John in Britannia, in which he became the first person to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

Here is an amazing story about a man who was clearly NOT ordinary. But what an inspiration. John Fairfax, a British journalist and adventurer, just died February 8th at age 74. He is best known for being the first person to row solo across the Atlantic and (with Sylvia Cook) to row first across the Pacific ocean.

Among the highlights in his life:

* Ended his Italian Boy Scouting career with a pistol rampage at age 9
* Went to live in the Argentine jungle “like Tarzan” at age 13
* Lived as a pirate and gun smuggler
* Gave up piracy to appease his mother, and farmed minks for a while instead
* In 1969, rowed solo across the Atlantic (“battling storms, sharks and encroaching madness”), and received a congratulatory letter from the crew of Apollo 11
* In 1971, rowed from San Francisco to Hayman Island, Australia with Sylvia Cook, whom he met via a personal ad
* Bitten by a shark during the Pacific trip
* Attempted suicide by letting a jaguar attack him
* Lived in later years as a professional Baccarat player

This video of John just after he made it to Hollywood Beach, Florida in 1969 at age 32 records his description (starts at 8:15) of the white, mankiller shark attack (he was in the water scraping the bottom of his boat) and how he defended himself with a knife. Earlier he says how he is “a lone wolf…a happy guy, and therefore I don’t have any problems…I never thought I wouldn’t make it…It was a little harder than I thought, but I never give up.”

Mr. Fairfax was often asked why he chose a rowboat to challenge two roiling oceans. “Almost anybody with a little bit of know-how can sail…I’m after a battle with nature, primitive and raw.”

The row took 180 days. Upon completion of his row he received a message of congratulations from the crew of Apollo 11 who had walked on the moon the day after he had completed his voyage. In their letter the crew stated:

“Yours, however, 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. As fellow explorers, we salute you on this great occasion.”

Fairfax used two different custom-made boats on the ocean journeys, and he used the stars to help him navigate. He survived by eating up to eight pounds of fish a day. He had a system to convert ocean water into drinking water.

“On the Pacific, a shark took a big chunk of his arm out” when he was spearing fish, said Tiffany Fairfax, his wife of 31 years. “There you are on the Pacific Ocean and there’s no hospital, and you need to row. He was an amazing, amazing human being.”

“He believed a human could accomplish anything if they had confidence,” she said. “When he would get an idea in mind, he would pursue it and say, `I can do it.'”

Fairfax remained lifelong friends with Sylvia Cook, 73, his rowing partner across the Pacific who lives near London.

John Fairfax and his girlfriend, Sylvia Cook, made history in 1972 when they became the first known people to cross the Pacific Ocean by rowboat.

This link to the Ocean Rowing Society contains excerpts from a book beginning in 1966, when John is seeking support for the first solo trip across the Atlantic, as well as selected journal entries during his historic voyage. Also included are details of his early years as a boy.

While seeking people to help plan his first transoceanic trip, he met Sylvia Cook, a secretary who became his girlfriend and fellow traveler on his two-person expedition.

“The only reason I am doing it is because it is the hardest way to cross the Pacific,” Fairfax told The Times in 1971. “This is the Everest of the sea.”

They set out in another custom-made rowboat, the Britannia II, in April 1971 and endured fierce storms and a cyclone that knocked out their ability to communicate for the final two months of the trip. Unable to swim, Cook spent much of the trip lashed to the boat.

“Had Been Feared Drowned” a Times headline declared when they arrived 363 days later at Hayman Island, Australia. Both appeared to be in good physical shape, but Fairfax had a deep gash on his arm caused by a shark bite while he was spearing fish.

John and Sylvia

After his second historic voyage, he declared: “It was a miserable journey. I don’t care if I never touch another oar.”

Here are excerpts from the New York Times obit by Margalit Fox:

…For all its bravura, Mr. Fairfax’s seafaring almost pales beside his earlier ventures. Footloose and handsome, he was a flesh-and-blood character out of Graham Greene, with more than a dash of Hemingway and Ian Fleming shaken in…

Mr. Fairfax was among the last avatars of a centuries-old figure: the lone-wolf explorer, whose exploits are conceived to satisfy few but himself. His was a solitary, contemplative art that has been all but lost amid the contrived derring-do of adventure-based reality television.

The only child of an English father and a Bulgarian mother, John Fairfax was born on May 21, 1937, in Rome, where his mother had family; he scarcely knew his father, who worked in London for the BBC.

Seeking to give her son structure, his mother enrolled him at 6 in the Italian Boy Scouts. It was there, Mr. Fairfax said, that he acquired his love of nature — and his determination to bend it to his will.

On a camping trip when he was 9, John concluded a fight with another boy by filching the scoutmaster’s pistol and shooting up the campsite. No one was injured, but his scouting career was over.

His parents’ marriage dissolved soon afterward, and he moved with his mother to Buenos Aires. A bright, impassioned dreamer, he devoured tales of adventure, including an account of the voyage of Frank Samuelsen and George Harbo, Norwegians who in 1896 were the first to row across the Atlantic. John vowed that he would one day make the crossing alone.

At 13, in thrall to Tarzan, he ran away from home to live in the jungle. He survived there as a trapper with the aid of local peasants, returning to town periodically to sell the jaguar and ocelot skins he had collected.

He later studied literature and philosophy at a university in Buenos Aires and at 20, despondent over a failed love affair, resolved to kill himself by letting a jaguar attack him. When the planned confrontation ensued, however, reason prevailed — as did the gun he had with him.

In Panama, he met a pirate, applied for a job as a pirate’s apprentice and was taken on. He spent three years smuggling guns, liquor and cigarettes around the world, becoming captain of one of his boss’s boats, work that gave him superb navigational skills.

When piracy lost its luster, he gave his boss the slip and fetched up in 1960s London, at loose ends. He revived his boyhood dream of crossing the ocean and, since his pirate duties had entailed no rowing, he began to train.

He rowed daily on the Serpentine, the lake in Hyde Park. Barely more than half a mile long, it was about one eight-thousandth the width of the Atlantic, but it would do.

On Jan. 20, 1969, Mr. Fairfax pushed off from the Canary Islands, bound for Florida. His 22-foot craft, the Britannia, was the Rolls-Royce of rowboats: made of mahogany, it had been created for the voyage by the eminent English boat designer Uffa Fox. It was self-righting, self-bailing and partly covered.

Aboard were provisions (Spam, oatmeal, brandy); water; and a temperamental radio. There was no support boat and no chase plane — only Mr. Fairfax and the sea. He caught fish and sometimes boarded passing ships to cadge food, water and showers.

The long, empty days spawned a temporary madness. Desperate for female company, he talked ardently to the planet Venus.

On July 19, 1969 — Day 180 — Mr. Fairfax, tanned, tired and about 20 pounds lighter, made landfall at Hollywood, Fla. “This is bloody stupid,” he said as he came ashore. Two years later, he was at it again.

This time Ms. Cook, a secretary and competitive rower he had met in London, was aboard. Their new boat, the Britannia II, also a Fox design, was about 36 feet long, large enough for two though still little more than a toy on the Pacific.

“He’s always been a gambler,” Ms. Cook, 73, recalled by telephone on Wednesday. “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?”

Their crossing, from San Francisco to Hayman Island, Australia, took 361 days—from April 26, 1971, to April 22, 1972—and was an 8,000-mile cornucopia of disaster.

“It was very, very rough, and our rudder got snapped clean off,” Ms. Cook said. “We were frequently swamped, and at night you didn’t know if the boat was the right way up or the wrong way up.”

Mr. Fairfax was bitten on the arm by a shark, and he and Ms. Cook became trapped in a cyclone, lashing themselves to the boat until it subsided. Unreachable by radio for a time, they were presumed lost.

For all that, Ms. Cook said, there were abundant pleasures. “The nights not too hot, sunny days when you could just row,” she recalled. “You just hear the clunking of the rowlocks, and you stop rowing and hear little splashings of the sea.”

Mr. Fairfax was often asked why he chose a rowboat to beard two roiling oceans. “Almost anybody with a little bit of know-how can sail,” he said in a profile on the Web site of the Ocean Rowing Society International, which adjudicates ocean rowing records. “I’m after a battle with nature, primitive and raw.”

Such battles are a young man’s game. With Ms. Cook, Mr. Fairfax went back to the Pacific in the mid-’70s to try to salvage a cache of lead ingots from a downed ship they had spied on their crossing. But the plan proved unworkable, and he never returned to sea.

In recent years, Mr. Fairfax made his living playing baccarat, the card game also favored by James Bond.

Baccarat is equal parts skill and chance. It lets the player wield consummate mastery while consigning him simultaneously to the caprices of fate.