foto: Paweł Smoliński
Aleksander Doba is a Polish traveler and explorer. Recently, just before his 71st birthday, he sailed single-handed across the Atlantic for the third time in his kayak. He talks about his amazing adventures with passion and energy. He is a family man, whose positive attitude to life is contagious. The huge group of his supporters keeps growing - thanks to internet users’ votes he was awarded the title of Traveler of the Year 2015 by National Geographic.
It was not an impulse decision. It had been taking shape in my head for a long time. I have always been curious about new challenges and new routes - always something new. I had tens of thousands of kilometers on the clock of my kayak. I sailed rivers and seas, I circumnavigated our Baltic Sea. I had done a kayak trip behind the Arctic Circle. I live in Police, in the north-west of Poland, from where I reached Narvik after 101 days. Finally, I was ready to go further. I was tempted by the Atlantic Ocean - it is the closest. I am a mechanical engineer and I used to work in the design office of an engineering plant in Police, so I sketched my dream kayak, designed especially for me, on a small A4 sheet of paper. I found someone who would build the design. I convinced Mr. Andrzej Armiński from a shipyard that builds ocean yachts that my design was a good idea. That's how the kayak in which I crossed the Atlantic was made.
Actually, I planned to go across three times right from the start. It was a long-term plan.The first expedition was to sail from Africa to South America at the narrowest point of the ocean. Its aim was to test the kayak. I had not sailed the ocean before, and there were many uncertainties about the performance of the equipment and my well-being. I decided that if I liked it, I would sail between the continents. Next, between South America and North America, and then from North America to Europe. Due to some perturbations, I sailed to North America from Europe, not South America. I was right to assume that the last expedition would be the most difficult and the most interesting stage. The long-term plan was to prepare for that most difficult stage during the two, say, easier trips.
Yes, I knew it would be harder and harder right from the start. The route of the first expedition ran across the narrowest point of the Atlantic, the second one the widest, and the third one across the most difficult one. Objectively looking, it ran through much colder ocean waters, which causes more frequent and stronger storms. These conditions alone predicted it would be more interesting. And it was!
I consider myself a tourist. I don’t go to the gym, I didn’t do any special exercises. Living close to water reservoirs such as the Odra River, Dąbskie Lake and Szczecin Lagoon I can sail as a recreation. A tourist is interested in new places, new routes, rivers and water reservoirs. Unfortunately, they are farther and farther for me. I am generally very active, I walk and ride a bike a lot. My ordinary life activity allows me to stay in good shape. What I trained was smiles - I am an optimist and I knew I would accomplish my expeditions. I wanted to smile nicely at the welcome ceremony! I owe a lot to my wife. We have been together for 42 years and she toughens my nerves, so I won’t be bothered by just anything. I was not on a special diet. I collaborate with a wonderful company that makes lyophilized, light and water-free food. I really loved their dishes. Only with these freeze-dried products was I able to survive for a few months during my ocean expeditions. They are ready-made dishes of such good quality that when I had some left after one expedition, I could take them with me and eat them even after two years from production date. No advertising intended, but I’m sure you can guess I mean LYOFOOD! 😉
During many of my trips in Poland or the one to Narvik, there were periods when I was alone for a few days. The longest time with no contact with a man was for a dozen or so days, when I was crossing Lake Baikal in Siberia. I was going on a single-handed expedition that would last several months and I was curious what it would be like. I had a satellite phone, I could be in touch with people, communicate via text messages and receive emails, and I could make calls. But calls are expensive, so we kept them down to a minimum. The simple fact of knowing that many people supported me, sent me good energy, greetings and wishes gave me comfort and energy to survive difficult moments.
During the second trip from Europe to North America I had a communication break – 47 days and nights. The case was trivial: I was unable to contact the team in Poland and they didn’t guess I had used up all my credit and the prepaid card was empty. I missed it and before they knew it, a month and a half passed. Guessing does not always work. I try not to find fault with other people and always try to see a positive side of things, so I told myself that at least no one was going to nag me with questions. Over that long period of time I was without spiritual support, but I sent signals with a device so they all knew where I was and that I was going forward at a steady kayak’s pace.
Yes there were. I expected it to be the most difficult expedition, and it was. It was very cold for the first three weeks. I started from New Jersey, near New York on 16 May. The eastern and northern winds from Greenland area were very cold. The damp, cold fog made it impossible to wash. I had to protect myself from chilling. During the entire expedition lasting 110 days and nights, I survived 5 storms. One of them was special. It was 8, 9 and 10 on the Beaufort scale. The waves went up to 10 m. I know that no one had survived a storm like that in such a small vessel ever before. I proved that a Pole can do it! 😊 I was happy I got to survive a storm like that, although it lasted over two days and nights, and it was not easy.
I am a realist and I love life very much. I don’t go on expeditions hoping for luck. I have always prepared myself carefully and comprehensively. I try to anticipate possible difficulties and consider potential threats to life or health. If I had decided something was threatening me, I would have withdrawn. I did not assume I would encounter a 10 Beaufort storm, but I had to reckon with that. I was ready, the kayak was ready, so I survived. After my second trip, the movie "Happy Olo - a Cheerful Ballad of Olek Doba" was made. One of the people in the movie is Andrzej Armiński, from the shipyard. He said the kayak would not be able to endure the hardships of the expedition. He brutally told my wife and me that I would not live long. I did not underestimate his opinion, I did not want to die. After I had completed my last trip I met with Andrzej, and he said he looked like a fool. In the movie, he warns me, but I survived and reached my destination. I explained that he did not look like a fool, it's just that my kayak had been designed and made with such a large safety margin that it allowed me to endure the difficult moments. It was just made to safely cross the ocean. I used that safety margin.
I like to emphasize that mental resistance is essential during such expeditions. Muscles built in the gym are not enough if you have a weak psyche. I tested mine in difficult situations, on the Amazon. I was attacked by armed bandits twice. I tried to understand their actions and do what was needed to save my life. Later on, I consulted these situations with psychologists who said I had done the right thing. My strong psyche and cool calculation in real time, but most importantly being prepared for different circumstances was what allowed me to go through adversity. In my last trip, I had serious problems with communication. Messages I sent didn’t arrive and I didn’t get replies. It was depressing, sometimes. For a trip like that, it is not enough to be optimistically prepared for 100%, you have to recharge your batteries to 150%. My optimism dropped to 140% and 130%, and sank the lowest to 114%. Not once did I feel depressed below 100%, never did I have enough of it all or complained I didn’t want any more adventures. I owe this to my positive attitude before the expedition. Other traits? My wife says I'm stubborn. I say it is not stubbornness, but firmness. When I have a goal, I make efforts to achieve it and I don’t look for excuses.
Yes! Focusing on a goal, a dream you want to come true doesn’t allow you to be distracted. My goal to cross the ocean was the most important thing for me, and it worked. To accomplish it, I used all my skills and abilities - kayaking and professional. I did everything to cross the ocean as soon as possible.
Of course they are. When you are ill and have no hope of recovery, you will most likely not recover. Optimism and internal strength allow people to survive even the greatest difficulties. A good mental attitude is very important. With a smile, I can do anything. I don’t like to play old. It’s not my thing to poke my nose into someone else’s birth certificate, or my own, for that matter. It amazes me that other people are surprised at what I am doing. I do have various ailments. But if they don’t stop me from accomplishing my plans, I don’t focus on them. I try to focus on the positive qualities of my character and the potential of my body. I do what it lets me do. If I were to have a bragging match with people of my age about who has more illnesses, I would win with more than one. At my age, if I didn’t feel any pain or had no health issues, it would mean I was dead. But I just don’t talk about it, focusing on the joy of life. High spirits and optimism, that’s it!
Everyone should set goals for themselves. Raise the bar step by step. That’s what I did. When I had tested the equipment and got to like sailing around the ocean, I went a bit further, travelled a little more difficult route. In my last trip, I approached the limit of my abilities, human abilities. I didn’t cross it. I calculated the risk, just as I calculated the amount of food I needed for the trip. I always took more than the time I really intended to be on the road. My kayak would hold six-month’s worth of supplies and that’s what I packed, even if my expedition was to last 3-4 months. The more difficult an expedition or venture, the better you have to be prepared. You should pay attention to every detail to make sure even the best plan does not fall into ruin.
I have been retired for over a dozen years. For many years, I’ve had to raise funds for my expeditions, and I had help from many people. I had a team of a few people help me on my recent expedition. I had a person in charge of weather, I received messages and forecasts on a regular basis. I had the support of a navigator, there was a person responsible for cooperation with the media on the team, as well as a person for Facebook. Medical team with doctors of various specialties with whom I could consult by phone. Without that team my expedition would not have been possible. Good cooperation leads to shared success. This is not something you can achieve on your own. My family were against the expedition at the beginning, but they rooted for me when it had started. My wife was very supportive. It’s impossible to be on a trip, somewhere far away or high up, and at home at the same time. I am lucky to have a normal family who understands me, and don’t treat me as an egoist who pursues his own strange passions. I have great support from my family, and it’s very important.
Thank you very much for the interview.
Helping to fulfil the dreams of such amazing people as Aleksander Doba is a real driver and motivator for us.
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