Like a baccarat player holding his cards close to his tuxedo, the buttoned-down headline barely hints at the payout to come: “John Fairfax, Who Rowed Across Oceans, Dies at 74,” the New York Times header states yawningly.
But there was more to John Fairfax’s life—so much more that Gawker immediately published a list of the seven best lines in his magnificent obituary, penned by the Times’ inimitable Margalit Fox.
“At 9, he settled a dispute with a pistol. At 13, he lit out for the Amazon jungle,” it begins intriguingly, and only gets better. “To please his mother, who did not take kindly to his being a pirate, he briefly managed a mink farm, one of the few truly dull entries on his otherwise crackling résumé, which lately included a career as a professional gambler.”
Great stuff, but in the adventuring world Fairfax is best known for his ocean-rowing achievements. In 1969 he became the first person to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean, or any ocean, for that matter. Two years later, he and Sylvia Cook became the first to row across the Pacific Ocean, an 8,000-mile journey from San Francisco to Australia lasting nearly a year.
“To please his mother, who did not take kindly to his being a pirate, he briefly managed a mink farm, one of the few truly dull entries on his otherwise crackling résumé, which lately included a career as a professional gambler.”
That historic crossing inspired number five of Gawker’s seven-best lines: “Mr. Fairfax was bitten on the arm by a shark, and he and Ms. Cook became trapped in a cyclone, lashing themselves to the boat until it subsided. Unreachable by radio for a time, they were presumed lost.”
Lost? Not a chance. Fairfax had mastered navigation as a young man apprenticed to a Panamanian pirate, smuggling guns, liquor, and cigarettes around the world. No wonder Fox likened him to “a flesh-and-blood character out of Graham Greene, with more than a dash of Hemingway and Ian Fleming shaken in.”
Wayfinding by compass and sextant had become second nature to Fairfax during his pirating days, and proved essential skills for his crossings before the advent of GPS. Alone on the Atlantic and with Cook on the Pacific, Fairfax had almost none of the modern conveniences on which today’s ocean rowers rely. Desalinators were unheard of, so Fairfax and Cook carried all their fresh water, restocking at landfalls along the way. They ate a great deal of Spam.
They were 363 days at sea in the 36-foot rowboat christened Britannia II, successor to Fairfax’s Atlantic solo boat, Britannia. The names are somewhat ironic, given that Fairfax was born in Rome in 1937 and spent his teen years in Argentina. His mother was Bulgarian and his English father, a roving correspondent with the British Broadcasting Corporation, was largely absent.
Thinking male role models would do him good, Fairfax’s mother enrolled him in the Italian Boy Scouts. That led to the incident with the pistol, during a snow camping trip. After arguing with another boy, the 9-year-old Fairfax fetched the scoutmaster’s revolver and shot up the place. “I stood outside and started firing at the hut, where all the boys were sleeping. Those military bullets penetrated the wooden hut like it was made of paper,” he said, according to an Ocean Rowing Society profile. “It was a miracle I didn’t kill someone.”
When his parents split soon afterward, Fairfax moved with his mother to Buenos Aires. He was consumed with tales of adventure, including a Reader’s Digest account of George Harbo and Frank Samuelson, who rowed a wooden dory from New York to France in 1896. “I knew right then that I was going to do it. I just didn’t know when,” Fairfax said.
At 13, the story goes, he ran away to the jungle to live like Tarzan, surviving by trapping ocelot and jaguar for their skins, and by the generosity of local peasants. At 20, distraught over a lost love, he went into the jungle with a gun and spear, determined to let a jaguar end his misery.
“My plan was to use the spear when the jaguar attacked. Since I was not good with a spear, I would be killed,” he said. “But when the jaguar came at me, instinct took over and I grabbed the gun and killed it.”
In 1959 he inherited $10,000, took a steamer to New York and bought a brand new Chevrolet. He drove to San Francisco and met a girl. Three months later the car and all but $150 was gone. Fairfax bought a bicycle and started pedaling home to Argentina. He made it as far as Guatemala, then hitchhiked to Panama, where he fell in with a group of artists (“my beatnik phase”). He went to sea on a Colombian freighter and eventually found himself back in Panama, where he began his three-year apprenticeship as a smuggler and pirate.
The principal source for these accounts, we should note, is Fairfax himself. And while the New York Times employs very good fact-checkers, it’s unclear how rigorously they vetted the extraordinary adventures that Fox relates in her obituary of Mr. Fairfax. Perhaps they’d heard that newspapermen who doubted Fairfax’s tales did so at their peril. According to the Telegraph, when a reporter refused to believe he could kill a shark, “Fairfax rented a boat, poured fish blood into the water and dove for a ‘decent-sized’ specimen. He proceeded to dump its body on the doorstep of the newspaper’s office.”
Fairfax knew the value of a good story, and of being first.
“I’m a professional adventurer,” he was fond of saying. “I not only enjoy it, I try to make money off it.” When he learned that John Ridgway and Chay Blyth had rowed the Atlantic together in a 20-foot open dory in 1966, he felt a sudden sense of urgency. If he didn’t solo the Atlantic soon, someone else would do it first.
So Fairfax moved to London and began courting sponsors and preparing himself physically, rowing laps on the Serpentine, a lake five-eighths of a mile long in Hyde Park. His fitness improved markedly, but his appeals for sponsorship went nowhere.
Finally, in desperation, he placed a classified advertisement in the Times of London, soliciting support for his audacious plan to row solo across the Atlantic. In reply he received six letters. Three were cranks, one was from a student who offered to help build the boat, and another was from the Lynch family of Potter’s Bar who enclosed a note of encouragement and a check for one Pound sterling. Fairfax was so touched by the gesture that he framed the check and kept it for the rest of his life.
The sixth letter was from Sylvia Cook, a London secretary. Fairfax called and arranged a meeting. “I was definitely not her type, nor she mine, but in spite of this we liked each other, and after a while I forgot all the others and went out exclusively with her,” he said. “As far as 1967 was concerned, she was the only bright light in my life.”
Cook was there two years later when he set off from Grand Canaria, bound for Miami. His craft was a 22-foot rowboat, self-righting and partially decked. “Aboard were provisions (Spam, oatmeal, brandy); water; and a temperamental radio. There was no support boat and no chase plane — only Mr. Fairfax and the sea,” Fox wrote in the Times.
The downwind run from the Canaries to the Caribbean has become the most common ocean-rowing route, with most of the 317 successful Atlantic crossing following that route, according to the Ocean Rowing Society. Fairfax chose to finish his journey in Florida, a more difficult crossing than the now-common route to Antigua or Barbados.
“The challenge wasn’t just physical, but navigational,” he said. “If time is no issue, anybody can get to the other side. A bottle will eventually do it.” To hit Miami, though, he would have to be accurate to within five miles with his sextant.
It didn’t start well. He rowed all night to get away from Grand Canaria, but when dawn came the island’s forbidding cliffs filled the horizon, taunting him. Already missing Cook, he resolved never to attempt another such crossing without a woman aboard. Then he broke out the brandy. “Unwrapping pork, boiled eggs, and raw onions, he wolfed down breakfast. A steaming cup of tea laced with brandy and a cigar topped off the morning, giving him a fresh perspective.”
He plodded on. On his nineteenth day at sea, he hailed a Norwegian freighter that had stopped to repair an oil leak and was invited aboard for a shower and a breakfast of eggs and bacon. He enjoyed a cold beer and another cigar, then asked the captain for a position check. After 19 days, he was 83 nautical miles from where he’d started, with another 3,500 to go.
The ship was bound for Buenos Aires, the closest thing the rambling Fairfax had to a hometown. The ship’s captain offered him free passage, but he forced himself to climb over the rail and keep rowing. “The long, empty days spawned a temporary madness,” Fox wrote of the ensuing months. “Desperate for female company, he talked ardently to the planet Venus.”
He reached Hollywood Beach, Florida on July 19, 1969, after 180 days at sea. The Apollo 11 astronauts would step foot on the moon the very next day. Back on earth, they sent Fairfax a congratulatory letter. “We who sail what President Kennedy once called ‘The new ocean of space’ are pleased to pay our respects to the man who, single handedly, has conquered the still formidable ocean of water,” the space men wrote. “As fellow explorers, we salute you on this great occasion.”
Fairfax, jaded and bored by half a year of nonstop rowing, saw it differently. “This is bloody stupid,” he declared as he came ashore. Two years later he rowed the Pacific with Cook. On the Atlantic he’d decided that he would never again make such a trip alone. He would take a woman because, as he said in an interview with WNYC Radio, he felt women had tremendous moral strength and self-reliance.
Cook fit that bill, and then some. “People think it must have been really exciting to do something like that, but most of the time it’s really boring. The bits that aren’t boring are just terrifying,” she said in a 2016 Avaunt podcast. The shark bite proved a garish inconvenience, a mere flesh wound that healed in time. “The first thing he said, which is typical of John, is ‘Get the camera darling!’” Cook recalled.
More worrisome was the loss of their rudder early in the voyage, requiring a pit stop in Ensenada Mexico, and tearing out the boat’s bottom on a reef on Onatoa in the Gilbert Islands. “In the cyclone, the rain was blinding and you couldn’t see more than a couple of yards in front of your face and the seas were absolutely monumental. It was like being on Epsom Downs, only it was all moving,” Cook said. “That was the un-boring part.”
Fairfax chose Hayman Island just off the Queensland coast as their end-point, because it had a magnificent luxury hotel. They arrived at dawn, and were greeted by a lone Japanese man with a camera. “It was a miserable journey,” Fairfax pronounced after they’d had showers and a good meal, and the press had assembled. “I don’t care if I never touch another oar.”
He never did. It his later years Fairfax devoted himself to baccarat, the high-rolling card game favored by James Bond. “He’s always been a gambler,” said Cook, who remained close to Fairfax after their romance ended. “He was going to the casino every night when I met him — it was craps in those days. And at the end of the day, adventures are a kind of gamble, aren’t they?”
Words by Jeff Moag