A long, challenging journey: The legacy of Harbo and Samuelsen

Photo: Public Domain Drawing of Frank Samuelsen and George Harbo’s rowboat the Fox. They used this boat in the first recorded rowboat crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

Photo: Public Domain
Drawing of Frank Samuelsen and George Harbo’s rowboat the Fox. They used this boat in the first recorded rowboat crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

During Bay Ridge’s 17th of May weekend this year, most folks were focused on the annual Viking Fest and Syttende Mai Parade. However, in the wee hours of the morning of May 15, a very special piece of Norwegian maritime history and endurance was being reenacted along the Narrows as the Fox II rowboat, manned by Norwegian cardiologist Stein Hoff, sailed by.

His journey began at the Battery, which was also the starting point for the historic but often forgotten Atlantic crossing by Norwegian-American rowers George Harbo and Gabriel “Frank” Samuelsen, who in 1896 became the first to venture across a major ocean by rowboat. Like the dynamic duo, Hoff set off to follow the same course to St. Mary’s on the Isles of Scilly, Britain, with no support vessel. However, Hoff’s boat was equipped with satellite, a water maker, phone, internet, and radio.

Hoff has rowed long distances on several occasions, trained profusely, and prepared better than any Boy Scout I have ever met. However, he still had trepidation. “This is the biggest challenge I’ve had. I’d be stupid if I didn’t feel some apprehension. I realize it could be risky,” he told the New York Post. In the same article, he also colorfully stated his life’s philosophy: “Everybody should have a challenge. People spend too much time at their desk and wasting their lives watching Game of Thrones.”

Samuelsen and Harbo’s expedition on the Fox set a record that has stood until this day. In fact, it took 114 years for anyone to beat their time, and that took four rowers.

The courage of Samuelsen and Harbo has crept into some parts of popular culture. “The Ballad of Harbo and Samuelsen” was written by folk singer Jerry Bryant in 1985. Also inspired by their story, writer David W. Shaw took their journal and logbook and wrote a dramatic tale in 1996 about what these two men encountered. And in 2016, “Gabriel” was composed and published by Norwegian folk vocalist Ingvild Koksvik.

Victor Samuelsen is trying to bring more attention to the courageous pair and is a great advocate for all things Samuelsen and Harbo. He initiated the creation of a bronze monument of Harbo and Samuelsen and their boat in Farsund—the hometown of both himself and Gabriel Samuelsen—and his current goal is to have a copy cast and appointed at New York’s Battery Park.

He also promoted Hoff’s Fox II venture. “We chartered a large sail ship that Sunday, the Clipper City, and followed Stein out of the harbor. Exciting!” he said.

I had the opportunity to speak to Samuelsen about his vision a short time after the Fox II set off.

Victoria Hofmo: When and how did you discover the voyage of the Fox?

Victor Samuelsen: When I grew up in Farsund, Norway—where Gabriel Samuelsen came from—I was often asked if we were related. But the answer is no, I am not related.

VH: Why has it become a passion for you?

VS: A few years ago, I came on the idea to make a monument statue of the two rowers, which I thought would look good in the Farsund harbor, as well as a second possibly to be placed in lower Manhattan. The reason being that they were never given an honorable salute to what they had dared in 1896.

VH: How is that project going?

VS: I am speaking with officials and property managers downtown, and as soon as I have someone accepting the monument statue, I will have another one cast. … My goal was to have this done within summer 2016 due to the 120th anniversary, but it may be 2017.

VH: How can our readers help?

VS: I invite your readers to contact me at Victorsamuelsenjr@gmail.com with suggestions or future pledges of funding.

I recently followed up with Samuelsen to see how Hoff’s expedition went, as well as to ask about the progress of his project.

“Stein was hit with a heavy storm, just a few hundred miles off the UK, and was rescued by a freighter after losing his oars and rudder and having problems with keeping the Fox II upright,” explained Victor. This happened on August 6, and Hoff had a harrowing 11-hour wait to be rescued. His savior was the M/V Ludolf Oldendorff, piloted by Romanian Captain Edi Cherim.

On the Facebook page for his journey, Hoff wrote: “I was working my way across the cold, foggy and seemingly endless Grand Bank east of Newfoundland. I was celebrating my wedding anniversary, 60th, then 70th day at sea. On 1st August it was 120 years since Harbo & Samuelsen reached Isles of Scilly. The weather and general conditions were improving, when on 4th August I first got a mail about a storm approaching. I had ‘only’ about 750 nautical miles of a total of 2,900 left and was very nearly 3/4 way when the storm caused so much damage that I was forced to give up my attempt to row the North Atlantic alone in the wake of my 1896 heroes, George Harbo & Frank (Gabriel) Samuelsen. … I will not become the first Norwegian to do this in modern times after all.”

This setback does not negate Hoff’s incredible drive and courage, of course. His experience further substantiates the bravery of Sameulsen and Harbo who set off more than a century earlier and succeeded without the benefit of modern technology.

How will the legacy of the dynamic duo of Harbo and Samuelsen end? I think, dear readers, that it is not up to Victor Samuelsen and Stein Hoff alone but to all of us.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 4, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.