By Jeff Moag
It's been a long strange trip, and it's about to get stranger.
This coming Sunday, March 23, trans-Atlantic kayaker Aleksander "Olek" Doba will load his kayak onto the three-masted sloop Spirit of Bermuda and sail some 325 nautical miles south, to the point he reached more than three months ago when his luck turned bad. Then, without resupplying, he'll attempt to paddle the final 900 miles to New Smyrna Beach, Florida, the destination he has been trying to reach since leaving Lisbon, Portugal last October.
Starting in early January, a succession of powerful storms battered the 67-year-old Polish adventurer and the strange yellow kayak he calls "Olo." He'd already paddled more than 4,000 miles, lost all communication with the outside world and declined an offer of rescue. Then for six weeks the wind and sea toyed with his psyche, blowing him in all directions, but mostly backwards.
Finally, on February 13, another turn of bad luck. In the middle of yet another stormy night at sea, Doba lost his rudder. The 21-foot Olo was difficult enough to manage with a rudder. Without it, reaching Florida would be nearly impossible. Doba made the difficult decision to turn downwind, and let the storms push him to Bermuda.
There he could repair his kayak, and eventually finish his epic crossing from Portugal to Florida. He was determined not to take any assistance that was not absolutely necessary. He paddled to Ely's Harbour in Bermuda under his own power, arriving in the small hours of Feb. 24.
After 142 days at sea, Doba could barely walk.
"I put my feet on the concrete and I felt that this concrete was shaking," Doba told his friend and supporter Piotr Chmielinski. "I staggered as if I was drunk. I had felt very stable in the kayak, where I stood and did gymnastics. But when nothing under my feet moved, I began to waver."
Doba took enough time to consume soup and a sandwich and then set about readying Olo for his return to the sea. The kayak was still loaded with provisions for six weeks, and once the rudder was repaired at a local shipyard she was seaworthy again.
The challenge, as ever, was the prevailing wind and current in the Bermuda Triangle. Expedition strategist Andrzej Arminski and a host of other experts agreed: Continuing to Florida from Bermuda would be impossible.
The trip from Portugal to Bermuda was already an impressive first. It constitutes the longest kayak crossing in history, longer even than Doba's own crossing from Africa to Brazil in 2011.
Doba is proud of the accomplishment, but not satisfied.
"For me I achieved success at 75 percent,” he says. “To achieve full success I need to get to Florida."
Doba conferred with Arminski and Chmielinski, and determined that the only viable option was to get a lift south, and to continue his voyage from his previous line of position, where the wind would be less likely to push him off course. The problem is that finding a ship to drop a 21-foot kayak and its bearded sexagenarian owner more than 300 miles from the nearest land is a tall order.
That's where the "Spirit of Bermuda" comes in. It's not actually a pirate ship, though in the age of sail privateers and the Royal Navy alike favored fast and weatherly sloops like “The Spirit of Bermuda,” a replica built in 2006 as a sail-training ship. It's mission is not to plunder or protect like its forbearers, but rather to introduce Bermudian youth to their country's rich maritime history.
The Bermuda Sloop Foundation, with the financial support of Jim Butterfield, offered to carry Doba and Olo to his Jan. 10 position of 27N, 64W. The five-day roundtrip voyage presents an excellent training opportunity for a dozen young sailors. It also will introduce them to a rarity in this day and age—a true iron man of the sea.
“The trip is an opportunity for the kayaker to accomplish his goal, but it's also a way of implementing the mission and vision of the Bermuda Sloop Foundation to help young people," Chmielinski says.
“Olek shows these young participants the strong determination in gaining goals, incredible power of the human being in struggle with nature, and that dreams come true if you really want it."