THE TERM lone venturer suited Don Allum perfectly. He was a shy, unpretentious man whose modesty marked down his own achievements as the first man to row the Atlantic in both directions.
On leaving school at the age of 17, Allum joined the merchant marine as a steward. The next seven years were spent serving on P & O liners, mostly in the Far East. In 1960 he was called for National Service and enlisted as a private with the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Green Jackets (King's Royal Rifle Corps). Although he turned down the opportunity for officer training, saying he did not want responsibility, army life suited him and he stayed with the Green Jackets for nine years, serving in Penang, Munster and Berlin. He was a private when he left the Army in 1969.
He did not fit into civilian life easily and for the next two years drifted from job to job, often in the building trade and nearly always unskilled. In 1969 his young cousin Geoff Allum confided in him that he wanted to be the first man to row the Atlantic alone. Days later the news broke that John Fairfax had completed a solo row east to west across the Atlantic. A few days after that, more news: Tom McLean had completed a very fast solo row across the Atlantic, the 'cold route', west to east in 70 days. Perhaps it was knowing about McLean's military background that fired his imagination. He immediately suggested to Geoff that they row the Atlantic together, both ways.
On 26 March 1971, after 73 days at sea, they rowed their boat, the dory QE3, into Harrison Point in Barbados. At last Don had found, quite by chance, a direction for his life. While the relationship between the cousins was close it was Geoff Allum who bought the boat, fitted out and provisioned her. It was Geoff who learnt to navigate and knew how many tins of sausage and beans were on board. But at sea Don came into his own; he was tough and tenacious and once engaged on a project, only at the last would he ever let go.
With the first part of the 'both ways' project successfully completed, the next voyage, in June 1972, was from St John's, Newfoundland, across the Atlantic to the west coast of Ireland. It started well enough but after three days Geoff was taken off by a passing oiltanker suffering from hypothermia and chronic seasickness. Don carried on; Geoff tells of seeing this small figure waving to him from QE3 before he was swallowed up by the fog. Don carried on for 76 days in freezing conditions. For 36 days he had head winds and was pushed back towards Newfoundland. On the night of the 75th day, QE3 was swamped by a large wave. He lost the oars, most of his food and all his spare clothes. He had disobeyed one of the fundamental rules of the sea, 'If it moves tie it down.' Luckily for him he was picked up the next day by a passing ship.
After a break of 14 years, and at the age of 48, Don Allum set off in 1986, again from the Canary Islands, to row the Atlantic, this time alone. He had planned for 100 days at sea, but after 60 the weather became calmer and hotter, bringing with it the big problem for rowers on this route - thirst. He decided not to ration himself, and so weaken himself, but to push on and get there before his water ran out. He ran out completely on day 101. On day 107, thinking he might not make it, he wrote a poignant last letter to his family. On the 113th day, with his hearing and eyesight failing, he landed on the island of Nevis; he had lost six stone in weight. The physical effects of that voyage stayed with him for the rest of his life.
In June 1987 Allum set off on his last voyage and in September arrived at Dooagh on Achill Island, County Mayo, in Ireland. It had been a tough voyage for a 49-year-old, but he was the first person to row the Atlantic both ways.
After the excitement died down and Don Allum had returned to his flat in Heston, west London, Geoff Allum got him a job as night watchman at the advertising agency where he worked. It suited him well, he had a degree of notoriety around the agency for his exploits and would with a little push recount them. He was proud of his achievements; they gave him the means to express himself. In the last few months of his life the privations of the 1986 crossing returned and he suffered ill-health.
Don Allum never did learn to navigate in the conventional way, rather he used a small AM radio as a direction-finder, and dead reckoning. During the 1986 trip he forgot to take any charts and made a chart from memory. Using this and his radio he navigated his way across the ocean.
He was a fatalist, and lived by a remark of Captain Scott, 'We took risks, we knew we took risks and things came out against us. Therefore we have no cause for complaint.'