PBO’s Laura Hodgetts sets sail on the 'Land of a Thousand Lakes' in Masuria – a surprisingly large network of waterways you could spend a fortnight exploring by boat
“How do you get from one lake to another?” My brother Jack, a ferry captain, wanted to know when I said I was off to sail a cruising yacht on the Masurian Lake District.
“And, where is it?”
The vast network of more than 2,000 lakes is in the north-eastern part of Poland, formerly part of East Prussia, with Olsztyn being the closest airport. You explore by motorboat – or yacht if you’re willing to drop your mast – passing under bridges and through canals and forest-lined rivers. A lifting keel helps negotiate the shallower points, and is also handy for tucking into creeks for a night at anchor. “I never knew Poland had a lake district”, said my travelling companion, PBO’s Ali Wood, “and I’ve been a yachting journalist for 20 years.”
The Polish ‘Ozark’
We joked that it reminded us of Ozark, an idyllic Missouri lake resort featured in the popular Netflix series.
“Welcome to the Polish Ozarks,” replied our skipper Wojtek Tomala, who set up the charter venture with wife Patrycja, “but without the mafia drama – people come here to relax!”
While the region is seemingly ‘undiscovered’ by English-speaking tourists, it’s a favourite holiday destination for the Polish, and geared up accordingly with marinas offering hot showers, restaurants, new pontoons, saunas and live music events throughout the summer.
“There has been a lot of investment in the area in the past couple of years”, says Wojtek, a builder by trade, keen fisherman and recreational sailor usually based in Dunure, Scotland. “We just want to share with people our happy place.”
Forest and history
Not having to worry about tides is another plus for this surprisingly good sailing destination, along with the birdlife, from swallows to wildfowl and cormorants. Wild horses, bison and boar roam nearby forests, and there are sites of important historical interest – such as abandoned Second World War bunkers and a remarkably intact 19th century fortress.
Patrycja greeted us at Olsztyn airport with a welcome picnic for the 50-minute car journey to Piękna Góra, where we joined Wojtek aboard the Antila 33.3. The journey was beautiful. While motorway construction is under way to speed up the journey, we passed through pretty villages and towns where huge stork nests had been built for the native birds.
At the marina, swifts darted to and from their nests all around the buildings’ roofs. Dziewiąta Lady M, our 34ft home for the week, provided ample accommodation for the four of us, with a maximum capacity for six guests.
Between the heatwave of the previous week and the sunshine forecast for the next, a cold front was passing through with weather reminiscent of a showery British spring. So we were happy to tuck into a warm lunch of cheese croquettes with pickled beetroot and sauerkraut, plus cups of tea. Afterwards, we motored out of the marina and prepared to lower the mast to pass under our first bridge.
Lowering the mast
Picturing a bent mast laid out for repair at Piękna Góra, we listened attentively to Wojtek’s instructions, turning into the wind, releasing the boom and, after lowering that onto the deck, maintaining a steady release of lines to lower the mast into its stern housing.
After passing the bridge, we reattached and raised the mast, taking care not to snag cables underneath, then hoisted the mainsail and headed north, negotiating the narrow lakes, bound for Sztynort.
Wojtek’s love of sailing in all wind conditions was immediately apparent – rather than motoring in light or fickle winds, which can be the reality of charter holidays, we drifted at times, tweaking the sails, while listening to bird song.
When the wind picked up in the late afternoon – as predicted – we enjoyed an exhilarating pace. We had the lakes to ourselves as it was early in the season, midweek, in the drizzle, and it was easy to give the paddling ducks a wide berth.
“It’s like dinghy sailing, but on a cruising yacht” remarked Ali, soon embracing the lack of any navigational equipment on board, using telltales and the ‘feel of the wind’ to maintain best speed.
Sztynort Valkyrie connection
Close by is the derelict palace, once owned by Heinrich Graf von Lehndorff-Steinort – part of the failed Operation Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944.
The palace is now owned by the German-Polish Foundation for Cultural Maintenance and historic Preservation.
We saw the palace window he leapt out from to evade capture, before giving himself up to save his family.
Later, we dined on fresh fish at Baba Pruska, where the delicious starters were so generous we could barely move after our main. A swim then sauna – on repeat – the next morning made for a refreshing start to the day, much to the bemusement of the local builders working in the rain on lakeside accommodation.
We set sail for Węgorzewo, via lake Dorgin, dropped the mast to motor under a bridge to Lake Kirsajty, and resisted the urge to duck.
Sailing again, we reached lake Mamry and lowered the mainsail to motor down the recently revamped canal Węgorzewski where a towpath popular with cyclists and walkers led to a sectioned off lake swimming pool.
Moored up along Węgorzewo harbourside, we enjoyed hot showers with key-pass entry and a tour of the ‘Bosman’ office where two en-suite rooms are available to rent, and a gift shop where the harbour-master Zbyszek, a keen local historian, has made many of the craft items.
Late lunch was a minestrone-style chicken dumpling soup. Wojtek and Patrycja commission local cooks to create delicious meals and then heat them up.
Day three began with a breakfast of muesli, blueberries and yoghurt followed by sausage, eggs and fresh rolls.
“Sailing makes people hungry” declared Wojtek.
We then sailed across Mamry lake to the mysterious ‘bunkers’, a sign for which we had passed the previous day. The Mamerki Museum is an eye-opening system of bunkers, underground tunnels and military posts that were headquarters for the German land forces, known as Mauerwald OKH, from 1941 to 1944.
Shocking Hitler bunkers
A short walk through the forest, past blueberry bushes and forget-me-nots, the cold bunkers are a stark contrast to the idyllic surroundings. They were abandoned so quickly that wartime equipment remains, alongside information boards describing the horrors conducted from there.
Adolf Hitler, more regularly based 20km away at ‘Wolf’s Lair’, visited the Mauerwald site four times, on three occasions accompanied by Benito Mussolini.
Details of the lost Amber Room, a treasure that intriguingly disappeared in the 1940s, and a mock-up construction, are on view at the nearby U-boot museum.
It was interesting to hear that after the war, the cold passages were used as a cheese cellar until the site was bought by a private landowner.
A viewing tower offered a great chance to burn off some energy and enjoy forest and lake views.
Becalmed on Lake Mamry
Fuelled by chocolate wafers, we returned to our cruiser and pottered back down the canal, raising the mainsail out in Lake Mamry. Here we were becalmed but enjoyed listening to the cuckoos; Polish superstition is the number of calls will multiply the money in your pockets.
When the wind picked up, we sailed to Lake Kirsajty and under the Sztynorcki Bridge to Lake Dargin. Here Wojtek directed our yacht towards the reeds, which opened up to reveal a creek, perfect to “spend a night in the wilderness.”
After dropping the anchor and raising the rudder, Wojtek was delighted when Ali offered to get in the cold lake and wade a mooring line over to a tree.
Dinner was Polish dumplings, and Ali and I enjoyed being told to relax with our books while the tasty meal was prepared.
Night at anchor
After a stunning sunset, and competitive card game of Skipbo, we awoke refreshed, ready to sail from Wysoki Róg back to Piękna Góra, via Cormorant Island – a protected nature reserve – then Lake Domogin and Kisajmio.
The sun shone and our trip ended with visits to the beachside town of Giżycko, the manually-operated revolving bridge of the Łuczański canal, and The 19 th century fortress – Twierdza Boyen.
Returning to Piękna Góra, we dropped the mast one last time to motor under the bridge to the bustling marina with the swooping swifts. We moored stern-to using the fixed marina lines.
It was lovely to have a skipper on board to take the stress out of the drop-down mast process, as well as providing local knowledge for navigational hazards such as fishing gear, shallows and even tank wrecks, and to act as our translator.
Patrycja said: “Last year when we were having our summer holiday in Poland, we wondered if British people would like the Masurian Lakes.
“We noticed that we didn’t hear any English speakers and thought it could be a good idea for us to start a sailing adventure especially designed for British sailors…”
Well, these two British tourists are converted! Gone from not knowing where it is to raving about the wildlife, the sailing and marina facilities.
“I’d feel really comfortable sailing with my children here”, said Ali, “There’s land all around and they could jump in for a swim. I’d feel happy about anchoring overnight in these sheltered waters.”
Wojtek and Patrycja can handle 20 bookings a year, but if demand increases they have the connections to run a second charter yacht.
Our return journey to the airport, back past the stork nests and the forests, felt like part of the adventure.
How to cruise The Great Masurian Lakes
Dubbed The Land of a Thousand Lakes, sailors can choose from lively marinas that can accommodate 300-plus boats to very small, family-run pontoons and countless possible creek anchorages – especially out of peak season.
The biggest reservoirs of Śniardwy, Mamry, Niegocin, Dargin and many others are connected by canals. At 114km2 Śniardwy, known as the Masurian Sea, is 10 times bigger than Lake Windermere in Cumbria. Lake Mamry and its adjacent waters is 104 km2.
It takes two to three days to sail from one side of the Masurian Lakes to the other, although you could easily spend a week or a fortnight exploring, travelling north to south from Węgorzewo to Mikołajki or further to Śniardwy, or vice versa. Beware of obstacles hidden under the surface of the water, which can be poorly marked. During summer peak season, Śniardwy can be busy with motorboats providing tours.
Where we moored
Sztynort costs 40zł – 60zł (£7.75-£12) plus 30zł (£5.81) per person per night on a walk ashore pontoon. Hot showers and toilet facilities were free, clean, with background music playing. A short walk to the derelict palace of Heinrich Graf von Lehndorff-Steinort, part of the failed Operation Valkyrie plot.
At Wegoizemo we moored up alongside the harbour. It cost 50zł – 60zł (£9.58-£11.62). Toilets and showers cost 20 zł (£3.87) per person, per night, with access via a key card.
Mamry lake jetty – for short forest walk to the Mamerki Museum –the bunkers, tunnel, U-boot museum and Amber Room reconstruction.
Creek anchorage – Lake Dargin – free! Don’t forget your mooring line, an axe for making a campfire and spade (for digging any necessary toilet facilities!)
Piękna Góra costs 25zł (£4.84) for a night’s stern-to, walk ashore mooring. Showers costs 10zł (£2); Toilets cost 1zł (20p). Local attractions of Giżycko include the revolving bridge and the Boyen Fortress.
When to visit the Polish lakes
The best time to visit is May to September, when you can expect an average high of 25.5ºC in July.
Sailing is also possible in the winter – on iceboats! – when the average lowest temperature is 0.5ºC in January. Lake Mamry, one of the biggest, coldest lakes, hosts international ice sailing competitions.
Wysoki Ostrów, commonly called Cormorant Island, is a protected nesting area for these birds. Signs around the lake warn boaters that engines are not permitted. You can sail around the island, taking care to avoid the shallows, but are not allowed to step onto the nature reserve. The island is covered with trees, many withered due to the cormorants’ toxic droppings.
Pilot books & recommended reading
Charts of the individual lakes can be bought locally or online for £8.50 each, from stanfords.co.uk
Mazury24.eu website has a wealth of information and Google translate option.
Plans are in the pipeline to create another canal through previously inaccessible forest that will enable sailors to follow a more circular route around the lakes. Environmental approvals have been granted. Now funding sources are being sought through the EU and local authorities.
Handy Polish words
Thank you – Dziękuję (pronounced ‘Jen-queer’)
Good day – Dzień dobry (‘Jen- Dobra’)
Please – Proszę (‘prosse’)
Harbour master – Bosman
A multitude of charter options, both bare boat and skippered, are available for Poland’s most popular sailing destination. However, English-speaking options and websites are more limited. We can vouch for Undiscovered Sailing offering a stress-free skippered charter holiday, with onboard catering, marina costs, fuel, toilet and shower facilities, as well as attractions included in the package, plus Wojtek (pronounced ‘Voytek’) as your guide.
Visitors can fly into Olsztyn Mazury, Warsaw or Gdansk and will be transported to and from the airport.
To visit the lakes when they are less crowded, late May/early June or early September are recommended.
Wojtek and Patrycja can handle 20 bookings a year, but if demand increases they have the connections to run a second charter yacht.
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