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If you're born to hang, you're not going to drown

Old Tom Dower had as strong a will to live as anyone I’ve interviewed.

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I last spoke to Dower more than 25 years ago. He was 70 and had just started building his fifth boat. A year or so earlier, he had survived being run down by a vessel about 20 miles off Virginia. Dower was single-handing his 33-foot ketch from Florida to Newfoundland when he was rammed about 1 a.m. It could have been a “doper,” he told me, or a fishing trawler. Whatever the vessel, she never stopped.

“They cut the stern right off of her,” spat out Dower, a native of Newfoundland and a veteran of nine Atlantic crossings. The ketch was sliced in two about three feet from his bunk. A former World War II submariner in the Royal Navy, Dower was forced to swim out of the sinking aft section of the boat.

“I broke the surface, and I shouted out like hell,” said Dower, who also served on merchant ships. “And I saw this joker looking over the fo’c’s’le. That night, I had a full-time job just holding myself on the bottom of that boat.”

Tom Dower was an ocean bird, a pelagic wanderer, at home on top of the waves and below, comfortable for long periods in his own company, confident in his ability to keep himself out of harm’s way.

Dower the solo sailor epitomized self-reliance and self-sufficiency. He’d undoubtedly gotten himself into and worked his way out of plenty of jams during his long period of ocean voyaging, which started in the late 1950s. There is a mention in an old news report that a 1959 trans-Atlantic crossing ended when his boat, Newfoundlander, broke up in the Canaries.

But I don’t think he ever really expected outside help, although he accepted the good fortune that came his way. He lived by his wits.

And Dower made an impression on people. I can attest to that. It’s the reason I kept my notes from our conversation for these many years. I came across them recently in a folder and thought it was time to retell his story.

Back to the night of May 24, 1986. There was a full moon, and the wind was light. Dower had gone below for some shut-eye when the collision occurred. He spent the rest of the night shivering in his long underwear and navy shirt, trying to stay atop the forward section of the ketch, which was slowly sinking. He had four broken ribs, a punctured lung and assorted cuts and bruises. He was hypothermic and having trouble breathing when he was finally spotted 14 hours later by the crew of a 25-foot racing trimaran.

Air bubbles were escaping constantly from the shrinking air pocket holding up the last little portion of the bow, already awash. And he said there were three sharks “waiting to make a sandwich” of him.

He told me later that when you go to sea alone, you assume the risks. “No sense in squealing when the chips are down,” he said. He was facing long odds that night off Virginia. Scared? He paused.

“I’m inclined to be a bit of a fatalist,” Dower replied. “I believe what is written is written. If you’re born to hang, you’re not going to drown.”

We searched for Dower online this summer without luck. If he is still alive, he’d be about 96 years old. His voyages in the 1960s got a bit of newspaper attention in St. John’s, Newfoundland. So we figured that if he had passed, we’d find an obituary. No luck. If anyone knows what’s become of Tom Dower, please let us know:

I remember he was hard as hell to run down 25 years ago. I called four numbers in Newfoundland that I still have in my notes. The most promising one was disconnected. Another rang and rang. The other two were dead ends.

The search did turn up a couple of stories about his early voyages. In November 1962, Dower left St. John’s on a 5,000-mile journey to what was then called British West Africa aboard his 32-foot ketch Newfoundlander, which he built with no auxiliary power.

A story in the now-defunct Daily News of St. John’s reported that his navigational equipment consisted of charts, a wristwatch, a transistor radio and a sextant. He carried no ship-to-shore radio, the newspaper reported. “I have no reason to talk to anyone after I leave here,” he told a reporter shortly before setting sail. He said he enjoyed being alone.

“It’s peaceful out there,” Dower said, “and a man can look himself in the face.”

“I came on deck early the next morning to find the seas a great confusion of blue, exploding, white capped; the sun lighting the sweep out to the horizons, and the wind, blowing under an immense light of turquoise, driving us south over broken sea.”

— Richard Maury

September 2014 issue