Feature

John Fairfax, 1937–2012

The adventurer who rowed across oceans

John Fairfax was in the middle of the Atlantic, scraping barnacles from the bottom of his rowboat, when he spotted a giant mako shark charging him from below. Pressing himself against the hull, he slashed at the beast’s belly with a knife. “I think I saw his entrails hanging out as he swam away,” said Fairfax. But when he landed in Florida two months later, having become the first person to row solo across the Atlantic, a reporter with The Miami Herald questioned his shark-slaying skills. Incensed, Fairfax rented a boat, poured fish blood in the water, and killed another big shark, which he then dumped on the newspaper’s front step.

Born in Italy to an English father and a Bulgarian mother, “Fairfax had a peripatetic youth,” said The Wall Street Journal. He was kicked out of the Boy Scouts for shooting at fellow scouts with a pistol. He and his mother later resettled in Argentina. At 13, Fairfax ran away from home with dreams of living “like Tarzan” in the Amazon. Fairfax soon returned to Buenos Aires, but at 17 set off on another adventure, making his way hundreds of miles into the Paraguayan jungle in a carved-out canoe.

“His mother, hoping he would settle down, found him work managing a mink farm,” said The Washington Post. It didn’t last. He found his way to London, where he made up his mind to follow a childhood dream and row across the Atlantic. Fairfax cast off from the Canary Islands in January 1969. During the six-month journey, he dodged freighters, survived by fishing, and fell overboard just once, he said, as he was trying to open a bottle of scotch.

Two years later he tackled an even bigger challenge, when he and his girlfriend Sylvia Cook became the first people to cross the Pacific in a rowboat. They set off from San Francisco and landed in Australia after a year of rowing. In the early 1980s, Fairfax settled down in Las Vegas, where he made his living at the game of baccarat. “He was a gambler,” said Cook, “and adventure is a form of gambling.”

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