Life's his best game and he plays hard

By Susan Edmunds

Spearfishing is one of Winston Cowie's many passions. Photo / Doug Sherring
Spearfishing is one of Winston Cowie's many passions. Photo / Doug Sherring

From Otago To Oxford, from a top Auckland law firm to working among schooling sharks in the Arabian Gulf, from running on to the rugby field at Twickenham to surfing in Indonesia, Winston Cowie is the 21st century's answer to the Good Keen Man. Now, he's taking on the heavyweights of publishing. Susan Edmunds goes fishing with him.

Towing a speared kingfish back to his mate's boat, Winston Cowie yells for help to drag it on board. He has been struggling with it in the water for 20 minutes, towed around by the thrashing fish as he tries to hold on to his float.

Then the spear slips out and he is forced to take matters into his own hands. He grabs it by the tail and manoeuvres the 24kg fish on board.

Partner Lucy Jones rolls her eyes when Cowie says he'll never forget that New Year's Day fishing trip. "No one else will, either," she groans.

The photo of Cowie with the fish is on the couple's fridge, and 18-month-old daughter Izzy demands that it's in her line of sight when she eats breakfast every morning.

"She might not know me," Jones sighs, "but she knows 'Dad' and 'fish'."

But fish isn't the only thing Dad does. The great-grandson of New Zealand's first Olympic medal winner, Harry Kerr, Cowie is a lawyer, marine scientist, rugby player, surfer, shotputter, historian and self-published author. And he's only 29.

Asked how he has managed to fit so many accomplishments into fewer than 30 years, the Whangaparaoa jack-of-all-trades says he's always had a lot of energy: "My Mum says I didn't sleep for the first five years."

CARPE DIEM - sieze the day. In the past 10 years Cowie has been in five car crashes and was almost electrocuted while sanding the family mullet boat. Those half-dozen brushes with death are what drive him to fit as much into his life as possible.

Once, he and his surfing mates were on the way to the beach in Dunedin when their car slipped on black ice. Another time the car he was in, towing a boat, collided with a tourist driver who had fallen asleep. The boat was left teetering on the edge of the cliff. Another time he was in the car with a drunk driver who went off the side of the road.

"I guess I am of the attitude that you never know what's around the corner so I try and make the most of life. I reckon I'm up to about 6 lives."

Rugby is one of his great loves, although a knee injury means he is now coach rather than player. Born in Dargaville, he started playing at age 5 and was the captain of Westlake Boys' first XV in 2000, taking on players such as Casey Laulala and Sitiveni Sivivatu.

He played for Otago while studying law, including a final at Carisbrook that his side lost in extra time. "It was always a balance between schoolwork and rugby."

Sometimes there was surfing thrown in there, too. "Tuesdays we used to have off classes so we'd go to the beach surfing, then we'd have to get back in time for rugby practice."

Best mate Nick Maister remembers Cowie, or Captain Redbeard as he calls him, for his boating abilities, juggling surfing, rugby, law, fishing and trying to keep up with the Otago party lifestyle. "He always wanted to get stuck into everything."

In his last year at Otago he gave rugby a miss, instead taking his flatmates hiking around the country. "We did a 12-nighter around Stewart Island, the northwest circuit. Three of us pulled out halfway through."

After graduating, Cowie got a job at one of the country's most prestigious law firms, Russell McVeagh in Auckland. It is a company notorious for the 24/7 commitment it demands from its young lawyers, but Cowie was never going to fit the mould entirely.

He decided to save money by living on a kauri mullet boat called Tuatara, at Bayswater marina. "As a junior lawyer you don't get paid a hell of a lot. Rent was expensive so I decided to live on the family boat."

He would go kayaking on the harbour in the mornings, then change into a suit and catch the ferry to work. At night, he would sit on deck and search the stars.

"I learned a hell of a lot and respected the work Russell Mac did; not only did they pride themselves on giving the best advice, they also did a hell of a lot for the community - legal aid work and contributing to papers and commentaries to try and improve the law," he says.

"Life in a big law firm, however, wasn't for me." A friend told him that if he wasn't happy he needed to take the initiative and change things: "Life's your game, Winnie, no one else's."

So, says Cowie, "I took the advice and changed my game."

Inspired by a surfing holiday in Nias, Indonesia, he started writing a proposal on coastal resource management. He wrote the proposal by candlelight, the smoke blackening the roof of the Tuatara's cabin.

That proposal served as the basis of his application to study towards a master's degree in environmental policy at the University of Oxford.

STILL IN his early 20s, Cowie headed to the prestigious British university. He was selected to play rugby there, too, and travelled to Japan and New York with the team.

He played as hooker in two tests for Oxford in the traditional grudge match against Cambridge at Twickenham, in front of crowds of 45,000 people.

Playing at the fabled ground was the highlight of his rugby career. "Walking out on to Twickenham - it was an awesome experience. You have to win to uphold that Oxford tradition. Unfortunately we didn't, we lost twice and got a bit down in the dumps afterwards but ... it was an awesome experience all the same."

Surprisingly the surfing didn't stop, even at Oxford. He travelled with his university mates to Cornwall to find waves. "There is a surfing club that catches up every couple of weeks. At uni in the middle of the island, it is a bit ridiculous. I still have a club hoodie that I put on every so often."

Maister said they both missed the water in London, even practising free diving in local swimming pools. "I think he was a bit of a fish out of water there."

From Oxford, Cowie took a marine science job at GHD in Qatar, where he met Jones, a teacher, at a rugby club. Cowie was working for an avid Australian and Queensland rugby supporter who was determined to get him on to the rugby field. "He said to me, 'you know one of the reasons I hired you was to play rugby for us'."

His Middle Eastern rugby career took him from the muddy, rock-strewn pitch of Kuwait to the glitz of Dubai, and even the remnants of a blown-up petrol station in Beirut.

But in the Middle East Cowie's rugby career crashed to an end. He was by then the captain of the Qatar rugby team. But disaster struck in the final of the region's biggest rugby contest. "The side had never won the Middle Eastern league and we were going to. But in the first 10 minutes I dislocated my knee."

A nerve was compressed and doctors told him that he would need to be as active as possible for the next six months to get it to come right. That, and because Jones was pregnant with their second daughter, Evie, now aged 6 months, spurred the decision to come home.

BACK IN New Zealand, Cowie could surf, spear fish and kayak, purely for therapeutic purposes, of course. "It hasn't come right," Cowie says of the knee, "but we had a fun Kiwi summer and we're pretty content."

Maister says the injury hasn't slowed Cowie down. About three months after the injury, Cowie, Maister and some friends headed off on a surfing trip to Indonesia.

Being a physiotherapist, Maister checked with Cowie that he wasn't planning to surf. Cowie promised he would stay off the board.

"But I think it was day three that he was up on his surfboard and he surfed every day after that."

Cowie has now started work at the Auckland branch of GHD, developing the marine science business.

He made the news in New Zealand a couple of years ago when it was revealed that he was undertaking research to date Spanish pohutukawa trees and prove that Spanish and Portuguese researchers made it to New Zealand before their British and Dutch counterparts.

That dating hasn't been done yet but Cowie is often up at Pouto Peninsula in Northland, working on a documentary about the search for old Portugese shipwrecks. The idea came to him when he was watching rugby.

"I am a pretty curious guy and I was watching the New Zealand Maori play, and there's Paul Tito. I said to my Dad, 'what's a red-head white guy doing playing', and he said it was related to the early Portuguese explorers and the shipwrecks up north."

At Oxford, Cowie did more research on the idea and discovered the theory that the Portuguese mapped the east of Australia and some of New Zealand as early as the 1520s. Some of the maps are on the wall above Cowie's desk at home. He is quick to point out that his is not a new theory. "I was just curious and found out about it."

ASIDE FROM all the rugby and historical research, since 2006 Cowie has been working on a novel, A Flame Flickers in the Darkness.

The idea for the book had come to Cowie when he was living on the 7.3m mullet boat in Waitemata Harbour.

In the boat's library were books by Wilbur Smith, the best-selling author of historical thrillers, as well as some non-fiction books about early New Zealand such as Professor James Belich's New Zealand Wars. "I was blown away by what happened in the 1860s and how little I knew about it," he says. "The events and the people who lived back then - I thought, having read Wilbur Smith, I could bring it to life like that. New Zealand history at that time is as interesting as anywhere else."

He penned much of it while he was at Oxford, sometimes over an ale at The Eagle & Child or the Royal Oak pubs, where J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis wrote their epic novels.

His book tells the story of the 1860s New Zealand Wars, through the eyes of an Irish whaler and Maori warrior. According to its blurb: "The novel is a synergy of adventure, history, joy and heartbreak, love and war."

After years of honing the manuscript, sending it to editors and assessors to critique, he started sending it to publishers - seven in all, who told him that no one was going to take a risk on a first-time writer in a dodgy economy.

"After eight months I received some advice from a publisher saying that I should self-publish - if it went well, a publisher would probably take me on."

He put the book out through PublishMe in New Plymouth. Then he set about marketing it. "That was the hardest thing," he says. "I'm pretty old-school, if I score a try I run back to halfway with my head down. Thinking about having to market yourself, I was pretty apprehensive."

He started with local bookstores and got it into one in Matakana and another in New Plymouth. But the coup came when Whitcoulls decided to stock it. Cowie says they have sold at least 350 copies, though Whitcoulls won't confirm that. Reviews have been positive. "I don't think that era is accessible to most New Zealanders, it's bound up in history books. I'm trying to bring it to life through interesting people and likeable characters."

And he's keen for as many people as possible to read it. After all, next summer's fishing trips are riding on it. "I spent my fishing-boat fund on publishing it. I'm hoping it goes well so I can get that money for the boat back."

This week Cowie's old school, Westlake, roped him in to speak to the Friday assembly. "Life's your game," he told the boys. "It's not up to mum and dad to nag you about study - the buck starts and stops with you. If you're not happy with your lot then get motivated and get out there and improve it."

- Herald on Sunday

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