When Aleksander Doba kayaked into the port in Le Conquet, France, on Sept. 3, 2017, he had just completed his third — and by far most dangerous — solo trans-Atlantic kayak trip. He was a few days shy of his 71st birthday. He was unaccustomed to wearing pants. He’d been at sea 110 days, alone, having last touched land that May at New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay. The trip could have easily ended five days earlier, when Doba was just a few hundred feet off the British coast. But he had promised himself, when he left New Jersey, that he would kayak not just to Europe but to the Continent proper. So he stayed on the water nearly another week, in the one-meter-wide boat where he’d endured towering waves, in the coffinlike cabin where he spent almost four months not sleeping more than three hours at a stretch, where he severely tried his loved ones’ patience in order to be lonely, naked and afraid. Then he paddled to the French shore.
Kayaking is an absurd form of long-distance ocean travel. All the big muscles in the body are useless. “A real katorga,” says Doba, who is Polish — katorgabeing the Polish word for forced labor in Siberia. But by katorga, Doba does not mean an activity he does not wish to do. What most of us experience as suffering he repurposes as contrarian self-determination, and that gives him an existential thrill. Among Doba’s bigger regrets in life are the times when he has succumbed, when he has perceived and reacted to suffering in conventional ways — for instance, the night in April 1989 when he built a fire in order to make tea and dry his clothes while paddling on the Vistula River near the city of Plock, in central Poland. Or the afternoon, a week later, on that same river, when he succumbed to the temptation of eating pancakes, tomato soup and rice at the Milk Bar restaurant when he should have been at his campsite, by his kayak, eating cold canned goulash in order to condition his body for arctic temperatures. Doba had promised himself he would be tougher than all that.
Doba maintains that his need to cross the Atlantic in a kayak did not originate within him. “With my hand on my heart, it wasn’t my idea,” Doba told me when I met him in Poland in January. (Doba doesn’t speak much English, so we communicated through a translator.) “I was infected with a virus.” In 2003, when he was already the most seasoned kayaker in Poland, a Polish professor approached him to get advice on his quest to kayak across the Baltic Sea. The professor eventually persuaded Doba to cross the southern Atlantic with him from Ghana to Brazil in separate one-man kayaks, lashing those kayaks together at night to make a platform on which to sleep. The trip was a fiasco. Forty-two hours after leaving, they washed up back on the beach.
Doba flew back to Poland; returned to his hometown, Police, in the country’s northwest, where he had been managing maintenance and repairs at an enormous chemical factory; and swore off kayaking with a partner ever again. Then Doba sketched out a design for a new boat that could make the trip. He knew that the kayak needed to be unsinkable, as well as self-righting, in the event that it capsized, and that it needed lockers to store food and a cabin in which to sleep. Sketch in hand, Doba drove from Police to Szczecin, the regional capital, and approached a yacht-builder named Andrzej Arminski. Arminski agreed to build the boat, and in spring of 2010, Olo, as Doba named his kayak — after his own nickname, Olek — was complete. Doba told his wife that he was going to try to cross the Atlantic again.