Rower Peter Bird: It’s just a fairy tale. You don’t have to justify it

The greatest Havro career in history 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 had 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 quickly found himself setting up the M1 in a car full of kitschy paintings and long-haired salesmen. Someone asked about his hobbies and King mentioned that he had just rowed a small boat around Ireland. The bird almost slipped off the road.

As the others fanned out to knock on doors, Bird King steered into a pub and asked him questions, not the least of which was how he planned to top off his Irish adventure. King replied that he was preparing to row around the world. In fact, he told Bird he was looking for partners.

Two years later they shot from Gibraltar in a borrowed rowing boat. A third partner only made it 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 journey of 3,303 miles.

Both of them had had enough of rowing. “When we got to 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 never saw myself going all the way with him.”

Bird training (right) in London with Derek King and Carol Maystone, who left the expedition after 10 days. Wikimedia

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 revealed a deep-seated ambition he didn’t know was in him. “I felt a little deprived,” he said, “like someone had taken 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 vessel belonged to John Fairfax, the pioneering ocean rower and occasional shark breaker 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 only made it as far as the 3-mile buoy where he tied off Britannia II and took a boat back to the shore. Disgusted, Fairfax withdrew his support and took Britannia II back to San Francisco. There she sat for two years while Bird worked to raise money and make her ship shape for another voyage across the Pacific.

He launched in October 1980 and struggled with difficult conditions for almost 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 only covered about a quarter of his planned route to Australia, losing his boat and almost his life in the process. But rather than quit or scale back his ambitions, Bird upped the ante. He decided that the next time he rowed the Pacific, he would go non-stop.

First he needed a boat. Honolulu boat builder Foo Lim offered to build one at no cost on the condition that Bird work with him. The new boat was called Whole-on-Britannia-pidgin for “Carry on, Britannia” – and Bird rowed her out of the Golden Gate on August 23, 1982. He spent the next ten months alone at sea, traveling about 6,000 miles on a single supply. 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 rough weather, just 33 miles from the Australian mainland. Bird judged it close enough and accepted a tow from an Australian naval patrol boat.

The book Bird wrote with King, and and celebrates Christmas on board Whole-on-Britannia. Screenshot from Calm Pacific Ocean

When a crew member asked why he had done it, Bird told him, “It’s just an adventure. You don’t have to justify it.” The answer is reminiscent of Everest mountaineer George Mallory’s famously tested answer to the same question – ‘because it’s there’ – and Bird said he always felt a kinship with mountaineers. “I realized that mountain climbers, extreme skiers and ocean rowers really are the same people with different skills,” he told Crutchlow. “We never ask each other why we do what we do. That is clear.”

Bird later recalled a conversation with some dock workers who were unloading his boat. “He must be mad to do that,” said one of them, not knowing that 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 one who’s rowing, aren’t you?”

By the time he finished his Australia streak, Bird had logged 441 days alone at sea and discovered that despite his sociable nature, he possessed a rare tolerance for solitude. “Bird was not the stereotypical sea-rowing loner,” wrote Geoff Allum. “He somehow managed to combine a passion for life with an ability to spend months and months alone at sea with no apparent ill effect.”

For friends like Allum, it seemed the only lasting consequence of Bird’s journey 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: Rowing 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 on board as a 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 all conditions. (Sector 1 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 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.”)

Bird on Sector Two, the boat he built and spent 10 months aboard in the North Pacific. Wikimedia

The boat was made of cedar covered with fiberglass. Bird built it in an East London warehouse where Polly Wickham was working on painting sets for a stage production. The two began a relationship, and at that time Sector two was ready for launch, Polly was pregnant with a son, Louis. Bird was 27 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 embarked on 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 terrifying. Sector two was designed to handle heavy storms, but without sufficient sea space, even a moderate wind could drive her ashore where she, and possibly Bird, would be smashed to pieces. In Vladivostok, meteorologists and local sailors told Bird that if he did not leave by the end of May, he would never get out. But the ship carries Sector two did not arrive until 28 May and a weather window did not open until 5 June 1992.

Bird rowed until 10 o’clock that night. By 5 o’clock the next morning the wind had pushed him all the way back to Vladivostok. He dropped anchor and waited for the weather—a three-day typhoon—then rowed out to sea again. He braved headwinds for another two weeks and moved south without ever getting safely clear of the coast until, in a thick fog, he passed within 100 yards of a lighthouse that marked a nasty itch of rock. The currents pushed him toward North Korea, just 20 miles south. It was the end of his first attempt at the North Atlantic, but only the beginning of his obsession with it.

The next year he set out earlier, on 12 May, enduring extreme cold, snow and ice in an attempt to cross the Sea of ​​Japan before contrary winds set in for the season. A month later he passed between the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido into the North Pacific Ocean proper. He spent most of July making two giant circles in the ocean about 500 miles east of Japan. August and September brought a few tropical storms; October several circles. During a 54-day stretch that fall, he advanced only 35 miles. In November, almost out of food, a passing freighter gave him provisions to last two more months. When they were almost gone, Crutchworth sent 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.

It was day 208. Bird continued for another 96 days before finally hailing a ship to transport him to Japan. The 304 days he spent in the North Pacific was a record for solo rowing endurance, but he was barely halfway there. Wrote Crutchworth: “The computer printout of Peter’s route, with its loops and switchbacks, 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 unsuccessful 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, at the end of March.

69 days later, on June 3, 1996, the Russian rescue center received a distress 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 life suit were still on board, suggesting that whatever happened was unexpected. The captain of the rescue vessel reported a great many logs nearby, leading some to speculate that a log-laden wave may have swept Bird from his helm seat.

Bird on board HMAS Bendigo after the warship plucked him from the Pacific Ocean near the Great Barrier Reef. Screenshot from Calm Pacific Ocean

Crutchworth recalled his first trip with Bird to Siberia in 1992. They sought 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 not yet fully thawed. “Ivan Abroskin, the deputy mayor, hosted a dinner for us and he proposed a toast: ‘Peter, you’re like an icebreaker – you go first so others can follow.’

Bird was certainly a pioneer. His 1974 crossing from Gibraltar to St. Lucia with Derek King was only the fourth successful Atlantic series. And his 294-day streak from San Francisco to Australia in 1982 and 1983 was not only the first solo Pacific streak; it was the longest consecutive streak—a record superseded by Bird’s own 308-day North Pacific epic in 1993 and 1994, though Bird didn’t much care for such accolades. “It’s mostly luck or God — if you believe in God — or something outside of yourself that determines how quickly you get over,” 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 havro expeditions. It was also a record that was only recently surpassed Erden Eruç, who has logged one and a half laps of the globe in a rowing boat. In 2016, Eruç rowed from California to Hawaii with Louis Bird, who was five years old when his father disappeared. The journey took them only 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,” he said. “It’s like unlocking a door to a place I could never enter without taking on something like this.”

Top photo: Bird arrives in Australia after 294 days alone at sea. Wikimedia

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