Across the sea

An interview with champion rower Frank Samuelsen’s great-niece, Sonja Nerjes

Drawing of Frank Samuelsen and George Harbo in their rowboat, the Fox.

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.

In 1896, Norwegian-American rowers George Harbo and Gabriel “Frank” Samuelsen ventured across the Atlantic in a rowboat, ending their voyage in the Isles of Scilly, off of western Britain. Their amazing journey was recently reimagined by Stein Hoff, who had a horrendous time in the Atlantic and almost lost his life. (An interview with him will be forthcoming.) With all the renewed interest in the almost-forgotten Samuelsen and Harbo at the time of their arduous trip, I thought it would be nice to hear from his great-niece, Sonja Nerjes, who resides in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

She was asked to speak about Samuelsen for a group of Norwegian women who were touring Brooklyn in November.

From her talk we learned that “in 1867 Harbo and Frank Samuelsen came to America and worked as fishermen and clammers. My grandmother was here also. They thought they would row across the ocean in a rowboat in 1896. A newspaper sponsored them. They had their boat built in New Jersey, by special order.

“My grandmother, Carolina, was there at the time [of the launch] at the Battery [in New York]. She cried. She thought she would never see them back again. They had oilskin suits. They had no communication. They went through a terrible storm and turned over.

“Eventually, they reached Le Havre, France, and went on to the Scilly Islands, as planned. They thought they would be given recognition and money. Nansen’s trip [the Fram expedition, which happened almost simultaneously] took away from theirs. Frank went back to Norway. Harbo stayed in Brooklyn and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery. About 10 years ago, I visited Farsund, Norway, and they showed me the house he had lived in.

“We had in our house several pictures of their rowboat. My grandmother never spoke about it. She was disappointed that they had done this terrible, harrowing trip.”

I spoke to Nerjes to get a richer picture of Frank Samuelsen and to see how she feels about the renewed interest in his daring feat.

Victoria Hofmo: What did you hear about Samuelsen growing up?

Sonja Nerjes: I only know that my grandmother thought it was crazy for those two young men to go off in a rowboat. Of course, she was worried about them.

What got me interested again was my daughter’s husband, who lived in Middletown, New Jersey. He had a boat tied up in a yacht club that is right near the boat builder of The Fox. There was a replica built of The Fox that was in the 17th of May Parade. They found the plans in this boat yard, Long Branch Ice Boat and Yacht Club. They tried to row the replica of the boat on the centennial, 1996, of their voyage. After exhausting 10 rowing teams and fighting poor weather and the foal tide they had to turn back at the Veraazano Bridge. [This attempt is covered, along with Harbo and Samuelsen’s voyage, in the book Daring the Sea, by David Shaw.]

VH: How did the replica boat wind up in the parade?

SN: Because Spencer Samuelsen, my cousin, was there. He is a grandson to Frank Samuelsen and was interviewed in David Shaw’s book. Spencer was in Norway as a young boy. He knew his grandfather.

So Harbo and Samuelsen’s record remains. Skipping generations, their tale is inspiring people today: writers, composers, family members, countrymen, adventurers, and cheerleaders.

They are getting their due, some 100 years later. First there is the monument dedicated to them in Farsund, Norway. There is a movement to have a replica of the monument placed along New York’s harbor, where they left for their voyage.

Second, there is the recent expedition by Stein Hoff to replicate their trip, following their same course, but solo. It’s interesting how through the generations people have changed their outlook on their endavor. While Nerjes’s grandmother was angry about the trip, today it is very different.

When Stein Hoff did not finish, he felt he had failed to achieve his goal. But others were excited and told him that they had been following his journey online. Their response changed his view.

The fact that Hoff didn’t make it, nor any other duo in more than 100 years, just reinforces how remarkable Harbo and Samuelsen were. It is just a shame that they did not live to see how their heroic deed has been reclaimed and celebrated, sparking men and women to dream.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 30, 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.