To line up against famous boats like Comanche and Rambler is really exciting. We had a great race against Pyewacket in the Caribbean 600, and events like these give us an amazing opportunity to build a training program for young sailors, and to compete alongside full-time professionals.’
‘The third goal,’ says Patoka, ‘is the promotional aspect of the campaign. For example, if you’re winning the Rolex Middle Sea Race and the main newspaper in Malta is running a big photo of the boat with a huge I Love Poland logo on the spinnaker, that’s much better publicity than anything you could hope to achieve by organising your own promotional event.’
That said, winning line honours does also make it easier to make an impact when you hold an event, such as the team did in Malta. ‘We organised the event with the Polish embassy in Malta, and we invited the ambassador and other residents in Malta with Polish citizenship to visit the boat. So sometimes you can make a big impact with a huge amount of effort and a small budget. Whether we’re in Malta or New York or anywhere with a strong Polish community, we always like to connect with people around the world.’
The team organised a similar event in Helsinki before the start of the Baltic Sea Race, again meeting people with connections to Poland. ‘The Polish embassy was also providing support for a group of refugees from Ukraine and they asked us if we could help. So we had something like 50 Ukrainians join us, and I think it was an amazing experience for them,’ says Lipski. ‘Particularly for the 10-year-olds. I think being on the boat was a nice distraction from thinking about all they had been through in the early months of the war [with Russia]’.
Aside from building international relations, I Love Poland is also helping put a spotlight on the strong yacht and shipbuilding industry back home. ‘We have plenty of boats and boatbuilders in Poland, although nothing quite like a VO70,’ says Lipski. ‘But whenever we have something we need to fix or upgrade on the boat, we try to get it done by a local company. My dream is to be able to continue this project long enough that one day we can launch a Polish-built high-performance boat, maybe a Class40 or even an IMOCA. Right now, we are sharing our knowledge and experience from the VO70 with local manufacturers and trying to help grow the skills and interest in these projects locally. If we can help take the Polish yacht building industry in a more hi-tech direction, that would be a great thing.’
Whatever aspect of the project, Lipski and Patoka are doing their best to deliver maximum bang for buck. ‘We are trying to be as effective as possible. We are trying to create the biggest experience we can with the resources that we have, not to spend lots of money where we don’t need to. We are young, we have learned a lot along the way, but there is always more we can do to learn and to improve.’
Lipski is proud of the race record of I Love Poland compared with the fully professional, highly funded campaigns which they often find themselves competing against. ‘If you compare our results with our level of funding, I think we are probably winning that race,’ Lipski laughs.
‘We are aiming to achieve the most with the least amount. We have just to be very smart with our budget and planning. And the second thing is because we are trying to involve young people and we want to give them experience, we are able to do it a bit more cheaply than just hiring very experienced sailors, like you see on other high-profile sailing projects. We’re doing it for Poland, but we also want to show anyone from any country what it’s possible to achieve in this sport if you’re organised and committed to the project.’
It can be difficult for projects like this have to justify themselves with hard metrics but there are valid tangible benefits, Lipski argues. ‘People in Poland are happy to see the boat decorated in our national colours, the white and the red, flying the flag for our country. We get so much positive feedback from people saying things like “you’re so young but we can see so much passion and you’re very dedicated.” I think it makes them proud to see Poland being represented by our boat and our team. That kind of support means a lot to us.
‘I believe we have reached the point where I Love Poland has become a brand, a kind of quality stamp. This would not be possible if any of the above elements did not work. We had to evolve, gain experience from the best, build a competent and loyal team, popularise sailing and manage it well to be who we are today. We are perceived during the regatta and in many places around the world not only as a crew and a yacht, but as the I Love Poland brand.’