ALEKSANDER DOBA On the high seas

When Polish kayaker Aleksander Doba crossed the Atlantic Ocean unaided in 2013 at the age of 67, he broke his own world record for the longest open-water kayak voyage ever made. Doba, now 69, who was named National Geographic’s 2015 People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year based on reader votes, tells Compass what motivates and inspires him to take on his intrepid adventures.

COMPASS: How did you first get into kayaking?

ALEKSANDER DOBA: I was active in various types of tourism, including cycling, lowland walking, hillwalking, sailing, gliding and skydiving. At the age of 34, I was encouraged to go on my first kayaking trip. It was a two-week journey down the Drawa, a lowland river in Poland. In many parts, the water flows quickly and, of course, there’s a risk of capsizing. It happened to me my first time out. However, this didn’t discourage me – just the opposite. I fell for kayaks and they became my passion.

What motivates you to take on these epic kayak journeys?

AD: Knowing that there had only been three Atlantic kayak crossings motivated me to make such an attempt. Two Germans had kayaked across the Atlantic from east to west using five-square-meter (16.5 square feet) sails. A Briton had crossed it from west to east. All, however, had set out from and landed on islands.

For my first crossing, I set off from Senegal and traveled to Brazil without sails. During my second trans-Atlantic expedition between the European and North American continents in 2013, a rudder snapped during a storm. I kayaked on my own to the nearest land, which was Bermuda, around 400 kilometers (about 248 miles) away. I fixed the rudder and was transported back to my former route by the sloop Spirit of Bermuda. I continued my journey and reached my destination: New Smyrna Beach, Florida.

What is the scariest moment you have had at sea?

AD: During my second trans-Atlantic kayak expedition, which lasted 167 days, I faced a dozen tropical storms, as well as eight other storms. They usually lasted between 24 and 48 hours. The longest storm held me up for three days, with waves up to nine meters (more than 29 feet) high. I couldn’t even take a nap. The noise of breaking waves hitting the kayak made it impossible. I was just trying to survive the storm, keeping the kayak headed into the wind and waves. I managed to do this by throwing three drift anchors overboard on 20-meter-long (about 66 feet) ropes.

Thankfully, the kayak was unsinkable as it had several displacement chambers. So when the waves capsized it, it righted itself.

What is the most amazing thing you have seen at sea?

AD: One day, after rowing in what felt like an empty ocean for two weeks, I felt a pair of eyes on my back. In all that emptiness, something was watching me! I turned round – and about 20 meters (nearly 66 feet) behind me I saw the huge head of a whale! I think it was a sperm whale because it had a squarish head. I stopped paddling and we stared at each other. Then the whale swam past me on the left. After a few minutes, the whole back and a huge tail appeared.

The smallest organisms in the ocean made a great impression at night. When disturbed – for example, by rowing – they give off a celadon-colored glow that lasts for about a second. This bioluminescent phenomenon was extremely fascinating.

What philosophy do you live your life by?

AD: Life is our greatest treasure. Let’s enjoy it, not squander it by exposing ourselves to excessive risk. I often quote the polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. I just replace the first word, ‘sea,’ with the word ‘water’ to make it more universal – “Water is an element over which you can never triumph. You can only be undefeated.”

Where do you get your inspiration?

AD: My parents inspired me and awakened my desire to experience the world. When it comes to kayaking, the need for physical activity and learning about the world are my main sources of inspiration.

What is next for Aleksander Doba?

AD: I plan to attempt crossing the Atlantic Ocean by kayak between continental North America and Europe in May 2016. My third trans-Atlantic kayak expedition will be like the two previous ones: independent, solo and without outside help. The North Atlantic expedition will be more difficult because the waters are colder and there’s a greater likelihood of coming up against more frequent and stronger storms. I’ll use the same kayak, but it will have been modernized.◆

by Sean Dudley Back to top
by Sean Dudley

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