McClean, on the other hand, hardly knew how to row; the Newfoundland fishermen who saw him off were confounded by his bad 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 a 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, 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 extreme human 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 Tom McClean, today 81 years old and living in Scotland. Hansen calls him 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.”
Douglas Preston is the author of “The Lost City of the Monkey God” and “The Monster of Florence.”
COMPLETELY MAD: Tom McClean, John Fairfax, and the Epic Race to Row Solo Across the Atlantic | By James R. Hansen | Illustrated | 364 pp. | Pegasus Books | $28.95