The First transatlantic rowers were two Norwegian-born Americans who were eking out a hard living dredging oysters and clamming off the New Jersey Shore . The year was 1896. George Harbo then 32 convinced twenty-four-year-old Frank Samuelson to row with him from New York harbor to the French port of Le Havre by way of the Atlantic Ocean.
What compels some people to push beyond human limitations? Why do they venture into the unknown, risking injury or death? Is it to be known as the first, the fastest or the best? Or perhaps it’s the lure of fame and fortune – however flimsy the promise might be.
On June 6, 1896 a crowd of approximately 2,000 gathered to watch the men row the Fox from its slip near the barge office at the Battery, on the southern tip of Manhattan Island. But the excitement was dampened by the sense that they were seeing the last of these plucky men who would undoubtedly die at sea.
On June 6, 1896, The New York Herald wrote: “They are very confident that fortune is ahead of them, but seafaring men say it is nothing short of suicide.”
The New York World Claimed They Made The Challenge For Fun
The New York World newspaper had sponsored Nellie Bly’s race to beat Jules Verne’s fictional record around the world in eighty days in 1889-90. To boost readership during her race, Bly’s editors created juicy stories and a contest to guess the exact number of days she would take to return to New York. No newcomer to publicity and public challenges, the World wrote:
“The Norwegian sailors and their daring project are the talk of all the towns along Raritan Bay, In Atlantic Highlands especially, there is much speculation among the old sea dogs about the outcome of the venture. The possibility of the sailors reaching the other side is not so much in dispute as is the probably time it will take them to do it. On this point feeling has run so high that yesterday, ‘Jim’ Martin, a barber, bet Constable Willson Stryker a year of free shaves against $100 that the trip would not be made inside of seventy-five days.”
According to the World, Harbo and Samuelson hoped to make the trip in around 50 days.
When asked why they were risking life and limb they said they were tired of the Jersey coast and “wanted some diversion.”
Why Did The Two Fishermen Risk Their Lives?
We can only guess what drove Harbo (1864 – 1909) and Samuelson (1870 – 1946), to become the first transatlantic rowers. It was a time when people were gaining attention from stunts and challenges. To name a few, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland raced around the world in 1889. Annie Londonderry biked around the world in 1895. Starting in the 1890s when she was 44 years old, Annie Peck began climbing the highest summits in the world. And Annie Edson Taylor rode Niagara Falls in a barrel inn 1901.
Many accounts say that Harbo and Samuelson were chasing a $10,000 promise from Richard Kyle Fox who publisher the National Police Gazette, a popular newspaper that printed juicy stories about everything from crime to romance and sports. He was widely known to financially back numerous events that would offer fodder for spectacular stories.
No documentation of an agreement between The Police Gazette and the two fishermen has been found. But the men did name their 18-foot rowboat Fox. They had invested their savings to build it under Harbo’s supervision. According to the Police Gazette August 22, 1896:
“The boat is clinker built and of cedar, a double-ender with space forward used for water tanks, and over this a canvas cover is buttoned. Sixty gallons of water were carried in the tanks, and as the men expected to be out sixty days, that gave an allowance of one gallon per day. Provisions for the same length of time were put on board. They consisted chiefly of canned goods, for there would have been difficulty in preserving any other sort.
A cornucopia shaped bit of canvas, to be used as a sea anchor when storms arose, a compass and a sextant-completed, with two pairs of oars, the equipment of the boat. The oars not in use were secured by stout lashings, for the boat would have been in a bad way if these were lost.”
The article also states that Harbo and Samuelson set out to become the first transatlantic rowers simply to gain attention worldwide. While no specific remuneration was to come from achieving their goal, their accomplishment would “go down in the history of aquatic sports.”
Mr. Fox might have paid some of their expenses after landing. While there is no record to confirm they received a large payday from him, the article states that he presented the first transatlantic rowers with “gold medals to commemorate the accomplishment of their marvelous trip.”
The Sunday Edition New York Herald
Many accounts were published after Harbo and Samuelson became the first transatlantic rowers. Among them is the Fox’s log. The New York Herald ran a full-spread story: Remarkable Voyage of Two New Jersey Oyster Dredgers In An Open Boat on March 21, 1897.
Following are high lights from the New York Herald article.
“Three thousand two hundred miles of swelling, billowing storm swept sea crossed, with no propelling power but the muscle and sinew of two pairs of strong human arms. It sounds like a romance, but it is a fact.”
Day 4 – The First Transatlantic Rowers Encountered A Shark
Their first great adventure happened on the fourth day. Night had fallen and Samuelson was at the oars. Harbo had dropped to sleep under the canvas. Suddenly, he crawled out and asked what had hit their boat. They watched and listened. Then it came again—a bump and a scrape against the bottom of the boat.
Something flashed suddenly into view from the dark water—something white and gleaming. A huge tail cut the surface and slapped the side of the boat, splashing spray in their faces.
According to the Herald:
“Then Harbo crept under the canvas again and calmly went to sleep, knowing that on the other side of the thin board bottom prowled a fierce and hungry monster, a dozen feet long, who might, if he tried, upset this shell of a boat…”
Samuelson calmly pulled the oars through the dark, silent hours, with the ocean murmuring around hi, the fresh night wind sweeping past him, the bright silent stars looking down from above and this hungry white shark now and then showing his white sides…They were not frightened. He was company.”
Every time they thought they had lost him, he would suddenly appear within striking distance of the oar. The shark was their constant attendant. Fortunately, the shark lost interest after two days.
June 14—First Encounter With Bad Weather
A gale came up from the east. The men pulled at their oars until their arms “nearly cracked,” but they seemed to make no progress. The waves rose higher and began to wash over the boat. She would have swamped a dozen times had it not been for her water tight compartments.
They eventually abandoned rowing. Samuelson dropped his anchor on its 60-fathom line. Quickly it was pulling taut. The boat pointed into the sea and held her own.
Meanwhile, the first transatlantic rowers began emptying water with buckets.
“Times without number did the white-capped swells wash over the bows and fill the little boat to the seats. With sunset it began to calm considerably and they were able to row by turns.”
June 18—They Encountered Their First Steamer
She was a big one and steered down upon their small boat. She was the stately Fuerst Bismarek. Unsure if she would see them, they ran up the Stars and Stripes when a quarter of a mile away.
“It took several minutes for the steamer to make out the ensign of so minute an ocean traveler. Then up went the German flag in salutation…Harbo and Samuelson noticed that they were objects of much curiosity on the decks of the big steamer. They did considerable gazing them selves. It was pleasant to men and women again.”
The ship slowed down, but the first transatlantic rowers did not want them to lose time and certainly did not want to be rescued.
“The big steamer put about slowly, and sailors were busy at the davits making ready to pull the little boat upon the deck. A dense crowd gathered on her decks and the excitement there was evident even at a distance. “
The men began to violently wave them away, but the Germans did not understand their motions.
“This behavior puzzled the captain of the liner. He waited till they got within hearing distance and then shouted: ‘Are you shipwrecked?’
‘No. Bound for Europe.’ ‘
Are you crazy?’
And then they rowed off through the rough swelling seas while the passengers gave them a find ringing cheer.
July 8, 9 and 10—They Encountered Extreme Weather
The first two days were uncomfortable enough. They made no headway and finally lay to, content to hang to their anchor and await the passage of the gale.
Then on the tenth, their troubles worsened.
“Nearly every wave contributed water to the little boat. Very many broke clean over her. Hanging to her anchor the little boat plunged through them like a summer girl taking a seashore breaker head first.
When such waves came both men dropped everything, flung themselves into the bottom of the boat and clung fast to the seats. The waves washed over and then they would get up and fall to bailing.
They would not have lived ten minutes had it not been for the watertight compartments.
The battle continued for seventy-two hours without sleep, little food and drenched in icy cold water battered by the force of the waves.
They Encountered A School of Whales
At one point they encountered a school of an estimated thirty whales. It was a magnificent spectacle.
“The huge mammals seemed too be enjoying life to the utmost. They pranced and played gaily in the bright sunshine, and spouted many fountains of water into the air. They closed in upon the Fox and passed her. There was one moment when she was surrounded by whales on every side. It was a spirited sight through an anxious quarter hour. And the oarsmen successfully eluded collision that might have had dire consequences.”
August 7-They Arrived At Their Destination
They made two harbors on the Cornish coast, and crossing the channel without incident, reached Havre after sixty-two days of rowing across the Atlantic.
“Thus ended successfully what is probably the most daring sea voyage ever attempted.”
Ironically, the first transatlantic rowers told the Herald reporters that they were never sick at sea. Both caught colds on their first day on land.
They Succeeded But Their Trip Ended In Disappointment
Of course the object of all this terrible hardship and risk was money. The first transatlantic rowers expected to make themselves famous. They intended to exhibit themselves in various cities across Europe. They had hoped the crowds would pay stiff admission fees to hear their stories and to see their boat. But, the Herald reported,:
“…they expected too much. Their journey did create a sensation with news of it telegraphed across Europe. But the crowds did not come.”
“They were three weeks at Paris. These were weeks of disappointment. They made some money to be sure, but not nearly what they had dreamed of. The result of it was that they gave up their projected trip and went to London. They stayed there, giving lectures with some success. Sadly, Norway did not embrace them because they had rowed with an American flag.”
Their Record Was Finally Broken
In 1896 became the first people ever to row across an ocean. Their time record for rowing the North Atlantic Ocean was not broken for 114 years, and then by four rowers instead of two.
In 2021, Jasmine Harrison, 21, became the youngest woman to row solo across the Atlantic It took her 70 days 3 hours 48 minutes.
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