John Bathgate was submerged beneath his attacker’s boat when he realized he’d been shot through the shoulder. His expedition partner, Ian Roberts, was still up above somewhere, along with the gun-wielding pirate. He and Roberts knew of the piracy problem along the Amazon River and even discussed what they’d do if attacked. Still—they never thought it’d happen to them.

Canoeist survives underwater gunfight on Amazon River

The Amazon Summit to Sea Expedition began in early May 2023. Unlike other Amazon River paddling expeditions that sought to traverse the river from its farthest source to the Atlantic, Summit to Sea would begin from the highest source: Mount Chimborazo.

Bathgate’s father was a climber who traveled part of the Amazon River following a climbing expedition in the Peruvian Andes. On that trip, he dreamed of following the river from its highest source.

wounded man gives thumbs up while being attended by army medic after a gunfight during his Amazon River expedition
A real shot in the arm: Amazon Summit To Sea Expedition canoeist John Bathgate gets patched up in Peru. | Feature photo: Courtesy John Bathgate

“The cool thing about Chimborazo,” explains Bathgate, “is if you measure from the center of the Earth to the summit, it’s the farthest distance from the center of the Earth on the planet.” That’s because it’s located right on the equator, which matters because the Earth’s equatorial diameter is greater than its polar diameter.

This geographical fact, coupled with Chimborazo’s connection to the Amazon—which Bathgate and many others consider “the greatest river on the planet”—and the prospect of undertaking the expedition his father had dreamed up years ago, had Bathgate hooked.

“It wasn’t about being a world first,” he says. “It had the climbing, the whitewater, the big river. A lot of remote areas, interesting cultures, indigenous people, cuisine, everything.”

A team gathered—five would join for short legs of the journey, while Roberts and Bathgate would travel the entire way. The two had met in the U.K. Royal Marine Commandos.

Amid myriad other preparations, like intensive training and securing sponsorships, was obtaining two canoes. The team couldn’t find canoes in Ecuador, and it was too expensive to ship boats there. Bathgate got in touch with Ivan Ledesma at Salango Kayaks.

“I sent him pictures of Canadian-style canoes, and he said, ‘I can probably make these,’” explains Bathgate. “I was very skeptical.”

Ledesma’s strategy was to cut the decks off two sea kayaks, cut them down the middle, and then add width and height when recombining the halves.

“We went with it, and they were brilliant,” says Bathgate.

The expedition gets underway

After the team successfully summited Chimborazo on May 16, they trekked down to the Pastaza River, navigating its rapids by raft, then switched to their canoes before continuing onto the Marañón River. They were abducted twice by villagers—first on the Pastaza and then on the Marañón—demanding to know who they were and what they were doing on the river. It took Bathgate and Roberts a couple of days struggling with their limited Spanish to build enough rapport to be released.

When they finally reached Iquitos and paddled onto the Amazon River, they thought the worst was behind them.

“We knew about the piracy problem, but… It’s kind of like in the Marines; you never even consider yourself getting shot,” explains Bathgate.

Paddling expeditions on the Amazon have a history steeped in violent encounters: Aleksander Doba abandoned his Amazon expedition after being attacked and robbed twice, West Hansen was held at gunpoint five times, Davey du Plessis was shot multiple times and left for dead, and Emma Kelty was murdered in 2017.

“We knew the risks,” says Bathgate. “We had satellite communicators, we made a relationship with the Peruvian Navy, we had checkpoints to check in at. But at the end of the day, you can only be so prepared.”

Pirates versus paddlers

Bathgate and Roberts had just left the town of Pebas, a four-day paddle downstream from Iquitos, when they were approached by two men on a peke peke, a long canoe the locals use. They spent a few minutes chatting with one of the men, who was clearly inebriated.

“The look on his face the whole time got our hackles up,” says Bathgate. The paddlers had previously discussed what they would do if attacked. They planned to capsize their attacker’s boat since the locals they’d met seemed afraid of the water.

When they tried to move on, the man whipped out a pistol. Roberts was ready and thrust his paddle into the pirate’s chest while Bathgate jumped on him.

“He fired two shots off. The first one missed both of us; the second hit me in the shoulder. Then I fell in the water.”

When Bathgate surfaced and saw Roberts and the pirate tussling, he grabbed the pirate and pushed him under the water. Another shot went off, this time hitting Bathgate in the thigh. In the continued struggle underwater, Bathgate managed to wrestle the gun off the pirate, but not before two more shots were fired, one of them hitting his attacker.

“He fired two shots off. The first one missed both of us; the second hit me in the shoulder. Then I fell in the water.”

Once Bathgate surfaced a second time, he and Roberts swam back to their canoes and paddled feverishly to a village downstream.

“As we approached the village, I was sending off SOSs on our Garmin inReach Mini 2,” says Bathgate. “Within four hours, the Peruvian Navy had come to help us out. The guys were arrested.”

After being treated by Roberts, the villagers, the Navy, and eventually a hospital in Iquitos, Bathgate was on the mend. He says he’s lucky both shots were just flesh wounds, although he’s still unable to use his bicep muscle after the shot to his shoulder severed a nerve.

Another attempt in the works

Back home in the U.K., he and Roberts are planning to return to the river in November 2024 to finish the expedition, with the continued goal of raising £8,000 for four charities, including the Royal Marines Charity, Rainforest Concern, RV1UK and The Peru Mission.

When they return, it’ll be with a six-man team. “If we look bigger and more professional, I think it will deter most potential attackers. Hopefully, that will work,” Bathgate laughs.

Their two canoes are waiting in Iquitos, and they plan to buy a peke peke to act as a safety boat.

Bathgate and Roberts also hope to meet with the men in prison and understand how they became criminals. “We don’t really hold a grudge,” says Bathgate of the “young lads” who attacked them. “It was a pretty wild encounter.”

And one that has sobered them to the realities of what can happen on the Amazon.

“We’re hoping we can maybe generate some kind of interest from TV because the fear of going back out there is going to be very real,” says Bathgate. “If we can get television involved, we’ll have a bigger budget to pay for a guide and armed security local to Brazil. That would make things much easier. We’re going to be genuinely afraid going back out there.”

Keep up with the Amazon Summit to Sea Expedition at

Cover of the Spring 2024 issue of Paddling Magazine, Issue 71This article was first published in the Spring 2024 issue of Paddling Magazine. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.

A real shot in the arm: Amazon Summit To Sea Expedition canoeist John Bathgate gets patched up in Peru. | Feature photo: Courtesy John Bathgate



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