Produced by Kelly Prime; edited by Mike Benoist; written by Elizabeth Weil; and narrated by January LaVoy
Sunday, May 3rd, 2020
My name is Liz Weil. I’m here in my basement in San Francisco where I work. And I wanna tell you about a story I wrote two years ago. This is maybe my favorite story I’ve ever written in my 25 years as a journalist. It’s a profile of a Polish man named Aleksander Doba, who, when I reported the story, was 71 years old and had kayaked across the Atlantic three times by himself.
I’ve been thinking a lot about him lately because he seemed to me this like savant of the existential crisis that is life. He had no illusion that everything is meaningful and enjoyable all the time. But he had this way of flipping his mind to embrace the suffering and embrace what a lot of us would see as the meaninglessness. Like essentially being a speck in the universe and deciding to just rush towards all of it and make himself the tiniest speck in the biggest universe he could possibly imagine there in his kayak alone in the Atlantic.
So here’s my story, “Alone at Sea,” read by January LaVoy.
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 — katorga being 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.