Late Monday morning (Feb. 22) on the 19,341-foot summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, 74-year-old Polish adventurer Aleksander ‘Olek’ Doba broke into a wide grin and hollered “Wild Africa!” into the wind. Moments later he sat down and died. The cause of death was not determined.
A compact man with an enormous beard and boundless enthusiasm, Doba was best known for crossing the Atlantic Ocean three times in a heavily modified kayak. He made all three crossings in his seventh decade of life, and each was tougher than the last.
His first crossing from Senegal to Brazil in 2011 was the longest ocean kayak journey ever, lasting 99 days. His second, from Portugal to Florida in 2014, totaled 167 days at sea. For 47 of those days he had no communication with the outside world, because someone on his support team had forgotten to pay the bill for his satellite phone. Doba didn’t care. When a Greek cargo ship stopped to render assistance, he waved it off. His third Atlantic crossing, and west-to-east venture, featured a pair of trying, errant starts leaving New York Harbor, ultimately totaling 110 consecutive days at sea following his departure from New Jersey to France.
His 23-foot oceangoing kayak weighed 1,500 pounds loaded, and included a massive self-righting mechanism that made it nearly impossible to paddle into the wind. Designed to keep him upright in violent seas, it snapped off during his second voyage near Bermuda. The kayak’s rudder failed with alarming regularity, but inside his tiny cabin, the fiberglass walls signed by loved ones and decorated with his granddaughters’ art, Doba feared nothing. “I trusted my kayak,” he said. “If my kayak could survive it, so could I.”
Doba racked up impressive trips in conventional kayaks too, circumnavigating Lake Baikal and the Baltic Sea, and paddling 3,336 miles from his home in Poland to central Norway.
He’s best remembered for his Sisyphean ocean crossings, in which storms and contrary currents pushed his tiny yellow craft backward time and again, until the track of his progress resembled a series of loops drawn by a child. Through it all, Doba—65 during his first voyage, 67 on his second, 70 on his third—just kept paddling. He never doubted himself, and never allowed hardship to cloud his enjoyment of the journey. On the contrary, when tropical storms battered him for three weeks running in the South Atlantic, he reveled in their elemental power.
“It brought me such a close relation to the beauty of mighty nature,” said Doba, who wore nothing over his gnarled torso but that beard and a crown of windswept hair.
“Watching the storms approaching. The amazing silence, just before a storm hit. The powerful energy pulsing, and then struggling with the heart of nature; the isolation,” he said. “These experiences filled me to the core with profound emotions.”
On Monday he experienced that joy one last time. The septuagenarian slowed to climb at his own pace, reaching the fore-summit at about 10 a.m. There his guides asked him if he wanted to go down, saying the fore-summit counts as reaching the top. Doba wasn’t having it. “No way,” he said. “I’m going upstairs!”
On the true summit an hour later he died as he lived—exuberant, irrepressible and until the very end, unstoppable.
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