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
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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.