By Conor Mihell
Jozef Milewski was nervous when he and a group of sea kayakers launched into the rough waters of Lake Michigan on a stormy day in September. A cold 20-knot wind was pushing a six- to eight-foot swell, with dark clouds scudding over the skyline of Chicago. The dignitary amongst the group who assembled for the day outing was its wild card: Aleksander Doba, a pint-sized Polish paddler with a Santa Claus beard almost as big as his reputation.
Last winter, Doba, who recently turned 65, had completed the first continent-to-continent crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by kayak, a 99-day passage from Senegal, in northern Africa, to the beaches of Brazil. “But that was in a different type of kayak,” said Milewski, referring to the 23-foot, custom-built, partially enclosed behemoth Doba piloted across the Atlantic.
He need not have been concerned. “I was looking after him pretty closely,” admitted Milewski, an avid paddler from Milwaukee. “Then I saw him taking photos in the big waves and knew I had nothing to worry about.”
Doba has been busy since finishing his Atlantic Ocean epic on Feb. 2 in the small fishing village of Acara, Brazil. In an exclusive telephone interview last week, Doba described through a translator (Milewski) the stages of his recovery after completing the grueling 3,345-mile expedition in which he lost approximately 30 pounds: It took him a week to regain his balance and three weeks to regain his strength. “I was fine all along psychologically,” said Doba in his characteristically happy-go-lucky manner. “I am a small guy with the biggest optimism in the world.”
Meanwhile, his mission to re-equip himself for the next stage of his expedition—an ambitious journey from his landfall in Brazil north through the Caribbean and ultimately to Washington, D.C.—was more of a struggle. When it became clear that he wasn’t going to have his solar-powered desalinator repaired in time to set off ahead of hurricane season, Doba turned to plan B: To paddle the length of the Amazon River. “I talked to my sponsor, Mr. Andrzej Arminski,” Doba said, referring to the Polish yacht-builder who designed and crafted his trans-Atlantic kayak, “and he said, ‘Hey, you’ve got the Amazon River nearby. Why don’t you go there?’”
Doba contacted Polish ex-pat Piotr Chmielinski, the Washington, D.C.-based paddler who completed the first full descent of the Amazon by kayak in 1985 with journalist Joe Kane, as documented in Kane’s adventure classic, Running the Amazon. Doba then used a series of boat ferries to travel upriver from Belem, at the mouth of the Amazon, in Ecuador, to Yurimagua, Peru. He’d planned a 4,000-mile journey beginning on the Huillaga, Maranon and Salimoes rivers, tributaries of the Amazon, all the way to Belem, starting in mid-May. Doba’s son, Chez, said his father’s Amazon trip got off to a good start. “On the way down he encountered many local tribes to which he introduced himself and made friends,” he wrote in email correspondence.
But it quickly became clear that the socio-politics of the Amazon jungle had changed since Chmielinski’s groundbreaking expedition. “Back then, the people along the border of Peru, Colombia and Brazil didn’t have motorized boats,” said Chmielinski. “We had a few close situations, but we could easily out run the bandits with our sea kayaks.” Today, well-armed, drug-running bandits in the troubled region can afford powerboats, explained Chmielinski. Going it alone in his big, cumbersome kayak, Doba was a sitting duck. He was robbed twice by armed men, with the second encounter lasting over three hours.
“They cleaned me out completely and damaged my kayak looking for drugs,” said Doba. “They swung a machete above my head and threatened to cut my throat. It was like the worst nightmare you could have. I remained cool, negotiated with them, told them, ‘This has no value to you.’ But they stole everything. I lost all my clothing. I don’t know what they’re going to do with all this warm clothing in the Amazon.”
Doba limped into the city of Manaus, Brazil, and pulled the plug on the Amazon expedition after paddling about 2,000 miles.
Two months later, Doba was standing in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., wondering if his flowing white beard was attracting too much attention. “It’s your logo,” laughed Chmielinski. “Whatever you do, don’t cut it off!”
After Doba worked out the logistics of having his battered kayak transported back to a storage area in Belem, Chmielinski offered to host him on a tour of the United States. After having spent several months in South America, Doba figured he might as well take up his countryman’s offer and visit the North America. Chmielinski says Doba’s wanderlust is symptomatic of a generation of Polish people raised in Communism. “You have this huge trend of people wanting to see the world because it was closed for so many years,” said Chmielinski. “[Aleksander] couldn’t do that when he was younger. He is an example of that generation.”
And so Doba toured Capitol Hill and traveled to visit newfound Polish friends in New York City, junkets arranged by Chmielinski. He found himself in a whitewater kayak on D.C.’s well-known Potomac River as a part of an annual rendezvous of Polish kayakers who pioneered numerous first descents of rivers throughout Central and South America in the 1970s and 80s. Then he flew to Milwaukee to experience the midwest with Jozef Milewski.
Milewski has been impressed by Doba’s passion for kayaking. “If you just say the word ‘kayak’ he’s in it,” he said. After the session on Lake Michigan, Milewski suggested they paddle the artificial whitewater course in Wausau, Wisc. Save for his brief experience on the Potomac, Doba had never paddled in whitewater. “We convinced him that a kayak is a kayak is a kayak. Some of the rapids,” Milewski said of Wausau, site of elite-class slalom competitions, “have a real technical approach. But he nailed all of them. He’s a natural.” Doba swam once, but then Milewski watched his friend complete two successful rolls in gnarly whitewater.
In between presentations at regional paddling clubs and an impromptu chat at New York’s prestigious Explorers Club, Doba has been quietly working out the initial planning phases of his next expedition: A crossing of the Pacific Ocean, from South America to Australia. If he could pull it off, it would be a monumental first. In 1987, Ed Gillet completed the longest open water kayak journey on the Pacific to date, a 2,200-mile crossing from California to Hawaii. Chmielinski believes Doba might be on to something: Though the route is three to four times the distance of his Atlantic crossing, it would include stops at the Galapagos Islands and the French Islands of Marquesas, in Polynesia. “From Galapagos to Marquesas [the longest stretch of open water] is same as the Atlantic,” said Chmielinski. “He has that experience already. The rest of the crossings are [300 to 600 miles] between islands.”
For his part, Doba is quick to point out that the plan is just starting to come together. “We [sponsor Arminski and Doba] need to dedicate ourselves to detail training,” said Doba. “This is where he will make a final decision. If we conclude that this is not going to be safe, I won’t go. But right now I am optimistic I will be able to do it.”
Ironically, Doba’s biggest hurdle might be at home in Police, Poland, where he will return on Oct. 19 after stops in Wyoming and Nevada and a long year of travel. “I am absolutely sure that my wife will be in opposition,” he said, chuckling through the telephone. “She will fight it, as she did on all my previous expeditions. Before the Atlantic crossing she said, ‘Are you nuts? Why don’t you stay home?’ But I am confident my personal charm will convince her. I will say, ‘One more time, please Honey?’”