Rob Dowling lived out a bizarre dream when he sailed down the Amazon in a bathtub. Now, after a series of personal tragedies, he's going back to South America to raise money for a children's charity. But there's more bad news, says Dave Kenny: his tub has been kidnapped by Colombian terrorists
It's May 2006, and Dubliner Rob Dowling has a splitting headache and a furious itch. He has just woken up in the gutter of a Peruvian town beside a mangy dog. He is wearing a life jacket and a cowboy hat. He is hungover to the point of insanity, and flea-ridden. It's hardly the most auspicious way to start an epic adventure, but Rob grabs his hat and hits the jetty to begin his solo sail down the world's most hostile river, the Amazon. In a bath tub.
'Rob the Dub in a Tub' will set one of the bizarrest world records ever, but today he just needs to find some paracetemol.
Rob's dream of sailing down the Amazon in a bath dates back to a pub conversation when he was in his 20s.
"Myself and my mates were discussing things we'd like to do before we die," he says. "I joked that I'd like to travel down the Amazon in a tub. Twenty years later, I did just that."
A series of life-tributaries led him to the world's joint-longest river. The catalyst was a deep depression left by the break-up of his 22-year marriage.
"I was alone and miserable. The family home had been sold off and I was in my mid-40s on the edge of despair. My life as I knew it was over. No one else was involved. It just ended," he says.
"I had two choices: stay depressed or patch myself up. I felt emasculated by the divorce. I wanted to do something that would give me back my masculinity. Something really challenging.
"I sail as a hobby -- even though I can't swim -- so I decided to test my nerve and boating skills by making the bath journey. I had a good job with Tayto and had some money left over from the house sale, so I started planning my adventure."
That adventure would see him fleeing murderous guerillas, cut-throats, crocodiles and witch doctors. He would also meet some extraordinary people, including a small, paralysed Indian girl who turned his life around.
It's a journey Rob is about to undertake again, hopefully, next month. He had planned to go last January, but a personal tragedy of devastating proportions stopped him. He chokes as he begins to describe it and it's left until later in the interview to discuss. Despite this, he now feels he is emotionally ready to return to the Amazon.
Two weeks ago, Rob received a ransom message from Colombian narco-terrorists, FARC. The most feared group in South America has kidnapped something very precious to him -- his bath tub. He needs to go back to the Amazon to rescue it.
"No, I'm not nuts. I've been through a lot with that bath. It's very special," laughs Rob.
"I bought it in Peru. Then I got a team together. We housed it in a steel frame, with fuel and water barrels on either side, and a 15hp outboard engine.
"Everyone thought I was mad and would drown. An English missionary told me not to worry about organising for my remains to be flown home if I was killed. 'The piranhas will take care of that', he said."
"I planned to travel 5,471km solo with a GPS and a satellite phone. I set off from Iquitos in May 2006. The support boat was to stay with me for five miles, but got into trouble after two. I had to tow it into a town behind my bath. It was some sight.
A few hours later, Rob started his journey. He made it three miles before he ran into a storm.
"I thought I was going to die. My lifejacket was useless [airport security had confiscated the gas canister], I was hungover, with swirling waves battering my little bath. I was terrified I'd be bashed off the rocks.
Sunday Indo Living