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Healthspan Heroes: Growing older is inevitable... Living old is optional

Posted 14 December 2015 12:00 AM by Aleksander Doba
Aleksander Doba

Some people think that as we grow older, our best days are behind us. That’s simply not true, as Aleksander Doba, 69, proves. He has recently completed the longest open-water kayaking expedition across the Atlantic in history. We caught up with him to find out what keeps him motivated and the secret to his success.

Why did you decide to take on this amazing adventure?

I am an explorer at heart and so far have travelled over 90,000km by kayak. I mostly enjoy paddling through rivers, but I also like new routes and new waters; over the years I have become more interested in sea kayaking, especially across continental waters.

Before I decided to cross the ocean it had only been done by kayak three times - twice by Germans and once by an Englishman, though they only partly crossed the Ocean. I began my first journey in Dakar, Africa, and travelled to South America. My journey ended after 99 days when I reached Acarau, Brazil on 2nd February 2011 having crossed the Ocean at its narrowest point.

After that, I decided to challenge myself and go further by crossing the ocean at its widest point. Both transatlantic expeditions had the same principles – they had to be on my own, with no external assistance and between continents. My second journey started in 2013 in Lisbon and ended on 19 April 2014, at New Smyrna Beach in Florida, after 167 days and 12,427km.

What was the hardest thing you had to deal with?

I encountered around 50 tropical rainstorms with storm-force winds during my first expedition, and between 10 and 20 during the second; some lasting around two days. Once I battled a storm that lasted three days with waves that were up to nine meters high. That was the hardest experience of the whole expedition.

Another difficult moment was when a combination of strong winds and currents sent me paddling in circles around the Bermuda Triangle. I had to struggle to the mainland of Bermuda, which was about 400km away, to have the rudder repaired.

What do you enjoy most about kayaking?

Kayaking has been my passion for many years. It is a wonderful way to explore the country and the world, learning about nature and people. It requires a variety of skills and resourcefulness and it teaches you how to cooperate in a group. It is a great way to rest and relax after work in the fresh air, in contact with nature and friendly people.

Is it ok to take children kayaking?

Kayaking is probably the most family-friendly form of exploring, even with small children. When organising kayaking trips, I never allow parents to put children on board until they themselves are experienced kayakers. As I used to say to my friends: "Your child is your precious treasure; first, learn to become a good kayaker so I can trust that you and your child will be safe. You must be responsible for your little treasure, as I am responsible for the whole group."

Is it ever too late to take up kayaking? What would be your advice to a novice kayaker?

It's never too late and it’s a sport I recommend everyone to try. For beginners, it's good to try paddling for an hour or two on calm waters like a lake or a river. As you become more capable, you can join a canoe club, and take part in a kayaking classes for beginners. You will quickly gain the knowledge and practical skills required to handle a kayak well.

Hire companies often offer beginners a kayak for two which is wider and more stable than a single kayak. As you gain experience, you can move to a more demanding (but also more satisfying) single kayak. Remember - beginnings are always the hardest so don't be put off, just take your time.

Did you do anything specific to prepare for your expedition?

I consider myself to be an adventurer, and an adventurer does not prepare himself too much. I have always enjoyed being outside; I enjoy valley, hill, and mountain hiking, sailing, riding a bike, and I work in my garden all year round. I try to be physically active, which helps me to stay fit, not just for expeditions, but all the time.

Is diet and nutrition important to you?

I don't follow any ‘special’ diets; I listen to what my body tells me and eat sensibly. I don’t have any addictions such as alcohol, cigarettes or drugs.  From time to time I like a glass of wine or beer. When I was younger, I considered people over 60 as ‘old’, but now that I am that age I don't think of myself as an old man.

I try to eat a variety of things; I enjoy eating almost all types of food. However, I do support my diet with supplements during my expeditions. I take my drinking water from the ocean, and then desalinate it which removes all the salts and minerals, therefore I have to take some extra vitamins and minerals in that form.

If you could give one piece of advice to people who want to ‘live younger’what would it be?

I would urge all parents and grandparents to teach their little ones healthy eating habits as the benefits will last for life. Secondly, good physical habits are vital; if you don’t teach children the benefits of outdoor exercise from when they are little, you’ll struggle to reverse these later on!

My general piece of advice, is don't be a couch potato. Get up from your chair, forget your television or computer from time-to-time, go out in the fresh air and do some exercise as often, and as intensely as you can. 

We should also remember to smile to everyone we pass. At some point, you’ll start meeting people who smile back at you - the world will become friendlier, and people will be happier. A grin is also contagious and when we are more positive, we feel younger.

Do you have any more adventures planned in the future?

In May this year, I am planning to take part in my third transatlantic kayak expedition between continents (on the same basis as the previous ones). This time I will paddle from West to East - from North America (New York) to Europe. The route for this adventure will follow the widest point of the Atlantic, which I expect to be even more difficult than my previous expeditions, due to colder water and more frequent and stronger storms. 

Do you think there will be a time when you will have to stop taking part in such feats?

I am sure such a time will come one day. I value my life to the fullest; I have nothing more precious. However, I realise that with age, my physical abilities will deteriorate. The chance of a serious illness also increases as you grow older, but I hope that any limitations associated with my physical endurance and stamina won’t affect me for quite some time. Mental limitations may also become a problem, but you never know when that might happen - maybe when I get old - but who decides when I get old?

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