John Fairfax was a British ocean rower and adventurer who, in 1969, became the first person to row solo across an ocean. He subsequently went on to become the first to row the Pacific (with Sylvia Cook) in 1971/2.
Fairfax was born 21 May 1937 in Italy to an English father and Bulgarian mother. As a child he was expelled from the Italian Boy Scouts for opening fire, with a revolver, on a hut containing other Scouts. Soon after, he and his mother moved to Argentina where, aged thirteen, he left home to live in the jungle "like Tarzan", surviving by hunting and bartering skins with local peasants. Also as a teenager, he read of Frank Samuelsen and George Harbo's famous row across the Atlantic Ocean (then the only ocean to have been rowed) and knew that someday he would row across the Atlantic.
In 1959 he flew to New York and drove across America to San Francisco. When he ran out of money, Fairfax decided to return to his mother in Argentina by bike. He got as far as Guatemala and then hitchhiked on to Panama. After a brief spell as a sailor on a Colombian boat he returned to Panama where he fell in with pirates and ended up spending three years smuggling guns, whiskey and cigarettes. After a dramatic escape from the pirates and the authorities, he returned to Argentina on horseback.
Back in Argentina he first read of Chay Blyth and John Ridgway’s successful row across the Atlantic and realised that if he wanted to be the first person to row solo across the Atlantic he would have to do it soon.
After returning to England it took Fairfax two years to prepare for the row. On 19 July 1969 he became the first person to row solo across an ocean when he arrived in Florida having set off from the Canary Islands. The self-righting and self-bailing boat was designed by Uffa Fox. 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."
Two years later in 1971 he set off with Sylvia Cook from San Francisco in an attempt to row across the Pacific Ocean. Cook had replied to a personal ad that Fairfax had put in The Times when looking for support for his first row. The pair arrived at Hayman Island in Australia 361 days later, in the process becoming the first people to row across the Pacific, and Cook becoming the first woman to row across an ocean.
He was featured on the UK This Is Your Life in January 1970. He and his wife moved to Las Vegas in 1992 after a hurricane hit Florida.
Fairfax died on 8 February 2012, at the age of 74 in Henderson, Nevada.