History’s greatest ocean rowing career started with a classified ad.
It was 1972, and Peter Bird was selling velvet paintings door-to-door, the latest in a string of dead-end jobs he’d held since leaving school at 15. Derek King was the new man on the crew, having answered a newspaper ad cynically targeting the counterculture youth of early 1970s London: “Heads and freaks – daily bread. Call Wendy.”
King called the number and soon found himself puttering up the M1 in a car full of kitschy paintings and longhaired salesmen. Someone asked about his hobbies, and King mentioned that he’d just rowed a small boat around Ireland. Bird nearly skidded off the road.
While the others fanned out to knock doors, Bird steered King into a pub and plied him with questions, not least of which was how he planned to top his Ireland adventure. King replied that he was preparing to row around the world. As a matter of fact, he told Bird, he was looking for partners.
Two years later they shoved off from Gibraltar in a borrowed rowboat. A third partner made it only as far as Casablanca, but for Bird and King it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. One hundred and three days later, they landed on the island of St. Lucia after a voyage of 3,303 miles.
Both of them had had enough of ocean rowing. “By the time we reached the West Indies, the boat was leaking and we were out of everything, including money. So we came back,” Bird told his friend Kenneth Crutchlow in a 1995 interview. “Rowing around the world was Derek’s dream, not mine. I’d never seen myself going all the way with him.”
That should have been the end of Bird’s rowing career, but when he heard that American Patrick Satterlee planned to row the Pacific alone, it unearthed a deep-seated ambition he didn’t know was in him. “I felt kind of deprived,” he said, “as though someone had nicked my opportunity.”
As it happened, Satterlee had borrowed the same boat Bird and King had taken across the Atlantic, the 36-foot Britannia II. The craft belonged to John Fairfax, the pioneering ocean rower and occasional shark wrestler who had rowed it across the Pacific with Sylvia Cook in 1971 and 1972. Satterlee planned a similar route from San Diego to Australia but made it only as far as the 3-mile buoy, where he tied off Britannia II and took a boat back to shore. Disgusted, Fairfax withdrew his support and took Britannia II back to San Francisco. There she sat for two years as Bird worked to raise funds and make her shipshape for a second trans-Pacific voyage.
He launched in October 1980, battling difficult conditions for nearly half a year. On his 147th day at sea, low on food and with a damaged rudder, he capsized in heavy surf off Maui. Britannia II was driven ashore and smashed on the rocks as Bird scrambled to safety. He had covered only about a quarter of his planned route to Australia, and in the process lost his boat and nearly his life. But rather than quit or dial back his ambitions, Bird upped the ante. He decided that the next time he rowed the Pacific, he would go nonstop.
First, he needed a boat. Honolulu boat builder Foo Lim offered to build one at no cost, on the condition that Bird worked with him. The new boat was called Hele-on-Britannia—pidgin for “Carry on, Britannia”—and Bird rowed her out the Golden Gate on August 23, 1982. He spent the next ten months alone at sea, traveling some 6,000 miles with a single resupply. He weathered two cyclones and a capsize between weeks of mind-numbing isolation. After 394 days he arrived at the edge of the Great Barrier Reef in heavy weather, just 33 miles from the Australian mainland. Bird judged that was close enough and accepted a tow from an Australian navy patrol boat.
When a crew member asked why he’d done it, Bird told him, “It’s just an adventure. You don’t have to justify it.” The response recalls Everest mountaineer George Mallory’s famously testy answer to the same question—”because it is there”—and Bird said he always felt a kinship with mountaineers. “I realized that mountain climbers, extreme skiers, and ocean rowers are really the same people with different skills,” he told Crutchlow. “We never ask each other why we are doing what we do. It’s obvious.”
Bird later recalled a conversation with some dock workers who were unloading his boat. “He must be mad to be doing that,” one of them said, not knowing the torpedo-shaped rowboat belonged to the man standing nearby.
“What if he asked you why you lived your life the way you do?” Bird shot back.
The longshoreman sized him up and said, “You’re the bloke who’s rowing, ain’t you?”
By the time he finished his Australia row, Bird had logged 441 days alone at sea and discovered that despite his gregarious nature, he possessed a rare tolerance for solitude. “Bird was not the stereotypical ocean-rowing loner,” wrote Geoff Allum. “He managed somehow to combine a passion for life with an ability to spend months and months alone at sea, without any apparent ill-effect.”
To friends like Allum, it seemed the only enduring consequence of Bird’s journeys was a desire for more. After his Atlantic and Pacific crossings, he was more than halfway to completing Derek King’s dream of rowing around the world. Closing that circle would have pleased sponsors and the press, but Bird chose a tougher and more obscure challenge: To row the Pacific again, in the opposite direction.
A west-to-east crossing meant rowing the volatile North Pacific, from Siberia to San Francisco. Sector, the watch company, came aboard as sponsor, and Bird built a new boat for the northern passage. At 29 feet, Sector Two was smaller than his previous boats and designed to right itself in any conditions. (Sector One belonged to Bird’s friend and rival Gerard d’Aboville, who rowed from Japan to North America in 1991, capsizing 39 times in the process. Crutchlow, the founder of the Ocean Rowing Society International and manager or Bird’s North Pacific expeditions, notes that while d’Aboville was the first to row the North Pacific, he did not start from the Asian continent. “The difference,” he wrote, “was 400 miles and a matter of principle.”)