John Fairfax, who died on 8th February in Henderson, Nevada, was the first person to row solo across an ocean. In 1969 he spent 180 days alone at sea to row across the Atlantic from the Canaries to Florida. In 1971/2 he rowed across the Pacific with his girlfriend, Sylvia Cook.

John Fairfax

A colourful character never at a loss for a quotable soundbite, Fairfax was a precocious adventurer. At 13 he left his mother, then living in Argentina, to “live like Tarzan” in the jungle. He spent time with local peasants, foraged for food, and hunted jaguar and ocelot for skins which he sold in Buenos Aires. Subsequent adventures saw him drive from New York to San Francisco, ride a bike from San Francisco to Guatemala, hitchhike to Panama, and make his first million by smuggling contraband with pirates. And all this by the age of 25.

After making his way back to Argentina on horseback he tried to figure out what to do with his next quarter-century. As a child he had read about the 1896 crossing of the Atlantic in a rowboat by Harbo and Samuelson (fantastic book about this voyage), and it had captured his imagination. Now he stumbled across a report about the recent 1966 crossing of the Atlantic by Ridgway and Blyth. The record for the first solo crossing was up for grabs.

Less than twenty hours after launching from the Canaries in 1969 he was wondering what had possessed him to believe that this was a good idea. But a cigar and a steaming cup of tea laced with brandy apparently gave him renewed motivation, and 180 days later he successfully arrived on Hollywood Beach in Florida, and went on to row the Pacific with Sylvia Cook 2 years later.

I feel a certain amount of empathy with John Fairfax. I, too, have rowed solo across oceans. I, too, have frequently found it “a miserable journey”, as he described his Pacific crossing. I, too, have felt the boredom and frustration of the crossing, and the euphoria of arrival.

Shark populations devastated by 80%

However, in one key regard, Fairfax and I have had profoundly different ocean experiences. When he was rowing the oceans forty years ago, shark populations were around five times what they are now. Shark-finning, by-catch, and the demolition of the ocean food pyramid have devastated populations of sharks and other apex predators. Fairfax happily describes how he lassoed and killed a dusky shark. Now he would be lucky to see one.

Forty years ago we had no notion of climate change or ocean acidification, although the process was already underway. Two-thirds of the world’s coral reef systems are now damaged, with ten percent being degraded beyond recovery thanks to coastal development, destructive fishing practices, pollution, and mining, as well as rising acidity.

The Atlantic that John Fairfax rowed across still had a thriving cod fishing industry. By 1992, Northern Cod biomass had dropped to one percent of its previous levels, and the Canadian government was forced to declare a moratorium on Atlantic fisheries.

The first container ship launched just over a decade before Fairfax’s voyage, in 1956. Today there are over 50,000 container ships plying the world’s oceans, transporting everything from cars to kiwifruit. It has been estimated that one container ship pollutes as much as 50 million cars due to their enormous weight and the low quality of their fuel, contributing up to 30 percent of the nitrogen oxide that leads to acid rain.

Plastic bags at sea

When John Fairfax rowed across the Pacific with Sylvia Cook, the plastics industry was still in its infancy. Now there are an estimated 3.5 million tons of plastic floating in the North Pacific Gyre, just one of five oceanic gyres around the world where plastic pollution accumulates, leaching toxic chemicals such as BPA into seawater and killing marine life.

It was concern over our unsustainable use of the world’s resources – oceanic and otherwise – that first led me to take up my oars for the cause. In just fifty years we have devastated the blue two-thirds of our planet. Let’s protect our oceans and give them a chance to recover, not just for the sake of future adventurers, but for all our sakes.


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