Format Hardcover
Publication Date 07/04/23
ISBN 9781639364176
Trim Size / Pages 6 x 9 in / 384

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Completely Mad

Tom McClean, John Fairfax, and the Epic Race to Row Solo Across the Atlantic

James R. Hansen

From the New York Times bestselling author of First Man comes a sweeping saga involving two extraordinary—and extraordinarily different—adventurers who have only one thing in common: the ambition to cross the Atlantic in a rowboat . . . alone.

In this bracing adventure tale, the story of John Fairfax and Tom McClean are woven together for the first time. Fairfax would set off from the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa with his sights on Florida. McClean charted a course from Newfoundland to Ireland.

The two men couldn’t have been more different. John Fairfax was a golden-haired playboy, gambler, whiskey, gun smuggler, and ex-pirate who blamed his boat often, and who brazenly took time off from his goal of reaching America to hop aboard large ships for a drink, a shower, and good food. He courted the press like a modern-day Richard Branson or Elon Musk.

The egoless Tom McClean was an orphan with a tough, Dickensian childhood, who ran off to become a British paratrooper and later joined the SAS (his training rivaled the U.S. Navy Seals). Tom was a purist who loved his boat Silver and never once took time off from rowing to sun himself on a remote beach or jump aboard a cruise ship. After 70 days, he landed on the rocky coast of Ireland to no fanfare and headed straight to the nearest pub.

Though the two men’s remarkable transoceanic journeys seem pulled from a different era, both finished within days of the first landing on the Moon: July 20th, 1969.

Filled with gale-force winds, backbreaking effort, menacing sharks, playful dolphins, awing natural beauty, great mishaps, failed equipment, hyperthermia, near-drowning, the fighting of mental and physical lethargy, creative problem-solving, phantom illusions on the water, and glorious moments of bliss, Completely Mad stands alongside other classics of ocean adventure.

With gripping and insightful prose, James R. Hansen brings to life Fairfax and McClean's expeditions, from their battle with the elements to their own inner demons. Completely Mad is a nail-biting, epic tale of endurance, and readers will be gripped until the end to find out who won.

James R. Hansen is professor emeritus of history at Auburn University. A former historian for NASA, Hansen is the author of fourteen books involving air and space and exploration. His 2005 book First Man, the only authorized biography of Neil Armstrong, has on two separate occasions appeared on the New York Times Bestseller list and has been translated into two dozen languages. In 1995 NASA nominated his book Spaceflight Revolution for a Pulitzer Prize, the only time the U.S. space agency has ever made such a nomination. His 2009 book, Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster, has been called by reviewers “the definitive study” of the Challenger accident. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama.

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Endorsements & Reviews

“What happened on these 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 shows impressive research, fine storytelling skills and mastery of detail. 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, The New York Times Book Review
“A gripping account. Fairfax was the kind of man who could restore your faith in a random and amoral universe. Tom McClean, on the other hand—is the guy you’re rooting for, an orphan seeking to assert himself in the world. He knew the value of sheer guts. The S.A.S. motto, ‘Who dares wins,’ was emblazoned on his boat’s bow.”

The Wall Street Journal
"This new book, Completely Mad is the day-by-day story of two very different men who, really by chance, were vying to be the first person to row across the Atlantic Ocean, alone. Hansen gives a good deal of biographical material and the contrasts are striking."

Alabama Public Radio, Don Noble
"The story of the 1969 race to be the first person to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean. In a page-turning narrative, Hansen shares the personal background of each contender as well as the challenges they faced along their nautical journeys, particularly noting the contrasts between the two men. The remarkable adventures of two men fighting nature and their own demons." Kirkus Reviews
"Hansen’s spirited entry provides a riveting examination of the human will to survive, and readers will be fascinated—if occasionally mystified—by the determination the men displayed. This is perfect for those seeking adventure without leaving their couch." Publishers Weekly
"This remarkable book captures a little known adventure that in many ways was just as amazing—and even more harrowing—than Apollo 11.”
Andrew Chaikin, author of A Man on the Moon
“Hansen's book is the best adventure book I have ever read. Hansen skillfully tells the story of two men who fathomed the unfathomable - to become the first to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean. It is an incredible story: real, enthralling, and absolutely inspiring. I had to discover how these two men rowed through titanic storms and currents and continued on when all seemed lost. I loved this book!" Lynne Cox, author of Swimming to Antarctica 
"James Hansen has proven himself to be a terrific storyteller about voyages and history, and Completely Mad combines both of these notable talents. Here he relates the story of two young men, Tom McClean and John Fairfax, and the sea, both engaged in, yes, mad quests to row across the Atlantic in a time—the summer of 1969—when jets or spacecraft accomplished the journey in hours or minutes. You will travel with them on their competing journeys, tasting salt, fearing sharks, fighting the sea in this skewered mirror of a space race in this wildly engaging narrative." Michael Cassutt, author of Deke! and The Astronaut Maker
"James Hansen is already an acknowledged expert in turning the lives of pioneering loners into gripping and insightful reads. Now he explores the exciting tale of two solo explorers each attempting to cross the Atlantic alone, in a battle with each other, with the elements, and with their own personal limits. Completely Mad is a nail-biting, epic tale of endurance—I was racing to the end to see who won." Francis French, author of In The Shadow of the Moon