Implausible, improbable, too good to be true or too good not to be true: such was the life of John Fairfax, the first man to row single-handed across the Atlantic, who died a fortnight ago and who became world famous over the weekend, when the obituaries really began to flow, many of them leaning heavily (and without acknowledgment) on an online extract from The Ocean Rowers by Kenneth Crutchlow and Steve Boga. ‘One of the world’s most interesting men is dead,’ said a bold headline on Newser; he certainly led an interesting life, but that’s not necessarily the same thing.
Fairfax was born in Rome in 1937. His mother, who was from Bulgaria, told her son that his father, a British pilot, was dead, only he was still alive and working for the BBC in London, where he had another family. According to the Telegraph, father and son met only once, at the end of the 1960s, but Fairfax’s books suggest they may have seen each other more often.
‘I was a horrible kid, an only child spoiled rotten by his mother and nanny,’ Fairfax is quoted as saying in the Financial Times, only he didn’t say that: Crutchlow and Boga did, paraphrasing him. What Fairfax did say of his childhood and his mother was: ‘We had money, and I got everything I wanted. What I lacked was a father for an authority figure. It made me an opinionated little brat.’ He made a habit of running himself down, and of dismissing some of his most outlandish endeavours as boring.
‘To this day, I don’t like children because they remind me of myself as a kid.’ Some child he was; at nine, Fairfax was expelled from his Italian school for shooting a pistol at a hut full of sleeping boys during a camping trip. ‘It was a miracle I didn’t kill someone.’
Four years later, Fairfax and his mother were in Buenos Aires. The 13-year-old left home for the Amazon jungle: Tarzan, that’s who he had set out to become. He didn’t quite manage that but made his living as a trapper, selling the skins of jaguars and ocelots. His first book, Vagabonds under the Sun, about those jungle adventures, was written in Spanish, one of his five languages.
Some time in the early 1960s, Fairfax inherited money: from whom and when isn’t clear, but the Telegraph says it was about $10,000 which at the time wasn’t nothing. He took himself to New York to spend it. Then he drove to San Francisco and moved in with a Chinese call girl. Three months later, down to his last $150, he decided to cycle home to Argentina. He made it to Guatemala where he abandoned his bike and hitched to Panama where he fell in with a group of artists. ‘This was my beatnik phase. For three months I lived like a bum.’
Then he fell in with a smuggler known as the Pirate. ‘I went all over the world, smuggling guns, whiskey, and cigarettes. Over the next three years I learned navigation and made my first million.’ Eventually tiring of the low life on the high seas, he ‘arranged a hijacking of his own ship’, Crutchlow and Boga write, ‘with a man who claimed he wanted revenge against John’s boss’. It didn’t go entirely as planned: ‘I had my mask, flippers, and false passport all set to go. I swam five miles to get away. The others didn’t have a chance.’
Back in Argentina, Fairfax went to work on a mink farm, which the New York Times describes as ‘one of the few truly dull entries on his otherwise crackling résumé’. Or maybe not so dull: Fairfax says he was known on the farm as ‘Nero’. But ‘it didn’t work out. I burned up the place and got fired.’
In 1966 Fairfax went to London to raise money for his voyage across the Atlantic. He had wanted, he said, to be the first person to row the ocean alone ever since reading, as a child, about the two Norwegians who’d done it in 1896. He had £300 in his pocket when he arrived in England. He hoped to turn it into £5000 at London’s casinos but lost it all (and more) in a three-night losing streak. Raising the money by other means, he commissioned Uffa Fox to build him a boat that would right itself in two seconds should it capsize. Fairfax practised his rowing on the Serpentine: it was ‘tremendously boring’ he said, typically, ‘but it gave me an inkling of what it would be like out there, with nothing but sky and water to stare at.’
On 20 January 1969 he set off for Florida from the Canary Islands. ‘I felt sure I could take such a boat to hell and back without either of us being the worse for it.’ On 19 July he arrived at Port Everglades, Florida. He had rowed 3600 nautical miles, and survived a shark attack. A journalist at the Miami Herald questioned Fairfax’s account of the shark: Fairfax went to sea, caught a shark and dumped its carcass outside the paper’s offices in Fort Lauderdale.
Two years later, Fairfax rowed across the Pacific with his companion, Sylvia Cook: after crossing the Atlantic solo he said that next time he’d rather go with a girl. According to their cowritten account of the journey, Oars across the Pacific, they argued their way around a third of the world: ‘Rows across the Pacific’ would have been a better title. When they finally arrived in Australia, 361 days after they had set off from San Francisco, a journalist asked if they planned to marry. ‘She does, I don’t,’ Fairfax said. Cook disagreed: ‘He would be an appalling husband. Who wants a husband who goes off on jaunts like this.’
Fairfax later moved to Florida where he met his wife, Tiffany, an astrologer. They moved to Las Vegas to get away from the hurricanes. He played baccarat for a living; she got a job on the Vegas Voice (‘the best senior news in the Las Vegas valley’): her column is called ‘The Cosmic Jackpot’. Fairfax had both phenomenal patience and a horror of boredom, but his most outstanding quality was perhaps that he didn’t seem to care whether he won or lost. Luck aside, this may largely explain why he so often won.