Uncover the incredible tale of two men and a little boat that took on the Atlantic Ocean
WHO WERE THEY?
In 1896, George Harbo and Frank Samuelsen were the first people to row across the Atlantic Ocean.
THEIR EARLY LIVES
George was born in 1864 in Norway and later migrated to the United States. He settled on the New Jersey coast where he worked on fishing boats. Frank, born in 1870, was also from Norway and became a merchant seaman. Eventually, he too found work on the coast of New Jersey.
In time, George and Frank became friends and collected clams together using a small rowing boat. One fateful day, George said to his friend: ‘I’ve been thinking, Frank. It should be possible for two good men in a good boat to row across the ocean!’
Rowing a boat across the Atlantic had never been attempted before. There were so many potential problems and dangers to consider, but George was convinced it ought to be possible. Furthermore, if they succeeded, the two men would become both rich and famous. The editor of the Police Gazette, a national newspaper, said he would award the men with medals if they completed the journey.
The pair put all their hard-earned cash and savings into buying items for the trip. Their greatest expense was the construction of a new boat. The Fox was 5.5m in length and 1.5m wide with airtight compartments, to stop the boat from sinking. They stored away freshwater, tin biscuits, coffee, tomatoes, onions, eggs, cans of meat and jars of jam inside the vessel. They had a compass, sextant*, nautical almanac, charts, a logbook, and a kerosene stove for cooking on.
THE CROSSING OF THE NORTH ATLANTIC
On 6 June 1896, the men were ready to begin their intrepid journey. As George and Frank sat aboard the Fox, a large crowd had gathered to witness the start of their adventure. Officials certified the Fox was indeed a rowing boat with neither sail nor rudder. Similar endorsements were required as they rowed across the ocean and made contact with any ships they met.
During the first few days of rowing, the pair encountered fog and rain. At night, the men began a routine of overnight watches where one man would continue rowing eastwards while the other slept. After a few days of straightforward rowing, they calculated they had travelled around 100 miles. Then came their first storm with strong winds and huge waves. As the Fox tipped, turned, and rode the turbulent swells, they needed all their skills to stay afloat; the storm tested George, Frank, and the Fox!
The men were completely soaked. Their muscles ached, their hands were numb from the cold, and the deep calluses on their palms and fingers were bleeding. They hadn’t been able to drink or eat anything for many hours. When conditions finally improved, the kerosene stove was lit to make some coffee, but it burst into flames! Luckily, the abundance of water meant the fire was soon extinguished without causing any damage to the oarsmen or their boat.
Following the first big storm, the men enjoyed a period of settled conditions. They were visited by a hammerhead shark and also managed to communicate with a passing ship. More drama came when, one night, they spotted another ship, which was heading straight towards them! By making a hurried 90-degree turn, they narrowly avoided being smashed to pieces.
Shortly afterwards, the pair rowed straight into another storm. With massive waves hitting the Fox, one man rowed as best he could while the other continually bailed. The tiny craft swirled in the volatile sea, making progress impossible. The men hurriedly donned their reindeer-hair lifebelts. With their floating anchor deployed, the pair simply sat at the bottom of the craft to ride out the wild conditions.
In steadily improving weather, George and Frank chanced lighting their stove to enjoy a hot drink, the first in many days. Their next concern was the arrival of 50 or more whales joining them, any one of which could have easily upturned the Fox. Eventually, the pod swam on leaving the two men to row in a calm sea. This respite was short-lived, however, as the weather once again turned.
The storm that followed produced enormous swells for the men to row through, sometimes 9-12m high. The pair were battered and bruised, exhausted from trying to maintain direction and continually bailing water. After days of fighting the storm, one dark night, there was a definite lull in the wind and the temperature dropped sharply. At first, they thought the storm was passing, but the men soon realised the change in conditions was due to the Fox being caught in the lee of an enormous iceberg. Rowing with extra vigour, the pair only just succeeded in avoiding it.
Although the sea remained very lively, the westerly winds helped them progress eastwards. However, their tiny craft continued to be buffeted with mighty breakers which swamped the vessel. George and Frank couldn’t hear each other shout within the maelstrom. Several times they were close to being capsized, but somehow their luck held until the winds became too strong — reaching 80mph — and the Fox was overturned by a huge wave.
The two men were thrown into the water and were only saved by their life-jacket tethers, which were connected to the boat. They managed to pull themselves towards the upturned Fox, and using specially designed rails beneath the craft, were able to turn the Fox over. The men leapt in and immediately began bailing.
Half of their provisions had been lost along with their cooking gear. They shivered uncontrollably, soaked to the skin, but continued rowing. Eventually, the storm abated. Having gone without sleep for three days, they were freezing, bruised, and exhausted. Every part of their bodies ached. The situation was dire; the best they could hope for was to meet a ship so they could replenish their lost supplies.
In calmer seas, with some food and drink inside them, and after some much-needed rest, they were feeling a little better. Noticing a ship in the far distance they changed course to intercept the vessel. After tying a blanket to an oar and frantically waving it like a flag, they were spotted by the ship, and after satisfying enquiries about who they were and what they were doing, George and Frank were invited aboard for a hearty meal, hot drinks, and a gift of supplies.
Continuing their journey, the Fox enjoyed windless conditions for a number of days, only interrupted by another inquisitive shark and a pod of porpoises. Then the men spotted a becalmed ship upon the water. Members of its crew were surprised to see the small rowing boat beneath them and listened in amazement as George and Frank relayed their tale.
The weather remained stable, with days of settled seas where the men were able to row considerable distances. Soon, George and Frank began noticing more seabirds around them which were usually found nearer to land. They had calculated that the Fox was on track to reach the Scilly Isles in the far southwest of Britain. That night, in a thick fog, a beam from the Bishop Rock lighthouse pierced through the gloomy sky. In the light of the new day, on 1 August 1896, the men rowed their way towards the black cliffs of the Scillies and carefully guided the Fox to the shore.
They had done it! George and Frank had rowed across the Atlantic Ocean, covering 3,262 miles in 55 days and 13 hours.
AFTER THE CROSSING
As they tied the Fox up at the pier, a small crowd of people gathered, cheering and congratulating them. The Fox was greatly admired and was looking in reasonable condition considering the ordeal the vessel had been through. The same couldn’t be said for the boat’s bedraggled crew in their grubby oilskins, sporting unkempt beards, weathered faces, and leathery hands. George and Frank walked unsteadily along the road in the settlement of Hugh Town, the muscles in their legs weak after so long at sea.
Later, George and Frank continued their journey across the Channel to Le Havre, France, where they exhibited the Fox for a few days before rowing to Paris. They hoped to make some money there from their adventure. The men showed off the Fox and talked about their historical journey. However, they didn’t profit very much from their time in Paris, London, or any other British locations that they visited. So, George and Frank decided to move on to Christiana in Norway, the land of their birth.
The adventurers were indeed haled as heroes in many quarters when they arrived in Norway, enjoying cheering crowds, speeches, and playing bands. However, there were a number who criticised them for making such a risky journey. There was also some hostility as the Fox displayed the American and not the Norwegian flag. At a meeting with the King of Norway, he was impressed with their adventure.
But, when it came to presenting the men with any financial reward, they were only given a mere single 10 Kroner note each (£1.15 in today’s money). With their dream of making a fortune from their journey falling apart, George and Frank decided to go back to the United States. Their return was duly reported in some of America’s press with one newspaper describing it as: ‘The most remarkable event in the way of ocean navigation that ever transpired.’
The only reward they received were the gold medals promised by the owner of the ‘Police Gazette’. These exceptionally brave souls succeeded in being the first people to row across any ocean, but despite their achievements, George and Frank didn’t receive the fame or fortune they had so hoped for.
With their adventure over, these two oarsmen had no option but to return to their clamming business. In 1908, George caught pneumonia and died at the age of 44. After his friend’s death, Frank returned to Norway and went back to his family farm. He died in 1946 at the age of 76.
Sadly, the story of George and Frank’s incredible journey has faded into obscurity. Using just an open rowboat, these two extraordinary men crossed what is arguably the most difficult route over the Atlantic Ocean. Through their unwavering determination, awesome physical and mental strength, deep understanding of the sea, navigational skills, and dedicated teamwork, they accomplished the seemingly impossible.
Such was the nature of their remarkable feat, that 125 years on, George and Frank’s record still stands.
Roger Bunyan has been contributing to the magazine for many years. Always fascinating, insightful, and entertaining, it was only natural that the stories of these adventurers were compiled into a book. Against All Odds: The Stories of 25 Remarkable Adventurers is Roger’s first book and in it, he takes a more in-depth look at the adventurers he writes about in each issue of this mag. The amount of time, effort, and research that he has put in is astounding, and it makes for captivating reading. To get your copy, head on over to www.hayloft.eu.