It’s crunch time for Alexander Doba, the 70-year-old grandfather who left New Jersey 32 days ago in a kayak bound for Portugal. On Thursday night, as Doba slept in the tiny cabin of his 23-foot oceangoing kayak, the vessel’s rudder was severely damaged when it became tangled in the rigging of his sea anchor.
Now the Polish adventurer faces a difficult decision: to continue toward Europe in his damaged craft, or accept a rescue when one is still possible.
Doba has confronted this choice before, and always opted to persevere. He already has crossed the Atlantic twice in the highly specialized kayak he calls Olo. During his second voyage, from Portugal to Florida in 2014, he lost all contact with his shore crew for 47 days and waved off a freighter that offered to pluck him from the mid-Atlantic. Later in that voyage a series of storms pushed him in circles for weeks and ultimately caused his rudder to fail, forcing an unscheduled stop in Bermuda for repairs.
The rudder was completely reengineered for Doba’s third trip across the Atlantic, but even the reinforced design could not withstand the stress of being wrapped in the line connecting the 1,500-pound kayak to an array of sea anchors as a Force 8 Gale—winds to 46 mph and waves of up to 25 feet—pummeled the tiny vessel Thursday night.
The rope wrapped around the sleeve-and-axle mechanism attaching the rudder to the boat, and twisted it like a steel pretzel. Doba, a retired electrical engineer, texted his assessment to communications coordinator Piotr Chmielinksi: “A proper repair would require a blacksmith, a welder and an engineer. There was only an engineer—me,” he wrote, using a satellite transmitter.
“At dawn, I dismantled the rudder. I used the cockpit for the anvil and the anchor as a hammer,” he wrote. Doba attempted to straighten the rudder axle, then cut off the twisted upper portion of the rudder sleeve and finally attempted to cobble the whole thing back together while straddling the stern of his kayak in heavy swell.
“With one hand I was holding the blade bouncing in the water while the other hand tried to connect the system. The third hand? Well, I really could have used one!”
The repair held for only a short while before “a very strong wind blasted my repair work. Now, after dismantling the replacement of the control system again, I am just drifting.”
Doba’s bid for a third Atlantic crossing has been troubled from the start. He aborted his first attempt a year ago, after strong winds drove Olo ashore at Sandy Hook, N.J., after traveling less than 20 miles from his festive sendoff near the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. An untimely storm thwarted his second attempt in early May this year, and after four days at sea he retreated to Barnegat Bay, N.J. to wait for better weather. He launched again May 16 only to spend the next three weeks on Poseidon’s treadmill. It was as if the bearded Pole’s mythical doppelganger was toying with him, capriciously throwing contrary winds and currents at the determined septuagenarian. At one point this month, Doba had traveled more than 300 nautical miles yet had logged barely 100 miles toward his goal.
Last week his luck seemed to change. He had a run of good weather and put New Jersey more than 600 miles astern. When his rudder broke Thursday night he had covered nearly one-fourth of the distance to Portugal. (Track his position here.)
Doba is in no immediate danger. Olo remains seaworthy, but without a functioning rudder the craft is almost impossible to control. If Doba cannot repair the rudder his progress will be slow at best, and his options few. The nearest land, Bermuda, is a small target some 400 nautical miles southwest—and the Gulf Stream is carrying him northeast. America’s eastern seaboard lies some 650 nautical miles to his west, but with the prevailing wind and current it may as well be on Mars. Europe is still more than 2,300 nautical miles over the horizon. He has water-makers and food for months, but the end of summer will bring storm season to the eastern Atlantic. If he’s not in Europe by the beginning of September he risks catastrophe.
Most people would already have pushed the panic button, but Olek Doba isn’t most people. Wish him luck.