Franz Romer wasn’t much of a talker. It was 1928 and the 29-year-old German man had just completed a 58-day solo crossing of the Atlantic in a kayak that looked a bit like a sailing canoe. His landing in the U.S. Virgin Islands was uneventful, but as word got out of his accomplishment, people clamored to celebrate him. It was the longest and most dangerous leg of his journey, which had begun in Lisbon, Portugal. You’d think he’d be in want of human connection, but beyond general pleasantries, Romer proved to not be much of a storyteller.
Even for a boy who grew up enamored of the sea, the crossing must have been brutal. It wasn’t even his idea. Though a merchant seaman and licensed navigator, Romer was also an aviator. It was the mid-1920s and he concocted an audacious goal, to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, from Germany to New York. It’s not clear if he couldn’t round up the sponsors or if Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 flight beat him to the punch. But riffing from the trans-Atlantic mania, Klepper Kayaks made Romer an alternate proposal: be the first person on record to kayak solo from Europe to the Americas.
Romer accepted the challenge, so long as he could design the vessel. The result was a 21-foot, 6-inch wood-framed kayak with an eight-foot mast for a sail. The body was rubber and canvas. It was about 39 inches wide and 18 inches deep. Not a big boat to begin with, it drafted especially low in the water, with only six inches between waterline and the deck. It was going to be a wet trip.
Supplies took up nearly all of the hatch space. Prepared for three months, Romer packed 75 gallons of water, heaps of lemons, and 600 cans of food. If he wanted to stretch from his perpetual seated position, he either had to stand up or eat from the cans to create more space. In the first leg of the trip, from Lisbon to the Canary Islands (over a thousand miles), his leg muscles atrophied and he developed painful boils on his legs and butt.
The early discomfort foreshadowed deeper miseries to come. He learned to stand up on the next leg of the journey, but those standing moments couldn’t last long. In rough seas, he had to sit. Any sleep he could muster was done sitting. Even so, it would be folly to attempt to catch even more than a few minutes of shuteye. At one point, he went for five days and nights without a moment’s rest. With constant battering by cold water and salt sprays, his legs were stiff to the point of immobility and his hands and arms were swollen. When he arrived in St. Thomas after the 3,000-mile, 58-day leg from the Canary Islands, every visible inch of skin was blistered with sunburn or caked with salt as thick as a beard.
To top off the terror of nearly two months alone in open water, Romer didn’t know how to swim. In a rare interview, he simply asked, “What good would it do me?”
Though people had been crossing the Atlantic for centuries, the odds were against Romer. It’s a different beast when you have no backup and no rest. He used only a sextant, compass, binoculars and a barometer to cover an average of 35 miles each day. The stars kept him true through the night, with a guideline on the boom as backup if he slid into sleep.
As a man of few words, little is known about the actual events he endured through the crossing. He weathered an intense storm early in the trip, though it can’t be called a hurricane with certainty. When he arrived in the Canary Islands, he was sick and spent more time recuperating than planned. After his arrival in the Caribbean, he was quoted as telling someone about the “heartbreaking and blood-curdling moments he experienced.”
Romer became an instant celebrity on St. Thomas. There was a parade in his honor and a day dedicated to his achievement. The locals didn’t want him to leave, but his journey wouldn’t be complete until he reached New York City. After six weeks of rest, it was September and the heart of hurricane season. When Romer chose his departure day, the harbormaster considered it unsafe and wouldn’t sign his clearance papers. So Romer crept down to his kayak under the cover of night and made the 100-plus-mile crossing to Puerto Rico.
His reception in Puerto Rico was just as exuberant. By this time, news of his feat had reached most of the islands and locals were thrilled to get a look at Romer and his boat. Despite imperfect weather, Romer was confident that he’d reach New York. According to an article in the Woodville Republican (September 20, 1928), “He knew that his trip would be successful, that nothing any worse than the experiences of the first part of the journey could possibly befall him.”
He was wrong. Exactly an hour after he left the Puerto Rican harbor, a hurricane warning was issued for an impending Category 5 storm. The Okeechobee (also known as the San Felipe Segundo) hurricane carried sustained winds of 160 mph. It remains the second most deadly hurricane in North American history. Romer didn’t stand a chance. Neither his body nor his boat were ever found.
Romer kept a detailed log book of his voyage, which a few people were aware of. If anyone was ever granted permission to read it, they’re not talking. We wonder if Romer was a man of few words because he was saving his best stories for when he published a memoir based on that log book. Or perhaps he was still processing the terror he obliquely referred to in his limited interviews. It was his story to tell, and we will never know the details.
Due to variations in boat designs, there’s a long list of people claiming to the be the first to kayak across the Atlantic. Most people give Romer credit for being the first to solo kayak the stretch, but his crossing is sometimes discounted because of his sail mount and the amount of time he spent with wind/sail assistance. Either way, everyone agrees that his journey was one the most badass sea kayaking expeditions in modern times.
Photos by Abrget47j and public domain.