Doba Interview: “I was both the captain and the crew”
By Conor Mihell
Published: February 14, 2011
In the wake of Aleksander Doba’s successful crossing of the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to South America, CanoeKayak.com spent more than a week translating interview questions from English to Polish, negotiating for exclusive photographs, and barraging our sources with countless trans-hemispheric emails to be the first to deliver an English interview with the 64-year-old from Poland who spent 99 days at sea.
In negotiating said challenges of coordinating an interview with a sea-weary and jet-lagged Polish-speakers in Brazil, we are indebted to the patience and gracious help of a number of individuals: Aleksander’s son, Chez Doba, and Polish-Canadian Karolina Gill assisted with translating our list of questions; and Doba’s patron, Jerzy Arsoba, shot photos and conducted a taped interview in Brazil last weekend. The sound files were translated and transcribed by Chez—an impressive feat that resulted in nearly 11,000 words. Here are our questions and Doba’s responses, edited for clarity and brevity.
CK: Why did you want to take on the challenge of paddling across the Atlantic Ocean?
Aleksander Doba: I am interested in new trips, new rivers, and new challenges. I have paddled over 70,000 kilometers [43,750 miles] in a kayak on rivers and seas. A few years ago, Pawel Napierala and I tried to cross the Atlantic. Unfortunately, we weren’t properly prepared. I was greatly dissatisfied that we didn’t finish. This has been bothering me over and over again, which led me to the difficult decision [of trying it again].
Why did you decide to make the crossing from Africa to South America? I prepared for this crossing by studying to get to know the weather conditions and the reality of a solo Atlantic crossing. I consulted with many sailors [and] experts in the field. Together with Mr. Andrzej Arminski, an excellent sailor, we studied routes and picked this one Dakar to Fortaleza. It is one of the shortest. My main motivation was that at this time of year there weren’t any serious risks, like hurricanes. Our aim was to plan a safe crossing. And here I am safe, healthy and happy.
Please tell us about your kayak. It doesn’t look like a typical kayak. My main aim was to build a kayak that would survive a very strong storm. The designers [at Andrzej Arminski’s shipyard in Poland] took my safety very seriously and did more than I asked for. This is a huge kayak: seven meters [23 feet] long, one meter [40 inches] wide. I had to have food and water with me and I had to sleep and live on it, so it had to be big. It has loops on top and a dagger board underneath. This vessel can’t sink or flip upside down—that’s where the hoops work. It didn’t capsize even once, despite the difficult conditions.
What did you eat, where did you sleep and how you did you go to the bathroom? Can you give a description of how all this worked? I assumed it would take me three months, but I didn’t know exactly so I took supplies for four months. I had freeze-dried food, which made it very light. Some of it could last several years. Apart from this food, following guidance from sailors I brought some canned food and Nutella, halva, biscuits, [and] sweets—sugar in many forms. I thought I brought more than enough sweets but I [ran out] about a month before the end. I lost 14 kilograms [31 pounds], which was an average of 1 kilogram [2.2 pounds] per week.
My kayak was equipped with an electric desalinator that produced around 4.5 liters [one gallon] of fresh water per hour. It needed electricity, which came from a big solar panel that charged the battery. Around December 30 the desalinator refused to work. I had two spare manual desalinators, which I had to use. It took me about four hours daily to get six liters [1.5 gallons] for all my needs. So instead of resting or paddling more I had to pump the water. I wanted to use my legs, so I fixed the manual desalinators in a way so I could use them with my feet.
In the cabin [of my kayak] I had two sleeping mats. Loaded with all my equipment, I didn’t foresee that there would be so little space for myself. For the first couple of weeks I had to sleep in the fetal position. I slowly went through my rations and arranged other things so I could lay properly on my back with my legs straight. I slept for about two to four hours per day. Later in the trip, as I became more tired, I could sleep a little longer. But only after finishing I could have a full sleep.
I expelled liquids in the cockpit into a container and then emptied it outside. Unfortunately I didn’t have a toilet with a flush, so I went to the stern and did my business publicly. I was once surrounded by a bunch of barracudas, which came to the surface and watched what was going on. It was a unique experience.
How did you stay sane and focused, out there all by yourself? On this journey I was both the captain and the crew. Sometimes the captain decided what to do but the crew didn’t want to do it. When the circumstances were such that I was very tired, I tried to procrastinate but the captain’s decision was more important. So as a crew I had to go out even in terrible weather conditions. The captain gave orders put on your belt and go on deck!
I had contact with the world and my close family through a satellite phone. Even though this was very expensive, I called my wife, my sons and my website administrator, to whom I sent text messages. I knew there was some interest in my journey. This gave me the feeling that I wasn’t alone; deep inside I knew there were many people with me. They wished me luck and sent positive energy.
Was there a critical moment (or turning point) when things improved and you knew you would make it? There was no such a moment. I was certain of the fact that I would reach South America all the time! Only when the currents pushed me in the wrong direction did I feel really awful, because instead getting closer I was going around in circles… this was a terrible experience.
What did it feel like to walk on land after being in your kayak for 99 days? The feeling was wonderful! I finally made it, despite the huge obstacles, and I was exhausted. I fought to land as planned, but at the end it took me slightly away from Fortaleza. When I shouted “Ziemia!” [Land!] I really felt like an explorer on a discovery.
What’s the best thing about being back on land? People contact. I’m not a hermit, out there for few months I could speak to birds and fish. Another simple matter is the food. I missed fresh fruit and walking on land… all these simple things.
Is there anything else we should know? In my kayaking career I have always been curious of new things. This expedition was totally different for me—a new route, new experiences. This is what tickles my fancy most. In my early planning, even before my departure, I was hoping to continue from South America to North America. I am now getting ready for the next section. My kayak was brilliant and safe, but still there will be few changes made just so I get a bit more comfortable. I should be ready in a few weeks. My next aim is to reach Washington, DC. When and how? Whether directly, or step by step, and which steps? I don’t know yet. That’s all ahead of me. I know I would really like to paddle to North America.
Earlier Canoe & Kayak coverage:
• Landfall: Aleksander Doba reaches South America, published Feb. 2
• Big Shoes: The Trans Ocean Kayak Club, published Feb. 3
• Day 97: One day away from crossing the Atlantic, published Jan. 31
• Day 77: In circles across the Atlantic, published Jan. 12
• One paddler, one ocean, published Nov. 17
Links of Note:
• Doba’s official website
• Doba’s detailed GPS tracker
• Aleksander Doba on Twitter
• Bartosz Sawicki’s unofficial Doba website, TransAtlantic2010.blogspot.com