Czechoslovakia's foremost sailing champion, angered by his country's refusal to let him enter a round-the-world race originating in the United States, simply set sail for the West in a 44-foot sloop, accompanied by his family and a close friend.
The journey of Richard Konkolski, a celebrated single-handed (solo) ocean racer and a Czech sports hero, ended 10 days ago at the Goat Island Marina, a quarter-mile inside Newport Harbor. But it was not until today, after he had left on the first leg of the 27,000-mile BOC Challenge race, that his story was made public by the race director.
Konkolski, 39; his wife, Miroslava, also 39, and their 12-year-old son Richard Jr. have requested political asylum in the United States, and Konkolski said he expected the asylum papers to be ready when he returns from the eight-month race next spring.
Alfred Brodzinski, 29, of Szczecin, Poland, who made the trip with them, has his government's permission to be in this country for one year.
The Konkolskis' story began two years ago, when Konkolski agreed to enter the BOC Challenge, a world class event and the first single-handed, round-the-world event to start and end at a U.S. port. Konkolski was approached by Jim Boc, director of the BOC Challenge, in Newport, where the Czech sailor had just completed a transatlantic race from Plymouth, England.
Konkolski eagerly agreed. But his plans ran into a snag in late June, when Czech authorities withdrew permission for him to leave the country.
"It took me years to get ready for the race," Konkolski said today before leaving. "I said to the government a long time ago that if they ever tried to stop my sailing I will escape.
"The last few days before I was to leave, I was speaking to the chairman of the Central Committee. On the basis of this agreement, I tried to get the documents I needed. I was given a business passport to leave. Then they said they needed one more signature. It was then that I had to give it all back. They said to me, 'We are sorry, Richard, but the committee has changed the decision of the chairman.' "
Konkolski, however, had not changed his decision. With his family in tow, Konkolski left Bohumin, Czechoslovakia, where he was employed as a construction engineer, and sneaked into Poland. There they met Brodzinski in the Baltic port city of Szczecin and boarded the Nike II, the racing sloop that Konkolski had designed and built.
Unaware that the Czechs had turned down Konkolski's request to enter the BOC Challenge, the Polish authorities did not object when Konkolski and Brodzinski said they were taking the boat out for a day sail to test the rig in preparation for the trip to Newport.
But the Nike II did not return from its day sail. Instead, Konkolski sailed the boat into West Germany, through the Kiel Canal to Cuxhaven and on to Plymouth, England.
Even Brodzinki was unaware that Konkolski's permit to leave Czechoslovakia had been withdrawn, Konkolski said.
"I could say nothing, not even to my son," Konkolski said. "I knew we would have to pass other ports in Germany before we would be free. I did not want anyone to know. Only my wife was aware. For now I am glad to be here. No one knew in Czechoslovakia that I was leaving.
"But when we were safe, when we headed into the Kiel Canal, I opened a bottle of champagne. I said to Alfred, 'For our life' and then I told him the news."
The crossing from Plymouth to Newport took another 37 days.
Konskolski is a national sports hero in Czechoslovakia, where his disappearance is certain to cause a national stir. After sailing alone around the world in 1975, he was greeted by huge crowds. When he sailed into Szczecin that year, more than 10,000 persons were on hand to greet him.
In 1976 he received the highest Czechoslovakian sports award for his performance in the transatlantic race to Newport. He has received numerous gold medals from the Polish Sailing Association as well, and received the "best sailor of the year" award in 1975.
In 1976 he was named one of the 10 best Czechoslovakian sportsmen. He is an honorary citizen of Szczecin, the Polish seaport that unknowingly launched his escape, and he is also an honorary citizen in Newport, the city that was his gateway to freedom.
Konkolski has sailed more than 95,000 miles, of which 51,500 were solo, and has visited 50 countries.
Nike I, the boat that took him on his circumnavigation of the globe, was the second smallest boat at that time to sail around the world.
Before his defection, the Czech government was considering putting the Nike I in the National Technical Museum.
The first leg of the BOC Challenge race that began today will take the racers to Capetown, South Africa.
The sailors then go to Australia and Brazil with the finish back in Newport next spring.