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Courageous or Crazy? Two Men Cross the Atlantic in a Rowboat

It took an arduous search with a blueprint map in hand, in the “potter’s field” section of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery. But I finally I found the place George Harbo is buried, stacked along with his wife and daughter. After brushing away the dirt that almost completely covered the 9”X9” forgotten, flat-in-the-ground gravestone, I placed my hand on it and felt pathos, and a moving connection—oblivious and indifferent as the sea, Harbo went from historic success to obscurity.

In 1896, when the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge were still under construction, two Norwegian immigrants decided to give up their unrewarding jobs as local clam diggers on the Jersey Shore and do something extraordinary. David Shaw tells their story in his book Daring the Sea.

George Harbo and Frank Samuelson set out, on the edge of impossible, to fulfill their dreams of fame by being the first to successfully row a boat from New York Harbor across the Atlantic Ocean to Le Havre—a daring 3,000-mile adventure in an 18-foot rowboat.

The New York Police Gazette publisher/entrepreneur Richard Kyle Fox promised them a gold medal and good press if they made it. If they didn’t, he explained, the tragedy and publicity would be disastrous. Undaunted, they proceeded and named the rowboat the Fox. Not since the castaways of Captain Bligh’s Bounty rowed their lifeboats 3,600 miles across the Pacific to Europe had anyone accomplished a similar feat—and never voluntarily.

Prepared with the modern outfitters of the day, the daredevils donned sealskin suits. With confidence, hope, courage and extra oars, they challenged the merciless indifference of the sea. George Harbo and Frank Samuelson dropped oar in New York City on June 6, 1896. The ocean pitched and rolled the Fox for 55 days. In the Atlantic, they weathered stormy winds, 45-foot steep rollers, icebergs and whales. The two sailors fished to eat. They cooked and warmed themselves at night with oil lamps.

They navigated the practically invisible Fox out of harms way as it rolled and pitched through waves. Pulling oar together, they struggled to avoid the dangerous shipping lanes with huge steamships bearing down on them. Later, a raging storm’s giant wave smacked the Fox over and under, causing her to capsize. Although George and Frank managed to right the boat with the special handles attached under the hull, they lost food, oil and supplies.

After capsizing, the sea seemed intent to drive their bodies and minds to the limit. Several days later on July 1, 1896, the Canadian schooner, Leader spotted them and pulled them onboard. Harbo and Samuelson were numb and exasperated. After a shower, they joined the Captain’s table. The Captain asked for volunteers to join them aboard the Fox, but all the crew of the Leader declined the Captain’s offer. Again undaunted, the next morning they asked to be lowered back into the little Fox, and they set back out to sea, determined to continue on their self-charted odyssey to reach Europe.

On August 1, 1896, they landed on the Scilly Islands, where a small French crowd greeted and cheered them shouting, “Le petit bateau! Le petit bateau!” On August 7, the crew of two again rowed on to finally dock in Le Havre, France where their Mission Miracle was accomplished.

I tried raising money for a befitting headstone for George Harbo with no luck. I have pleaded with the cemetery to acknowledge Harbo’s proper rank as a daring record breaker, explorer, and outstanding seaman, to no avail. Not even their newsletter would print a story. At least there is a replica of the Fox at the Sandy Hook Yacht Club in New Jersey as a small mark of their adventures.

Stanley Fine, former Ad Agency Creative Director and CLIO judge now a freelance writer that has written plays and numerous travel adventure stories. finestan@earthlink.net

9 thoughts on “Courageous or Crazy? Two Men Cross the Atlantic in a Rowboat

    • Author gravatar

      Nice article Mr. Fine. There has been a rather quiet movement to give some further recognition to Harbo and Samuelsen not the least a planned monument which I have been working on for the last 7 years. There is still a lot of missing information about the Fox voyage, i.e. the original ‘Fox’ went to the Huber Museum which was in the location next to the old Luchow’s, as well there is quite a nice house Harbo lived in with his large family in Brooklyn (this is pictured in Shaw’s ‘Daring the Sea’. Harbo was a New York harbor pilot but there is no record of him with the Sandy Hook Pilots of that period.
      They were promised 2 gold medals and $10,000. the medal(s) at least one in Norway, nobody has any record of the monetary reward.
      They (Harbo and Samuelsen) toured Europe after arriving in Le Harve broke. The US Consul loaned them money out of his own pocket. Yet they continued on to Paris, cities in Germany and Norway:- returning by steamship out of Copenhagen arriving in Hoboken. There they exhibited at Huber’s Museum.
      There are many unanswered questions, thanks for bringing Harbo’s resting place to light.

      • Author gravatar

        I happen to be a historian of sorts. My wife is of Norwegian decent and her family hails from Farsund and Liste. However, my wife and I visited the Fox rowboat at the Twin Lights Museum in Highlands, NJ about 40 years ago. My wife was a founding member of the Sons of Norway Lodge in Middletown, NJ to which a number of Frank Samuelsen’s relatives were also members. Sea farers along the NJ coast and SON members and relatives were all proud of Frank and George Harbo’s exploits aboard the Fox. I don’t recall the version of the Fox my wife and I saw at the Highlands museum. My wife, Viola (Marceilussen) Glendinning is quite sure the original Fox was accepted into the Smithsonian archives. Can this final resting place for the Fox be verified? Thank you. Billl G.

      • Author gravatar

        I just discovered your comment today! I’m very sorry it took so long and would have replied at once. A week ago I was informed Dr. Stein Hoff is rowing from Battery Park to Scilly, England in commemoration to George Harbo and Frank Samuelsen. While checking the WestView News archives to email the story in an attempt to get some press coverage and found your response.

    • Author gravatar

      Stanley,
      George Harbo was my great grandfather. There is a photo in Shaw’s book of Mr. Harbo with the surviving kids, including my grandmother. Thanks for the article.

      It says here that they wore seal skin. I had thought they wore oilskins.

      Thanks,
      Dex Horton

      • Author gravatar

        I just discovered your comment today! I’m very sorry it took so long and would have replied at once.

        A week ago I was informed Dr. Stein Hoff is rowing from Battery Park to Scilly, England in commemoration to George Harbo and Frank Samuelsen. While checking the WestView News archives to email the story in an attempt to get some press coverage and found your response.

    • Author gravatar

      Dear Mr. Fine~
      I just came across this. George Harbo was my grandfather. I had no idea there was no grave stone. My son would like to do a documentary on this. We should stay in touch.
      Sincerely,
      Wendy Danison
      Marshall, N.C.

      • Author gravatar

        I just discovered your comment today! I’m very sorry it took so long and would have replied at once. A week ago I was informed Dr. Stein Hoff is rowing from Battery Park to Scilly, England in commemoration to George Harbo and Frank Samuelsen. While checking the WestView News archives to email the story in an attempt to get some press coverage and found your response.

    • Author gravatar

      If you friend me on Facebook, you can read my summary and we can be in contact, in case I can offer more details for any of your readers. Wendy’s son, Josh, has done documentaries for National Geographic and other major publishers.
      Our son, Dex, spent a year in Norway and speaks the language.
      Thank you for your excellent article. And, yes – there is more to tell!
      We are anxious to hear from you and be in contact…

      • Author gravatar

        I just discovered your comment today! I’m very sorry it took so long and would have replied at once. A week ago I was informed Dr. Stein Hoff is rowing from Battery Park to Scilly, England in commemoration to George Harbo and Frank Samuelsen. While checking the WestView News archives to email the story in an attempt to get some press coverage and found your response.

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