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Fairfax, John

Category: Explorer or adventurer

 

John Fairfax (21 May 1937 – 8 February 2012) was a British ocean rower and adventurer.  John enjoyed many adventures, including a trip to the Amazon jungle and a stint as a pirate. He spoke five languages, loved to cook and regularly played the card game baccarat at Las Vegas casinos.

In 1969, he became the first person to row solo across an ocean, in this case the Atlantic ocean. He subsequently went on to become the first to row the Pacific Ocean in 1971/2, a distance of 8,000-miles.  John’s ex-girlfriend and lifelong friend Sylvia Cook made history herself when she accompanied John on the Pacific Ocean crossing – the first woman to row across any ocean, let alone the Pacific.

What makes the second crossing so extraordinary is that Sylvia met John in 1969, less than two years before they left, when he was just putting his plan to row the Atlantic into action. He placed an advert in a newspaper asking for sponsorship and any assistance. She says: “I saw the advert and just thought, ‘Wow, fantastic’. " She subsequently helped him with the Atlantic crossing, handling letters, phone calls and the planning.

But, it gets even more surreal.  After his death, in an interview, she said  “He came round and we talked and that was the beginning. I wasn’t interested in the sea as such but I’d been rowing competitively for a few years and the idea of doing the whole Atlantic Ocean was incredible.”

Let alone the Pacific.  Sylvia couldn’t even swim.

Early Life

John Fairfax was born in Rome on May 21 1937 to a Bulgarian mother and an English father, who worked for the BBC in London. John would meet his father only once, when he came to London in the late Sixties, but the encounter was not a success. “We had money,” said John, “and I got everything I wanted. What I lacked was a father for an authority figure. It made me an opinionated little brat.

His early dislike for school made him a poor student. To "straighten" him out, his mother pulled some strings and got him an early admittance to the Italian Boy Scouts. The Italian Scouts in 1944 offered a rigorous test of a boy's ability to master survival skills. He learned to cook, to build fires, to track and trap game. "Because I was the youngest, the pressure was on me to prove myself," he says. "And I did. I found out I had a taste for outdoor adventure." 
He excelled, earning dozens of merit badges and usually finishing first in his troop. His emotional development lagged behind his physical prowess, however, and his Scout career was abruptly terminated three years later, at age nine.

We were on a snow camping trip, but the first night we stayed in a hut. After an argument I had with another boy, I went and got the pistol I knew our leader kept in his gear. 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. ... It was a miracle I didn't kill someone.

his arrival in Florida

The incident marked the end of John’s Scouting career, but not his passion for adventure. When he and his mother moved to Argentina soon after, John was hungry for more and left for the Amazon aged just 13. “I wanted to go to the jungle and live like Tarzan,” he says. “I had a fixation to be at one with nature.”  John became a skilled hunter and lived off the land, returning to Buenos Aires to sell the skins of animals he’d killed.  In 1957 he published a book in Spanish about his adventures, Vagabundos Bajo El Sol (Vagabonds Under the Sun).

But then came the story that changed the course of his life.  He read an account in the Reader’s Digest of two Norwegians, George Harbo and Frank Samuelsen, who in 1896 had become the first to cross the ocean in a small boat with only oars for propulsion. No one, however, had done it solo. 

I kept an account of their adventure under my pillow, reading and rereading it, my boyish imagination lit by a fury of sparks that burned and glowed until I was all but consumed in its fire. Even then I sensed their satisfaction in getting out of it alive, of having won against all odds, by sheer determination, willpower, and endurance, proving once more what man can do, that vital flame that burns in him that enabled him to become a man in the first place. I vowed that one day I too would row the Atlantic. But I would do it alone.

That day would not come for 15 years.

When John was twenty, he fell hopelessly in love with a girl. When the affair ended, he was so devastated he couldn't imagine going on. In a manner fitting a professional adventurer, he decided to go into the jungle and commit suicide.  

I was going to let a jaguar attack and kill me. I had a spear and a gun, and my plan was to use the spear when the jaguar attacked. Since I was not good with a spear, I would be killed.  But when the jaguar came at me, instinct took over and I grabbed the gun and killed it. That was the end of my suicide attempts and the start of my pipe smoking.

 

The Atlantic row

In 1959 John inherited $10,000, and took ship to New York. After buying a Chevrolet he drove to San Francisco, where he became involved with a Chinese call girl. When he had only $150 left, he decided to return to Argentina. He bicycled as far as Guatemala, then hitchhiked to Panama, where he fell in with a smuggler.

I told him I'd like to try my hand at smuggling. His response was to take me to a whorehouse and put me in bed between two whores. He said if I survived the night and they approved of me, I could work for him. I was so drunk, I don't remember anything. But I survived, and they must have approved because I soon became his right-hand man. Within a year I was captain of one of his boats. I went all over the world, smuggling guns, whiskey, and cigarettes. Over the next three years I learned navigation and made my first million.

He then worked for a year as a fisherman in Jamaica.

In 1966 John Ridgway and Chay Blyth rowed the Atlantic together in a 20ft open dory. “I felt a sudden sense of urgency,” Fairfax said. “I realised if I didn’t solo it soon, it was going to be done by somebody else.”

Fairfax needed financial backing, and in the summer of 1966 he came to London to find sponsors. He began to train in earnest, treating fitness as a full-time job. He ran two miles every morning, then did two hours of swimming and weight lifting at the YMCA, followed by three or four hours of rowing on the Serpentine, a small lake, five-eighths of a mile long, in Hyde Park.

Rowing back and forth on the Serpentine was boring, but it gave me an inkling of what it would be like out there, with nothing but sky and water to stare at for months on end. On sunny days, surrounded by cheerful couples and boatloads of kids merrily bumping into each other, I had trouble concentrating on what I was doing. I preferred the cold, windy, gray days, when I found myself almost alone. My mind could then retreat into itself, tentatively tasting the loneliness, the monotony, the hardships to come--and liking it. It was boring watching the blades go in and out, in and out, but at the same time there seemed to be a purpose to it.

A year later, having failed to find backers, Fairfax placed a personal ad in The Times. He received three crank letters, but three genuine offers: one was from a student who wanted to help build the boat; another from a secretary, Sylvia Cook, who asked if there was any way in which she could help in her spare time; the last was from a family in Potter’s Bar enclosing a cheque for £1. Fairfax was touched, and had the cheque framed. Meanwhile, he contacted Sylvia Cook, which led to a relationship that endured for many years.

It was two years before Fairfax got the necessary financial backing, from a businessman, Martin Cowling.

Uffa Fox

Uffa Fox, the boatbuilder, then designed the 22ft Britannia.  John was a true believer in Uffa Fox and the brilliance of his design for his boat, Britannia. It was a triumph of both form and function. During trials she proved that if capsized, she would right herself in two seconds. If swamped, she was dry in thirty seconds, the water sluicing down the self-bailing slots almost as fast as the eye could follow. She was so stable that two men could stand on a gunwale and she would only tilt a few inches. Easy to handle, she was a pleasure to row, prompting him to say, "I felt sure I could take such a boat to hell and back without either of us being the worse for it.

Fairfax’s plan was to row from the Canary Islands to Florida, about 3,600 nautical miles, which he reckoned would take three to four months. He finally set off from San Agustin on January 20 1969, shortly after 10.30am.

Daily Telegraph – Obituaries - 6:43PM GMT 17 Feb 2012

Because the prevailing winds were north-easterly trades, Fairfax calculated that his initial course should be westerly; he knew he was bound to be swept south anyway. “Uppermost in my mind was the thought that every mile lost would have to be recovered the hard way,” he said later. “How hard that would be was made clear by the sea that very first day.” Having rowed all day and all night, at first light he saw the silhouette of the island of Gran Canaria high on the horizon. He guessed that he was no more than 15 miles from its cliffs.
On his 16th day at sea he wrote in his log: “Wind from the southwest, Force 4-5. Is this a joke? I have had nothing but southwesterlies and westerlies since leaving San Agustin. I won’t be able to fight against them for very much longer. Every time I pull the oars now, the boat seems to weigh 10 tons.”
Fairfax had a radio with a maximum range of 5,000 nautical miles, and he was supposed to contact ITN and the Daily Sketch every four days at 8am GMT; by the 17th day he had succeeded in getting through only twice.
On February 8 he sighted a Norwegian ship, Skauborg, which had anchored to repair an oil leak. He got on board and had a shower, and a breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and coffee followed by a beer and a cigar. He was a mere 83 miles south-west of the Canaries.


Fairfax had several encounters with sharks. Once a dusky shark rammed his boat, sending him sprawling on to the deck. Later, as he was swimming beneath Britannia scraping away the barnacles with a knife, he encountered a mako. With no time to get out of the water, Fairfax flattened himself against the boat

... my hand was beginning to come down on him with the intention of slashing his nose, when he swerved, as if to scratch himself against the boat with me in between. I missed his nose but caught him right under the mouth, in the soft underbelly. About seven inches of razor-sharp blade went in--and the world exploded in front of me. In a sudden burst of energy, the shark pulled away from me, and, in doing so, ripped himself open from mouth to tail. I got scraped on the arm and received a terrific blow with the tail on the left shoulder. As the shark sped away, I climbed into Britannia in record time. Looked around, but did not see the shark again. Felt sore and battered but otherwise O.K. One hour later, went back into the water to scrape the starboard side. Took me a long time, but finished.

The experience

John was an interesting man in his own right, but this site is also about spiritual experiences – so why is he on the site? 

None of the conditions under which people alone at sea often experience hallucinations, visions or out of body experiences were present with John.  He did not suffer from malnutrition or dehydration as a nutritional expert had prepared Fairfax’s supplies. His rations were in 100 sealed plastic bags, providing daily a hot breakfast, a cold snack, and a hot main meal. He was also able to scrounge food from passing ships and to catch fish. His most precious treasure was a bagful of spices and onions, a present from a Russian ship; his favourite dish was a chopped-up dorado head with onion, rice and pepper.

Most people picturing a solo row across the Atlantic think of loneliness as the most daunting obstacle to overcome. But John was estranged from that emotion. He'd always been happy alone, and he truly believed he could find contentment if he were the last man on earth. Besides, many an expedition had failed due to interpersonal conflicts. Adventurers, by definition, are individuals, and it can be hard for them to work as a team.

All this makes his experience that much more extraordinary because he saw UFOs.

There is only one hint in his writing of a possible cause and that is the repetitiveness of his days and activities.  It has the same sort of feel about it as the technique of walking meditation.....

116th day
Rowing. To row. I row, she rows, they row. No! Nobody but me rows.... One day, when I die and go to hell, I know what will happen: Satan will condemn me to row....and row...and row...
Wind coming strong from the east. Rain. Nothing happens--nothing but me rowing. Twelve hours.
149th, 150th, and 151st days
Left three days to pass without writing as there was absolutely nothing to write about and still the same. Calm, hot, boring.

and the heat may also have had an effect...

Daily Telegraph – Obituaries - 6:43PM GMT 17 Feb 2012

By April 19, the 89th day, he was noticing that his reflexes had slowed: “When spear fishing I miss shots I would never have missed before.” He was rowing up to 12 hours a day, and on May 21 (his 32nd birthday) he confided to his log that he felt “like a hundred”. Just as he was about to drink a celebratory glass of brandy, he was washed overboard by a 15ft wave.
The further west he progressed, the hotter it got. On clear, calm days the midday temperature could reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit, making rowing impossible. His bunk was the only place in which he could escape the sun, but it was so hot that he could sleep only fitfully.

But it is a rather unique experience as experiences go.  We don’t know whether he was seeing with spiritual eyes as it were, or simply seeing.

 The arrival

On June 23, his 154th day at sea, Fairfax sighted Cay Verde — the first land since the Canary Islands. The sight of Cay Verde filled him with ineffable joy. Rowing against the wind for a long hour, he reached a lovely green cay wreathed in white sand, dotted with rocks and sea birds. He stumbled ashore like a drunk and collapsed on the beach.

The rest of the day he spent exploring, relaxing, and generally feeling wonderful. He went spear fishing, found a lobster, and fixed it for dinner. Satiated, he lay on the beach, luxuriating in the warm caress of the sand. Then his gaze brought Britannia into focus. Gently bobbing at the end of her anchor line, she looked so puny and frail and uninviting. That he had lived on board this tiny vessel for more than five months suddenly seemed so unlikely that he burst out laughing. That he had to relinquish paradise for his own private hell seemed so tragic that he began to weep.

Fairfax finally landed on Hollywood Beach, near Fort Lauderdale, on July 19, 180 days after leaving San Agustin. Sylvia Cook was there to greet him, as was the world’s press. The Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins — the first two of whom would the next day become the first men to walk on the Moon — transmitted to Fairfax

“our sincere congratulations ... [Your achievement] was the accomplishment of one resourceful individual, while ours depended upon the help of thousands of dedicated workers in the United States and all over the world. ”

Some doubted his tales. When a local reporter was unable to believe that Fairfax could kill a shark, Fairfax rented a boat, poured fish blood into the water and did for a “decent-sized” specimen. He proceeded to dump its body on the doorstep of the newspaper’s office.

The Pacific row

One of the first things he said on his return was, “Next time, I’ll take a girl”. So when he first mooted the idea of rowing the Pacific, Sylvia knew she had the chance to go. She says: “I felt my life had been too normal. I hadn’t had any challenges – I hadn’t even been camping before.  I just thought, ‘Yes, this is something I’d like to do and if I don’t, I’d regret it’.”  Sylvia incidentally could not swim.

The couple set out from San Francisco on April 26, 1971. Sylvia spent the first eight days seasick, “thinking I was going to die”. But eventually they got into their stride, rowing past schools of dolphins and pods of sharks, and anchoring in unspoilt paradises.

The row from San Francisco to Hayman Island in Australia took 363 days, and it was first time anyone had rowed across the Pacific.  They survived shark attacks (Fairfax was bitten on his right arm), fierce storms and even a cyclone. After it was over Fairfax said: “It was a miserable journey. I don’t care if I never touch another oar.” And Sylvia remembered that “It was always wet and I got horrible saltwater sores.”  At one stage their radio broke, leaving them unable to get in touch with dry land. People at home presumed they were missing at sea.

And afterwards

The pair spent time in Australia and America, before Sylvia decided to come back to England. They split up over children – she wanted them, John did not. He stayed in the US, and in 1981 John married Tiffany, an astrologer, and spent most of the rest of his life in Las Vegas, where he liked to frequent the casinos. He was an expert at baccarat.

Sylvia remained lifelong friends with John Fairfax. "He's always been a gambler," she told the New York Times after his death. "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?"

Sylvia went on to have a son – Martin, now 33. But she never lost her admiration for the great adventurer John.   “He was a marvellous man,” she says. “I doubt we’ll see another like him.

Tiffany Fairfax also had nothing but praise for her husband and on his death said "He was a man of unbelievable strength and courage and confidence in everything he did.  He thought nature was a worthy challenge and he loved nature."

John Fairfax died on 8 February of an apparent heart attack.

February 16 27th day 

...I wonder, for the first time, what the hell am I doing here. Money? No, people don't do this sort of thing for money, certainly not me... Or am I trying to prove something? To myself or others? Surely not to others. And what can I prove to myself that I don't know already? What, then?

 

Maybe I will find the answer before the journey is finished. And maybe I won't. What does it matter? I am enjoying myself, doing something I have yearned to do for sixteen years, and there is not a single thing I regret, whatever the outcome. I am doing what I have always loved to do, being part of and fight against Nature.... 


I love you, Sea, and if soon I will be cursing you again, at least tonight we are at peace with each other. Let us enjoy it, and hell take tomorrow. After all, whether you care, or like it, or not, you are part of me, and I might soon become part of you.

 

Observations

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