Peter's father was a civil servant who worked at the Royal Mint, near the Tower of London. His mother, Joan, remembers that Peter, the third of her four children, loved hanging around the nearby docks. "But he never went in the water and didn't like swimming."
As far back as he could remember, he harboured a fascination with boats. The family would visit his aunt and uncle, who would take the kids for walks along the sea shore. "I remember seeing the house boats and thinking they were wonderful, that they could take you just about anywhere--like a magic carpet! I've always found that a romantic idea."
Growing up near the Thames, he got the chance to indulge that fascination. "London was a thriving port in the fifties," he says. "Ships were coming and going. Tower Bridge was forever being raised for ships. I loved the activity, loved watching the barges and hearing them bang together. I can't imagine children today living near Heathrow Airport and lying on their backs as planes roar overhead, wondering where they are going. Just noisy aluminium making a mess of where they live."
Peter endured Catholic school until he was fifteen, then went to work for an advertising agency. "I did not get along well at school. I consider my education to have begun at age fifteen."
At eighteen, he was working on a goat farm and looking for other work. He answered an ad soliciting applicants for work at a photo-processing lab. The interviewer's last question was, "What are your interests?" Peter thought about it before answering. "Well, I've never had the opportunity, but I've always wanted to go sailing. I love the idea of it."
He started work two days later, and at the end of his first day a photographer who worked upstairs approached him and said, "I understand you'd like to go sailing."
"Yes, I would."
"Well then, you'll crew for me on Saturday, won't you?"
His name was Frank, and he was the husband of the woman who interviewed him. Peter would later marvel that his seemingly off-hand remark could have such an enormous impact on his life. He and Frank hit it off, and Peter began sailing small boats--"dinghy racing," he called it--every weekend for the next several years.
He heard about Sir Francis Chicheste, who at age sixty-five had sailed single-handed around the world. In 1968 he read about the Atlantic rows of John Fairfax and Blyth and Ridgeway. After that, it stirred his blood just to hear their names. Such great sea adventures! "I knew even then I wanted to do something, but I lacked the wherewithal."
In his midtwenties, the age when many adventurers begin adventuring, he was selling velvet paintings door to door. One day he knocked on Derek King's door. King had just rowed around Ireland in a small boat. Peter asked him if he had another project in mind, and he admitted he did. In fact, he was looking for a partner. The project: rowing around the world. Although he was looking for a qualified woman, he liked Peter, admired his size (6'1", 210 pounds) and strength, and before long they were a team.
They added Carol Maystone to the crew, and on March 24, 1974, the three of them set off from Gibraltar in a borrowed boat, John Fairfax's and Sylvia Cook's Britannia II. On the second try, they managed to get through the treacherous currents of the Straits of Gibraltar. It soon became clear, however, that three was a crowd, and Carol got off the boat in Casablanca. One hundred and three days and 3,303 miles later, King and Bird landed on the island of St. Lucia. "By the time we reached the West Indies," said Peter, "the boat was leaking and we were out of everything, including money. So we came back. Rowing around the world was Derek's dream, not mine. I'd never seen myself going all the way with him."
It seemed likely that Peter's rowing career was over. But then he heard that Patrick Saterlee intended to row the Pacific alone, and he was surprised by his reaction. "I felt kind of deprived," he says, "as though someone had nicked my opportunity."
On a holiday soon thereafter, Peter traveled to San Francisco, where he heard Britannia II was stored (Saterlee had quit after three days). He set out to track it down, eventually locating it at the Hyde Street Pier. There on the side of the boat was "British Marketing Enterprises Ltd," my London-based company. That led Peter to call me, which commenced a friendship and business relationship that would last sixteen years.
Hearing that someone intended to row the Pacific solo germinated a seed in Peter. He realized with stunning clarity that that's what he wanted to do. "Each time I finish something, I think it's over. But within a few years, there's another idea. Adventure just creeps in."
In 1980 he set off from San Francisco to row the Pacific alone in Britannia II, which he had again borrowed from John Fairfax. On his 147th day at sea, low on food and with a damaged rudder, Bird capsized in heavy surf off Maui in the Hawaiian Islands. He managed to scramble onto some rocks just before Britannia II was driven onto those same rocks and destroyed.
Honolulu boat builder Foo Lim offered to build Peter a new boat at no charge, as long as Peter helped. He told Peter, "After what we did to Captain Cook (who was killed in the Hawaiian Islands), I guess we owe you one."
Peter decided to row Foo's creation Hele-on-Britannia (Hawaiian for "carry on, Britannia") from San Francisco to Australia, the most ambitious rowing project ever. Feeling that six months was too long a break in continuity, he essentially scrapped his San Francisco-to-Hawaii row and started over. On August 23, 1982, he pushed off into San Francisco Bay. Slicing through the white caps, he struggled beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and out into the gray expanse of the Pacific.
What drove him back to the sea? What was out there for him? Wind and rain and some damn big waves. Reefs and rocks and enough fog and night to hide it all. All in all, a character -builder, the kind of character you find only on mountain tops, in deserts, on battlefields, and across oceans.
After 294 days at sea, having rowed 6,000 miles, endured two hurricanes, one capsize, and one resupply, he found himself in heavy seas one-quarter of a mile from the Great Barrier Reef, 33 miles from the Australian mainland. Fortunately, the warship HMAS Bendigo was in the area and came to his rescue. When a crew member asked the question that is never far from anyone's lips--"Why?"--his answer was front-page news: "It's just an adventure. You don't have to justify it. It's just an adventure."
Later, becalmed in London, he was able to give the matter more thought. "People always want to know why," he said, "and I don't think I've ever had a satisfactory answer for that question. Mostly, I think, 'Why not?' I can't remember a time in my life when I haven't wanted to do one trip or another.
"I suppose it comes down to how you look at your life. I once had a talk with some dock workers who were unloading my boat. Not knowing I was the rower, one of them said, 'He must be mad to be doing that.' I said, 'What if he asked you why you lived your life the way you do? What is it about your life that makes you say that... that makes you so confident that what you're doing is good and right?'
"One of them looked at me and said, 'You're the bloke who's rowing, ain't you? Otherwise you wouldn't have asked that question.'
"So now I had them thinking about it. People believe rowing an ocean is a crazy thing to do, because they don't believe they could do it. In a way it is a crazy thing to do, but if I get one person to look at things different, to try a different beer or back a different horse, then maybe it's worth something.
"Crazy? How about the guy who catches the 7:05 train into London to go to work every morning. Isn't that crazy? To me it is. On the other hand, it's those people who make the world go round. It's not ocean rowers that make the world go round. But they are a voice to be heard."
The Australian press, irked by an exclusive arrangement Peter had with News Ltd., a Rupert Murdock organization, the press chose to portray the Pacific row as a grand failure. "They delighted in tearing it down," says Peter, "in part because the boat was destroyed while under tow, and there was nothing to look at except me standing on the deck of the rescue boat. But in my mind I had rowed the Pacific. I had done six thousand miles and was actually in the Coral Sea when it ended. I knew I had solo-rowed the Pacific one direction, and now it was time to do what no one else had ever done--solo it in the other direction.
After 294 days alone in a rowboat, Peter recovered quickly and settled into a seemingly normal life in London. Superficially, he was happy, but beneath the surface he could feel the volcanic rumblings of boredom. "I just like the sea," he says, trying to explain his inability to sit quietly in his room. "I like the feeling of the boat moving along under me. It's a great feeling."
He could remember a Saturday afternoon when he watched thousands of football supporters stream by his window In Fulham en route to a match. "They were going to sit with 50,000 others on a fine day and watch people kick a ball around. Now, I've nothing against football, but I've never understood that. Why wouldn't they rather go buy their own ball, which couldn't cost much more than one ticket, and kick it around themselves? But they wouldn't. I've never been interested in watching others play sports. You might as well be a voyeur. In fact, I've never really understood why ocean rows are of interest to anyone else."
Peter bought an inexpensive sailboat and entered TransPac, a race from San Francisco to Hawaii. On the third day, the autohelm broke, forcing him to rig lines to create a rudimentary self-steering system that, he says, "worked pretty well most of the time." He finished in twenty-eight days and had a wonderful experience. "It was one of the highlights of my life," he enthused. "Maybe my greatest accomplishment was sailing back in twenty-eight days, no mean feat to those in the know. That race gave me a real sense of accomplishment."
In 1990 he decided to seek money for a row of the northern Pacific--Vladivostock, Russia to North America. The following year, when he heard that Frenchman Gerard d'Aboville was fixing to row the Northern route, he felt that old stab of disappointment again. "I hadn't even raised the money. But then I learned that Gerard was leaving from Japan, and I felt better. I was planning on going continent to continent, which makes a big difference."
The difference was four hundred miles and a matter of principle. After all, the Pacific Ocean, by definition, separates two continents, and therefore a trans-Pacific row, by definition, should be from continent to continent. Although Peter never expressed anything but admiration and respect for Gerard d'Aboville, he believed that starting from Japan was akin to jumping the gun.
A reporter once asked him, "Is there a way to cheat on an ocean row?" He had chuckled at that one. "You must be an American," he said. "The English love failure, and Americans love conspiracies and cheating. Sure, you could stick something up that would make the boat go faster, but why? Who would I be cheating? Only myself. Why would I spend years building a boat and preparing for a row, and then not row? It's not worth it. In the end, you have to live with yourself.
"Speed records mean nothing. I am so pleased by Sector (his sponsor) that they haven't encouraged rowers to break speed records. In fact, they've refused to sponsor rowers trying to cross faster than someone else, and that gives me enormous respect for them. It's mostly luck or God--if you believe in God--or something outside of yourself that determines how fast you get across. If someone tells me they have the fastest crossing of the Atlantic, it means nothing to me."
What always mattered most to Peter was effort. His tone was always one of respect and admiration for his fellow ocean rowers. "I was at an adventurers' film festival in France, when I realized that mountain climbers, extreme skiers, and ocean rowers are really the same people with different skills," he said. "We never ask each other why we are doing what we do. It's obvious."
Returning to ocean rowers, he said, "I owe a lot to Ridgway and Blyth, who made it mentally possible for the rest of us. They let us know rowing an ocean was possible. (Bird believes the 1896 crossing of Harboe and Samuelsen in fifty-six days was bogus.) The most underrated rower was Don Allum, who could sit at the oars forever. More than any of us, he had the ability to row and row and row. He felt he was only really somebody when it came to his voyages. He was proud of them, but otherwise was an amazingly self-deprecating man.
"To row an ocean, you have to be able-bodied and have the will to do it," he says. "And if you're going alone, you have to have the ability to be alone. Some people know they can't be alone that long. Gerard doesn't like being alone, so it spurs him on. As for me, I get into a state where I don't really mind it."
I told him I thought the world record for being alone at sea was about 600 days, by an Australian man who sailed twice around the world. Peter laughed and waved his hand in dismissal. "I wouldn't fancy that at all. It would be too hard in a small rowing boat. You've lost every ounce of spare flesh, there's nothing left of you to give, physically or mentally. Two hundred days seems about right to me. I'm leaving next time with food for three hundred days, but I don't intend to be gone that long."
Although every ocean rower loses weight (he has joked that rowing an ocean could be the next diet craze), Peter believes the mental depletion is more significant. Near the end of a row, he has the mental clarity of a mud puddle. "I'm always very slow. It takes forever to tie a knot or put two sentences together. And if I'm trying to land the boat after hundreds of days at sea, that's when I need my faculties most."
One defense he employs against deteriorating mental acuity is to hold fiercely to a familiar routine. "The irony is, you're out there doing this great adventure, yet you're in the middle of this rigid routine. Get up, eat, row, go to sleep..."
Over the years, Peter discovered that what worked best for him was to row with as few distractions as possible. "I zone out, getting into a timeless Zenlike state," he said. "I rarely listen to tapes, because very time a tape finishes, it's a reminder of passing time. I don't need the reminder. I do sometimes listen to the radio, especially BBC World Service. Spoken words are music to my ears."
In building a vessel for his last great trans-Pacific row, Bird's main concern was stability. His previous ocean experiences had taught him that capsizing was a real problem. French rower Gerard d'Aboville, who completed his crossing of the northern Pacific on November 21, 1991, capsized thirty-nine times in lightweight Sector. Peter knew he had to have a steady, self-righting rowboat.
To design Sector two, Bird commissioned Nic Bailey, a well-known British boat designer. Bailey gained international recognition by designing a trimaran that set a world record for the fastest Atlantic crossing by a 40-foot boat. Bailey was keenly aware of the potential problems a trans-Pacific rowing boat would face.
A long keel, modeled on the Viking longships, created an area under the boat's floor that was subdivided to provide a freshwater storage area. Freshwater tanks--refilled with salt water when empty--would maintain Sector two's stability throughout the voyage.
Sector two's underwater design also enhanced stability. While the long keel provided exceptional directional steadiness, making it easier to stay on course, an Autohelm 2000 helped with steering. The boat's underwater shape minimized Autohelm's work load, conserving precious battery energy for navigation and radio communications. Peter would also be able to steer with a foot-operated tiller.
Sector two's elliptical above-waterline shape offered an efficient, reasonably comfortable living space for months at sea. The egg-like shape is one of nature's strongest forms, offering low wind resistance and enclosing maximum volume with minimal materials.
A water-tight bulkhead divided Peter's living space into two parts, each accessible through water-tight storm hatches. The snug forward cabin was the "dry" zone, containing radio and navigation equipment, along with a tiny bunk. The three-foot-high fore room offered crawling space only.
The boat's aft cabin is the "wet" zone, containing a single-burner stove and stowage for spare oars and for the sea anchors and drogues needed to control the boat in storms. With a two-and-a-half-foot ceiling, there was even less room for a rower in the aft cabin.
The boat was equipped with a solar-powered CML 86 beacon that allowed Service ARGOS in Toulouse, France to track Sector two. The beacon transmitted coded signals to two satellites operated by the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Besides enabling Peter's technical team in California to track his progress, the system also transmitted weather data to Service ARGOS, which distributed it to the scientific community worldwide.
Due to the size of breaking waves, it was inevitable that a boat the size of Sector two would capsize during a trans-Pacific row. Atlantic rowers have lost their lives attempting similar voyages in boats that would not self-right. But the combination of water ballast and cabin-top egg shape gave Sector two a major advantage. In an inverted position, the boat was quite unstable and would self-right immediately.
Sector two was made of cedarwood clad with Nitex (fiberglass) and epoxy resin. It was equipped with an ARGOS satellite position indicator, an ARGOS Adventure Unit with sixteen coded messages, solar panels, and a Magellan GPS (Global Positioning System) navigation antenna. When it was completed, the boat had the following specifications:
Length Overall 29 feet
Length of Waterline 28 feet 4 inches
Draft 1 foot 6 inches
Beam 4 feet 11 inches
Boat weight (empty) 620 pounds
Displacement (loaded) 2200 pounds
On June 6, 1992, Peter Bird left Vladivostok in Sector Two, bound for San Francisco. He told reporters, "I don't like to turn around. I don't like to go in circles. I like to keep going forward. Of course, I don't expect this to be easy. If it were easy, someone would have already done it." Prophetic words those, for after nineteen days of rowing through punishing conditions, he was only fifty miles closer to San Francisco.
On July 18, 1992, with the help of Communications West, Sector's press office in San Francisco, Peter put out a newsletter to his supporters, recounting many of the difficulties he confronted:
For almost one month, in May 1992, I spent my time in Vladivostok, Russia, working on last-minute preparations for the Trans-Pacific row. In addition to locating potable drinking water and loading the boat, a new rudder had to be constructed. I had discovered during sea trials in Maldon, England, that the original rudder didn't have enough bite, and that a larger one would be necessary to steer the boat properly across the Pacific. Subsequent sea trials in Amur Bay proved the days spent building the rudder was time well spent. Sector two handled well. The smooth, low profile, featuring fresh-water ballast tanks along the keel were a great improvement over my previous craft and made a very stable platform in most sea conditions.
The advice from local Russian meteorologists and mariners was that I should depart Vladivostok by the end of May. After this, I was told, the winds were predominantly from the southeast, meaning headwinds all the way through the Sea of Japan. (One sea captain insisted that I leave before May 25th.) Sector two was loaded by May 28, but true to the local weather experts, I had to wait seven more days for favorable weather.
June 5, 1992--departure day. I was prepared to weigh anchor at 10:00 a.m. but was delayed by local border guards who unexpectedly refused permission for departure until the Mayor's office had verified my credentials. It was 3:40 in the afternoon before I finally could leave. I was told to expect at least two days of favorable winds and weather to clear Vladivostok.
As I departed from the Golden Horn, a group of passing school children waved me off. A launch with friends Kenneth Crutchlow and Vanya Rezvoy aboard escorted me the five miles into Ussuriyskiy Bay. It was perfect weather--sunny and warm--with a light westerly breeze helping me out. I rowed until ten o'clock that night, going to bed confident that I was safely on my way.
Whenever near land or shipping lanes, I always set my egg timer alarm for half-hourly intervals, and so it was, at five the next morning, I found that the wind had backed southeast and increased in strength. I set the parachute-anchor. By mid-morning, the wind had increased further, and even with the sea anchor, Sector two was drifting toward land at a rate that would put us ashore in six hours. I decided to head for shelter in the approaches to Vladivostok. After a grueling day of rowing, the winds having increased to a Force 6, I found a sheltered anchorage about a mile south of the harbor. I dropped the hook in thirty feet of water and slept. The trusty egg timer woke me every twenty minutes, as this was very near land!
By 7:00 the next morning, June 7, the wind had shifted to the East and was blowing Force 7 and gusting to 8. Worse still, both anchors were dragging. I headed due west into Amur Bay and anchored just 200 meters from shore. Kenneth could see me from his hotel window, a yellow rowboat amidst 38 assorted freighters, oil tankers, factory ships, and ice breakers--all sheltering from what turned out to be a typhoon. Kenneth informed me that the meteorologists had all stopped work as they had not been paid in three months!
I waited three days, bobbing around in the wind and the rain, watching the lights and listening to the sounds of Vladivostok as it went about its business.
On June 10th, with Ken and Vanya once again on the launch, I rowed down Amur Bay. This time I altered the route and went between the islands of Russkiy and Popova further south. With the help of a 40-knot wind, I soon waved my escort goodbye, and in two days I was well out into Peter the Great Bay. What followed were twelve of the most frustrating days at sea I can remember. On one particularly memorable day, after rowing ten hours, I found through the Magellan GPS readings that I was in exactly the same position I had been 23 hours earlier! Contrary winds, contrary currents, and fog became my nemeses.
On one occasion, I set the sea anchor after a wind shift and was soon overtaken by it! It became impossible to mark each position on the chart and leave it. In two days I would have to erase it to make room for another position. During those twelve days, I made contact with Kenneth only once, On June 12th. After that I could hear him, but he could not hear me. Unfortunately, this was my only source of weather reports.
Finally, on the morning of June 21, in a thick fog, I discovered that Sector two had come within 100 meters of the lighthouse at Mys Gamova. I never saw the lighthouse--I only heard the foghorn. The wind and current from the east was carrying me toward North Korea! Once again I decided to find a safe anchorage. Four hours later I dropped anchor in Bakhtu Troisey (Trinity Bay). I had stumbled onto the perfect anchorage--deserted beaches and wooded hills sloping gently down to clear blue water.
Three days later, on June 24th, I set off once again headed east toward Mys Gamova. I had decided that this would have to be my last attempt this year, as the weather was becoming more established. The wind and current were predominantly from the south and east.
A light southerly wind on Sector two's beam did not slow my progress, and I pointed a little further south. As I neared the headland, the wind backed southeast and increased. I watched as my speed dropped from 2 knots to 1.5, then to 1, down to half a knot, and finally the Tridata read zero. The bow was pushed round by the sea and wind, and as we wallowed for a while in the choppy sea, I realized that it was over for this year.
Sector, true to their "No Limits" philosophy, have told me that they are staying with the project next year. I am embarrassed to say that before I spoke to them about the postponement, I was worried. What would they say? I should have known better. By "No Limits," Sector means exactly that. They have the experience not to be frightened of the problems that can occur with this type of project. I wish on behalf of all people like me that there were more companies like them.
In 1993 Peter was back in Vladivostok to try again. He was committed (some would say obsessed) to rowing the Pacific west to east, the more difficult direction. As the seabird flies, the entire voyage measured 4,719 nautical miles, but currents and winds figured to stretch the trip to 6,000 to 8,000 nautical miles (a nautical mile measures 6,076 feet).
Peter's Pacific route could be viewed as three different segments:
I. From Vladivostok to the Strait of Tsugaru, Japan.
The first leg of Peter Bird's journey, across the Sea of Japan, was particularly dangerous. No person on record had ever successfully rowed alone across these treacherous waters, and Peter struggled against winds and cross-currents that wanted to push Sector two well to the north. He fought extreme cold, snow, and ice while rowing a boat fully laden with 100 gallons of water and a seven-month food supply. One month after departure, on June 12, 1993, Bird reached the Tsugaru Straits and became the first person on record to row solo across the Sea of Japan. Another month of struggle stood between Peter and the Pacific Ocean.
II. From the Japanese coast across the Pacific Ocean
Fighting intense on-shore winds and the effects of a major earthquake and tidal waves, Bird finally rowed clear of Japan's land influence on July 14, 1993. But the next few weeks proved to be even more frustrating for the 46-year-old British rower, as contrary winds and unfriendly currents forced him into two huge circles (fig) about 500 miles off the coast of Japan. "I'm so frustrated that I am not plotting my course anymore," Bird said at the time.
Bird began making progress on August 22, and the next day he passed the 150 degree longitude. But then two severe tropical storms developed in the region, forcing him to battle 15-foot waves and requiring another two weeks of rowing before passing 155 degrees.
September and October were just as unkind to Bird. For the next eight weeks, the weary adventurer battled wind and waves in conditions often so unfavorable that rowing was useless. Sector two was blown in huge circles around the 155th and 156th parallels. In the 54 days after passing 155 degrees (September 7), Bird made just 35 miles of eastward progress.
On November 1, he made radio contact for the first time in two months. In a fuzzy, static-filled message, Bird reported that he was running out of food. The message was relayed to me in California, and Vanya Rezvoy, Tom Lynch and I began frantic efforts to resupply Peter. On November 10, we were given more time when we received word that the Philippine vessel Ocean Trader had happened upon Sector two and dropped Peter a month's worth of food. Not only was he temporarily resupplied but he was making progress. On November 22, Peter's 195th day at sea, he crossed the 168th parallel, putting him a mere 3,300 miles from San Francisco.
With just a few meals left on board, Peter was awakened on the morning of his 208th day by the blaring horn of a container vessel, the Sealand Spirit. I had convinced Captain Klein to intercept Peter and deliver 500 pounds of much-needed food, winter gear, and mail. In early-morning darkness and with the help of favorable sea conditions, they made the delivery by putting everything into a life raft that Peter sank after he unloaded.
Captain Klein offered to haul Peter and his boat to Japan, where he could make another try that same year, 1994. Despite a strong sense that the weather was dead against him, that it was madness to be in the northern Pacific in the winter, his tenacious half held sway and would not let him quit. "You never know, it may get better," the voice said, ignoring the fact that there wasn't another vessel under 20,000 tons within a thousand miles.
Captain Klein would later say, "When I saw Bird, I was overwhelmed with emotion. I thought of an author's quote, 'Man is not made for defeat.'" The line, appropriately enough, is from Ernest Hemingway's novella, "The Old Man and the Sea."
Peter gave Captain Klein some outgoing mail. In a letter to his mother, Peter wrote, "This row is more frustrating than a Bosnian peace negotiation."
After his resupply, the weather improved slightly. At its best, in between storms, the sea sulked and smoked like a chimney. Then it would get worse, as pillaring thunderheads marched toward his boat like an enemy battalion, and the sea rose up and snarled angrily. With frozen resolve, he pushed on. before he was done, he would count twenty-six capsizes.
Although Sector two, was designed to be self-righting, it didn't always bob up like a rubber ducky. Sometimes Peter had to pump several gallons of water into the bilge(?) to help right it. "The longest I was ever upside down was probably two minutes," he said. "The thing about capsizing is that after the first one, it doesn't get any better. The twenty-sixth is just as bad. It's just that they aren't as terrifying after you've had one. Experience reduces the terror. The boat turns over and you're still alive."
By the 304th day--a record for ocean-rowing solitude--he was barely alive. Exhausted, frustrated, and nearly out of provisions again, he decided to call it quits. He was picked up by a log carrier, the Edelweiss, and taken back to Japan. Although he had rowed and drifted about 4,000 miles, he had tallied only 2,851 easterly miles, a dismal average of 9.38 miles per day. 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.
III. The approach to the North American coast
The third leg, which Peter never reached, offers undiminished challenges for an ocean rower. Exhaustion, winter storms, and the Humboldt current would test a rower's strength and endurance. It was a test that Peter Bird longed to take.
And so, in 1995, Bird made another assault on the Pacific, only to be turned back by counterpunching winds and currents. Back home in London in between tries, Bird did no regular physical training, eschewing rowing until it counted. "I already know how to row a boat," he would say, "and there's plenty of time to get fit between Russia and America."
Said Nic Bailey, who designed Sector two: "An endurance event like rowing the Pacific has more to do with your frame of mind than your body."
Ten months alone in a rowboat brought Peter a fair amount of attention. As usual, he faced the press with grace and wit. "Weren't you afraid?" they wanted to know. "I am by no means fearless," he replied. "Fear is God's way of telling you to be alert. If you describe to someone being upside down in the pitch dark, with the deafening roar of waves and water foaming all around, it sounds terrifying. But when you're in the middle of it, you're too busy to be scared.
"Rowing an ocean certainly has an element of risk, but not the level most people imagine. The open sea is seen as so risky, but that's not really where it's dangerous. Approaching land is the worst part. Unlike a sailboat that you can maneuver to the leeward side, rowing boats are not so versatile. You can't row into a strong wind, and sharp rocks and heavy seas can destroy the boat in seconds."
To land lubbers, the greatest risk of the high seas might seem being run over by a ship, and Peter acknowledged the need to be vigilant--because most ships aren't. "The risk is actually greatest in the daytime," he says, "especially in the fog. On today's ships, the bridge is set back, and anyone looking out has to peer through cranes and other equipment. They scan the horizon, but seldom look down. The result is a blind spot of at least three square miles. And if they hit you, they won't even feel the bump."
Peter always had flares at the ready, but his usual defense was to radio the nearby ship and apprise her of his position. He would then ask the operator to relay his message to other ships in the area. "Once they know you're there, sailors are very nice and helpful. They seem to like the idea of someone rowing the ocean."
"Did you eat fish?" a reporter asked.
"I tried fishing but gave it up. It was a case of, we are both out here in the middle of nowhere, we are both in this together, so what right did I have to kill him?"
As I spoke to Peter in early 1995, his son Louis, who was three and a half, toddled into the room. Gesturing affectionately toward the little boy, Peter said, "I miss him terribly when I'm at sea. It's a new dimension. I met Polly when she was painting a backdrop for a stage play while I was building my boat in the same workshop. So the whole reason Louis is even around is the row. That's how I justify the next trip.
"If Louis comes to me someday and says he wants to row an ocean, I'll lie to him and say, 'Of course you can, son,' and then I'll put so many conditions on it, it will be the hardest thing he ever did. He'll never get out of port. Because I know if I say no, nothing will stop him."
Peter always believed in what he called "Sod's Law," which roughly means "Bad things are bound to happen." But now seated in his London apartment, tickling a glass of beer, he has a different view. "It hasn't always been so bad. When I think about all the days I have safely passed at sea, I feel pretty lucky. I haven't always finished, but here I am alive and well."
He made several more starts in June 1995, in each case lasting a day or less, rowing a few frustrating miles before deciding that conditions conspired against success.
Demonstrating a perseverance maybe unsurpassed in the annals of sport, Peter returned to Vladivostock in March 1996 for his fifth, and what he said was his last, attempt to row the Pacific east to west. Since Peter's original design, the boat had been improved, and it handled better than ever. Peter left Vladivostock brimming with confidence.
Although the going was tough, with foul headwinds and pelting rain, Peter pressed on. Averaging more than twenty miles per day, he was having his best row yet.
On June 3, 1996, Peter's sixty-ninth day at sea, the Russian Rescue Center picked up an emergency signal from Sector Two. A few hours later, they found the boat capsized and badly damaged. There was no sign of Peter. His life jacket and immersion suit were still on board, suggesting that whatever happened was unexpected. When the captain of the rescue ship reported seeing numerous logs in the vicinity, many people speculated that it was a log-laden wave that did him in.
Two and a half weeks later, after the shock had subsided somewhat, I sent my last newsletter to the friends and supporters of Peter Bird:
London, June 20, 1996
Since the adventure began, I have been sending you from time to time a newsletter updating the progress of Peter. It is with great regret that I send you the latest and last update on Peter Kevin Bird.
On June 2nd, a series of events occurred that resulted in Peter being separated from Sector Two. He has now been declared "dead presumed lost at sea."
I received a phone call from the U.S. Coast Guard at 4:00 p.m. June 3rd local time, telling me that the Sector Two was "capsized and there was no sign of the crew." .... Everything that could be done was done. From the time the United Airlines jet first picked up the distress signal to the time a rescue effort was mounted was very brief.
Since that call, my phone has hardly stopped ringing. I have fielded calls from the press and from Peter's friends in Australia, Russia, America, and the UK. Peter was loved by many; it is amazing just how many lives he touched. I remember when Peter and I were on our first trip together to Vladivostok in 1992, trying to get permission for Peter to leave from there. 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."
I think Ivan got it right. I traveled with Peter all over the world, it was my privilege to have done so, and I will always remember Peter as a good friend.
While we were in Russia, we always made the third toast "to the men at sea." I can tell you that for the rest of my life, I will always make the third toast and be thinking of Peter.
I close now by saying, Peter, may your soul rest in peace forever. Good-bye.
For four days after Peter's boat was found capsized, Polly held out slim hope for his survival. Maybe he was on a raft...or in the immersion suit. Finally, with all hope gone, she knew she had to tell Louis. "He knew something was up because family, friends, and flowers keep pouring into our flat," says Polly. So I told him about the log and that his daddy wasn't coming back. My sister was with me, and we were crying. Louis tried to cry too, but he couldn't."
Louis's first thought was of the trip to Disneyland that his father had promised on his return. 'I want my daddy back,' he said. Then he said he wanted to go to nursery school as normal.
After telling the teachers, he was back home an hour later. "Now he seems to have accepted it," says Polly. "He picks up the phone and tells people, 'No, you can't speak to my daddy--he's dead.' He's been on the manic side, a bit aggressive, but at least he's letting it out."
Polly Wickham had known Peter through his last four attempts on the Pacific. She had long learned to live with the absences, and the fear. Though she was well aware of the risks, she never imagined the worst would happen. "It was a great shock. Peter was so skilled and so confident of his boat that it didn't seem possible."
They had met in a warehouse in East London, where she was painting sets and he was building his boat. For a year, she snuck glances at the man and his boat, liking what she saw. "The boat was a beautiful object and I watched it grow. But it was so difficult to understand why this charming, funny, ordinary man would row alone for months.
Peter was forty-two when they met, a bespectacled, wavy-haired, footloose bachelor. He'd had girlfriends but no serious ties. As for Polly, she didn't give much thought to what it would be like living with an ocean rower. "I didn't think it would be as difficult as it was. Before he left each time, he would get very twitchy."
He avoided talking to her about the rowing. In fact, she says, he avoided emotional topics as he avoided a 9 to 5 job. "But he had great charm," she adds, deep in fond remembrance. "He was strong and good-looking and when he came into a room, it would light up. He loved eating and drinking and seeing people. He had an enthusiasm that was infectious. It's amazing to live with someone who knows where they are going and works hard for it."
When Polly became pregnant with Louis, Peter was overjoyed. He brought his meager possessions and moved into Polly's flat in west London. During the pregnancy, however, he became very nervous about the prospect of marriage. Polly says, "I think it was the fear of having to stop what he wanted to do. He never wanted anyone else to be responsible for what he was doing. So he had to keep you at arm's length."
Whatever problems Peter and Polly had, Peter remained a caring father. "I am doing it all for Louis," he would say, but Polly didn't buy that. "No, he was doing it for himself," she says. "He didn't think Louis would want him to give it up. He felt his son would respect him for it."
Whether or not Louis understood, he seemed to feel close to his father despite the long absences. He was three when Peter returned from his 304-day voyage, yet he ran straight into his arms. Says Polly, "I put pictures of Peter all around his cot to help him."
Indeed, the flat is still covered with them. And Louis still plays with a model of Sector Two. Polly recently found him listening to a tape of Peter talking from Vladivostok before his last journey.
Three times in the month before he died, Peter spoke to Polly on the radio. But bad reception made it frustrating for both of them. "You had to speak in turns, with 'over' and 'out' in between," says Polly. "I'd always be talking over the top of him and forgetting what I meant to say." Peter did a lot of the talking, but he never discussed what he was going through, perhaps because it was such hell. Instead, he solicitously asked questions about his family's welfare. "He would worry about our safety and give me bits of advice. He found giving advice easier than figuring out what to do with his own life."
It wasn't until she saw a videotape that he made at sea that she really gained some insight into the rowing side of Peter. She was able to see the cramped, unpleasant existence he endured for months on end. The continual bouncing up and down in a capsule about the size of a family car, so close to the surface of the water that he could see little through his spray-splattered glasses. His movements were confined to rowing--usually eight hours a day--and slithering from his rowing position to the reading and sleeping tube. His only entertainment was the BBC, taped music, postcards of green countryside, photographs, and books. His back ached, and his legs ballooned from never being able to stand. Living on dried astronaut food, he had lost twenty pounds. He smelled appallingly bad, tossing reeking T-shirts into the sea when he could bear the smell no longer.
More than his physical deterioration, Polly was struck by his pitiful mental state. "The man in the video was so down, so much smaller and less confident than the Peter I knew."
Figuring she still knew him better than anyone, I asked her why he did it. And did it. And did it. Why does a gregarious man who had no driving interest in keeping fit, loathed the sun, and wasn't particularly fond of rowing voluntarily endure such privation and abuse? Polly is as mystified as anyone. "I tried to be understanding, but I didn't really succeed. It was like a drug to him. Breaking records wasn't important. I can only imagine that it was banging your head against a wall, that it was wonderful when the pain was over. He would come back so happy to have a hamburger and a beer. And for a while, he would be full of good intentions about starting something different."
She never stopped hoping that one day he would get it out of his system and settle down. But she knew he had to defeat the Pacific first. She pauses, thinks about it, and changes course. "Even if he had made it the last time, I don't think he would have stopped. He had been talking of the Indian Ocean."