Meet the man who solo kayaked the Atlantic Ocean – three times

JUAN MARTINEZ

April 12, 2020

Meet the man who solo kayaked the Atlantic Ocean – three times

At the age of 70, Aleksander Doba became a legend with the kayak. He crossed the ocean three different times in one of these and spent several months completely alone 

With a long grey beard, a big smile on the face and the looks of a pensioner on holiday, Aleksander Doba didn’t look like the extreme athlete I heard so much about. Known for his risky solo expeditions, the stories from this 73-year-old Polish kayaker were all over outdoor magazines and the biggest news networks in the world some years ago. In 2017, he became the first person to cross the Atlantic Ocean on three separate occasions, Spending a total of more than a year alone in the middle of the big blue sea.

Almost zero communication, no Netflix and just enough space to stretch the legs and barely sleep. If someone on earth knows about isolation, Doba is the man.

Aleksander Doba in Police
Aleksander Doba in his hometown, Police

Aleksander Doba is not one of these cool extreme athletes from Red Bull or an Olympic medalist who is pushing himself to the limit. He is a simple man from Police, a town in northwestern Poland, who fell in love with kayaking at the age of 34 and became a symbol on how age is not important when you are following your dreams.

I met Doba in 2018 while filming a 2-minute mini documentary about his journeys. It was several months after he accomplished his third and most difficult trip, crossing over 8100 km of open water, from New Jersey to the coastal commune of Le Conquet in France. It is considered one of the toughest and most extraordinary expeditions ever done by a single person. Not only that, Doba was 70 years old when he started this journey and finished one week before turning 71.

Next to the entrance to his three-room apartment, I had to take off my shoes before entering his cosy home. His lovely wife Gabriela welcomed me with cookies and coffee. During the upcoming hour, she asked me several times if we wanted more biscuits or coffee – for short moments it felt like being at my auntie’s home.  Although I couldn’t speak a word of Polish and Doba’s English was very limited, he was happy to show me some of the photographs and prizes he had hanging on the walls of the living room. It did not feel like being at the home of one of the most extraordinary athletes of the last decade.

Doba preparing his short distance kajak at the Baltic Sea
In spite of Doba’s popularity, he is just a very simple man who loves kayaking

Crossing the deep and cold ocean

While having dinner at a restaurant in Police, Doba told me about his first transatlantic trip. It was back in 2010 and he was 65 years old. On this expedition, he crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Senegal to Brazil in 99 days and sailed a distance of almost 5500 km, setting the record for the longest open water crossing ever taken by a kayaker. Even though this was an adventure most of us can’t even dream about, for Doba, it was not enough.

“Since I could not be the first, second or third person crossing the Atlantic with a kayak, I decided to do it three times”, he said after taking about Peter Bray, the third person known to cross the Atlantic in a kayak and the first one without using sails to help his paddling.

Aleksander Doba first expedition from Senegal to Brazil in 2010
Aleksander Doba first expedition from Senegal to Brazil in 2010

After his first intercontinental adventure, Doba’s popularity increased in Poland. His name appeared in local newspapers and he became this amazing grandpa who goes on crazy adventures. “If someone tells you something is impossible, ask a Polish person, he will definitely try it”, he told me while we were talking about determination at his age.

Doba is not just an extreme kayaker. He has the soul and heart of an adventurer. Not only has he paddled extremely long distances all over Europe and the world, he has been parachuting 14 times and also piloted gliders for a total of 250 hours. Some fans even call him a “superhuman”.

Aleksander Doba kayaked over 110 days non stop
Aleksander Doba kayaked completely alone in each one of these transatlantic expeditions

Alexander Doba’s kayaking expeditions

– South Atlantic Ocean: Senegal to Brazil – 5500 km in 99 days (2010-11)

– Central Atlantic Ocean: Portugal to Florida, USA – 12437 km in 167 days (2013-14)

– North Atlantic Ocean: New Jersey, USA to France – 8109 km in 110 days (2017)

Aleksander Doba second expedition from Portugal to Florida in 2014
Aleksander Doba second expedition from Portugal to Florida in 2014

After Doba’s second trip in 2014, he was already an extraordinary example of human condition. These two journeys were the longest open-water kayak voyages ever made and National Geographic Society named him “Adventurer of the Year” in 2015.

He was also very proud of his Polish heritage. New York Times stated in an interview that even though National Geographic’s producers told him to just say “thank you very much” in English when accepting the prize at the ceremony, he went up and said in his native language “Polish people are not geese and have their own language”.

After that, he became a superstar and one of the most recognized faces in Poland. Nevertheless, he still lives this simple life with his family in his little town.

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Aleksander Doba third expedition from New Jersey to France in 2017
Aleksander Doba third expedition from New Jersey to France in 2017

The most daring kayak expedition in human history

Back in 2015, after mentioning to Gabriela, he wanted to complete three trips across the Atlantic Ocean, his dream seemed to be more complicated than everything he has done before. Doba was already 69 years old, and although his arms and upper body looked like someone in his 30s, crossing the northern part of the Atlantic Ocean was known for being the most difficult and dangerous one. Storms are stronger, waves are bigger, and it could have been an adventure he might not be able to come back home from once he started.

After getting funds and sponsors from all over Poland, he planned his most tenacious adventure ever. He needed a custom-made oceanic kayak especially built for him: a masterpiece of engineering: 7 meters long and around 2 meters wide – probably the best kayak on earth.

Made by Polish ship maker Andrzej Arminski, Olo (Doba’s nickname for the kayak) was designed to decrease the risk of sinking, it was divided into five different waterproof parts, included a sleeping cabin and  had space for enough food to survive half a year in isolation. Olo was also equipped with the latest GPS technology, satellite trackers and special accessories for long expeditions.

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Aleksander Doba and his custom made kayak Olo
Doba named his transatlantic kayak “Olo”

Alone in the middle of the ocean

During this last voyage, Doba spent 110 days crossing the Atlantic Ocean, he went through more than 10 tropical storms, with waves over 10 meters high, and flipped several times. His skin also broke out in salt-induced rashes, his eyes got infected with conjunctivitis and he didn’t move his legs properly for several months. What most of us would see as torture, Aleksander Doba saw as a challenge.

Isolation was also a big issue on these expeditions. As he mentioned in his interview with the New York Times, after some weeks at sea Aleksander became so disoriented that he would shout to himself to see if he could still hear.

Even though he had a mobile phone to communicate with his family and Arminski, Doba used it mostly for emergencies. Furthermore, while being in the middle of nowhere, his prepaid phone credit expired, and he forgot to mention per message to top up. Over a period of 40 days, his family believed the phone died and that they wouldn’t hear from him until his arrival in France.

Doba was prepared for all kinds of unexpected situations – physically and mentally. He had dreamt about this expedition for years and he was very motivated, not matter what the circumstances were. “You need to be 150% confident, because 100% is not enough”, he said when I asked him if he was ever scared on these expeditions.

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Alesander Doba crossed the ocean on a kayak
Doba preparing his “short distance kayak” at the Baltic Sea

Aleksander Doba is an example of determination and how age does not matter. He is by far the most extraordinary person I’ve ever met and a motivation for many people who are trying to follow their dreams.

While crossing around the Isles of Scilly, a small British archipelago 45 km away from mainland Great Britain, Doba encountered a small group of kayakers. Amazed by Doba’s appearance and his unusual kayak, they asked him, where was he coming from. Almost naked and with his grey and long beard he responded, “from New Jersey, USA”. They nodded and continued their tour.

“They looked at me and probably thought I was a old and crazy man, who spoke nonsense”, he said to me with a laugh. 

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