The first documented ocean row was by Norwegians Frank Samuelson and George Harbo who rowed the North Atlantic in 1896. Their crossing from New York to the Isles of Scilly took 55 days and still stands as a remarkable achievement given the equipment and technology available to them at the time.
The next successful ocean row was not for another 70 years, when in 1966 John Ridgway and Chay Blyth crossed the North Atlantic in English Rose III. Chay Blythe later went on to form the challenge business amongst other ocean based events, he created the first ocean rowing race from the Canaries to the Caribbean.
John Fairfax having read of Chay Blyth and John Ridgway’s Atlantic row set about planning the first solo ocean rower. It took him 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 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:
From the Apollo 11 Astronauts
To John Fairfax:
May we of Apollo 11 add our sincere congratulations to the many you have undoubtedly already received for your bold and courageous feat of rowing alone across the Atlantic. We who sail what President Kennedy once called “The new ocean of space” are pleased to pay our respects to the man who, single handedly, has conquered the still formidable ocean of water. We find it an interesting coincidence that you completed your arduous voyage here on earth at a spot very near the one from which we started our voyage to the moon. And that you arrived at your destination quite near the time that we reached ours. 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.
The Apollo 11 Astronauts
Edwin A Aldrin Jr.
Two years later in 1971 he set off with Sylvia Cook from San Francisco in an attempt to row across the Pacific. 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.
There are 12 rows that are considered “historic” by the Ocean Rowing Society, these rows were carried out without water makers, GPS, EPIRBS, life rafts or Satellite phones.
To date across all oceans there have been 393 successful Ocean crossings, 231 unsuccessful attempts. Seven lives have been lost to the sport of ocean rowing. This is a reminder that the crossings present real risks and great attention needs to be paid to the smallest details when preparing for the challenge.
The vast majority of ocean rows have been across the Atlantic, whereas there have only been 9 successful and 7 unsuccessful Pacific ocean rows. Some of those Pacific crossings were completed in “legs”, over multiple years, whereas other were confined to the southern hemisphere. The solo rower who got closest to completing the North America to Australia route non-stop was Peter Bird in 1983. After 294 days he was rescued in the Coral Sea.
To put the achievement of rowing an ocean into perspective; until a few years ago, more people had been to space than had rowed an ocean, and when comparing the achievement to climbing considered by many the ultimate challenge, At the end of the 2010 climbing season, 3,142 different climbers had completed a total of over 5,100 an ascent of Everest, dwarfing the number of adventurers that have rowed an ocean.