In 1896, two intrepid—or crazy—fishermen once set out to do the impossible: row across the Atlantic to Europe! Here’s the true story of two oyster dredgers from New Jersey, George Harbo and Frank Samuelson, who voyaged in a tiny open rowboat across the Atlantic.
Legend says that early in 1896, wealthy Police Gazette publisher Richard Fox offered a $10,000 prize to anyone who could cross the ocean without sails or steam. No contemporary accounts confirm this reward, but there is no doubt that Harbo, 30, and Samuelsen, 26, who dredged oysters and clams off the New Jersey coast for a living, were the first to row across the Atlantic, setting a speed record that stood for 114 years.
Of medium stature, both men had spent their lives at sea and were lean and muscular. Both were Norwegian-born. Harbo had studied navigation at a sailors’ school in his native town, Sandar, in Norway. He had gone to sea at 16, and after 2 years on long voyages, had come to America. He had since sailed on coasters and fishing vessels, and had earned a pilot’s license for New York harbor. Samuelsen, from Farsund, Norway, was Harbo’s friend and clamming partner.
The Tiny Rowboat
The two men spent all of their spare time laying out plans for the boat and equipment and building up their stamina by rowing daily along the shore. Because they were unable to finance the building of the boat, Mr. Fox offered to help. He hired William Seaman, a famous boatbuilder from Sea Bright, New Jersey, for the job.
Named Fox in honor of their benefactor, the boat he crafted was built of cedar, with oak timbers and copper fastenings. It was 18 feet 4 inches long and 5 feet wide with an 8-inch draft, weighed 200 pounds, and was pointed at both ends like a whaleboat. At each end were watertight air tanks and tanks of drinking water.
Onboard supplies included 60 gallons of water; 6 gallons of kerosene for a small stove set up in the bow; 2 gallons of signal oil; 12 green, red, and white signals that burned at night; 100 pounds of sea biscuits; quantities of canned meats; 250 eggs; and 9 pounds of coffee—all calculated to last 2 months.
Most of the equipment in the boat was lashed down to prevent loss if the boat rolled over. Other gear included five pairs of oars; a compass, quadrant, and chart; canvas sea anchor; and an air mattress. Harbo and Samuelsen took only the clothing they were wearing, plus oilskins. The boat was not fitted with a mast or sail, and if all of the oars were lost or broken before the journey ended, they would be at the mercy of the sea.
Photo: Harbo and Samuelson. Credit: Green-Wood.com
The Fox was moored in a slip near the barge office at the Battery, the southernmost tip of Manhattan Island. On June 6, 1896, a crowd of 2,000 gathered at the Battery to see the men off. It was a perfect day for an adventure, but instead of a festive send-off, there was an air of gloom about the crowd as if they were sending the two brave men to their graves. The New York Herald commented, “Someone ought to see that this idiocy is stopped.”
At 5:00 P.M., when the evening tide began to turn, the boat was rowed out from the slip and headed down the bay, followed by the cheers and good wishes of those who stood around the seawall. Some wept for the men.
“We’ll see you in France or in heaven!” the rowers shouted. As the boat pulled down the bay and through the Narrows, harbor and boat whistles saluted them.
In calm weather, the boat moved steadily along, but when Harbo and Samuelsen stopped to eat, they found the stove unwilling to stay lit even in a mild breeze. They had forgotten to find the most practical way to light and keep their stove going. They had very little coffee and ate their eggs raw.
They rowed at an even pace, hoping to put their boat into the east-flowing Gulf Stream as quickly as possible.
Rowing Across the Atlantic
Their schedule called for 18 hours of rowing a day, 1 hour for rest and eating, and 5 hours of sleep. They hoped to average 3 miles per hour to prevent their provisions from running out within their allotted time of 60 days. During the crossing, both men pulled with two oars, except at night—when they stood watches of 3½ hours each, one man sleeping while the other continued to row.
On the fourth night, something heavy shook the boat. When Harbo peered overboard, he saw the shining back of a monstrous shark. Hoping to frighten the beast off, Harbo banged him with his oar—only to have the shark tear the oar from his hand. For a full day and night, the shark swam with the boat, hoping for a storm to serve him his meal. Unperturbed, the oarsmen pulled for Europe using one of their spare oars.
After a week, the Canadian schooner Jessie, bound for New York, signaled to the rowboat. The captain invited them on board, but the pair declined. “We’re rowing to Europe!” Samuelsen shouted.
On July 1, on the Grand Banks, they met a Norwegian fishing ship. This captain also invited them on board, and, not having had a hot meal in 3 weeks, this time the tired men accepted. With renewed strength, they continued their journey.
Harbo wrote in his log a few days later: “The wind commenced to blow and the sea to roll mountain high.” The storm raged for 2 days. At first, they tried to pull against the storm, holding their direction due east into the wind. But soon they lashed their oars securely, tied their specially devised safety lines to their waists, and just hung on.
After hours of tossing, they sighted a mammoth wave rolling toward them. “God preserve us!” Samuelsen prayed. The Fox folded over beneath the huge carpet of water, and the men were flung free, holding their breath for what seemed an eternity until they surfaced. Luckily, their lifelines held.
Pulling themselves in to the boat, they were then able to grab the handrails specially fitted to the keel for such an emergency, right the boat, and start bailing frantically. They soon had the boat safe, but they had lost whatever had not been tied down, including most of the food, half of the water, the stove, the signal lights, and the oil. The extra oars had held fast. Removing their clothes and setting them up to dry, they rowed naked to keep warm. The winds now were pushing them gently toward their target.
The food that remained had to be carefully rationed. At the end of 5 days, when their grub was down to a few biscuits, a full-rigged bark hove into sight. It was the Zito of Lavick from the country of their birth. The captain could not be convinced that they were not survivors of some shipwreck. They were taken on board and given a huge feast, which they ate greedily before resting for 3 hours and then setting off again with new supplies.
They were now halfway to Europe.
On July 24, they calculated they were about 400 miles from the first sight of land. Their backs ached and their hands and forearms were swollen painfully, for they rowed without gloves.
Hitting a stretch of good weather, the men rowed steadily, averaging 65 miles per day. In his log, Harbo wrote: “On August l, about 2 hours before daylight, we sighted a light. We found it to be the lighthouse on Bishop’s Rock.”
They had miraculously reached the Scilly Islands, the southernmost tip of England, 3,250 miles from New York. They landed at St. Mary’s, hardly able to walk on cramped legs. A doctor examined both men and found them fit, except for sea boils on Samuelsen’s hands. The American consul at St. Mary’s could hardly believe their story—no one had ever rowed across the Atlantic!
Their ordeal was not over yet. Their specified destination was Le Havre, 250 miles farther. After a 16-hour sleep, they pushed the Fox off once more.
Fame and Fortune?
On August 7, greeted by thousands, the men staggered out of their boat, hardly able to walk on stiffened legs. Their hands were so swollen that they could not shake hands with anyone. Oddly, after braving the brutal weather of the ocean without illness, they both developed colds on the first day ashore.
With their boat, Harbo and Samuelsen toured the music halls of Europe. At first, the public rushed to see the intrepid rowers and their craft, but the attraction wore thin. Returning to their native Norway, they found that many newspapers carped that the trip had not been made under the Norwegian flag.
Finally, Harbo and Samuelsen lashed the Fox on a steamer and returned to America. For a while, the adventurers toured the vaudeville circuit and headlined at Manhattan’s Huber’s Museum, making $20 a day per man and per boat. But, as in Europe, their popularity soon waned and they returned to clam digging.
Homesick, Samuelsen eventually returned to his family’s farm in Farsund, Norway, which is where he died in 1946. “He was a hardy breed,” a newspaper commented. “We will not see his like again.” George Harbo remained in New York, returning to work as a New York harbor pilot. In 1908, he contracted pneumonia and died at age 44, leaving a large family.