BY PIOTR CHMIELINSKI
The long-awaited moment produced quite a thrill. We were lowering Aleksander Doba's kayak OLO into the ocean, 325 nautical miles south of the Bermuda coast. We hoped to launch Aleksander Doba, “Olek,” on the final stage of the 67-year-old adventurer’s solo transatlantic expedition from Portugal to Florida, which had been interrupted due to rudder failure on Feb. 13 and sidelined in Bermuda, Feb. 24, after 142 days at sea [Click HERE to read about his landing]. The sloop Spirit of Bermuda had transported us all back to the exact point where southern winds began blowing Olek off his southerly course in early January. As shiphands helped lower OLO to the sea, the kayak pinned to the vessel. A large swell broadsided the 23-foot craft. It suddenly lurched to the left, damaging the wings—an important element of the structure of the kayak. For a moment everyone on the Spirit of Bermuda thought Olek’s journey onward impossible. Everyone … except Olek!
Farewell to Bermuda: The Bermudians had grown accustomed to the view of a small bearded man who traversed the island on a borrowed bike. Between touring the island on the bike, ever improving his physical condition, locals caught Olek working on his white and yellow kayak every two or three days. Most knew him from TV segments and newspaper articles that reported the Pole’s arrival after 142 days of solo paddling across the Atlantic alone in the kayak, the last month and half spent struggling with adverse winds and storms in the Bermuda triangle [Click HERE to read more].
For some he was a madman, unnecessarily exposing his life and health. For others he was a hero whose strong will and determination earned admiration and respect. Many Bermudians fell into the latter camp, offering selfless help to transport Olek’s kayak on the three-masted sloop Spirit of Bermuda back out to sea. But the necessary organization and financial assistance from Berumdian businessman James Butterfield went beyond selflessness. Why did he want to help? First off, the passion and perseverance of the "67-year-young" kayaker.
“In my life I always adopted the attitude if you can help, why would you not help,” said Butterfield, who was first fascinated by a newspaper story on Doba. “So it is really a case of, ‘How can I give something to a perfect stranger,’ but in this case someone who is seafarer. I myself have been many, many weeks crossing the Atlantic, always in bigger boats than a kayak … the well-known adage proved to be real also in this case: In giving something we always get something back. [Doba has a knack for engaging his host. [Click HERE to read about his tour of the U.S. following his historic 99-day crossing of the Atlantic from Africa to Brazil in 2011.]
Denise Riviere, President of the Bermuda Sloop Foundation, to which the Spirit of Bermuda belongs, also had absolutely no doubts that Doba’s cause was worth her helping, especially if they had the appropriate capabilities. When asked about the kayak launch on March 23, she responded that, “We were just willing to help someone in need. We were more than happy to help Olek.”
The enforced stop in Bermuda became a kind of reward for adversities that the ocean had served Olek. It proved that open-minded and curious people around the world deserve other people’s kindness and approval. “I found Bermuda a great island with great people, and I am extremely grateful to all of them for their help,” Doba said. “I will remember their kindness and support for a long, long time.”
Leaving St. George’s Harbour that Sunday afternoon with the Polish flag on the Spirit of Bermuda‘s mast and OLO on board, Olek radiated energy and joy. After a month break, I continue my journey again. I feel great, I appreciate it very much that I was allowed to return to my route. “I cannot wait to get into the kayak and fight on,” he said “because there will be hard times yet on the ocean. But the satisfaction will grow when I achieve my goal.”
Olek was ready to carry out the expedition, without interruption to the land, even if he actually added 1,200 miles to the planned distance of 5,400 miles. “I hope the storm that damaged my rudder was the last one,” he said.
Catastrophe on the ocean: Two days later, on March 25, we arrived at the position (27N, 64W) where, on Jan. 10, southern winds began southern winds began pushing Olek north off his route southwest to Florida. About 1:35 p.m., the sloop lurched left sharply, nearly laying on top of the kayak. The roar of the wind and waves drowned the CRACK of the wings breaking. The wings are there to protect Olek, ensuring the kayak’s return upright in conditions that could roll it. Instead, the wings fell on Olek. Fortunately, he was uninjured; unfortunately, they were impossible to fix.
The kayak damage and Olek’s safety turned the crew’s high emotions from the launch to disappointment and regret. What now? Sail Olek back to the island?
The only person who wasn’t worried was Olek. With no hesitation, he decided to paddle toward Florida without the wings. He immediately began to dismantle the navigation lights and an active radar reflector that were placed on the broken structure, in order to install them on the kayak. After an hour of test-paddling, he returned to the sloop to return the unloading ropes, called out, “I’m going!,” waved goodbye, and as if fearing that we would try to dissuade him, began to pull away.
We watched the kayak disappear again and again in the depths of the high swells. Someone yelled, “Look, he's taking pictures,” waved again, and soon disappeared.
Fortunately, Olek escaped the storm, which however hit the Spirit of Bermuda sailing back to the island. As it turned out, it was the strongest storm in the last few years.
Attraction for the “armchair adventurers”As I sailed back I could not help but think how every person I’d spoken with who had come into contact with Olek faced a moment for themselves to reckon with their own values and principles. A few of their thoughts:
“Olek sends us the strong message: go and do what you dream of doing, do new things that nobody's done before.” — Elajah Simmons, the second mate on board the Spirit of Bermuda.
“It doesn't matter what your age is, if you have passion for it you can overcome some serious obstacles like the wild ocean” — Nicola Muirhead, photojournalist of the Bermuda Sun
“Olek shows us that it is worthwhile to pursue your plans at any age. Many people say someone like, ‘This must be crazy, why would he bother doing it?’ I say, ‘Why would you ride a bicycle across America?’ which is something I did, or ‘Why would you climb a mountain?’ Olek teaches us that you've got to get up every day with a dream and that many, many things are possible. So many times people say, ‘I'm too old to do this,’ and it's not the case. No, none of us can paddle a kayak across the Atlantic, but they may take up a new sport or take up art or music or something we didn't think we can do. I think what he does opens your eyes to the possibilities. — Jim Butterfield
Go, Olek, go! For a few days, Olek headed quickly going south, heading toward New Smyrna Beach, Fla. If there are no new complications, he should reach land within four to six weeks. [Click HERE to track his current location.] The local orchestra will soon begin once again preparing to welcome him on the coast. “Recently, I was sent some words of impatience, why I did not paddle, what was happening with me,” Olek said just before his departure. “Here we go with the rest of the story. I am glad that I can expand and diversify the lives of those who look on my website and follow my route. I hope that there will be less drama than previously, without long breaks and storms. Please keep your fingers crossed.”