Unfiltered: John Dowd

Adventurer, Entrepreneur, Freedom Fighter

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John Dowd didn’t invent the sport of sea kayaking; he defined it and made it popular. The globetrotting Kiwi made several groundbreaking expeditions in the late 1960s and ‘70s, the greatest of which—an island-hopping crossing of the Caribbean Sea in the winter of 1978-‘79—was a bizarre journey of high seas hardship and five-star revelry. (Thirty-four years later, brothers Russell and Graham Henry are attempting to repeat the route. Their expedition was underway at press time.)

In 1980, Dowd settled in Vancouver, B.C., where he wrote a bestselling instructional book, ran an outfitting business and retail shop, launched a trade association, and founded Sea Kayaker magazine–all while battling the killjoys who sought to mire his pursuit in a sea of certification. Soon, Dowd and other sea kayak innovators were overwhelmed by a wave of new paddlers. “At the time it came with a bit of sadness,” says Dowd, 69. “The irony is that’s exactly what I was promoting. Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.” — Conor Mihell

I started kayaking early, around 16. I built my own boat and did that sort of thing.

I became the president of the Auckland University Canoe Club. Immediately there was a push to get us ‘certified.’ Sea kayaking is a freedom sport, and for people to move in and try to control it seemed all wrong. I said, ‘If you do that, I’m leaving.’

You know when you’re young and you have meaning-of-life discussions with yourself? I decided life without adventure was only half a life. So I went hitchhiking, climbing, paddling. That went on for 15 years.

On my first Caribbean attempt I was nearly wiped out by a tsunami on my departure beach in Trinidad which killed 10 people. I guess you can say I got off to a real bad start. I ended up hitchhiking on sailboats on the crossings that were beyond my skill level. It wasn’t very satisfying. I knew I wanted to go back.

One of our sponsorship letters for the second trip landed on the desk of the right person at Guinness. Initially all they committed to was making sure we had a place to sleep. But when they figured out we were quite good at promoting their booze we were raised to a higher level.

It was a strange trip. We’d land in a town and stay at five-star hotels and eat in some of the word’s finest restaurants. Guinness seemed happy to keep spending.

The Caribbean crossing was the most difficult trip I’ve ever done, even though we lived like lords when we got into town. The sea was still the sea.

The crossing to the Dominican Republic turned monster epic. We nearly got run down at sea, broke a paddle and then had to land in the dark on sheer cliffs and razor-sharp rocks.

I think of Brian Henry’s boys out there. They wrote me to ask for advice. I said, ‘Wait till the winds are light to do the crossings.’ There are worse places to sit and wait.

Beatrice was the best paddler I ever paddled with. We got married before the trip so it was sort of like our honeymoon. She was the only one that didn’t crack. She never stopped.

When I finished the last Caribbean trip I felt a great sense of satisfaction. There was a feeling of completion. I was ready for the next phase.

I thought, ‘Why don’t we start a sea kayaking industry?’ Back then, if you asked people about kayaking they got it confused with whitewater, so we had to come up with a new name.

I called it Sea Kayaking. That’s what I called my book. Then we started a magazine called Sea Kayaker. There were no other shops at the time, and the manufacturers were backyard operators. No one was making a living at it. So I got everyone together and formed the Trade Association of Paddlesports.
Suddenly the industry took off.

Again I saw the certification thing coming. I looked at the American Canoe Association down in the States. They didn’t know a thing about sea kayaking. I spent a lot of energy shooting them down.

Certification is another way of delegating responsibility. Every time you delegate it closes in on your personal freedoms.

Sea Kayaker did pretty damn well over the past 30 years. But the magazine changed. You started seeing covers with a guy upside down blowing bubbles out of his mouth.

My mind still roams free. I’m constantly challenged by the here and now. That’s how you are in a kayak. It’s like a 30-mile crossing in the Caribbean, dealing with constant winds and currents, big breaking seas. You don’t get bored. You get other things, but not bored.

–This feature originally ran in our March 2014 issue.