In 1896, two Norwegian-born fishermen rowed an 18-foot wooden dory from New York to France, seeking fortune and fame.
The trip was George Harbo’s idea. The 32-year-old merchant seaman had emigrated from his native Norway to New Jersey. There he earned a hard living dredging oysters, but got his taste of the American dream too. The dream could be his, if only he thought big enough. And what could be bigger than rowing across the Atlantic?
Harbo soon persuaded his clamming partner Frank Samuelson, 26, to join the adventure. The newspapers of the day covered the attempt as a novelty, no doubt hoping to get ahead of the news should the Norwegians meet their end in sufficiently dramatic fashion.
“They are very confident that fortune is ahead of them, but seafaring men say it is nothing short of suicide,” the New York Post proclaimed in its June 6, 1896 edition. Reporters from several Gotham dailies were among the 200 or so onlookers who waved them off from the Battery at 5 o’clock that next evening, but only one newspaper actually endorsed the trip.
The National Police Gazette’s millionaire publisher, Richard Kyle Fox, had encouraged the pair and promised some financial support, though the claim that he offered a cash prize of $10,000 (about $300,000 in today’s money) was a fabrication—perhaps the after-the-fact embellishment of rival newspapermen.
Harbo and Samuelson’s calculation was more subtle. If they were successful in rowing to Europe, they’d make their fortune giving speeches and paid exhibitions in Paris, London, Frankfurt, and other great Continental cities. As the Gazette put it, “the voyage was undertaken for such honor and lucre as might accrue from a successful accomplishment of it.”
The pair invested their life savings into the 18-foot-long, 5-foot-wide skiff that would carry them to La Havre, France. Harbo designed the craft and oversaw its construction in Long Branch, New Jersey. She was clinker built of oak and cedar, fitted with watertight compartments for flotation and, presciently, handles on the keel so the men could right the vessel if she were to capsize at sea. She carried 60 gallons of freshwater as ballast. Given that Harbo and Samuelson expected to be out 60 days, their ration was two quarts per man, per day.
Their provisions included canned beef and ham, 100 pounds of ship’s biscuit, nine pounds of coffee and 250 eggs. Also, lamented the Post, “no tobacco and no liquor.” Their paraffin stove proved almost useless at sea, so they drank the coffee cold and ate the eggs raw. They wore wool trousers and shirts under canvas oilskins, and each spent 18 hours at the oars each day. They took turns sleeping under a scrap of painted canvas.
They called the skiff Fox, after their parsimonious patron, and flew the Stars and Stripes from her stern. After all, crowed the New York Herald, the men were “Norwegian by birth, seamen by profession and Americans by choice.”
They carried a compass, a sextant and a copy of the Nautical Almanac and set out from the Battery at the foot of Manhattan on the evening of June 6, 1896. Europe was 3,200 miles away. The experienced merchant seamen fell quickly into a sailorly routine. From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. they rowed together, with short breaks for lunch and supper if weather permitted. By night they slept in shifts.
They calculated that if they maintained a speed of 4 miles per hour, they would make landfall in 54 days. They cleared the end of Long Island and fell in with the Gulf Stream, sweeping along the Newfoundland coast toward the mid-Atlantic. They stayed somewhat south of the regular shipping lanes to reduce the chance of collision, but encountered several vessels along the way.
First was the Jessie, a Canadian schooner bound for New York. A week later they spoke the German steamer Fuerst Bismarck.
The Herald describes their meeting:
The captain of the liner waited until they got within hearing distance and then shouted, “Are you shipwrecked?”
“No. Bound for Europe.”
“In that boat? Never. Better let me take you back.”
“Thanks, no,” they replied.
“Are you crazy?”
And then they rowed off through the rough swelling seas while the liner’s passengers raised a fine ringing cheer.
Two weeks later they met the Leader, a Grand Banks fishing schooner returning to Gloucester, Mass. Harbo hailed her and asked for their latitude and longitude.
“You’re astray, I suppose,” the captain asked, thinking them fishermen lost from their schooner.
“No,” said Harbo. “We’re from New York, bound for Havre.”
“Well, come aboard and have some tea,” the captain replied.
At each of these meetings Harbo and Samuelson asked the ships’ masters to sign the Fox’s log, certifying their position and that she had no sails or rudder, only oars. Every ship offered to carry them home, but Harbo and Samuelson would not be persuaded. After their July 7 supper aboard the Leader they thanked the captain and crew, then climbed down into their rowboat and continued eastward, straight into the teeth of a three-day gale.
The weather built steadily through July 8 and 9. According to Harbo’s telling it was a dry storm, with swells building to 35 feet. The men were constantly at the oars, fighting to keep their little vessel head to wind, or bailing the seawater that washed over her into the open cockpit. Loaded as she was, the Fox had just a foot of freeboard.
As the storm reached its peak on the moonless night of July 10, one of them kept a lookout while the other manned the oars. Whenever a wave seemed poised to sweep over the little boat, the men would throw themselves down and cling to their seats.
Samuelson was first to spot the wave that capsized them. “It towered blackly against the starlit sky, shutting off the sharply marked horizon, creaming at the apex, rushing with the silent speed of an express,” John Still wrote for the Herald. Harbo dropped his oars and held fast. The wave struck the little Fox on the port bow and she “rolled over in the black water as comfortably as one rolls in his bed.”
Fortunately each man wore a life belt made of reindeer hair and was fastened to the boat with three fathoms of line. They pulled themselves hand-over-hand back to the overturned craft and reached for the handholds on her keel. Working together, they rocked the boat back and forth until, with one final heave, they managed to right her. Harbo clambered in and started to bail.
They had been five weeks at sea, three days in the storm. The next morning, July 11, the gale abated. Aside from a few “trifling blows,” they would have fine weather the rest of the way across. “It seemed as if the sea, having tried in one supreme exercise of all her power to possess them, had at last, with only an occasional disappointed growl, given them up,” Still wrote. They were safe, but hardly in the clear.
Though they’d carefully secured their kit (or “rigged to flip” as whitewater raft guides would say 120 years hence) they lost much of their biscuit and, crucially, their fresh water. So when they spied a sailing bark in the distance five days later, “drawing every stitch of canvas and heeling grandly to the wind,” they rowed with all their might to intercept her. Finally she spotted them and came about. When the vessel was close enough to hail, the oystermen learned to their delight that she was a Norwegian ship. Their countrymen invited Harbo and Samuelson aboard, fed them well and sent them on their way with renewed provisions and fresh water. “We were treated like Lords,” Harbo wrote in the log of their voyage.
Two weeks later they made landfall at St. Mary on Scilly Island, off the western tip of Cornwall in the United Kingdom. They slept on the boat and continued to La Havre the next evening, crossing the Channel without incident and arriving on August 7, 1896, 62 days after leaving New York.
They walked on shaky legs to the office of the U.S. Consul, who was delighted at their achievement and appalled at their appearance. He wrote to Fox, the Gazette publisher: “The men, Harbo and Samuelson, reported to me in absolute destitution—without money or clothing—and I took the responsibility of providing them, in an economical manner, with the necessaries of life, on the faith of the statement of the men that the amount would no doubt be refunded by you, as the patron of the daring enterprise.” He enclosed an itemized bill.
Having crossed the Atlantic in unprecedented fashion, it was time for Harbo and Samuelson to implement the second phase of their plan—cashing in by giving speeches and exhibitions. They rowed up the Seine to Paris, where their reception was disappointing. In London they had fair success, though the lucre did not accrue at anything close to the rate they had hoped. They moved on to Norway, expecting a rapturous welcome. Instead newsmen asked them why, if they were Norwegian, they had crossed the Atlantic under an American flag. They were invited to meet the king, who offered his congratulations and 10 Krone, worth about $165 today. They decided to go home to Jersey and dig oysters.
Their return trip on the steamer Island was reportedly a stormy one, though it was not quite so eventful as their Wikipedia entry would have you believe. Still, the apocryphal tale is too good not to relate: “The steamer ran out of coal off the coast of Cape Cod, and when the captain ordered all wooden objects aboard broken up and stoked to make steam for the remainder of the trip, Samuelsen and Harbo relaunched the Fox over the side and rowed back to New York,” the online encyclopedia states.
In fact, when our intrepid Herald correspondent met the steamer at the dock in Hoboken, the boilers were chuffing steam and Harbo, Samuelson and the Fox were all aboard. The reporter describes the weathered state of their skiff, lashed to the steamer’s deck next to the ship’s pristine white lifeboat, which seemed a giant in comparison.
Though they faded into obscurity during their lifetimes, Harbo and Samuelson today are giants of ocean rowing. They were the first, and for 116 years the fastest.
In the age of GPS and EPIRB, rowing small boats or paddling specialized kayaks across oceans has become fairly commonplace. According to the Ocean Rowing Society, 499 ocean rows had been completed as of April, 2019. The most common route is from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean, taking advantage of the same subtropical current and steady breezes that wafted Columbus across the sea.
Harbo and Samuelson’s more demanding route from west to east across the volatile North Atlantic has only been repeated 18 times, or fewer depending on how you define a crossing. (Does “the longitude of Bishop’s Rock” really qualify as Europe?) The duo’s record was finally bested in 2010, when a team of four finished the same route in just under 44 days. But Harbo and Samuelson’s legacy will never be eclipsed.