History’s greatest ocean rowing career started with a classified ad.
It was 1972, and Peter Bird was selling velvet paintings door-to-door, the latest in a string of dead-end jobs he’d held since leaving school at 15. Derek King was the new man on the crew, having answered a newspaper ad cynically targeting the counterculture youth of early 1970s London: “Heads and freaks – daily bread. Call Wendy.”
King called the number and soon found himself puttering up the M1 in a car full of kitschy paintings and longhaired salesmen. Someone asked about his hobbies, and King mentioned that he’d just rowed a small boat around Ireland. Bird nearly skidded off the road.
While the others fanned out to knock doors, Bird steered King into a pub and plied him with questions, not least of which was how he planned to top his Ireland adventure. King replied that he was preparing to row around the world. As a matter of fact, he told Bird, he was looking for partners.
Two years later they shoved off from Gibraltar in a borrowed rowboat. A third partner made it only as far as Casablanca, but for Bird and King it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. One hundred and three days later, they landed on the island of St. Lucia after a voyage of 3,303 miles.
Both of them had had enough of ocean rowing. “By the time we reached the West Indies, the boat was leaking and we were out of everything, including money. So we came back,” Bird told his friend Kenneth Crutchlow in a 1995 interview. “Rowing around the world was Derek’s dream, not mine. I’d never seen myself going all the way with him.”
That should have been the end of Bird’s rowing career, but when he heard that American Patrick Satterlee planned to row the Pacific alone, it unearthed a deep-seated ambition he didn’t know was in him. “I felt kind of deprived,” he said, “as though someone had nicked my opportunity.”
As it happened, Satterlee had borrowed the same boat Bird and King had taken across the Atlantic, the 36-foot Britannia II. The craft belonged to John Fairfax, the pioneering ocean rower and occasional shark wrestler who had rowed it across the Pacific with Sylvia Cook in 1971 and 1972. Satterlee planned a similar route from San Diego to Australia but made it only as far as the 3-mile buoy, where he tied off Britannia II and took a boat back to shore. Disgusted, Fairfax withdrew his support and took Britannia II back to San Francisco. There she sat for two years as Bird worked to raise funds and make her shipshape for a second trans-Pacific voyage.
He launched in October 1980, battling difficult conditions for nearly half a year. On his 147th day at sea, low on food and with a damaged rudder, he capsized in heavy surf off Maui. Britannia II was driven ashore and smashed on the rocks as Bird scrambled to safety. He had covered only about a quarter of his planned route to Australia, and in the process lost his boat and nearly his life. But rather than quit or dial back his ambitions, Bird upped the ante. He decided that the next time he rowed the Pacific, he would go nonstop.
First, he needed a boat. Honolulu boat builder Foo Lim offered to build one at no cost, on the condition that Bird worked with him. The new boat was called Hele-on-Britannia—pidgin for “Carry on, Britannia”—and Bird rowed her out the Golden Gate on August 23, 1982. He spent the next ten months alone at sea, traveling some 6,000 miles with a single resupply. He weathered two cyclones and a capsize between weeks of mind-numbing isolation. After 394 days he arrived at the edge of the Great Barrier Reef in heavy weather, just 33 miles from the Australian mainland. Bird judged that was close enough and accepted a tow from an Australian navy patrol boat.
When a crew member asked why he’d done it, Bird told him, “It’s just an adventure. You don’t have to justify it.” The response recalls Everest mountaineer George Mallory’s famously testy answer to the same question—”because it is there”—and Bird said he always felt a kinship with mountaineers. “I realized that mountain climbers, extreme skiers, and ocean rowers are really the same people with different skills,” he told Crutchlow. “We never ask each other why we are doing what we do. It’s obvious.”
Bird later recalled a conversation with some dock workers who were unloading his boat. “He must be mad to be doing that,” one of them said, not knowing the torpedo-shaped rowboat belonged to the man standing nearby.
“What if he asked you why you lived your life the way you do?” Bird shot back.
The longshoreman sized him up and said, “You’re the bloke who’s rowing, ain’t you?”
By the time he finished his Australia row, Bird had logged 441 days alone at sea and discovered that despite his gregarious nature, he possessed a rare tolerance for solitude. “Bird was not the stereotypical ocean-rowing loner,” wrote Geoff Allum. “He managed somehow to combine a passion for life with an ability to spend months and months alone at sea, without any apparent ill-effect.”
To friends like Allum, it seemed the only enduring consequence of Bird’s journeys was a desire for more. After his Atlantic and Pacific crossings, he was more than halfway to completing Derek King’s dream of rowing around the world. Closing that circle would have pleased sponsors and the press, but Bird chose a tougher and more obscure challenge: To row the Pacific again, in the opposite direction.
A west-to-east crossing meant rowing the volatile North Pacific, from Siberia to San Francisco. Sector, the watch company, came aboard as sponsor, and Bird built a new boat for the northern passage. At 29 feet, Sector Two was smaller than his previous boats and designed to right itself in any conditions. (Sector One belonged to Bird’s friend and rival Gerard d’Aboville, who rowed from Japan to North America in 1991, capsizing 39 times in the process. Crutchlow, the founder of the Ocean Rowing Society International and manager or Bird’s North Pacific expeditions, notes that while d’Aboville was the first to row the North Pacific, he did not start from the Asian continent. “The difference,” he wrote, “was 400 miles and a matter of principle.”)
The boat was made of cedar clad in fiberglass. Bird built it in an East London warehouse where Polly Wickham worked painting sets for a stage production. The two began a relationship, and by the time Sector Two was ready to launch, Polly was pregnant with a son, Louis. Bird had been 27 years old when he rowed the Atlantic with Derek King, and 35 when he started his Pacific crossing to Australia. Now a new father at 45, he was starting the most ambitious ocean-rowing project anyone had yet attempted.
Of the journey’s many challenges, getting clear of the Siberian coast was among the most daunting. Sector Two was designed to weather powerful storms, but without sufficient sea room even a moderate wind could drive her ashore where she, and possibly Bird, would be pummeled to bits. In Vladivostok, meteorologists and local mariners told Bird that if he didn’t leave by the end of May, he would never get out. But the ship carrying Sector Two didn’t arrive until May 28, and a weather window didn’t open until June 5, 1992.
Bird rowed until 10 o’clock that night. By 5 the next morning the wind had pushed him all the way back to Vladivostok. He dropped anchor and waited out the weather—a three-day typhoon—then rowed out to sea again. He bucked headwinds for another two weeks, moving south without ever getting safely clear of the coast, until in a dense fog he passed within 100 yards of a lighthouse marking a nasty clutch of rocks. The currents were pushing him toward North Korea, a mere 20 miles south. That was the end of his first attempt at the North Atlantic, but only the beginning of his obsession with it.
The next year he left earlier, on May 12, enduring extreme cold, snow and ice in a bid to cross the Sea of Japan before contrary winds settled in for the season. A month later he passed between the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido, into the North Pacific proper. He spent much of July making two giant circles in the ocean some 500 miles east of Japan. August and September brought a pair of tropical storms; October more circles. During one 54-day stretch that fall he advanced just 35 miles. In November, almost out of food, a passing cargo ship gave him provisions to last two more months. When they were nearly gone Crutchworth vectored another ship to Bird with more food and an offer to carry him and Sector Two to Japan, where he could start again the following year. Bird declined the offer.
That was Day 208. Bird carried on for another 96 days before finally hailing a ship to carry him to Japan. The 304 days he spent in the North Pacific was a record for solo ocean rowing endurance, but he’d barely made it halfway across. Wrote Crutchworth: “The computer print-out of Peter’s route, with its loops and backtracks, looks like a tangle of yarn. Ten months into an expedition that was supposed to take six months, the end of the yarn was still 2,000 miles from San Francisco.”
Bird tried again in 1995, making two abortive attempts to get clear of the Siberian coast. The next year he returned for his fifth crack at the North Pacific. He swore it would be his last. This time he left even earlier, in late March.
Sixty-nine days later, on June 3, 1996, the Russian Rescue Center received an emergency signal from Sector Two. A few hours later, they found the boat capsized and badly damaged. There was no sign of Bird, and his life jacket and immersion suit were still on board, suggesting that whatever happened was unexpected. The captain of the rescue vessel reported a great many logs in the vicinity, leading some to speculate that a log-laden wave may have swept Bird from his rowing seat.
Crutchworth recalled his first trip with Bird to Siberia in 1992. They were seeking permission to launch from Vladivostok, a stronghold of Russia’s Pacific Fleet. The Soviet Union had collapsed only months before, and the Cold War had yet to fully thaw. “Ivan Abroskin, the vice-mayor, hosted a dinner for us, and he proposed a toast: “Peter, you are like an ice-breaker—you go first so that others may follow.”
Bird was certainly a pioneer. His 1974 crossing from Gibraltar to St. Lucia with Derek King was only the fourth successful Atlantic row. And his 294-day row from San Francisco to Australia in 1982 and 1983 was not only the first solo Pacific row; it was the longest continuous row period—a record superseded by Bird’s own 308-day North Pacific epic in 1993 and 1994, though Bird cared little for such distinctions. “It’s mostly luck or God—if you believe in God—or something outside of yourself that determines how fast you get across,” he said.
Bird spent a total of 938 days at sea in a rowboat, all before GPS and advanced satellite communications fueled a boom in ocean-rowing expeditions. That too was a record, surpassed only recently by Erden Eruç, who has logged one and a half laps of the globe in a rowboat. In 2016, Eruç rowed from California to Hawaii with Louis Bird, who was five years old when his father disappeared. The journey took them a mere 53 days, but gave Louis a sense of the father he barely knew.
“The only place I’ll ever feel close to Peter Bird is out there in the Pacific Ocean,” he said. “It’s like unlocking a door to somewhere I could never get into without taking on something like this.”
Top Photo: Bird arriving Australia after 294 days alone at sea. Wikimedia