The pensioner next door who rowed across an ocean for love

The death of the swashbuckling adventurer John Fairfax has stirred memories in Sylvia Cook - of their record-breaking Pacific voyage, and of a love affair that hit the rocks. Simon Usborne reports

At the Leatherhead branch of B&Q, on the edge of the M25 in Surrey, staff have no idea that Sylvia, who works in the back office, was the first woman to row across an ocean.

Nor do they know that, stuffed in a plastic bag at her home, she keeps a fragment of the boat she shared with her lover, a forgotten British adventurer and former pirate, gun smuggler and hunter who once tried to commit suicide-by-jaguar.

“Why would I tell them?“ asks Sylvia Cook, 73, over tea in her mock Tudor semi near Epsom. ”I don't ask them what they did 40 years ago“.

Cook’s colleagues and all but her closest friends are only now discovering her extraordinary past. In 1972, when Cook was 33, she rowed across the Pacific with John Fairfax, a pipe-smoking, shark-wrestling rogue who was as dashing as he was daring. On 8 February, Fairfax died at his home near Las Vegas, aged 74. His obituaries read like the chapters of a Graham Greene thriller. Aged nine, he shot up his scout camp with a pistol after an argument. His heart broken by a girl at 20, he trekked into the Amazon jungle to offer himself to jaguars (but then shot dead his would-be attacker). Later, he became apprenticed to a pirate in Panama and made a million dollars smuggling guns and whiskey.

These stories, not all of which were known when Fairfax found fleeting fame in the early 70s, have captivated a generation of readers too young to remember his exploits. They have also stirred forgotten feelings in a woman whose quiet existence in a Surrey suburb could not be further removed from life on the high seas.

Sylvia Cook grew up in middle class comfort, the daughter of a teacher and a secretary, in the suburban house to which she has now returned. She rowed for a club but says her only adventures were the playground spy games she played with school friends. In her late 20s, freed from a short-lived, “lousy” marriage, she was working as a secretary in London and looking for excitement. “I felt I’d had life too cushy,” she says. “I hadn’t done anything physically challenging.”

Meanwhile, John Fairfax, the only child of an English father and a Bulgarian mother, needed help planning his first expedition. He placed an advert in the Times newspaper. Six people responded, including Cook, who offered to help with paperwork. The pair soon fell in love but in 1969, Fairfax set off from the Canary Islands to become the first lone oarsman to row across an ocean. Fuelled by Spam and Horlicks, and guided by his wits and the sun, he completed an historic crossing of the Atlantic two days after man had first set foot on the Moon. Cook was there to meet him on Miami Beach, alongside dozens of journalists, having spoken to him no more than once a fortnight via his temperamental radio. Loneliness had driven Fairfax slowly mad and he decided that for his next expedition, to cross the Pacific, Cook would come with him. Despite fractures that had already begun to open in their relationship (Cook wanted to settle and have children: Fairfax abhorred the idea) she agreed to join him.

Their voyage, from San Francisco to Queensland in eastern Australia, included three brief emergency stops and took them 361 days. Cook rowed for five hours a day, and Fairfax for ten, often with his pipe clenched between his teeth. They were rocked by storms and fried under the sun but found themselves in greatest peril with about 700 miles of their 8,000-mile odyssey to go. Fairfax had dived into the sea to catch a shark. After a few minutes, Cook recalls, “He came alongside dragging this thing and said, ‘pass me the knife darling so I can slit this little bugger’s belly open.’ The next thing I knew there was a great thrashing and when Johnny got in the boat he was totally ashen. He had an enormous gash on his arm.” Cook dressed the wound, a gruesome photo of which appears in the book the couple later wrote, “Oars across the Pacific”, and would have to complete the rest of the rowing by herself. Then came Cyclone Emily. “We couldn’t row, we couldn’t stand up, we just lashed ourselves to the boat and stayed there in a huddle,” Cook recalls. “It was like being on the South Downs if you can imagine them moving and bearing down on you, hissing at you with great streaks of white foam. The rain just cut you it was so fierce.”

In calmer waters, the voyage had been boring and thrilling in turns. “We entertained ourselves with fish,” Cook says. “Dorados would follow us for days so closely you could touch them. At one time we named two puffer fish Pinky and Perky.” Cook had been a good rower but she was afraid of the sea and would only swim once during the year-long voyage. “It was amazing,” she recalls. “It was a very calm day and you saw this enormous prism of water going down and down, deeper and deeper. I’d been out of the boat about 20 minutes and a huge school of dolphins came round. Then we saw sharks and I thought, right, no more swimming.”

Cyclone Emily knocked out Britannia’s radio and for a time the couple were presumed lost. They arrived at the jetty of a hotel on Hayman Island, off the coast of Queensland, to be met only by a bemused Japanese tourist with a camera. They later found fame; their boat was exhibited in San Francisco, and they would meet Prince Charles and drink with David Frost and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Cook was named the “First Lady of Oceanrowing” and remains one of only three women who have ever crossed the Pacific by the power of her arms.

But then the winds changed and the couple’s greatest challenge became steering their relationship away from the rocks. It faltered during a doomed attempt to salvage lead ingots from a shipwreck Fairfax had spotted during their voyage. Their priorities diverged and Cook eventually left Fairfax. She returned to London after getting pregnant with a son by a Mexican boatswain she had met during the ingots expedition.

Cook, who now lives alone, would remain friends with Fairfax, or Johnny, as she calls him, until just weeks before his death of heart problems. He had gone on to make a ruinous career as a baccarat player, and married Tiffany, an American astrologer. In 2007, he flew to London for a reunion dinner for ocean rowers. It was his and Cook’s first meeting since she had left America, and it would be their last. Fairfax met Cook’s son, Martin, who is now 32 and works in retail. “Martin told me later that Johnny was the most fascinating man he’d ever met and he could quite see why I hadn’t settled for anyone else,” Cooks says. Does she feel the same way? “I didn’t consciously think that but, in retrospect, I think, yes, he has been the yardstick by which all others are measured. He wasn’t perfect, he was deeply flawed, but he was so charming and fascinating.”

Motherhood changed Cook. Contact with Johnny - they exchanged emails until weeks before his death - was the last living link to what Cook now describes as a different woman. “It sometimes feels like a book I’ve read,” she says of her story. “When I got pregnant, I closed that chapter in my life.” Cook began a new career as an upholsterer and taught the trade in London for 20 years before retiring. Soon bored, and living again in Surrey, she updated her CV, whose only hint of her past is a line which says she “co-authored a travel book”. She found part-time work at B&Q, where her story has remained untold. “I have to know somebody really well to tell them, otherwise it’s kind of a conversation killer, isn’t it,” she says. ”It doesn’t come up and I don’t introduce it.”

Outside of work, Cook reads, watches television and enjoys the opera. When she flicks through the pages of her book, or runs her hands over the mahogany and fibre glass remnant of Britannia II, does she not still yearn for adventure? “Hmm, what else have I done,” she asks herself. She thinks, giggles, and then recounts the time, a few years ago, when after a holiday to see the Pyramids she accidentally married a 23-year-old Egyptian man. “That was a bit crazy, I suppose,” she says, before getting up to go and make another round of tea.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event
filmBut why were Back to the Future screenings cancelled?
News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Lewis Hamilton walks back to the pit lane with his Mercedes burning in the background
Formula 1
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con
comic-con 2014
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
News
i100
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Commercial Litigation

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - SENIOR COMMERCIAL LITIGATION SO...

BI Developer - Sheffield - £35,000 ~ £40,000 DOE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Day In a Page

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride