Polish sailors caught in strong political crosscurrents

''We don't want to mix in politics,'' says ''Stan,'' a seaman aboard the Polish fishing trawler Parma anchored in Vancouver, British Columbia.

''We are being paid to be fishermen, not make politics. We just want to know that our families are safe in Poland.''

Stan is one of more than 2,400 seamen aboard 29 factory trawlers and their support ships that left Poland before the imposition of martial law to fish for pollack and hake off Alaska. Like it or not, these fishermen have become very much mixed in politics.

They are caught in the crosscurrents of a power struggle between Poland's new military regime and its Solidarity union. On board the ships, Poland's struggle plays itself out in microcosm.

Eighteen of the trawlers now float at sea, according to Beverly Brown of Vancouver's Maritime Agencies, Ltd., the port agent for the Polish fishing fleet. President Reagan's sanctions against Poland bar them from United States waters and ports. The trawlers are short of fuel, and of the hard currency to pay for it; fuel payments from Poland have not arrived, says Brown.

Seven ships sit at Vancouver's docks. When they will leave, and where they will go, is anybody's guess. Another ship is anchored at Victoria.

Vancouver labor unions and Solidarity leaders on ship and shore vow to stop by strike the departure of any ship whose captain tries to force crewmen to sail ''against their will.''

Two trawlers, the Garnela and the Manta, have already left Vancouver - the Manta in a sudden early-morning castoff just before the unions announced their will to strike. Each time a ship departs, or crews are rotated (by plane) to Poland, more seamen make the difficult, and potentially dangerous, choice to vote with their feet.

At least 95 have sought immigration status in Vancouver; none are refused. On Dec. 29, the Polish government flew 64 replacement seamen to the short-handed ships in Vancouver. The replacements were handpicked for loyalty and, crewmen already on ship suspect, in many cases were police spies; 12 defected upon arriving.

For new arrivals, and those whose ships were not already in port when the military crackdown began, defection is especially serious. Those seamen report taking military oaths of loyalty, making ship-jumping tantamount to desertion.

An even darker worry for the defectors is the fate of their families in Poland. Almost all have wives and children; the government rarely sends single men abroad. Those who fear to leave, like Stan, declare, ''We are going back to Poland because of our families.'' Their most frequent complaint has been the lack of news from home; despite lifting of Poland's news blackout, none of the sailors has had any telephone contact with his family since imposition of martial law.

Nevertheless, some sailors believe they can do their families more good in Canada. One defector, Czeslaw (he asked his last name not be used), says: ''Our one hope is that our families will be able to leave Poland and join us.''

Ready to take ''any work now just to send money to my family,'' he plans to paint the house of his Vancouver host, Czechoslovakian-born Jan Saller, who claims to have helped 20 seamen leave ship. Many in this city's 12,000-strong Polish community have provided homes, food, and encouragment to the seamen - as have even some local reporters covering the shipboard crisis. Shipping agents and Polish officials accuse the unions and local sympathizers of luring sailors away, and exploiting them for publicity.

''Nobody made us come,'' says one defector. ''We leave for a better life'' - and, in the case of those who had been outspoken Solidarity supporters, to escape the threat of persecution at home.

It's uncertain how much sway Solidarity has on the ships, and what it could do to stop their leaving. About 200 seamen remain in the harbor, and the union claims 90 percent of them are members. It also says 132 endorsed a ''moral'' strike (if departure is ordered) in a quiet ''grapevine'' vote on Dec. 30. (The captains have forbidden large meetings.)

Even if a ''moral'' strike were declared, it might be little more than symbolic. An occupation of the ships might constitute mutiny under international law, which Canada is bound to enforce. Nevertheless, the British Columbia Federation of Labor has vowed to honor such a strike by withholding the longshoremen, pilots, and tug crews needed to send the ships off.

On ship, seamen and officers try to pass the time and maintain an impression of calm.

But the storm may soon break again. More defections seem inevitable - and perhaps outright conflict, if martial-law officials try to restrain the crews.

Meanwhile, the seamen pace the chilly decks, watching and waiting.

Justin Noice of the Maritime Agencies, Ltd., says over 240 crew replacements in normal rotation are due from Poland in mid-January. The entire fleet is now to move south to fish in the waters of Peru and Chile - destinations Solidarity members may find less objectionable than Poland. They may refuel from a Soviet tanker off Mexico.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.