BY CONOR MIHELL
At 4:18 p.m., on Saturday, April 19, Polish adventurer Aleksander “Olek” Doba officially completed his second successful trans-Atlantic crossing by sea kayak. Hundreds of residents of New Smyrna Beach, Fla. greeted the 67-year-old at the waterfront on “Welcome Aleksander Doba Day.” The compact, sinewy paddler who’s become known in communities along Florida’s Atlantic seaboard as “Aleksander the Great” exited OLO, his custom-made, 23-foot kayak, kissed the ground and laid down on the grass.
The hardships of Doba’s 167-day, 6,000-plus-mile crossing have been well documented—from his Dec. 23 encounter with a tanker ship (and its very surprised crew) on the mid-Atlantic, to a 47-day lack of communication, 40 days of paddling in circles in the confused currents of the Bermuda Triangle, and a broken rudder that nearly ended his crossing and precipitated a layover in Bermuda.
We caught up with Doba, his son Chez, and Polish-American friend Piotr Chmielinski for an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the expedition. We reached Chez by email from Europe, and Doba and Chmielinski by telephone on the road in South Carolina, where the pair are driving north to Washington, D.C., to get their thoughts on a slew of head-scratching topics.
Touch down (Aleksander Doba) “I didn’t sleep on [April 18] and paddled all day and all night. The currents and the winds were pushing me the wrong direction on the Intra-Coastal Waterway. Then I saw people waiting for me on the shore and in boats and kayaks, cheering me on. It was like a boost of energy. I forgot I was tired. My sense of euphoria was so high. I was very, very happy.”
Doba Determination (Chez Doba) “What I love best about his voyages, especially the recent ones, is that he actually communicates with us while he is at sea. Out there, he’s not troubled by the same problems as we are. When people read about his trips and they write what they would have been worried about—and these are things my dad never mentions. People focus on what could go wrong or how difficult, dangerous or long the trip is. My dad focuses on the little, but important day-to-day tasks he needs to accomplish, like weather forecasts, day planning, route adjustments and equipment adjustments. Every time I talked to him I was very sensitive to any doubts he might have about finishing. He never had any. Every time we communicated it was direct and focused on a particular task.”
Safety Net (Piotr Chmielinski) “The majority of people would say that paddling across the Atlantic Ocean is beyond crazy. When CNN picked up Olek’s story, a lot of people commented, ‘What happens if he needs to be rescued?’ He had a membership with Global Rescue. The one thing you don’t want is to put it on taxpayers if something goes wrong. There was a group of [rescue professionals] watching Olek all the time. They were all on standby when he was stuck in the Bermuda Triangle.”
Ocean Treadmill (Chmielinski) “Every two weeks he was making a loop. He move forward to the west and then get pushed back 200 to 300 miles by the winds and currents. That happened five times. It was beyond craziness. We were getting tired watching all those loops on his Spot. Do you know anyone who would go forward with a smile through all that?”
Captain and Crew (Doba) “My last name translates to 24 hours. And that’s how it was on the ocean, I’m on for 24 hours a day. Since the majority of the route was in a hot climate, I usually paddled at night. I watched the stars and learned the constellations. Sometimes my paddles flashed bioluminescence. I spent three hours a day using a hand-pump to desalinate drinking water. I cooked two freeze-dried meals per day—that was easy, it only took 10 minutes to boil the water. This time I took lots of sugars—cookies, homemade jam from my wife and chocolate. I had lots of food and could eat whenever I was hungry.
Layover (Doba) “Bermuda was my only choice to fix the rudder and be able to finish my journey. At first I was disappointed and unhappy, but I never abandoned my goal to complete the whole trip. People from all over the world encouraged me to continue, especially the Bermudans who helped fix the rudder. Were it not for the Sloop Foundation and Jim Butterfield I wouldn’t have been able to continue on the sea. They understood my dream and believed I came from a previous generation of sea voyagers, like them. They helped me and treated me like I was part of their community.”
67 years young (Doba) “Maybe there’s a mistake in the calendar. I feel like I’m 49-and-a-half years old. My family line is quite durable and we normally live close to 100 years, so I have at least 30 to go and there are a few more challenges I want to try. My life is never boring.”
Record Book (Chmielinski) “He was on the water 167 days. I believe he added 1,500 or more miles to the total straight-line distance of 5,400 miles. At this point, we are talking about 7,000 statute miles.”
Road Trip (Chmielinski) “Olek has been invited to a special ceremony with the Polish ambassador to the United States. We are driving to Washington with OLO on a trailer. It’s crazy whenever we stop for gas. Everyone comes like ants to see what the heck this Martian-looking object is on the trailer. We will be taking the kayak to the presentations he gives in Washington and New York. People will be able to see for themselves this small vessel that crossed the Atlantic.”