Meet Our Crew: John Dunaway

An interview with former seafaring Captain and current harbor pilot, Sperry Ambassador John Dunaway.

October 23, 2017
in Travel

Salt water runs through Houston, Texas native John Dunaway’s veins. Having grown up in a family of sailors, Dunaway has spent many years cruising across the globe aboard cargo ships, and more recently, he’s been navigating vessels through the Port of Houston.

We connected with John Dunaway through Instagram in 2016 and shared our admiration for the beauty of his photographs and stories from his travels. When we heard back from John, we were thrilled to hear that he had been a Sperry fan for many years.

Today, John Dunaway is one of our Sperry Ambassadors and he’s proved to be an invaluable member of our crew. Scroll below to read our interview with John to learn more about his life at sea and on shore.

As a merchant marine and sailor, you’ve spent a lot of time at sea. How did you get into this line of work and what made you want to spend your working life by the sea?
Life on the water has run in my blood for over 4 generations. From boat builders and fishermen to tugboat and merchant ship captains... I have a little of it all flowing through me, so in a way, it just came naturally.

My mom asked me one evening in high school what I would do with my life going forward and I truly hadn’t thought about it at the point until she asked another question. “Have you thought about doing what your dad does?” You mean I could get paid to drive ships everyday? There wasn’t a consideration of any other option beyond it from that moment forward. 16 years later, here I am with over 6 years of actual time spent living aboard ships all over the globe.
After spending several years as an officer aboard ships, you later found yourself taking on the role of Captain aboard the Ocean Glory. What’s it like being in command of a crew on such a big ship?
First off, its an incredible honor to be offered the position, but an even greater responsibility to accept command of a ship. For me, this was one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. A group of people put their livelihood and safety in your hands that will have no other support once the ship leaves the dock for the open ocean.

I take great pride in pushing crews to perform higher than the status quo while elevating the comfort of daily life. It's a work hard, play hard mentality. My goal is always to leave the ship looking and performing better than the day I signed aboard with a crew who’s bond strengthened throughout the voyage so that “hard work” isn’t a question, its just what you do for one another.
Although the Ocean Glory was a large ship, once you’re out in the open sea it must feel like you’re surrounded by the sea. Can you describe what it feels like to be surrounded by blue?
The ocean is vast. The horizon stretches forever and the stars at night are so plentiful that you feel no larger than a grain of sand on the beach. Its humbling to accept how minuscule I really am in this vast universe while also being entirely enriching. There is a beauty at sea that neither my photos nor words will ever be able to equate. I just feel centered out there. Everything seems at peace for me.

“Summertime lulls in Texas equal primo tanker surfing conditions. My how time flies…”

What are some of the most interesting places you docked in during your time at sea?
There are beautiful ports, but my favorites were always the locations off the beaten path for the average person. I’ve ridden motorbikes across Indonesia just to get a meal, surfed with locals in Senegal over a shallow rock reef (unbeknownst to me at the time) and swam through herds of people in the streets of Mumbai.

India, Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leonne, Oman and South Africa are just a few of the other 37 countries which going to sea afforded me the possibility to see. The more obscure, the more I enjoyed the voyage.
In the past 6 months you’ve shifted gears a bit and, while still working with ships, you’re largely landlocked. Tell us about the new gig and what you’re doing on the ditch.
My life crossing the open oceans has come to an end. These days, I wake up in Houston to pilot ships in and out of the port. When a ship arrives in port, we climb aboard and navigate them up the restricted channel to a dock and then back out to sea once cargo operations are complete. While nowhere near the adventure, it's a rush to dock and undock ships everyday. We have so many different docks with endless size and handling characteristics of ships, add in traffic, tug arrangements and the weather, it is never routine.

“Look back from time to time, remembering where exactly you’ve come from. Charge hard. Stay humble.”

When we first spoke, you told me a great story about how your dad told you that you needed two things on the boat: a pair of boat shoes and a good knife. Can you re-tell that story in your words (so I don’t mess it up)?
Ha! Here I was a green kid without any experience leaving landfall below the horizon, not giving much thought to the notion that once it was gone, there were no more stops to obtain extra gear. I had these massive duffle bags with far too much stuff, most of it which was excess. My dad flipped through all of it, questioned the validity in most and gave me a good lesson about quality and quantity.

“You’re going to need two invaluable things: a good pair of boat shoes and a sharp knife.”

Standing around all day on steel takes a beating on your legs which can make months at sea miserable if you don’t plan accordingly. Life at sea is inherently dangerous, so having the ability to cut your way out of bad situation is the difference between safety and injury.
Was your father a sailor as well?
My dad was and will always be a sailor. He went from small rowboats as kid to piloting the largest ships the Port of Houston can handle to now actually sailing around the Caribbean via wind. He’s a salty guy.
You're a salty guy as well and seem to have a deep respect for the sea and a love for all things nautical. Can you tell us about where that passion and interest comes from? Have you always been interested in the sea and in sailor’s tales and boats?
It seems cliche, but it runs in my blood. Flipping through photo albums, some of the earliest shots are of my parents taking me to the beach at a few months old. We never spent any time in the mountains, but just about every trip and open weekend were along a shoreline of saltwater.

My parents instilled respect for our surroundings and the rewards of those places by working hard. I never gave it much thought because it all flows so naturally for me to be in salinity of the ocean. Who wants to see the things they love go to waste?
Wise advice from a sailor

“You’re going to need two invaluable things: a good pair of boat shoes and a sharp knife.”

Your Instagram really paints a vivid picture of some of your hobbies. Your photos are really great, though, so photography must also be a hobby! How did you get into that?
Oh photography is certainly a hobby, one that is always in my thoughts these days. During high school, my buddies and I became avid wakeboarders, spending 6 days per week on the creek riding. This is not an exaggeration. We literally left school, went to the boathouse and hauled tail for calm water like clockwork. I don’t even remember where that first camera surfaced from, but the desire to document all of this captivated me so it just began from there.

I had watched "Endless Summer" with my dad many times as a kid and thought this was the perfect chance to recreate my own story. I edited videos thinking they were so cool and shooting photos of it all, now looking back and realizing how terrible the quality was, but we all have to start somewhere.

My dad ditched college, driving out west to California to chase waves and made surf movies along the way. Those stories must have slipped into conversations which I subconsciously took ahold of. By the time I started going to sea in college, my dad gave me his Canon A1 35mm and subsequently purchased an early DSLR so that I could document my time at sea. That was where it really started coming together and now here I am, still constantly looking to improve.
You often post a number of motivational and educational quotes that you call “Sailor's Notes” - can you tell us about why you started doing this and where your inspiration comes from?
For me, talking about ship life is just a normal conversation, but many folks were reaching out with questions about what exactly I was explaining, in land lubber terms. Sailor's Notes were born from the desire to educate people on an industry that operates far from daily site and hopefully enrich the followers experience wherever they go next. Along the way, I felt that common nautical terminology was leaving far more to discuss so I began captioning the posts depending on how my day had unfolded. The connection was that life at sea is no different than life elsewhere on the planet - the same rules applied to everyone so I shared away.
Not everyone that follows you is a sailor, but it seems like your Sailor's Notes really speak to your followers in a way that’s relatable for people from all walks of life.
What’s the response been from your followers to the Sailor’s Notes?
I have been thoroughly surprised in the enthusiasm to hear more Sailor Notes. Folks will tell me “this is exactly what I needed this morning” which is truly inspiring for me to deliver more. There have even been a fair amount of requests for a book containing Sailor's Notes and imagery of life at sea, but for now this is not a tangible item. Who knows what awaits though.

“Day in and day out, through all of the elements, Pilots across the globe must climb ladders to board and disembark vessels. It’s one of the most dangerous aspects of the job. Seemingly trivial on most occasions until the moment it goes wrong.”

One thing I really admire about you is that you’ve built a strong sense of community with the people who follow you. Can you tell us about some of the connections you’ve made through Instagram?
Instagram has afforded me the opportunity to meet folks all over the globe through the imagery I have captured. It's a bit surreal at times, but I look forward to walking on a ship and having someone say, “I follow your work.” It makes for a good laugh at 0300 when you climb aboard a ship that you’ve never seen nor heard of and learn this.

Sperry is one of those connections that would not have happened without Instagram. I had always owned their shoes, but through Instagram I’ve seen the further workings of the company and how much we are able to work together for improvements in our oceans beyond just shoes. Be open and you never know where you may end up.
Your hometown is just outside of Houston, and your community was directly impacted by Hurricane Harvey. Having been out in the deep sea, I’d imagine that you’ve seen the sea at its best and at its worst – but a hurricane is unlike anything else. What was it like seeing Mother Nature that way? How did you and your community respond to this immense challenge?
The sea is certainly a force unimaginable in strength, but being on land for a hurricane is far different. I got stranded the night Harvey hit Houston because the rain fell at such an exponential rate, one which I had never witnessed in my lifetime, that we were unable to leave the neighborhood due to chest high water in the street. For days after that, I saw it spread across Houston and the outlying areas, joining forces with friends in our own boats to go help others in need. It was heart-breaking to see such devastation and confusion in the faces of those people.

The most important thing I saw was the amount of effort by citizens, often strangers to one another, putting their own time and safety forward for others. In the end, the struggle will remain for quite some time, but material items can be rebuilt while lives do not generate themselves had they not been saved.
Do you have any advice for people who live in places where hurricanes are known to strike?
Yes. Leave when they’re coming. Storms are unpredictable in their ability to strength over very short periods of time and most people cannot comprehend just how strong they are until it has wrecked havoc on their life. The hurricane is going to tear through town regardless of you being there or not, so its better to find safety and come back to see what survived mother nature’s wrath.
John Dunaway on why he writes Sailor's Notes

Life at sea is no different than life elsewhere on the planet - the same rules apply to everyone.

To learn more about John Dunaway, visit his Sperry Ambassador page here, explore his blog on Tumblr, or follow him on Instagram at @AbstractConformity.

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