Jo Dounias began her paddling days at just seven years old on dry land in a plastic bathtub, heading to the lounge room. Thirty years later, she sat in her first real kayak, and hasn’t looked back since.

Forty-two-year-old Jo Dounias of Rose Bay, Sydney, mapped out her destiny at an early age. As a little girl with a vivid imagination, the chatty Greek Australian would take “kayaking adventures” around the Flokati rugs of her parents’ Marrickville home.

“It was sometime in the ‘70s and I was about seven years old,” she recalls with a laugh. “The boat was a plastic bathtub Mum used for marinating olives. I’d sit inside it, legs hanging over the side, and shuffle across the floor Flintstones-style, aiming for ‘Greece’ or rather, our lounge room, which was stuffed with Greek souvenirs.”

It took 30 years before Jo actually sat in a kayak and paddled across water, but when she did, she was hooked. Eventually, her passion found her working with Sea Kayak in Greece: a company that takes like-minded adventure seekers on kayaking tours around the azure waters of the Greek Islands. Jo smiles as she recalls her journey from novice kayaker to international tour guide.

“It was in 1995, and my then-boyfriend was a river kayaker. One day, he put me in his kayak. I took to it like a duck to water and have never looked back.”

The relationship didn’t last, but Jo’s love of paddling continued to flourish. “He and I parted ways in 1999, but by then, you could safely say I was obsessed,” admits the lithe, brown-skinned brunette. “I loved paddling for fitness, but I also loved the solitude. Back then I was a copywriter in an ad agency, so I was always surrounded by action.

It was so therapeutic to get away from people, mobile phones and deadlines. Not to mention what it did for my writer’s block!”

“I was paddling at least once a week, taking trips along rivers in Forster, Jervis Bay, the Colo River, Wollemi National Park… simply beautiful, scenic weekend paddling trips.”

Jo eventually swapped the calm waters of the rivers and inlets of New South Wales for the open sea and a surf ski – a far more challenging kayaking environment and a much more unstable boat than the river kayak she was previously used to.

Her close friend, Tommy Woodriff (co-founder of national kayaking company Ozpaddle), encouraged Jo to not only embrace the open waters, but to start competing.

“The thought of paddling a surf ski on Sydney Harbour had not entered my head until 2001, when Tommy put me in one out at Rose Bay Harbour. I paddled all the way to South Head and back on my first attempt – without falling in – and was exhilarated by the new challenge. I starting going three times a week as fitness training, paddling to South Head and back, which is a two-hour paddle in good conditions, possibly more if the wind is up and the water is choppy.”

“Competing has only been something I’ve embraced recently,” she adds. “In 2005, Tommy started up weekly Ozpaddle Time Trials, where you race against your own best time, and he invited me to join in. I consistently did quite well and then started entering races to compete against fellow paddlers.”

Jo placed second in an organised long-course race – a 16-kilometre paddle from Manly – in September 2005, and first in the over-forties category in a 10-kilometre race held at Narrabeen Lakes in Collaroy in the same year. In an international race held in New Zealand in March 2006, Jo paddled in at fourth place. Not bad for a beginner – most of her competitors had been practically born with paddles in their hands.

But competition comes second to Jo’s burning desire to travel, something that meshes beautifully with her thrill-seeking nature.

“Primarily, I’m not motivated competitively. Rather, I’m curious and hungry for adventure,” she explains. “My hunger wasn’t being fed here at home, despite the racing, so about three years ago, I embarked on an around-the-world adventure; a climbing, trekking and paddling trip around the world.”

First stop, her homeland, Greece. And not being one to do things by halves, or indeed to hesitate, Jo launched herself into a six-week, 1,000-kilometre paddling adventure in the Ionian Sea, around the islands of Lefkada, Kefalonia and Zakinthos.

“I always wanted to travel around Greece because of the stories of Odysseus and his journey from the Trojan War. When I was in Greece, I decided I’d trace part of his journey. I rented a sea kayak and bought a map. I stacked my kayak with 60 kilos of food, water and supplies, and paddled off from Lefkada.”

“To be honest, I originally saw myself paddling for about one week, but I quickly discovered I could pull into the most welcoming towns to rest and resupply. I was also carried onwards by the magical beauty, history and culture surrounding me. I found myself living comfortably out of my comfort zone. I simply loved being the Mediterranean Sea vagabond.”

As beautiful the journey was, it was not all smooth sailing. At one stage, Jo found herself blown on to a reef by strong winds, suffering numerous gashes. At another point, her kayak was struck by lightning.

“Some days, the seas were volatile and the weather extremely rough. There are naturally a lot of electrical storms over the ocean, so I guess I became a magnet to lightning.
I was struck once and it melted part of the plastic on my boat. Luckily, it wasn’t a direct hit or I would have been killed.”

“I broke out in hives and became very nauseous and dizzy. I was numbed and couldn’t possibly paddle further. I was near a little rocky outcrop on a tiny island called Arkoudi. I just got out over the reef, pulled my tent out and went to sleep. It rained all night and the following day. I couldn’t stop vomiting. I was alone, miserable, scared, and I felt really stupid!”

“In retrospect, it was all part of the experience, but at the time, it was horrible. I didn’t know when the storms would end, but thankfully, they eased the next night. I forced myself to eat my packet food and paddled the six kilometres to the next island. I tracked down a doctor who gave me cortisone injections. By the following day, I was as good as new, and ready to re-embark on my adventure.”

After six long, unforgettable weeks, Jo arrived back in Lefkada. The first thing she did was to find the people she’d rented the kayak from, in order to share her jaw-dropping tales of adventure.

“They were in absolute shock at what I’d done, but it sparked an idea in their minds. They looked at some of the areas I had been to and decided to put tours together based on that.”

And so, thanks to Jo’s pioneering spirit, Sea Kayak in Greece was born. “The locals ran it as a small business for two years, but late last year, a professional tour company took it over, and asked me to come on board as a guide. They did really small trips at first, but after what I had done solo, they knew the longer trips were completely do-able.”

And so, for three glorious months of the year, Jo can be found paddling up her own storm through the Greek Islands, taking European, American and Aussie adventure seekers along with her. The rest of the year she spends in Sydney selling the tours and working in the Ozpaddle shop.

For Jo, it’s not just a dream job; it is all her dreams come true. She can combine her adventure-seeking skills with her solid knowledge of Greek history and mythology into her daily life and get paid for it. She sums it up with one breathtaking recollection: “I remember on that first expedition, the most exciting moment was when, after paddling for days on end, I rounded a cliff and in front of me was the Fortress of Asos. I’d liken it to a picture book, when you turn a page and this castle just appears. It was like stepping into a fairytale. I felt like I was the first person to see it and it was all mine. It was such an incredible privilege.”

Want to learn to kayak?

If you have the itch to get on the water but don’t want to go all the way to the Mediterranean, try a local kayak company:

  • Ozpaddle: Offers ski/kayak hire as well as training sessions, time trials, races and social paddles for paddlers of every level.
    For more information, visit www.ozpaddle.com.au; call (02) 0416239543
  • Dolphin Kayaking Byron Bay: Guided tours around the beaches of Byron Bay, often accompanied by pods of local dolphins.
    For more information, visit www.dolphinkayaking.com.au; call (02) 6685 8044.
  • Meridian Kayak Adventures: Operating from Melbourne, Meridian Kayak Adventures offers sea kayaking around Victoria’s spectacular coastlines, including Wilson’s Promontory, the Great Ocean Road, Port Phillip and Western Port Bay.
    For more information, visit www.meridiankayak.com.au; call (03) 9596 8876 or 1300 656 433.
  • Western Blue Sea Kayak: Offers eco-friendly kayaking tours from Penguin Island near Perth to Ningaloo Reef, Broome and Cable Beach.
    For more information, visit www.westernblue.com.au; call 1300 665 888.

Words: Shonagh Walker. Photography: Scott Hawkins. Hair & make-up: Jay Jay Rauwenhoff.

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