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First man to Row alone across Atlantic

Updated on October 1, 2012

John Fairfax 1937 - 2012

In his passport, John Fairfax gave his profession as “adventurer” — and that was the clear truth, said the FT. Variously a smuggler, big-game hunter and expert gambler, he earned his place in history by becoming the first man to row solo across the Atlantic. His epic journey in the 22k Britannia took 1 80 days — twice as long as he’d hoped. He had to cope with raging storms, sharks and even a bout of near-madness when, sex-starved and desolate, he started to commune with the planet Venus. On one occasion, Fairfax was swimming under his boat, scraping barnacles from the hull, when he came face to face with an inquisitive mako shark. By his account, he plunged his knife into the side of the shark, which “pulled away from me, and, in doing so, ripped himself open from mouth to tail. I climbed into Britannia in record time.” When he finally touched ground in Florida, cheering crowds awaited him, hut some doubted his story. Surely he hadn’t really killed a shark, one journalist inquired. In response, Fairfax vent straight back to sea, skewered another “decent-sized” shark and dumped it outside the offices of the skeptical hack.


Fairfax, who has died aged 74, attributed his fiery spirit to the lack of any authority figure in his life. His father, a BBC journalist, abandoned him to be brought up by his Bulgarian mother, who took him with her to Buenos Aires after WWII. The boy became obsessed with the Tarzan stories, and at 13 ran away to live in the jungle, returning to civilization only occasionally over the years, to sell jaguar and ocelot skins. As a young man he chanced on a Reader’s Digest article about two Norwegians who had rowed across the Atlantic in 1896, and there and then vowed that one day he’d do it alone. But before that he had to earn a living: he started off as a mink farmer and later — while learning basic navigational skills — became a pirate smuggler of liquor and cigarettes. The low point of this period of his life, said The New York Times, was when, unlucky in love, he resolved to commit suicide by presenting himself to be eaten by a jaguar. At the last moment he changed his mind and shot the beast instead. Time was pressing, however. In 1966 a pair of oarsmen, John Ridgeway and Chay Blyth, won acclaim for rowing across the Atlantic — and Fairfax realised that he’d never be the first to do it solo unless he acted fast. So he moved to London and put an ad in The limes asking for someone to help him with his project. Aside from a £1 cheque sent from a family in Potters Bar (which Fairfax framed), the only offer came from a beautiful young woman named Sylvia Cook, a secretary and competitive rower. With her help, he gathered sufficient funds to commission a boat that righted itself if capsized, and hailed out water automatically. He also embarked on a grueling exercise regime, rowing for hours each day on the Serpentine in Hyde Park.

On 20 January 1969, Fairfax set out from the Canary Islands and instantly ran into adverse winds. But he persevered. The only thing that broke his solitude in the ensuing months was the odd encounter with passing ships, and a restorative kiss from Svetlana, a Russian sailor. Finally, on 19 July, he made landfall. Sylvia was there to greet him, and there was also a message from astronauts Buzz Aidrin and Neil Armstrong, who stepped our on the Moon two days later: “\Ve who sail the new ocean of space,” it said, “are pleased to pay our respects to the man who, singlehandedly, has conquered the still formidable ocean of water.” But Fairfax didn’t stop there. In 1971 he and Sylvia, now his girlfriend, set out from San Francisco in the 36ft Britannia II, to become the first people to row across the Pacific. Their 8,000-mile odyssey was twice the distance of his Atlantic ordeal: it rook them 361 days to reach Australia.

A few journalists were inclined to view the Endeavour — two attractive young people alone in their boat together — as romantic, said The Washington Post. Fairfax put them straight. The bed was invariably soaking vet. “You try it in a crummy little boat like Britannia at sea,” he said, adding that he didn’t mind if he never saw an oar again. John and Sylvia eventually broke up, but stayed friends. In 198 1 he married Tiffany, an astrologer, in Las Vegas. His later years were spent making money at the baccarat table.

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