Meet the ‘King of the Ocean’

On February 22, Aleksander Doba made the last few strides to the top of Kilimanjaro, a pleased 74-year-old man, waving to fellow climbers with his envy-inducing muscular arms, a smile beaming from behind the curls of a wild beard. He shouted his happiness for achieving his goal of climbing this mountain with the enchanting name. Doba took a look around, admiring the view from the world’s highest freestanding mountain, sat down on a nearby rock, and died.

While it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that a man of that age would die of HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema) at such an altitude, it might surprise many who knew him that after all Doba had been through, hiking to the top of Kilimanjaro would kill him. Some might have been surprised that anything could.

To sit down happily atop Kilimanjaro, 20,000 feet into the sky, to rest your weary and battle-scarred 74-year-old bones, there to expire from effort, is, perhaps, not at all a bad way to pass from this world to whatever comes next.

Late in life, Doba paddled solo across the Atlantic Ocean three times. He was 64 years old his first time. He was 70 during his final crossing in 2017. He holds a bushel of world records for his almost unbelievable paddles. He should hold more for his beard.

His wife’s homemade jams were possibly the secret to his success. Each time he’d step out of his kayak on shaky feet after one of his mammoth crossings, fresh after facing giant waves, relentless sun, broken equipment, and a body rendered into jerky from salt air, with reporters standing by for a juicy quote about man against nature and the perils of the sea, Doba would hold up a jar of his wife’s jam and praise her efforts for that particular batch. It was the performance booster that kept the man going.

Doba was born in 1946 in Swarzędz, Poland, smack in the middle of the country. Access to the sea was nonexistent, but he had rivers and he used them. Doba loved whitewater kayaking as a youngster in Poland and took it seriously, competing in whitewater slalom events. He was invited as a young man to join a kayaking club, enthusiastically accepted, and set about paddling all the way from the middle of the country to the Baltic Sea, an illegal act in the Communist country. He feigned confusion when halted by soldiers, explaining he had no idea how far he’d paddled, he was just out for a river cruise.

In his 30s, he took an interest in big-water kayaking, eyeing Russia’s massive Lake Baikal, which he circumnavigated successfully. In 1989, he kayaked the length of the Baltic Sea’s shoreline, spending 100 days on the water. Later, he paddled more than 5,300 kilometers from rivers in Poland to the open sea and the Arctic Circle. Once, on that trip, he was pitched overboard, and washed up on a beach; he awoke shocked to find himself lying alive on the sand, with no idea how he got there.

Still, Doba had no reason to plot a trip across the Atlantic, let alone three such trips. After all, he had a pleasant life as a chemical engineer in Poland, and plenty of homemade jam to eat back at home.

In 2003, Doba was advising a fellow paddler about how to tackle the Baltic Sea. The two men got to talking, and eventually, they’d decided, forget the Baltic, they were going to cross the entire Atlantic. Ghana to Brazil. Their plan was to take separate kayaks, but lash them together at night so they wouldn’t drift apart. Some time later they headed out from the Ghanian coast, visions of glory illuminating their watery path.

They didn’t make it two days before they were washed up on a lonely beach, their plan in tatters. But Doba was hooked on the idea and plotted his return, this time without a fellow paddler to consider.

“With my hand on my heart, it wasn’t my idea,” Mr. Doba told the NYT Magazine in 2018. “I was infected with a virus.”

That paddling virus compelled Doba to embark on his solo paddle in 2010 at the age of 64. He’d spent ten years designing and testing his kayak, the Olo. When it was ready, he transported it to Senegal, carefully packed the hold with jam, freeze dried goulash, and homemade wine, and shoved off, the bow pointed at Brazil.

99 days later, Doba arrived in South America. His skin was flayed from the sun and the salt and the ever-present moisture from the steaming hot tropical ocean. He had conjunctivitis. His fingernails and toenails had long since rebelled from the torture he put them through and peeled off somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. So had his clothes, in fact. The constant wetness was impossible to dry, so he paddled most of the way stark naked.

But, he survived, and immediately started plotting another trip, but at a slightly higher latitude.

Three years later, Doba was ready to cross the Atlantic again, this time preparing to depart Europe from Portugal, with a planned arrival in Florida. His wife, unhappy with this obsession, refused to drive him to the airport so he could fly to Portugal to begin his trip. She still gave him jam.

The Olo, Doba’s 2010 kayak. Photo: Wikipedia

This trip was smooth paddling for the first few months until Doba noticed his satellite phone had konked out. Unwilling to lose that precious line to the outside world, he signaled for help using the SOS function on his SPOT device. A Greek tanker eventually tracked him down, and drew its massive bulk alongside to offer rescue. Doba tried to communicate that he simply wanted assistance with his phone and communication, though there was a significant language barrier. Doba rebuffed the ropes thrown over the side by the crew, and waved away the hulking tanker. As the ship lingered, the captain confused, Doba shouted Polish curses at the crew and they took a hint. Doba continued paddling west.

You may notice a theme here, one of irreverence, charm, of a man tickled to be alone, at sea, baffled at his own accomplishments, defiant of authority and those who would tell him “no.” Doba cherished the sights and experiences he enjoyed at sea. He paddled with sea turtles, was astonished to have whales drift alongside his craft, wished upon shooting stars in impossibly starlit skies, far from any source of light.

His final crossing was in 2017, at 70 years old. This time, he headed east, departing from New Jersey for France. The trip took 110 days, and, an old hand at this now, Doba again paddled naked, dined on fresh fish he caught, and savored the attention when he arrived in Europe, a Polish national hero.

There are statues of Doba in his native country. Selfies taken with Doba are treasured by his fellow Poles who encountered him near his home. He was active giving lectures and eager to share his stories with adventure-seekers. He was thrilled to be hiking Kilimanjaro, telling an interviewer: “Kayaks did not dissuade me from other forms of exploring the world.”

As Doba ascended the mountain on his last day on Earth, he passed a Polish climber, who was excited to come face to face with a national celebrity. “I wished him luck in reaching the summit,” said Boguslaw Wawrzyniak. “Then I asked the local guides with him, ‘Do you know who this man is?’ And they said: ‘Yes. We know who this is. He is the king of the ocean.’”

“He said many times that he didn’t want to die in his bed,” said Doba’s son Czeslaw. “From what we gather, he was euphoric to reach the summit. Then he sat down and fell asleep.”

To sit down happily atop Kilimanjaro, 20,000 feet into the sky, to rest your weary and battle-scarred 74-year-old bones, there to expire from effort, is, perhaps, not at all a bad way to pass from this world to whatever comes next.

– Justin Housman



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