Tag Archives: hero

A fascinating obit: John Fairfax, the most interesting man in the world

He crossed the Atlantic because it was there, and the Pacific because it was also there.

He made both crossings in a rowboat because it, too, was there, and because the lure of sea, spray and sinew, and the history-making chance to traverse two oceans without steam or sail, proved irresistible.

In 1969, after six months alone on the Atlantic battling storms, sharks and encroaching madness, John Fairfax, who died this month at 74, became the first lone oarsman in recorded history to traverse any ocean.

In 1972, he and his girlfriend, Sylvia Cook, sharing a boat, became the first people to row across the Pacific, a yearlong ordeal during which their craft was thought lost. (The couple survived the voyage, and so, for quite some time, did their romance.)

Both journeys were the subject of fevered coverage by the news media. They inspired two memoirs by Mr. Fairfax, “Britannia: Rowing Alone Across the Atlantic” and, with Ms. Cook, “Oars Across the Pacific,” both published in the early 1970s.

Mr. Fairfax died on Feb. 8 at his home in Henderson, Nev., near Las Vegas. The apparent cause was a heart attack, said his wife, Tiffany. A professional astrologer, she is his only immediate survivor. Ms. Cook, who became an upholsterer and spent the rest of her life quietly on dry land (though she remained a close friend of Mr. Fairfax), lives outside London.

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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.

At 9, he settled a dispute with a pistol. At 13, he lit out for the Amazon jungle.

At 20, he attempted suicide-by-jaguar. Afterward he was apprenticed to a pirate. To please his mother, who did not take kindly to his being a pirate, he briefly managed a mink farm, one of the few truly dull entries on his otherwise crackling résumé, which lately included a career as a professional gambler.

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.

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By MARGALIT FOX
NY Times, Published: February 18, 2012
(Well spotted Harro, tip of the hat to ye)

The Man Quote: Teddy Roosevelt

Being English, I was never really taught much about American politicians. Our own are, of course, far more inspiring, with their legendary sang froid and phlegmatic approach to life and morality.

Would that it were as simple as that. America has produced heroes and legends alike. For me, Theodore Roosevelt (1858 – 1919) is a fascinating character. A true man. Politics is only part of his legend, he was also a brilliant naturalist, explorer, hunter, author, conservationist and soldier.

Sickly as a child – he suffered terribly from asthma – he fought back and “made” his body, with the help of a gym his father made for him and a huge amount of perseverance. When he graduated, Roosevelt underwent a physical examination and his doctor told him that, due to serious heart problems, he should find a desk job and avoid strenuous activity. He chose to embrace strenuous life instead. (the picture below is from his days at Harvard – he’s wearing a sculling costume, but also enjoyed boxing).

In 1861, he went through what no one should ever have to endure. His wife Alice gave birth to their first child, a daughter, but died two days later of undiagnosed kidney failure. If that wasn’t enough, his mother also died (of Typhoid), on the same day, in the same house. He was broken. In his diary he wrote a large X on the page and wrote “the light has gone out of my life.” Roosevelt wrote headed for the badlands of Dakota to heal. Working shoulder to shoulder with all kinds of men in the west he said, “took the snob” out of him. Working the ranch brought about a profound love of the open land, unique geography and animal species that were fast disappearing with increased settlement and development.

Eventually he remarried – his long-term friend, Edith – and moved back to Washington before heading to New York as Police commissioner. He was famous for prowling the streets at all hours learning more about the police as well as the worst corners of the city. He greatly reduced corruption, increased the use of technologies and created one of the first academies for police training. In 1898 he raised a volunteer troop of cowboys and college athletes – the Rough Riders – to help fight the Spanish in Cuba. He lead one charge on horseback and one charge on foot, inspiring his troops but exposing himself to enemy fire.

His exploits here, and the way he stood up for his men (he was a volunteer too) propelled him into politics, and when President McKinley was shot in 1901, Roosevelt became, at 42, America’s youngest ever President. I’ll skip a chunk, as for the rest you should read books on and by him, but you should know that his life didn’t end with the presidency. He went on a mammoth safari in Africa, explored South America (mapping The River of Doubt, which flows into the Amazon, nearly died from malaria, oversaw the Panama Canal’s construction, fought for America to join the First World War… in short, he led the sort of life most of us can only ever dream of, but one we should all aspire to.

A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.

A man who is good enough to shed his blood for the country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards.

A typical vice of American politics is the avoidance of saying anything real on real issues.

Appraisals are where you get together with your team leader and agree what an outstanding member of the team you are, how much your contribution has been valued, what massive potential you have and, in recognition of all this, would you mind having your salary halved.

Courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage.

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

Don’t hit at all if it is honorably possible to avoid hitting; but never hit soft.

Every immigrant who comes here should be required within five years to learn English or leave the country.

Get action. Seize the moment. Man was never intended to become an oyster.

I am only an average man but, by George, I work harder at it than the average man.

I care not what others think of what I do, but I care very much about what I think of what I do! That is character!

I don’t pity any man who does hard work worth doing. I admire him. I pity the creature who does not work, at whichever end of the social scale he may regard himself as being.

If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.

In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.

Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground.

Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it.

No man is worth his salt who is not ready at all times to risk his well-being, to risk his body, to risk his life, in a great cause.

No people is wholly civilized where a distinction is drawn between stealing an office and stealing a purse.

Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.

People ask the difference between a leader and a boss. The leader leads, and the boss drives.

Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.

The best executive is one who has sense enough to pick good people to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.

The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people.

The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.

The only time you really live fully is from thirty to sixty. The young are slaves to dreams; the old servants of regrets. Only the middle-aged have all their five senses in the keeping of their wits.

The things that will destroy America are prosperity-at-any-price, peace-at-any-price, safety-first instead of duty-first, the love of soft living, and the get-rich-quick theory of life.

There has never yet been a man in our history who led a life of ease whose name is worth remembering.

When you are asked if you can do a job, tell ’em, ‘Certainly I can!’ Then get busy and find out how to do it.

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