For 54 days, it was 24-year-old Louis Bird and his rowing partner Erden Eruc in their narrow boat, traversing the vast and unforgiving Pacific Ocean. But this wasn’t a simple crossover for the TV runner and the filmmaker – it was a grueling journey of self-discovery.
In 1996, when Louis was just four years old, his father Peter Bird, who in 1983 became the first man to row non-stop across the Pacific, died while attempting another crossing. The devastating blow has gripped Louis and his family ever since. But when he was little, he had few tools to really process what had happened to his father; she didn’t dare watch many of the family videos or listen to the cassette tape her father had made for her.
Until, that is, the need to find out more and create some kind of tribute to her charming, idiosyncratic father became too strong. So in 2016 he embarked on his own Pacific route, filming the ups and downs of life at sea for his documentary, Lost at Sea: My Dad’s Last Journey. In a heartbreaking scene, Louis casts aside his lifelong fear of the ocean and takes a deep dive.
“That was the moment I got over my fear of open water,” says Louis, speaking from the family home in Oxfordshire. “It was amazing. As a human being, you feel like you really shouldn’t be there; I felt my insignificance when I was swimming in that magical place.”
Today he talks about his feelings fluently and passionately, but it wasn’t always like that. “I went to some dark places [during the making of the film] and I came out the other side, ”he says. “Now I can think about my dad and talk about what happened differently.”
Rowing certainly gave Louis some insight into the kinds of experiences his father had, but it was reviewing archival footage and talking with Peter’s colleagues, friends, and relatives that really brought Louis closer to him. It allowed him to make a kind of peace with the death of his father.
“It was so tragic and sudden, many members of my family mourned it but left it in the past,” says Louis. And in fact, the movie rebuilds everything very slowly and carefully. I think, for many of his friends and family, the documentary has been very cathartic. “
Now I can think of my dad and talk about what happened differently.
What would you like viewers to take away from the movie? “I would like people to see how brilliant it was; how honest we were in recounting his life. He was charismatic but he was in conflict, you know. That makes a good hero, not everyone can be good, “he says.
Louis is finally encouraged to press play and listen to his father’s last words, recorded especially for him. On the tape, Peter is heard saying, “This is a tape for you to play while I’m away, so you won’t forget me.”
It’s important to Louis that young men, especially young men, can see him open and vulnerable in the film and that this opening finally saves him. “I would love for young people to see me go on that journey and think, ‘Louis seems fine, he’s being emotional, and he seems to be helping him.’ Just because I’m a guy doesn’t mean I can’t cry or feel sad. I want young people to know that it is okay to show that kind of emotion. “
I want young people to know that it is okay to show that kind of emotion.
For those grieving the unexpected death of a loved one, it tells them that seeking closure or a final resolution may be futile. “It is never easy: you have to be prepared for that. That person you miss and love will never come back. I have no closure, but I have learned everything I can about it and I feel good about it. “
For Louis, the arduous journey across the ocean and finally learning a little more about Peter has been transformative in more ways than one.
“It was terrifying, it’s the place that killed my father. But without that experience, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to make the documentary. It’s so cliche, but it’s a brilliant cliche – you can do whatever you want to do. He would be proud of me. “
Lead Image: Gareth Iwan Jones
Life After: Tragedy, Trauma, and Adversity: Life’s challenges can be immense, but we can also learn from them. Our Life After series takes an in-depth look at how people have adapted and grown from such challenges, and how their experience can inspire others.