Great Expeditions: Peter Bird Rows the Pacific

In 1983, Peter Bird became the first person to row alone across the Pacific from east to west. It took him an astonishing 294 days to cover the 10,000km between San Francisco and Australia. At the time, it was the longest non-stop row ever.

Born in Britain in 1947, Bird had been fascinated by boats since boyhood. His mother tells of young Peter sitting at the edge of the Thames and watching with wonder when they raised Tower Bridge for ships to pass underneath. London’s busy port stoked his imagination.

“I remember seeing the houseboats and thinking they were wonderful, that they could take you just about anywhere — like a magic carpet!” he recalled.

At first, Bird was interested in sailing. Then in 1972, while selling paintings door to door, he happened to knock on Derek King’s house. King had recently returned from rowing around Ireland in a small boat. Feeling curiously inspired, Bird asked King what he planned next. Before long, the pair were launching an around-the-world voyage together.

They left Gibraltar in March 1974 in a borrowed boat. They were at sea for 103 days when they managed to reach the island of St Lucia, their boat leaking badly. They aborted the rest of the expedition.

“By the time we reached the West Indies,” said Bird, “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.”

But Bird’s obsession had awakened. He learned that a man named Patrick Saterlee intended to row the Pacific alone, and “I felt deprived, as though someone had nicked my opportunity,” Bird recalled. Already, he wanted to be the first man to row the Pacific solo.

Patrick Saterlee gave up his Pacific crossing after just three days, and his boat became available to Bird. Photo:


Fortunately for Bird, Saterlee gave up after just three days at sea. Saterlee’s boat, the Britannia II, was the same one that he and King had used in 1974. After Saterlee’s aborted attempt, Bird pounced on the chance to acquire it.

In 1980, Bird set off from San Francisco for his first attempt across the Pacific. After 147 days at sea, he reached Hawaii but capsized in heavy surf near Maui. He scrambled onto some nearby rocks. He was safe, but Britannia II was destroyed on the rocks.

Failure didn’t seem to bother Bird. He just started planning again. On August 23, 1982, he set off a second time from San Francisco in a new boat, determined to row to Australia.

Bird had an atypical ability to enjoy long periods of solitude. “I choose to be alone, and thus by definition I am not lonely,″ he once said. It was a key talent during all the months staring at the ocean, with one’s own repetitive thoughts.

The voyage did not go smoothly. Even in his first hours, he struggled amid whitecaps under the Golden Gate Bridge. Later, he endured two hurricanes, one capsize, and one resupply. Finally, after almost 10 months at sea, he was 48km from the Australian mainland and a successful finish.

But the seas were just too heavy to continue. Bird had to allow a naval vessel in the area to rescue him.

When a crew member asked Bird the question that he had heard so many times before –- “Why?” — his answer became front-page news: “It’s just an adventure. You don’t have to justify it. It’s just an adventure.”

Bird had reached Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and as such, The Ocean Rowing Society and Guinness World Records credited him with being the first person to row alone across the Pacific from east to west, even though he didn’t quite touch land.

“In a way, it is a crazy thing to do,” he said, “but if I get one person to look at things differently, to try a different beer or back a different horse, then maybe it’s worth something.”

After so much time away and so many close calls ending finally in a grand success, many adventurers would have packed it in at that point. But Bird always felt the siren call of the ocean. Even his wife and young son could not stop him from undertaking yet another massive project. This time, he wanted to row in the opposite direction, from west to east, from Russia to the United States.

“I just like the sea,” he said. “I like the feeling of the boat moving along under me. It’s a great feeling.”

He tried and failed three times, but kept at it with characteristic doggedness. Then on June 3, 1996, on his fourth attempt, searchers found his badly damaged boat. Bird himself was not on board. His body was never found.