Lost at Sea: My Dad’s Last Journey, directed by Johnny Burke and distributed by Channel 4 is about Louis Bird and his father, Peter Bird, a pioneer in Ocean rowing and adventuring. Peter Bird rowed the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco to Australia in 1982, and was the first person to do so. From 1992 to 1996 Peter tried multiple times to row the Pacific again, this time from Russia to the USA, and on one attempt spent 304 days alone at sea.
On the 3rd of June 1996 during another attempt of the row the Russian Rescue Centre picked up an emergency signal from him. A few hours later when they found the boat Peter was nowhere to be found.
Lost at Sea follows Peter’s son Louis coming to terms with the loss of his father and trying to understand how his father could leave him and his Mother for that fateful last row in 1996. Louis sees Peter as his hero, and he followed in his father’s footsteps in 2016 in order to feel closer to him and understand his love for adventuring. He did so by completing the Great Pacific Race from California to Hawaii.
It is a heartfelt and uplifting documentary that explores themes of love, loss and the importance of mental health awareness for all people.
Strand writer, Aidan Lyons, spoke to Louis to find out more about the documentary and what made it happen.
Q: To start, could you tell us, in your own words a little bit about yourself and what ‘Lost at Sea’ is about?
A: So the documentary is first and foremost my father’s story from being one of the pioneers of ocean rowing, an adventurer, his love of the sport and his overall journey through ocean rowing. And then secondly it’s about my journey to try and understand him more and my journey to try and come to terms with the childhood trauma that I suffered and to feel closer to him by watching old footage of him, meeting family and his old friends and generally immersing myself in his world, through the documentary.
The Film also tackles male mental health and one of the things I’m really keen to do is to challenge the stigma that’s attached to mental health in all people but especially in young males; and the film explores three generations of mental health being something that my family has had to deal with, from my grandfather, through to my father and then to me.
What inspired you to choose the documentary format to tell your own, and your father’s story?
I work in television myself and when I started in TV as a runner when I was about 19 or 20, I always had this idea, as my father had always filmed himself during all of his rows and one of the greatest gifts that he left me was all of this amazing footage. From 16mm film to Super 8 and high-8 tapes from the 1990s. I always had this amazing archive and when I was just starting out I thought, right, I can make a documentary about it, it’s a great idea; and what a great way to get his name out there, he deserves to be remembered and learned about. Back then it was just a dream that I would make a documentary about him and his life.
It was all a bit of a pipe dream and then I decided to row the mid-pacific in 2015 and I did it in 2016 and I decided to film myself at sea in case a documentary presented itself as it would be amazing to have my angle and his angle together on screen. So I filmed myself at sea. And then I was working on a TV show called ‘Don’t tell the Bride’ and I was at a Christmas party and I was very drunk and spoke to Renegade Pictures, who made my documentary and told them: I’ve got this idea, this is my story I want to make a documentary about my father and Alex Cooke, the CEO of the company, said that it was a great idea and that he was really interested. I’ve been trying to get it commissioned for a long time, it wasn’t just “I want to make a documentary, done,” it was a very long process and there was a lot of knock-backs, I had to keep on trying and then amazingly Channel 4 commissioned it in about September last year.
Firstly, congratulations on completing that row from California to Hawaii. It's a great accomplishment; and you were talking with people from Renegade Pictures and then talked to High-Altitude films to produce the film is that correct?
Yeah, that’s correct so I was speaking to Alex Cooke from Renegade, and he said that he had this Director, a friend of mine whose brilliant, and that is Johnny Burke who is of High-Altitude films. We went for lunch together and Johnny and I decided that he was going to direct and I would work closely with him to tell the story. We worked really well together, I produced it and I was in it a lot and we worked really closely together, there was a lot of ideas shared and it seemed to be a really good team.
So to go back a bit, when did you Father Peter Bird become interested in boats and adventuring and in your own opinion, how did this interest develop over time?
So, he became interested in boats from a very young age, left school at the age of 15 and he did odd jobs. Then he got into sailing in his 20s and then he learned that ocean rowing was beginning to come into its own and he was very interested in the idea of ocean rowing from sailing. A guy called Derek King reached out to him who was planning to do an around the world row and my Dad stepped up and thought let’s give it a go. And from there on, they crossed the Atlantic crossing from Casablanca to St.Lucia and I believe that was when the addiction began, I think it was an addiction. I think after his Father killed himself my Dad was probably trying to run away from real life in some kind of way, he was looking for adventure and ultimate freedom and then I think, as he got older, he was obviously very good at what he did, he was a pioneer and paved the way for ocean rowing today. It wasn’t just something that was for passion or for love, it was just what he did, it was his job and we all know what happened at the end, so it is a great shame.
One of the things I come to terms with in the documentary is that he really did see it as a job in the end, it wasn’t so much like in the 1970s when it was all quite jokey, and like let’s give this a go as it’s never been done before let's see what happens. Then, in the 1980s, he completed the Pacific, I think that it was all still jokey but he was also quite dedicated to become the first person to do this amazing thing. Through the 90s, it was just what he did; he saw it as a way to provide for his family I think that there was an addiction to being in that lone state at sea. And who knows, if he made it back that time, if he returned back home from sea would he have done another one, I don’t know. I’ve always been told that he didn’t want to go on the last one. He always told my Mum that if he met my Mum before he started planning that final row he wouldn’t have gone. At that point he had a family and I was born, so it kind of felt like it was tied down to the sponsorship of it all and felt that he was letting people down by not going. So I think that it’s a mixture of a love and passion for it and an addiction to complete his original goal and maybe to escape as well.
So one major part of the documentary has you trying to understand your father’s mindset to make that decision to go on the final row in 1996 and it also focuses on you following in your father’s footsteps, rowing from California to Hawaii. Do you think your father’s experience in entering the TransPac race and doing a very similar route from San Francisco to Hawaii in the 1980s helped you understand his mindset and why he got into it in the first place?
Yeah, first and foremost I wasn’t prepared to do the the row in the scale that my father died doing, it just was never in my mindset to put myself through that, it would be such a huge task. I came across the Great Pacific Race, the race I entered to row to Hawaii. It was more manageable, it was less money and it seemed achievable, whereas rowing the whole of the Pacific Ocean as a novice seems completely insane. It was just perfect really, it was perfect that my father had rowed from California to Hawaii, he’d done that route and it felt like it was perfect, it just felt right, it just felt like the right thing to do, to do the Atlantic race or trying to do a bigger one, I felt comfortable and confident and I always knew that I was going to be able to do it.
You mentioned that you felt comfortable doing that route and personally, one of my favourite moments of the documentary was when after you did 50 days of your voyage you felt braver than ever. You jumped into the Pacific Ocean and you looked down at the 4 miles deep ocean beneath you. Do you think these high points counteract with all the hardships these adventures bring, and therefore do you think that you could do something similar again in the future?
Yeah, for sure, I mean look I’m not going to lie to you it was difficult. If I had to give any advice for ocean rowing now, personally I’d say it was 10% physical and 90% mental and that you are basically in a floating prison and the only way to get off it is to use your strength and dedication to propel you to where you want to go; and it’s a scary place out there man.
I had some pretty dark moments when I’d be sobbing at the oars, it was a real exorcism of emotion I felt. And yeah, those moments in the documentary when decided to go for a swim and I jump off this boat I have been on for however so many days into the lukewarm bath water that is that part of the Pacific and it was crystal clear water and it was the most liberating feeling I’ve ever had in my life. No one goes swimming in the Pacific Ocean, you’re either in a big plane or a big boat so I felt very privileged to have an experience like that I probably wouldn’t experience again. It was incredible I felt like the most tiny being in the middle of this great Expanse and I felt privileged to be there.
The beauty of that sort of venture definitely outweighs the hardships and it proved that if I can do it, anyone can do it. You've got to really want it and if you really want it you can do anything. It really changed me as a person, I really grew up doing it and now when I go into anything, be it a new job or even a bike ride I have that dedication because if I really push myself I know I can do it. It definitely helps you go forward in life.
I can imagine how amazing that must have been at the time, especially when you are facing your fear of water head on. After watching ‘Lost at Sea’, I found it allows us, especially as men to look at our own mental health and upbringing and see how it made us the men we are today. The documentary focuses on these conflicting emotions you felt of your father being your hero, yet the struggle to understand how he could leave you and your mother for his voyage. Ever since you started making this documentary, have you or do you feel closer to him than before you started making it?
So when I did my ocean row I had this youthful arrogance where I was like, “I’m going to do this row and it’s going to give me closure and I’ll feel close to him and I can move on with my life.” For two months, and having gotten back from the row I did feel like that and then suddenly I became depressed, had a doctor etc. Depression is a scary and dark thing, I felt like there was a multitude of reasons for why I felt like that but I think one of the reasons was coming home and I felt further away from him since my row.
So this documentary I wanted to be fully committed to showing vulnerability, being emotional if I felt emotional and just drawing myself in to really find him. And I felt going into it I had thoughts such as what did he love more, me or rowing? If I have a child one day, and I hope I do, personally I would never leave and at that age. But, my Dad was a special person, he was an adventurer, he went out to row, that was what he did. He met my Mum while building his boat in east London and I was born from that meeting when he was doing his rows. So without his rows I would never have been born. One of the things that I came to terms with in the documentary was that he adored me and he loved my Mum, he really did. I really believe it was a payday for him, he would do this last row and it would sort everything out.
And one of the things, when I have a bit of a breakdown in the hotel room after I listen to the tape of his I felt anger, and I wanted to bollock him and say to him, “Dad what the fuck are you doing, c’mon what a waste.” He could have done anything, anything he wanted to do as a job he was that sort of guy, and it is a shame that he only felt he was an ocean rower. He is still a hero of mine and I am incredibly proud of him and I do felt like I’ve got closer to him through making this documentary and a lovely thing is that my family who were so much a part of the documentary have realised that it was more than just a trauma for me, my Mum and my Aunties and my cousin; there is a lot of the Bird family on my Dad’s side that when he didn’t come back home from sea it was so traumatic they had to push all of that emotion to one side and try to move on with their lives as best they could. And I think that for a lot of
them they chose not to view the footage they had, they chose not to go down that deep into it. So I’m very proud that it has not only helped out myself but by opening up that wound again that everything can get in and grieve once again and have a proper body of work that people can come back to to see his brilliance, I’m proud of that.
Lost at Sea will air on Channel 4 Tonight, Wednesday 16th September, at 10pm.
Edited by Andriani Scordellis, Film Editor