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The Devil Drives

The origins of “the spectacular adventure” are hard to pin down. As a nomadic species that once ranged far and wide, we are now thought to embrace bold journeys because “they’re there”. But that’s only half the truth.

For even in our sedentary lives, much still remains of that “ranging” instinct. For most of us, it will come in the armchair form—wild dreams of scaling mountains, fording rivers or crossing vast swaths of desert on Earth. For others, the lucky few brave enough, they get to live the dream. Either way, whether real or imagined, wanderlust, encoded for millennia, has been hardwired into our DNA.

In 1863, English explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton said it best. When preparing for his perilous journey up the Congo River, he wrote to a friend: “With an infinitesimal prospect of returning, I ask myself ‘Why?’ and the only echo is ‘damned fool . . . the Devil drives!’”

Lone Wolf Characters

What the biographies of great explorers can teach us is that the fire does burn in their souls, an engine driving them (as Burton said) to see and feel and do more. For this elite few, who set out for us, the dream ain’t enough.

Great explorers share in common another rare quality—the lone wolf character. They do not hang around looking for “likes” or “friends”. They do not seek approval, or to belong. Throughout recorded history, they have gazed unflinching at the horizon, and beyond, their “devils driving”, their eyes on but one thing: the prize. Because it’s there, yes, and because of our genes.

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

One “lone wolf” bequeathed to us by history stands above the rest, at least in terms of sheer swagger and audacity.

His name is John Fairfax, who at 74, died just recently, his jaw-dropping feats as an oarsman securing his place in history. He’s the first human being to row solo across any ocean—the Atlantic. And he’s first to row across the Pacific, period.

Odds are, there will never be another like him.

When surveying the life he led it should come as no surprise that he attempted, let alone accomplished, these extraordinary feats. You can draw a straight-line from one act of derring-do to another. He was “extreme” long before the word came into common usage to describe the measure of one’s threshold for risk that can only be called ridiculous. Looking back it’s clear that, in him, the devil did drive.

Got Myself A Gun

Born in 1937 to an English father and Bulgarian mother in Rome, as a 9-year old, Fairfax got the edge in a fight with a fellow Boy Scout by stealing the Scout leader’s pistol and shooting up the woods. No one got hurt, but the stunt ended his Scout career, and certainly burnished his young reputation.

As a 13 year-old, following his parents’ divorce, he moved with his mother to Buenos Aires. There, he read about two hardy Norwegians, Samuelson & Harbo, who in 1896 became the first people row across the Atlantic.

Fairfax, a young “wolf” in training, made his vow to row that same Atlantic alone.

Suicide By Jaguar

It would be almost 20 years before he’d attempt this grand feat, and until then, he would undertake a variety of adventures to test his mettle, and perhaps harden his skin.

First he tried imitating his hero, Tarzan, and at 13, ran away from home to live in the jungle, surviving with locals as a trapper selling jaguar and ocelot skins. Not your typical adolescent rebellion. Some deeper stirrings were driving him.

Seven years later, at the age of 20, Fairfax was at university studying literature and philosophy. Like any college kid, he took some lumps in love, and suffering a broken heart, did what any young man would do: he returned to his beloved jungle to commit suicide by jaguar. No, really.

When a feline predator obliged and attacked, reason finally prevailed, leading Fairfax to turn his pistol on the beast, killing it. The fact that he even carried a pistol to his “suicide” suggests that, as much as he liked living on the edge, he was good at hedging his bets.

This would serve him in good stead later, when he took up high stakes gambling. Not with his life, but for money.

A Sparkling Resume

In Panama, Fairfax takes the next logical step in the adventurer’s career path: he becomes a pirate’s apprentice. Nothing you’d put in your resume, but in smuggling guns, liquor and cigarettes on the high seas he would learn the fine art of navigation, which would give him a critical edge during his two epic ocean crossings.

What led him to ditch pirate school is anyone’s guess, and true to form, he did it in spectacular fashion, fleeing authorities and the pirates on horseback back to Argentina. Some speculate that his mother’s disapproval may have figured in, hinting that even the lonest of wolves can crave a mother’s love.

Rolls Royce of Rowboats

Fairfax next surfaces in swingin’ 60’s London, where he starts to make good on his vow as a 13 year-old to row solo across the Atlantic. He trains daily on the Serpentine, a lake in Hyde Park in the center of London, of all places, about one eight-thousandth the width of Atlantic. He already knew the sea. He just had to get into shape.

On January 28, 1969, almost 20 years after hatching the dream, Fairfax finally pushes off from the Canary Islands for Florida in his Rolls Royce of rowboats created by elite boat designer Uffa Fox. Made of pure mahogany, it was self-righting, self-bailing and party covered. All it needed was someone brave (or loony) enough to man the gunwales.

Battling Madness

Dining on oatmeal, brandy and Spam—a bit incomplete (if not disgusting) by today’s standards—Fairfax had no support boat or chase plane, and only a very unreliable radio. He would fish, and when encountering passing ships, would often board to mooch a meal, water, and a shower. You can bet those sailors saw his “devil driving”.

By his own account, the arduous and lonely days on the Atlantic bred in him a form of madness. He was so desperate for female company he started talking to the planet Venus. Chances are she didn’t talk back.

180 days after setting out, tanned, sinewy (leathery is more like it), tired and 20 pounds lighter, Fairfax made landfall at Hollywood, Florida. “This is bloody stupid,” he said.

The crew of Apollo 11 didn’t think so. Having walked on the moon the day after he completed his “stupid” voyage, they sent him a message of congratulations:

“Yours 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.”

Sharks and Cyclones

Two years later, he was at it again. This time, he took along his “Venus,” girlfriend Sylvia Cook, a competitive rower and part-time secretary who had answered his Classified Ad for help on his first row, and had since become his girlfriend. His new boat, Brittania II, was also a bleeding-edge Uffa Fox design. 36-feet long, it would be large enough to sleep two, yet still, would be less than a micro-dot on the massive and never-before-rowed Pacific Ocean.

Their route from San Francisco to Hayman Island, Australia, took almost a year (361 days) to complete, and was a never-ending string of disasters, which is probably why no one had rowed the Pacific before. The rough seas snapped off their rudder; Fairfax got bitten on the arm by a shark; and in a scene straight out of Homer’s Odyssey, they had to lash themselves to the craft to avoid getting tossed overboard during a cyclone.

Primitive and Raw

Out of radio contact for a considerable period of time, the couple was presumed lost. Despite their unspeakable hardships, Ms. Cook, who took up dry land to become an upholsterer, still speaks fondly of the voyage. She remembers the cool nights, the peacefulness of “the clunking of the rowlocks” and “little splashings of the sea”. If Fairfax did it for madness, the devil driving inside, she by her own account “did it for love.”

Shut Up And Deal

In his next incarnation, Fairfax became a high stakes gambler. His chosen vice was Bacarat (like James Bond), a card game requiring a master’s skill (like sailing), and a fair amount of luck (again, like sailing).

Looking back, surveying how he lived, it’s easy to see that he was always a gambler. A life of adventure requires it. There are no sure bets when you head out, and so much depends on luck.

Fairfax was adamant in choosing rowboats over the sail. He said that almost anyone with a little bit of know-how can sail. “I’m after a battle with nature, primitive and raw”.

In that battle, Lady Luck smiled down on him, in spades.