Completely Mad : Tom McClean, John Fairfax, and the Epic Race to Row Solo Across the Atlantic. Chasing a record over the waves.

The day before the Apollo mission landed two men on the moon, a British man named John Fairfax waded into Hollywood Beach, Fla.' greeted by masses of cheering fans, having been the first person to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

Eight days later, another Briton, Tom McClean, pulled his dory up a deserted beach in Blacksod Bay, Ireland, having rowed solo across the Atlantic in the opposite direction. 

While Fairfax was acclaimed and feted, McClean walked to the closest pub, alone

'' Completely Mad '' tells the story of these two men - one a flamboyant, attention-seeking playboy, the other a quiet and determined paratrooper - and their race to be the first to row solo across the Atlantic.

The term race isn't accurate, since only one man was actually racing. During his ordeal, Fairfax had no idea someone else was rowing across the Atlantic in the opposite direction, thousands of miles to the north. McClean, on the other hand, was acutely aware of his rival and brooded about him the whole way.

Their timing, however, was bad : Their triumphs were overshadowed by nonstop coverage of the moon landing. While celebrated in nautical circles, neither man became well known, nor have their stories been told together in a single book, until now.

John Fairfax, a self-described ''horrible kid,'' later smuggled guns, cigarettes, and whiskey in the Caribbean and Central and South America ; he spent a lot of time at the craps tables, slept with many women and lived life with superabundance of self-regard.

McClean, who grew up in an orphanage, couldn't have been more different. 

'' Thomas cannot read yet,'' reported an orphanage  evaluation, '' and speaks little ............. He is a healthy looking little fellow and a credit to the Bethany Home, Dublin.''

He left the orphanage at 15 and later enlisted in the British Army, spent six years as a paratrooper, then joined the Special Air Service, the British equivalent to the U.S. Navy SEALS.

Both men embarked on this ''completely mad'' scheme for the same reason : because it had never been done. The Atlantic had been conquered with enormous difficulty by a double-rowing team, but for a single person it was believed to be impossible.

Fairfax chose a route from the Canary Islands to Florida, about 4,000 miles. He hoped for help [ which he didn't get ] from the usually reliable trade winds. McClean went from St. John's Harbour, Newfoundland, to Ireland.

This was a much shorter journey - 2,000 miles - but it involved icebergs, the frigid Labrador Current and violent storms.

Fairfax, an experienced mariner put to sea on Jan.20, 1969, and McClean four months later, on May 17. Fairfax rowed a 24-foot craft named Britannia, a beautiful boast that was self-bailing and self-righting - if flipped over, it would automatically right itself, and if swamped it would shed the water in 30 seconds.

The only drawback was that it was heavy - so heavy that on Day 64, after almost making no headway, Fairfax threw most most of his food overboard, hoping that he could catch enough fish to feed himself.

McClean, on the other hand, hardly knew how to row. The Newfoundland fishermen who saw him off were confounded by his oarsmanship. He captained a 20-foot Yorkshire dory, the Super Silver, that had no special features.

He reinforced the hull, built a half-deck and tiny canvas top that could cover only half of his body, resulting in exposure to lashing rain, freezing seawater and snow.

The Silver, however, was lighter, and McClean received mostly favorable winds that pushed him eastward.

What happened on their journeys - 70 days for McClean, 180 days for Fairfax - makes for reading both enthralling and horrifying, Each man had to row around 23,000 strokes a day for months on end. 

Hansen skillfully interweaves their stories, recounting tales of bleeding hands, capsizings, shark attacks, storms of biblical proportions, freak waves, brutal heat, freezing cold, physical prostration and psychic collapse.

Hansen's previous book, '' First Man,'' was a well received biography of Neil Armstrong, the American astronaut who was the first person to walk on the moon, and in ''Completely Mad'' he shows the same impressive research, fine storytelling skills and mastery of detail.

I was particularly grateful for his avoidance of the pop psychologizing that is sometimes found in chronicles of human extreme achievement.

Though Fairfax's name is the one in the record books - he was the one who landed first - the real star of the book is McClean, today 81 years old and living in Scotland.

Hansen calls his ''nautical Gandalf,'' with ''veiled power, good intentions, care for all creatures of good,'' adding that McClean ''showed me, Jedi-like how to steer my boat.''

The World Students Society thanks author Douglas Preston.


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