In his third crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by sea kayak, this time paddling from west to east, adventurer Aleksander Doba was about to abort his attempt due to a broken rudder when help arrived by a passing shipped dubbed the “Baltic Light”…(By Piotr Chmielinski)
The action of repairing the damaged rudder - "dynamic, professional and spectacular", as Olek described it - took place in early July in the middle of Atlantic, and represents a story about the selfless help and solidarity of people of the seas on the faraway ocean.
How can one not believe in extraordinary coincidences, or perhaps even supernatural attractions of beings in the space connected with something … something like the Baltic sea? How can it otherwise be explained that out of the five ships of the Hong Kong company neither the "Northern Light", "Southern Light", "Atlantic Light" nor "Indian Light", but the "Baltic Light" was at the right place at that right time. The right place means the spot in the Atlantic from which it was possible to help the Polish kayaker. It was also the great luck caused by the determination of many enthusiastic people that the vessel ready to change her course and hurry to provide assistance to 70-years-young Aleksander Doba, who is on his Third Transatlantic Kayak Journey from New Jersey in the USA to Lisbon in Portugal.
End of the expedition
For ten days, Olek has already been traveling in the ocean with an improvised rudder, after a storm had damaged the steering system in his kayak “OLO”. Although he was moving towards Europe quite well, Aleksander was aware that his make-shift repair was only a temporary solution that would likely not survive another storm.
"With a great disappointment, I am getting to the conclusion that I must stop because I don’t have tools and materials to repair the steering system," he wrote in one of the first texts after the terrible storm. "I am going through the entire kayak to look for equipment, materials, and tools to assemble a replacement control. Even when I manage to do something, it will be a solution for a few days or until the first strong wind."
The broken rudder is not the first such incident in the Atlantic for Olek. Three years earlier, for that same reason, on the way to the United States, he "hitched" on Bermuda where the rudder had to be repaired. Now, he was almost at the same distance from the island as three years ago. Unfortunately, it was impossible to repeat that scenario once again. The North Atlantic route, from the west to the east, is something Olek has quite quickly found out to be much more difficult to navigate, especially maneuvering without a rudder.
The situation seemed to be serious. The first attempt of rudder repair was unsuccessful. The twisted upper sleeve required the skills of a blacksmith, a welder and an engineer, as Olek said. In the middle of the ocean he could only count on the third one – that is only on him.
Not the end of the expedition
For Olek's decision regarding the repair of the damaged rudder or evacuation, we had to wait for almost a week. The longer he paddled with the temporarily repaired rudder, the less he considered giving up the journey. Ending the expedition, contrary to expectations, would also pose some difficulties, because to evacuate Olek out of the middle of the ocean it would be necessary either to hire a vessel from Bermuda to pick him up, or to press the SOS signal to call the nearest ship for rescue – however, in the latter scenario kayak "OLO" would have not returned to land with the rescued kayaker.
"I can drift for three months, I have enough food to eat. There is no way out of the expedition," Olek informed me, declaring that he had managed to assemble a temporary replacement rudder. Will see how far I can make it. Maybe I could even reach the Azores. And in the meantime ....The best solution would be to find a ship that is near me. They could take the broken rudder onboard and weld the broken parts. It is an hour’s worth of work and I am heading off, "he said in one of the texts we exchanged looking for a solution.
Solidarity in need
Response to a call for help for the transatlantic paddler brought the hope that Olek's idea will be realized. Ship owners and shippers, such as the Polish Maritime Shipping and Hartwig, immediately joined in the search for a ship in the ocean that could help the kayaker. Similarly, international maritime carriers joined in. Private individuals also offered support. One of them even wanted to inform the American or Canadian Coast Guard and immediately pull Olek out of the water, interpreting our messages as a life-threatening situation.
Although the Atlantic is one of the most frequented waters, the area in which Olek was located seemed completely deserted. In that situation, the most realistic, though costly, solution was proposed by Bartek Dawidowski. The crew of trimaran Poly, which was scheduled to depart from the Bahamas on a cruise on the Atlantic on Friday, June 30, announced their willingness to change the earlier planned course, collect the necessary repair materials and equipment and head towards Olek’s location. It would take them about 10 days to reach him. Almost everything was ready, the trimaran was about to leave the marina, I was on my way to the bank to transfer money to Bartek's account, when Bartosz Bilinski, a New York lawyer, sailing enthusiasts and founder of the Polish Club Yacht Club of New York called. He informed me that there was a ship near Olek and her owners and the crew were ready to change their course, fortunately only slightly, to reach kayaker’s position and help him. And one more thing, that the ship is called ... nomen omen – “Baltic Light”.
"When I was searching online tracking service for the nearby ships I saw one that was only a day’s travel from Olek’s location. When I saw the name “Baltic Light”, I thought that with a ship of that name, our venture had to be successful," - Bartosz told me. From the very beginning, he devoted a lot of time to look for someone who would be able to get there. He was analyzing the transatlantic routes; talked for hours to all the ship owners he could reach, and above all never stopped believing that sooner or later those efforts would be effective. "I first contacted the ship owner called Lighthouse, where I received contact details of the Hong Kong Fleet manager. After more than a dozen telephone conversations and e-mail exchanges, we received approval for providing assistance to Olek.”
Full engine ahead!
Shortly after midnight Thursday to Friday, the “Baltic Light” Captain, Wilfredo Milanes, received a message about a kayaker in need help paddling across the Atlantic with a damaged rudder.
"Issaq Ansari, a Fleet Management representative, told me that our vessel would be traveling the closest to him, and that we did not want to leave him without help if we could do something," says Captain Milanes. “I checked his latest position and calculated how far we were from him. Then, I commanded the watch officer to be very alert and listen on the radio if there was a call for help.”
The “Baltic Light” was about 9 hours away from “OLO”. After correcting the course, the ship moved towards the last recorded position of the kayak. Having arrived at a distance of 14 nautical miles from the designated location, the engine speed was slowed down and the search for a small white boat in the big “rocky” space began. But wherever they looked, there was no trace of Olek. They tried to call him over the radio, but only fishermen who were fishing nearby responded.
"They suggested that we head a bit further south, because there was a current that was probably carrying the kayak," said the Captain, who started having doubts about whether they could find such a small vessel, and above all, whether they could help the kayaker before any tragedy happened. A lot of thoughts were spinning in my head; how in a serious crash one could survive in a tiny kayak on a huge ocean. I saw people kayaking before, but doing it for sport, on rivers. I was wondering what that guy was doing here in the Atlantic paddling in a kayak.”
At the request of Captain Milanes, who emphasized the good fortune that their ship is connected to the Internet, Bartosz and I shared with the ship the latest information on Olek’s position with the data needed to track his route. Then it turned out that "OLO" was about 12 nautical miles south of ship’s current position. There was nothing to wait for. The engine again moved with full steam and the “Baltic Light” went to the designated location.
They saw a small kayak floating on the waves about 4 nautical miles away. Shortly after that, radio communication was established. The Captain explained to Olek how he planned to carry out the “repair” operation and, more precisely, to try to assure him that it was not an evacuation. I emailed to the ship crew the documentation prepared by Andrzej Arminski, the kayak builder, and Jaroslaw Krzeminski, who dealt with its modification, therefore they had a fairly good idea of the work scope needed and already were prepared to act upon Olek’s arrival. First, however, a kayaker and his kayak had to land on a 600-feet long ship
"I was not sure I could get him safely on board," Captain Milanes's fears rose proportionally to the diminishing distance between the ship and the kayak. “I saw an older fragile man in a kayak that looked very small and very delicate. If the kayak hit our side during the lifting operation, it could crash and sink. Unfortunately, I could not launch the life boats because it was not possible to get them back on board. At the same time, I could not expose my crew to any danger.”
Getting closer to “OLO”, Captain Milanes set the course of the “Baltic Light” to approach from the leeside, thus shielding the kayak from the wind.
“When the kayak was close to the left of the bow, we turned off the engine. Then I noticed that we were drifting ourselves, which posed a risk to collide because both vessels were flowing without control. Due to the cranes on deck blocking our visibility and due to the size of the kayak I could not see it on the water during maneuvering. That is why I hesitated to use a slow-moving engine and tilted the rudder firmly to the left side, allowing the ship to rotate before the kayak came too close to our side. When I finally saw him on the left side, I was relieved” - said the Captain, quite overcome by this action.
Once the kayak was in the right alignment, the crew dropped the ropes that Olek was about to wrap around the hull.
That also posed some difficulties, which Olek described later in several text messages:
"Two rope throws - missed. The third one I caught. The kayak pulled heavily to the side, and I fell out, but I was secured to it with a rope. I crawled back into the boat and straightened it up. It was to be pulled up to the height of the second floor. They gave me another beam. I placed it under the kayak hull and the kayak was pulled up sideways efficiently. I boarded the ship to discuss the scope of work – and to eat something in the crew’s mess!"
The twenty-member “Baltic Light” crew, mainly composed of Filipinos, welcomed a citizen of the Baltic Sea country in a very warm manner. They fed him, took many photographs with him and repaired the rudder under direction of the Fitter Menandro Jabat. After four hours they launched "OLO" on the water. Before Olek left the ship, I called the Capitan to check on the progress of the repairs and during our conversation he told me of his another doubt. He asked if he really was supposed to leave that man of such fair age in a seemingly fragile and delicate craft in the middle of the ocean.
"The decision to continue the trip belongs exclusively to Olek. Neither you nor I can stop him. As an engineer and for many years the user of "OLO" he, himself, can best assess the technical condition and strength of his kayak!” - I answered.
At that point nobody was able to dissuade Olek from continuing the expedition. When I spoke with him on the phone, on behalf of his wife Gabi, his family and his close friends, I conveyed their advice to end the trip and stay on the ship until she landed in Panama, the destination of “Baltic Light”, and then return home, he quickly retorted: “No, I am moving on. I want to achieve my goal.”
He thanked the “Baltic Light“ crew heartily, said goodbye, got into the kayak and left for Europe, but first he had to make up the 20 nautical miles he had retreated west while on board the ship.
“Mr. Doba climbed back into the kayak with a huge smile on his face to follow his goal. I stood on the bridge and through binoculars I checked on him and the kayak if everything was fine. I watched him until he disappeared from sight and then we returned to our course”- writes Captain Wifredo Milanes in his report.
On behalf of Olek, myself as well as all of his friends and followers, I would like to thank all those who helped and those who wanted to help realize this extraordinary undertaking. I particularly thank Bartosz Bilinski, who found “Baltic Light” and convinced her owner to support Polish kayaker.
We thank Eagle Shipping International, LLC of Stamford, USA (charterer of this “Baltic Light” cruise), Lighthouse Navigation ship owner and Fleet Management of Hong Kong for permission to change the course of “Baltic Light” in order to provide assistance to Olek. The success of an efficient and dynamic operation was possible thanks to Mr. Issaq Ansari, Fleet Management representative, and above all to Captain Wilfredo Alberto Milanes and all the crew members of "Baltic Light", to whom we express our deepest gratitude.