The sight must have been overly surreal. It was the 8th of May 2006 and Rob Dowling stepped into his bathtub boat in Iquitos Peru. He was about to float 5,471km down the Amazon all the way to the might river’s ending into the Atlantic ocean. And he was to embark on his bathtub adventure all alone. What happened along the way is borderline crazy including his bathtub being kidnapped by Colombian terrorists and the Brazilian navy giving him more than a hard time….
Dreaming of an Amazon Bathtub Adventure
Like many great adventures Rob’s dream of sailing down the Amazon in a bath dates back to a pub conversation when he was in his 20s. He and some mates were discussing things they would like to do before they died and Rob remembers saying: “I’d like to travel down the Amazon in a bathtub. I want to have a real bathtub adventure”. And twenty years later – in a twist of fate – he decided to do just that.
A series of life-altering events that had a severe impact on him led him to this unusual Amazonian bathtub adventure. The main 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. 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.”
The Amazon Bathtub Boat
So Rob went to Peru and in no time found himself in its Amazon capital of Iquitos. Iquitos is the second largest city in the world that can not be reached by road as the jungle is completely impenetrable. There are literally no roads to Iquitos. And sailing a bathtub out of it almost started to make sense. Dowling acquired a bathtub – a nice shiny black one – and got a team together to help him organize the logistics for his bathtub adventure.
“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. I planned to travel 5,471 km solo with a GPS and a satellite phone. He might have had a point.
I know I have only a 60% chance of reaching the ocean, but if it was easy I wouldn’t want to embark on this bathtub adventure. The hardest part will be the loneliness and the most dangerous part will be the giant whirlpools that await me downstream.”
The 5 foot 6 inch standard – but black – fiberglass bathtub was supported by 6 X 30 gallon steel drums and propelled by the 15 h.p. outboard motor. Aboard the flimsy craft Rob had all his equipment and supplies along with GPS and satellite telephone communication.
Rob the Dub in a Tub
Rob Dowling – originally from Dublin – quickly got nicknamed Rob the Dub(liner) in a Tub. With this superhero nickname Dowling set off from Iquitos in May 2006. It was going to be anything other than a very auspicious beginning of his bathtub adventure….
The support boat was supposed to stay with Dowling and his bathtub boat for the first five miles, but got into trouble after two. The roles were reversed and the Dub in a Tub had to tow the support boat into a town behind his bath. It must have been quite a sight.
“I’m not a huge drinker, but that night we were treated as celebrities and drank our way through the town. This was drug country: there were guys with mirror shades and scars everywhere. I was wearing my Stetson, life jacket and shorts – it was asking for trouble, so I decided to call it a night. The support team had taken over the boat and the bath as their sleeping spots so I had to find somewhere to crash. I spotted a mangy dog in a corner that was craving some attention and lay down beside it. I knew if anyone tried to mug me it would bark and wake me.”
And that was only the first day. A few hours later, Rob re-started his journey, this time all by himself. He made it three miles before he ran into a storm.
“I thought I was going to die. My lifejacket was useless as airport security had confiscated the gas cannister that I needed to inflate it. On top of that I was hungover with swirling waves battering my little bath all around the Amazon. I was terrified I’d be bashed off the rocks. In the end I managed to get out of the water not too far from a village and pitched my tent. The children were the first to visit me. Once I had given them some of my sweets (they had never seen sweets before), the parents started to appear. I was lucky and a family took me in and looked after me. It was typical of the hospitality I was to experience along the way.”
Rob kept on sailing his bathtub down the Amazon for some more days without encountering any problems. He started to enjoy his journey.
FARC and Brazilian Navy
One evening as he pitched up on the bank, he got a satellite call to tell him that the Brazilian navy didn’t want him to travel any further. He was in FARC country and his bathtub adventure was in danger:
“I sensed I was in danger. One of the local boys kept making the cut-throat sign with his hand and saying ‘gringo’ to his friends. The villagers begged me not to continue. One local offered to guide me past the FARC camp but I knew he was setting me up to be robbed. My $4,000 engine was worth 10 years wages to these people.
But Dowling was determined and the next day headed off before dawn. He went as fast as he could and headed for the Brazilian side of the river. In spite of being scared out of his wits he managed to float past the guerilla stronghold unnoticed. He passed them within a couple of hundred of meters while being able to smell and see their cooking fires as he passed by.
He reached Brazil.
The Dub in a tub had managed to avoid the FARC but he was about to deal with a stubborn Brazilian navy. Dowling had anticipated this and had brought letters of safe conduct from the Peruvian government and the blessing of Amazon charity, Caritas. The Brazilian navy, however, didn’t want him on the river. They forced him to stop.
There Rob’s journey ended after 500 eventful kilometers. His bathtub adventure was over. Deflated, he donated all his equipment to help the children of a nearby village and he flew to Rio to unwind.
Returning to Iquitos after the Bathtub adventure
After his failed trip Dowling had returned to Peru really disappointed and accepted an invitation to go on a field trip with Caritas into the rainforest. It was a decision that would completely change his life.
“We visited a remote village and there, in a small mud hut, I met a child called Jazmin. She was 12, malnourished and paralysed from the waist down. She had open sores on her body. I was furious that a child should have to suffer like that without proper care. Caritas advised me to get medical help for her rather than give cash to her family.
I sent her to Iquitos for tests and I did what I could before heading home. I tried to get on with my life but I kept seeing her face. I phoned a friend in Peru who said she was dying. With the help of friends, I raised €4,000 for her. It wasn’t enough, so I hired a nurse for her. Then I bought plane tickets for her to travel to a children’s hospital in Lima with her mother. She spent months there getting well.”
Jazmin brought out something in Dowling and the desire to help kids like her became an all-consuming part of his life. His mission became to set up a medical centre on the river to bring these kids a better life. And to do that he logically had to raise funds. And what better eyecatcher and companion than his beloved bathtub….
A Kidnapped Bathtub
Eventually Dowling returned to Ireland where he won a Best of Irish Award for his achievement. Everyone wanted to see the bathtub, but he had left it behind when the Brazilian navy had forced him to stop.
So the following year Dowling headed back to get his bathtub. He needed it as it was going to play an important part in his mission to raise funds and build a medical centre for the Amazonian kids.
When he got back his bathtub wasn’t there anymore. He got a lead that the FARC had seized it and so he travelled into Colombia and was told it had been sold for a cigarette by a woman who thought it was possessed. It was hidden in the jungle somewhere.
Then out of the blue Dowling received a ransom message from Colombian narco-terrorists, FARC. The notorious group acknowledged they had kidnapped Dowling’s precious bathtub.
The FARC would give it back for $200. He met up with them and logically the amount went up to $600, which he didn’t have. After long haggling he finally got his tub back for an undisclosed amount .His beloved bathtub which was going to be his partner in crime for more bathtub adventure that would all serve to raise money for the medical centre on the river that he promised Jazmin.
With his retrieved bathtub Rob plans to finish the Amazon journey. Then he wants to take it up Kilimanjaro, through Death Valley and paraglide it from a volcano in Peru.
“I’ve worked out the logistics. Those trips will raise the funds I need to set up my centre.”
We hope you do Rob.
All the best to this kickass Dub in a Tub!