John Beeden
Credit: John Beeden

By Kerry Hale

It took a staggering 209 days to complete, but on December 27, 2015, 53-year-old John Beeden, a Yorkshireman who now calls Burlington, Ontario home, became the first rower to cross the Pacific Ocean from North America to Australia, solo, non-stop and unassisted.

Setting out from San Francisco, California, and heading for Cairns in Queensland, Australia, Beeden propelled his vessel diagonally across the vast Pacific, through the Intertropical Convergence Zone and across the Equator, fighting relentless currents and a flurry of hurricanes that threatened his mission, and, at times, his life.

Long before his interest in rowing, Beeden ran the 5,000-metre and steeplechase on the track and longer distances on the road. He continued this until his late 30s, covering up to 150 kilometres per week during his prime years. However, a serious injury hampered his ability to run pain-free. In 2010, at the age of 45, he was diagnosed with aortic stenosis, a blockage of the aortic valve. 

“I entered protracted discussions with my doctor about what my level of activity should be leading up to and following the procedure,” explains Beeden. “Then, with no real experience on the water, I had the idea of rowing across the Atlantic.”

Fifteen months after surgery, in November of 2011, Beeden set off across the Atlantic in a six-metre long rowing boat named Socks. “I thought this was going to be the test of a lifetime, to push me to the very edge of my capabilities. While each individual day was hard work and I was proud of the achievement, I knew straight away that this was not the test I was looking for.”

Upon completion of the 53-day, 2,600-nautical-mile (4,815 kilometres) Atlantic journey, he sought a new, more demanding physical and mental challenge. “I had to find a challenge that stretched me right to the breaking point so I could prove to myself I could come back from beyond the edge,” says Beeden. A tougher ocean crossing was the obvious place to start. With the Pacific being the biggest ocean on the planet, it became the clear choice. The proposed route was extremely arduous, comprising a non-trade winds voyage passing from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere, crossing the infamous section of equatorial currents and turbulent, unpredictable weather patterns. 

Only one other solo rower, Peter Bird in 1983, had previously managed to get across the equator after leaving from North America but he did not make landfall and was rescued off the coast of Australia in a storm after 294 days at sea. Says Beeden: “This, however, left a nice opportunity of landing a world-first if I could somehow get all the way across.”

On May 31, 2015, fuelled by a concoction of 50 per cent expedition food and 50 per cent cookies, chocolates and treats, Beeden pushed off the coast of San Francisco into the vast expanse of saltwater. This time he rowed similarly sized Socks II, constructed of closed-cell foam sandwiched on the outside by Kevlar and on the inside by fibreglass. As equipped as any high-tech ocean-going vessel, with GPS and magnetic navigation, AIS (safety system), satellite phone, satellite email, EPIRB (locator beacon), VHF radio and a GPS tracker, Socks II weighed approximately 1,100 kilograms fully loaded.

Beeden made good early progress across the northeast Pacific, averaging around 45 to 50 nautical miles (85 to 95 kilometres) and 4.5 to 5.5 hours of sleep per day, but the tumult of the voyage was about to hit. The Equatorial Countercurrent (ECC) began to push him towards Peru and four large hurricanes impeded any attempt at forward progress. “This meant I spent seven days on para-anchor [a parachute-style anchor] trying to reduce my negative progress. Little did I know at this time that I would lose over 500 kilometres of westerly gain.”

Slightly further on, a mixed current zone between the ECC and the Southern Equatorial Current created swirls and eddies that were incredibly difficult to row through. “I had periods where the only option was to row for 20-plus hours, grab 30 minutes sleep and go again, just looking for a bit of help from a current or the wind. On top of this, the heat around the equator was in the high 40s on deck, the convections through the day building into daily torrential rain and windstorms. This was the never ending grind of the equator.”

He considered abandoning the journey twice, including 10 days before Vanuatu when he sustained a broken rib, an ailment he struggled with for more than three weeks. 

But after 209 days at sea, covering 7,500 nautical miles (14,000 kilometres), Beeden finally reached Cairns. He’d lost close to 12 kilograms of weight and was, justifiably, exhausted. 

Asked to define the toughest part of the voyage? “Mentally and physically, the toughest thing was to re-row miles that had already been rowed. Being pushed back by the conditions or currents was soul destroying… Some days if I stopped to fill my water bottles I would drift back a quarter of a nautical mile, if I stopped for food, I would drift back 1.5 nautical miles and if I rested, much more. Having to regain those miles before making any progress was incredibly challenging.”

Now safely in the record books, Beeden shares his journey with eager schoolchildren and adult audiences alike. “If I can somehow inspire people, that’s a wonderful thing,” he says with humility.

Up next? “I like the idea of a running challenge from John O’Groats [Scotland] to Land’s End,” he says, a route comprising the whole length of Great Britain. “Or,” almost as an afterthought, “maybe even across Canada.”