Scotsman Obituaries: Alistair Wilson, Olympic kayaker who designed equipment for his sport​

Alistair Wilson, businessman and kayaker. Born: 20 August 1939 in Calcutta, India. Died: 19 November 2023 in Lendalfoot, Ayrshire, aged 84​

Alistair Wilson led an extraordinarily full and fascinating life in which he seemed to cram several lifetimes’ worth of experiences into one.

He combined sporting success as a double Olympian kayaker with business success as a designer and manufacturer of water sports paddles and equipment. He was an adventurer who undertook hugely challenging canoeing expeditions in some of the world’s most remote, scenic places, during which he encountered killer and humpback whales, with grizzly bears threatening in the background. Challenges were there to be overcome through a dogged determination and courageous spirit which belied Alistair’s modest, self-effacing manner.

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He thoroughly enjoyed participating in the 1964 Tokyo and 1968 Mexico Olympic Games, the competitive highlight being reaching the final of the 1km sprint in 1964. That was a major achievement given British kayakers were “poor relations” at world level, with only comparatively basic facilities, coaching and equipment.

Alastair Wilson - Olympian, canoeist, inventor and entrepreneur, pictured last year (Picture: John Devlin)Alastair Wilson - Olympian, canoeist, inventor and entrepreneur, pictured last year (Picture: John Devlin)
Alastair Wilson - Olympian, canoeist, inventor and entrepreneur, pictured last year (Picture: John Devlin)

Alistair then began designing and developing highly specialist paddles for kayaking and canoeing and related equipment, something which grew into a highly successful worldwide business – his company’s products being used by the SAS and on Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ polar expeditions.

Although he “retired” from competing after Mexico to concentrate on business, his love of the water and kayaking led to comebacks in 1971 and ’77 when he won British titles, while in the World Masters Games in Denmark in 1989 he won four gold medals.

Diversification came in taking part in perilous expeditions in Alaska and Newfoundland and riding the rapids down the Grand Canyon, unforgettable experiences with many adrenalin-filled episodes.

Alistair Carmichael Wilson was born in Calcutta to Archie and Jenny, older brother to Jennifer and Gail. His father ran the family engineering business and Alistair lived there till coming “home” to Prestwick in 1946 after an eventful flying boat trip from Karachi. Initially as his parents continued living in Calcutta, Alistair spent 18 months with grandparents while attending Prestwick High School, before going to Dollar Academy.

Alastair Wilson training in his younger daysAlastair Wilson training in his younger days
Alastair Wilson training in his younger days

Meantime he had been introduced to Lendalfoot on the south Ayrshire coast where the family had a holiday hut which they visited regularly and which was to prove a landmark for Alistair. Its lovely setting and rocky coastline opposite Ailsa Craig with views to the Mull of Kintyre inspired his love of water and provided the natural facilities to develop his passion for kayaking.

That began as a youngster with a rudimentary raft made by his father, and he and sister Jennifer would play at the sea edge, graduating to Alistair first kayaking there at 14. At Dollar he enjoyed sport, especially running in the nearby Ochils in all conditions, giving him a good fitness base for his aquatic activities. Alistair loved kayaking in the sea from Lendalfoot, especially in rough weather, and soon built his own kayak, selling his stamp collection to fund it.

His enthusiasm grew as he relished battling adverse weather and the sense of freedom it afforded, without entertaining thoughts then of competing. Persuaded to join the Kyle Canoe Club in Ayr, his potential soon emerged when he won his first race, a six-mile event from Irvine, marking the start of a racing career that led to numerous Scottish and British Championship wins and Olympic appearances.

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Alistair found success the hard way, there were no athlete sponsorship or state-of-the-art facilities or coaching then. Training conditions were basic with his having to do most of his pre-1964 Olympic training on Martnaham loch near Ayr, carrying his kayak over a field full of cattle – plus one bull! – to access the water. When he trained on the River Ayr in the town, anglers protested about the disturbance to fish, leading to police involvement and fines being imposed.

His recollection of the Tokyo opening ceremony remained vivid: “An absolutely amazing experience...” with 80,000 filling the stadium, including his parents. Reaching the final of the 1km sprint which included several Olympic, World and European champions to finish 8th in his first major final was a career high point.

Mexico was also memorable, although tinged with disappointment that he was not selected for the 1km sprint despite having comfortably won the pre-event time trial in a time that would have earned 4th place in the final. Reaching the semi-final in the 1km kayak “fours” was consolation, but only to an extent.

Alistair then continued building up his business, refining his own design “Lendal” paddles, named in a nod to Lendalfoot where it had all begun. These were developed as glass fibre and carbon composite blades which were exported to more than 30 countries worldwide. He also provided bespoke paddles for the SAS, worked with top cyclist Graeme Obree in designing special carbon handlebars, and unique paddle and grip systems for explorer Ranulph Fiennes.

Alistair’s thirst for adventure led to a three-week paddle expedition in Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1980, where he was hugely impressed by nearby killer whales with 6ft high fins, and relieved to avoid confrontation with black bears whose presence could be seen and heard daily. In 1997 he descended the Grand Canyon and its 150 dangerous rapids, including the fearsome Lava Falls in what was reckoned the first successful run in 25 years. And in 2001 with son Stuart he completed a sea kayaking trip in Newfoundland where huge humpback whales circled their kayak.

In 1969 Alistair married fellow Olympic kayaker Marianne in London and they enjoyed a long, happy marriage during which they had children Andrea, Samantha and Stuart. He is survived by his wife, children and several grandchildren.


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