Review

Lost at Sea: My Dad’s Last Journey, review: a candid account of a son’s desperate need for answers

4/5

Peter Bird disappeared while rowing alone across the Pacific Ocean. In this film his son, Louis, set out to try and understand why

Peter Bird
Peter Bird Credit: Channel 4

What possesses a man to cross an ocean alone, in a tiny boat, not just once but many times? Peter Bird said simply: “Because it’s what I do.” For his son, Louis, that answer was not enough.

Lost at Sea: My Dad’s Last Journey (Channel 4) was the story of a heroic adventurer and a little boy who grew up without a father. In 1983, Peter Bird became the first person to row the Pacific Ocean single-handed, on a voyage of 6,000 miles and nearly 300 days. But he did not stop there. He was determined to cross the Pacific in the opposite direction, from Russia to the United States of America. He died on his fourth attempt, in 1996; his boat was found but his body was not.

Louis was just four at the time. The loss had left him with conflicting feelings: pride in his father’s achievements, but also bewilderment and anger. Why had Bird continued on such a dangerous path after becoming a father? How could he leave behind a partner and child?

This personal and candid documentary followed Louis on a journey to understand his father’s motivations. He was helped by a trove of footage both from news reports of the time and from Bird’s personal video diaries, the last of these found on his abandoned boat. Bird was an unusual fellow, hugely sociable yet able to withstand months with only himself for company. There was something wonderful about the old film of him setting off on his voyages, in jeans and a sweater, with the casual air of a man going for an evening stroll.

But Bird’s youthful adventures, as his son pointed out, tipped over into obsession. Louis listened for the first time to a tape that his father had made for him. “This tape is for you to play while I’m away so you won’t forget me,” Bird said. “One of the questions that you will ask will be, ‘Why are you going, Daddy? I don’t want you to go.’ And the idea is to be the first to do something.” It was an emotional moment. Afterwards a distraught Louis said: “Who cares about f---ing records?” But he was comforted to watch a last video, in which Bird spoke of how much he missed his little boy.

In an attempt to get inside his father’s head, Louis completed his own ocean crossing – a brave undertaking for a young man with a fear of water. I hope it gave him some peace.