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“Our dreams have no limits…” – an interview with Aleksander Doba, Adventurer of the Year

Aleksander Doba is a 68-year-old traveller who as the only person in history crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a canoe on his own, with no help from outside. The winner of the National Geographic – Adventurer of the Year Award is talking with Mariusz Soltanifar about his motivations and dreams.

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During your voyage across the Atlantic, which took 167 days, you came across eight strong storms. Were there any other difficult situations and how did you cope with them?

The storms were indeed strenuous. The longest ones lasted three days. I had the biggest problems in the Bermuda Triangle where I got during my last expedition. I was in a wind trap for over 40 days. I tried to get away from it for a long time. I was caught by the fifth storm in this area and my helm broke down. It was a huge challenge because it is extremely difficult to navigate a canoe that weighs 500 kilograms and is very prone to wind without a helm. At that time I also had to get to the Bermudas and cover the distance of nearly 400 km. I’m a mechanical engineer and I managed to fix the helm somehow. It moved around but it worked. I reached the Bermudas although it was extremely tedious as the winds were against me. I also had many problems while passing through the Gulf Stream. I had been warned against it by sailors from the Bermudas but I did manage to cope with it somehow. It was an exhausting challenge but I was constantly motivated to cross this area. The only way to do it was to get to the Cape Canaveral, known from the American space missions. Before the final exhausting stage I had slept through the night before I reached the lock in Port Canaveral. The last few kilometres before the ceremonious welcome on land I rowed through the Intracostal Waterway for 30 hours without a break. In New Smyrna Beach, full of adrenaline and euphoria, I gave interviews and I talked to people who came to congratulate me.

Is there anything you cannot imagine this trip without? Can you think about one element?

It would definitely be a helm. The fact that it was broken shattered my idea for the whole trip. However, I treated it as a stroke of faith and not as my personal failure, defeat or a reason to give up the whole thing. Encouraged by my friend, Piotr Chmieliński from the States, who made me realise that this trip was something more than just the covered distance and a huge success, I decided to continue the challenge, despite the broken helm. I put much more effort into this expedition than the number of kilometres I rowed for. Piotr emphasised that no one had ever did an intercontinental voyage in a canoe and crossed the Atlantic from Europe to North America. Even the short break in the Bermudas will not change the significance of this accomplishment. And this is a huge achievement indeed.

How did you communicate with your family and friends who followed your expedition with bated breath?

I had two satellite telephones made by the best companies in the world. Still, I had a break in communication that lasted 47 days. The reason lied in Poland although there were some untrue rumours that the failure was on my side. No emergency actions were needed. On the other hand, it made my trip noticed around the world. The media showed a picture of a huge tanker passing me by. Instead of asking the crew for help, I sent them back with nothing. People started talking about a Polish canoeist who was fighting for survival in the ocean. Because of a false alarm the whole thing became overdramatized. The photos taken from the tanker were shown around the world and people became interested in me and the challenge I put in front of myself.

This must be another stroke of faith that you have mentioned before. In your website you describe various situations, also the dangerous ones, as well as some expeditions that ended up with bad memories. Could you tell me more about one of such situations?

During all the meetings I take part in I always stress that I usually encounter cheerful and smiling people. When I see strangers, I smile at them and it causes a positive reaction. What is more, smiling involves fewer muscles and requires less effort than making a gloomy face. I always tell people to do the simplest thing possible – smile and you always find smiling people on your way. However, such a positive attitude didn’t work during my trip to South America when I was robbed twice while rowing in the Amazon River. There was no point in smiling at those people because their only task was to mug me. In most cases I meet kind people though. The world is a wonderful place and if we smile at people, people smile at us.

This wonderful world includes the marine flora and fauna that surrounds you and that you have close contact with. Have you ever had any funny encounters with nature?

When I hear such a questions I always ask the person I talk to whether they have ever had a feeling that they were observed and felt someone’s eyes on their back?

I have. I did feel someone’s eyes on my back a few times.

I also have such a feeling from time to time. I turn around and I see no one. One sunny day, when I was rowing in the open water, with no ships to be seen around for a week, I had a feeling someone was watching me. I turned around and I saw a huge head of a whale, probably a sperm. I stopped rowing and I felt his gaze. Whales are mammals like us and so we found common language. We looked at each other for a few minutes. Then the whale swam 20-25 metres from my canoe, showed his back and the tail and dived deep down into the water. I was so fascinated by this experience that I didn’t even take a photo. I didn’t reach for my camera, which was hidden in my cabin. It was an amazing and impressive sight. My canoe was 7 metres long and the whale – more than 20 metres.

This must have been a nice diversity in your solitary trip. In your interviews you often stress that it was a solitary and self-dependent voyage with no help from outside. During such trips you must have a lot of time to think. Is it a good way to get to know yourself?
It definitely is. Such trips give you an incredible opportunity to get to know yourself. When nothing is going on and I’m simply rowing I think about everything that has happened, about the present and about my plans for the future. I can spend time with myself. I see myself as a positive and cheerful person. When there were no nice people around I looked into the mirror and I thought: “There is a cool guy rowing with me. I’m not alone”. (laughter). Sometimes people go away to a desert in order to have time for themselves. We live in stressful times and our life is very intense. In the ocean I had a chance to be only with myself. Still I wasn’t bored for a single minute. I watched birds and fish. I talked to them not to lose my voice. I even sang to myself. When you’re alone and you’re not restrained by anything, you can do whatever you want. Sometimes such behaviour is dangerous. One sunny day, when I was tied with a rope to my canoe, I decided to swim in the ocean. I behaved like a careless teenage boy. I started to move my feet. Suddenly I saw a big shark fin coming towards me and… I lost all my desire to swim. Such solitary moments give you unlimited freedom and space to do what you feel like doing.

You are an incredibly active person who shows that age plays absolutely no role in following our dreams. You want to cope with the Atlantic again, this time on a more difficult route, which is still as long as the previous one. I wonder where you take motivation to do such things and undertake such challenges from?

I’m a versatile tourist: I like hiking, climbing, sailing, paragliding and parachuting. I’ve been interested in canoeing for 34 years, since I went to my first rally in the Drawa River. I have already rowed for more than 93 thousand kilometres, mainly in Poland. As a tourist I constantly look for new challenges and new rivers. I live in Police with lots of water around it but I already know this area. I’m tempted by new places and getting to know something different. These voyages in the oceans and seas are always a new challenge. Using the experience I have (oooooo) I raise the bar higher and higher. The biggest motivation for me is to enjoy the trip. Spending several months in a small canoe is no fun. But in order to meet another challenge, I’m ready to do it. My first trip took place in the narrowest place in the Atlantic Ocean and the second one – in the widest. The next one is to take place in even colder waters, which means a higher probability of strong storms. Thus, the canoe must be modernised further and there are still several things that should be changed in it.

I’m looking for possibilities and sponsors so the trip does happen. A retired man like me cannot afford such a venture. I believe that my experience and physical condition enable me to plan and undertake such an attempt. I realise that the older men get, the less energy they have (laughter). I feel I would regret if I didn’t try to make this trip. I hope I will live for many years to come and I will do everything to make this next trip happen.

You are among ten people from around the world who are nominated to the Traveller of the Year Award presented by the National Geographic magazine. I’m sure you will receive this title. You have proved that Polish people can do things. Do you think that similar achievements and events are a good way to promote Poland in the world?

For a few days now there has been a list available online that shows ten people who promote Poland in the States most. My achievement was second, behind Shaquille O’Neal, a basketball player eating Polish pierogi. I feel appreciated. Even beating Germans in a football match is far behind me in this ranking. Recently Telewizja Polska broadcast a documentary called “Poles in the eyes of the world”. The film starts with Copernicus and presents contemporary Poles. There is even a brief snap of me there. This is an incredible distinction. I recommend this documentary to everyone. I didn’t know about Poles’ many achievements myself. And we should know our own history, promote this information and be proud of it. Under the articles about my expedition there are many comments saying that although I’m old I can still face new challenges, sometimes adversities. This encourages me to think positively. People feel proud of another Pole’s success and it’s inspiring for them.

How, in your opinion, are Poland and Polish people perceived abroad?

I have never encountered a negative image of Poland. The most common news is about the Pope, Lech Wałęsa and our sportsmen.

We already know your motto: “It is better to live one day like a tiger than one hundred days as a sheep”. What else would you like to tell our readers?

I would say that every Link to Poland reader should dream in her or his own way. After all, our dreams have no limits. We should change some of them into plans and then make these plans happen. Step by step. This joy and satisfaction with achieving certain steps and targets show that we can make bold and ambitious plans happen. Then we will show the world that Polish people can do things. And I mean both Polish men and women because Polish women are great. I would like to take this opportunity and send my greetings to all Polish women in the world.

 

Photo © Nicola Muirhead

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