Unfiltered: Aleksander Doba

Ocean Kayaker, Polish National Hero

Aleksander Doba.
Aleksander Doba. Photo by Aaron Schmidt

If you had to choose one word to describe 69-year-old Polish ocean paddler Aleksander Doba, it would be irrepressible. A compact man with an enormous beard and boundless enthusiasm, he has twice crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a heavily modified kayak he calls 'Olo.' His first crossing from Senegal to Brazil was the longest ocean kayak journey ever, lasting 99 days. His second, from Lisbon, Portugal, to New Smyrna Beach, Florida, totalled 167 days at sea, with a short layover in Bermuda to repair a broken rudder. For 47 of those days, he had no communication with the outside world.

Doba is also an avid river paddler and former whitewater slalom champion. In conventional sea kayaks, he has circumnavigated Lake Baikal and the Baltic Sea, and once paddled 3,336 miles from his home in Poland to central Norway. He is best known, of course, for his Sisyphean ocean crossings, in which storms and contrary currents pushed his tiny yellow craft backward time and again, until the track of his progress resembled a series of loops drawn by a child.

Through it all Doba—64 during his first voyage, 66 on his second—just kept paddling. He never doubted himself, never allowed hardship to cloud his enjoyment of the journey. And though he played coy for a time, never wavered from his original goal of a third Atlantic crossing, this time from New York to continental Europe. He departs May 16 from Liberty Island. Interview by Jeff Moag, translation by Piotr Chmielinski and Agniezska Meller

I think that I am not 69 years old but rather I am 70 years young.

I was 34 when I first joined a kayaking expedition on the Drawa River. Head over heels, I fell in love with kayaks.

In 1991 I paddled the Baltic coast from the town of Police, where I live, to the borders of the Soviet Union. Before that year, paddling kayaks on the Baltic had been prohibited. So when they opened the borders I went.

I really enjoyed paddling on the sea. In 1999, I made it all the way along the Baltic coastline. In 2000, I made another wonderful journey from my home in Poland to the Norwegian harbor of Narwik. Then I started dwelling on the idea: It must be possible to safely paddle across the ocean!

On my first trip from Africa to Brazil, I was supposed to paddle through the doldrums. There shouldn't have been any ocean storms or hurricanes on my route. What I encountered though, were some 50 tropical storms battering me with a powerful capacity.

The storms were gathered in family-groups,
each lasting for a few hours. The waves would elevate even to 7 meters (23 feet) and the wind would blow with the ocean's storm power. Huge fun!

It brought me such a close relation to the beauty of mighty nature. Watching the storms approaching. The amazing silence, just before a storm hit. The powerful energy pulsing, and then struggling with the heart of nature; the isolation. These experiences filled me to the core with profound emotions.

Even before I reached Brazil, while still on the ocean, I already craved for another expedition across the Atlantic. It was the same on the second expedition: I wanted a third.

How did I convince my wife to let me go on the Atlantic a second time? I didn't. Before both expeditions, she opposed the whole idea to the very last moment. But then, when I was on the sea, she would always support me.

You know this gut feeling when you just know, without seeing, that somebody is watching you? One day, when the waters around me were all clean and empty to the horizon—no ships, no people—I felt somebody's eyes gazing at me. Who could that be? I looked behind my shoulder, and then I saw it: a huge head sticking out of the ocean. A head of a whale.

Did all those storms, and altogether I countered eight of them, ever discourage or dispirit me to the point I wanted to quit? Never.

Not even once did I feel my life threatened. I trusted my kayak. If my kayak could survive it, so could I.

I paddled between eight and 12 hours, usually at night, and slept in two to three hour shifts. And that was the life cycle of my 24 hours.

All my meals where freeze-dried. I would take water from the ocean, using manual hydration systems, as the electric one went down. After a few minutes of chemical reaction my food was ready.

Sometimes flying fish would land on my kayak. I would just catch and then eat them without any cooking. Very fine! Better than sushi.

The best moment? The welcoming gathering at New Smyrna Beach. That was the most wonderful, rewarding feeling of my journey because it wasn't only my happiness, but it was the mutual happiness of all those people—the connection we shared.

It was very fantastic, a lot of adrenaline
. I hadn't slept for the previous 30 hours, trying to make it on time.

From the very beginning, my expedition across the Atlantic was supposed to consist of three stages. The first, from Africa to South America, the second from South America to North America. And the third one, from North America to Europe. That was always my plan.

—Read more about Doba’s plan to cross the Atlantic in a kayak for his third time on C&K.

–This story first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of C&K.