On open waters
This year marks the 115th anniversary of the voyage of the FOX, the first transatlantic crossing by oar, in an open 18-foot rowboat named FOX. The nearly impossible feat was accomplished by two young Norwegian-American seamen who left New York June 6, 1896, and arrived in Le Havre, France on Aug. 7, 1896.
By Bill Osmundsen
Norwegian American Weekly
Around the time that Nansen was lauded for his polar achievement, two other Norwegians by birth – George Harbo and Frank Samuelsen – rowed more than 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean in an 18-foot surfboat called FOX. They didn’t discover anything, but they did prove that through endurance and careful planning, two men in an open boat could actually achieve what was in 1896 believed impossible. If we look at their modest effort, compared to the mounting of the great expeditions of the Fram – Nansen, north and Amundsen south, they also exhibited great courage and fortitude and should join the ranks of explorers who have pushed the human limits. Harbo and Samuelsen were the first to successfully cross the Atlantic in an open rowboat.
Once at sea on the vast Atlantic, Harbo and Samuelsen would be mistaken by other ships for men adrift in their small rowboat, or dory men off a Nova Scotia fishing schooner. In response, they would wave off the attempting rescuers, explaining they had taken up the days challenge for a transoceanic crossing by oar. The Fox didn’t carry any sail or powered propulsion of any kind, other than two sets of strong arms and three sets of oars.
George Harbo was from Sandefjord, Norway, aged 32, and Frank Samuelsen, from Farsund, Norway aged 26. Despite their young ages, both men had plenty of experience at sea. George had been trained as a pilot and navigator and had been in the Merchant Marine. Frank had spent six years in the Merchant Marine and was promoted quickly up the chain of command to boson’s mate. After leaving Norway and years at sea, the men met in New York, George settling in Brooklyn and Frank in New Jersey.
George Harbo had arrived earlier than Frank, and witnessed the dedication of the Statue of Liberty from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife Anne and their young son Andrew. At the time, New York was bustling with horses and wagons and the docks were filled with sailing ships on the East River from Harlem to South Street. But by 1893, the country was in a deep recession, similar to our current condition and by 1896, the heroes of our story were looking for some increased income and found their way down to the Jersey Shore where they worked a surfboat, out to the clam flats to fish daily.
Clamming was hard, monotonous work with little opportunity for wealth. Harbo found out about a $10,000 prize for rowing across the Atlantic. Every day as they fished, Harbo spoke to Samuelsen about attempting a transoceanic crossing and how he figured it could be done. They would need a little financial backing to build a special rowboat called a surfboat, so named because you could launch it in the heavy surf, but modified with some water tight cubbies and hand-holds on the keel in case they capsized and had to right the boat at sea.
One day they traveled up to New York City to the offices of the Police Gazette to present to Richard K. Fox, owner and publisher of the famous sporting and sensational tabloid newspaper with their idea.
“Well, outside of the fact you have a giant as a rowing partner (referring to the six-foot-tall Samuelsen) what makes you think you can accomplish this?” Fox said.
Harbo’s plan however was convincing and Richard Fox agreed, stating, “I think the story should be worth a little ink.”
The voyage of the Fox would not be an idyll or careless attempt to grab a bit of fame by attempting this crossing. If not financed grandly, it was carefully planned, it had the important backing of the influential New Yorker, Richard Fox, an emigrant too, but of Irish origin. The boat was built by George Seamen, at his Branchport, N.J., boat shop, located close by to their fishing grounds and named in Fox’s honor.
By early June, Harbo and Samuelsen were in New York with their newly built 18-foot surfboat performing exhibition rows on the Harlem River. They wore their fine white shirts, vests and bowler hats and were photographed to document their audacious plan to row across the Atlantic. The word from their fellow seamen: “The next time we see them will be in Davy Jones Locker.” Most people, including their immediate families and friends, tried to talk them out of it.
After their exhibition rows on the Harlem River, they rowed down to Red Hook, Brooklyn on the East River. Richard Fox picked them up with a tow from his steam yacht Richard K. Fox to Bay Ridge. Then Harbo and Samuelsen cast off from their tow to begin the journey across the Atlantic.
The Fox’s crew averaged about 50 miles a day, rowing 18 hours a day and made up to 135 miles during a following sea. Harbo, the navigator, took the North Atlantic shipping route staying somewhat below the ship-ping lanes and only popped back up to get assistance with the food supplies which they had lost overboard when the FOX capsized mid-Atlantic. Those handholds, on the keel, came in handy when a 40-foot wave hit then sideways.
The most dramatic account of them being capsized comes from the original log written by Harbo:
“Friday July 10: It has been blowing a gale all night. Wind west. 8 a.m. Wind increasing. Going before it at a slow rate. 12 noon. Day’s work 100 miles. It has been blowing a gale for 2 days, and the sea is bigger than we have ever seen it on this trip. At about 8 p.m. a big sea struck us partly side-ways and upsetting the boat and us into the water. In a few minutes however we got into the boat again. We lost many things this time: Floating anchor and cable, dishes and frying pan and cook pot and one rattan seat. Everything we have in the boat soaked with water except the bread. This is the 3rd night up without sleep.”
Because they capsized, losing necessary food supplies, they hailed two sailing barks: The Cito, out of Larvik, on July 15 and Eugen, out of Christiania (Oslo), on July 24. Onboard each sailing ship, they were served dinner and received provisions to supplement the ones they had lost overboard.
During both onboard visits, they only stayed for a few hours, returning to the FOX to pick up on the ceaseless rowing. The masters of the ships reported these meetings and that the Fox was underway without power, sail or a rudder.
By Aug. 1, they had made landfall at the Sicily Islands, the western most part of the British Isles. Their 55-day record crossing was never broken for 114 years, until this past year, when four British men in a high-tech, cast hull, 23-foot rowing boat – much, much different from the FOX, finally bested the record. But considering the two extra men and the modern equipment, was the playing field level enough to make that determination?
When they arrived in Le Havre standing before the American Consul, they were sunburned, had boils on their body, and were almost unable to walk on land. They never stood up at sea – Harbo tried it but they almost capsized. They were also badly in need of funds, clothes and modest provisions.
Richard Fox met them in Paris and awarded them two gold medals, which are reportedly in a vault in Norway. It’s never been clear whether the $10,000 was a prize offered by the Police Gazette or someone else but there is no confirmation that they ever received the money, an amount today equivalent to more than a quarter of a million dollars.Their incredible feat was somewhat dismissed by their fellow countrymen. Nansen’s exploration of the North Pole was still on everyone’s lips.
They returned on the Steamship Island, which left from Copenhagen, Denmark, and arrived in Hoboken, N.J. Their arrival was noted in a New York Times article dated March 18, 1897. Because the steamer ran out of coal during the passage, it was speculated that the Captain had wanted to use the Fox, which was onboard for firewood. Legend has it that Harbo and Samuelsen put the FOX overboard and rowed it home.
The original Fox was exhibited at the Huber Museum on 14th Street, in Greenwich Village, New York after their arrival. Fame however, was brief and the significance of their heroic effort was not appreciated in their own time.
Frank Samuelsen returned to Farsund and the family farm where he died in 1946. After the voyage, George Harbo continued his work as a New York Harbor Pilot, catching pneumonia in 1908. He died at age 44, leaving his wife and a large family.
The Voyage of the Fox continues to inspire people from all over the world. As a result of their rowing attempt hopeful mariners launch rowing craft yearly. A book titled “Daring the Sea” was written by David W. Shaw about the crossing. Folk singer Jerry Bryant wrote ‘The Ballad of Harbo and Samuelsen.” And the Long Branch Ice Boat & Yacht Club built an replica of the FOX.
This article was originally published in the Jul. 8, 2011 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.