First Atlantic Row: Harbo and Samuelson in 1896
The bizarre and risky activity of “ocean drifting by rowboat” has its origin in 1896 when two Norwegian fishermen departed Manhattan in an attempt to row the North Atlantic. Their boat was a solid plank-on-frame 18-foot dory heavily-loaded with canned food and water. They landed on the Scilly Isles in SW Britain in 55½ days. It was 70 years before anyone tried to repeat this feat.
In 1966, two British soldiers, Chay Blyth and John Ridgway, tried to repeat this voyage in a 20-foot open dory. It took them 92 days. In 2015, Tom Rainey and Lawrence Walters set out from Manhattan, New York to row to SW England. They also reached land after 92 Days. At the minimum, this demands we ask how did the Norwegians beat modern rowers by 37 days? Remarkably, this only seemed to increase the respect for the Norwegians, who are regarded as the founders and patrons of the sport.
Harbo and Samuelson set off across the Atlantic in this 18′ skiff and arrived in SW England in 55 days. This is still considered the world record, even though the best time modern pairs have achieved is 92 days using modern gear like carbon fiber oars, watermakers, dehydrated food, GPS navigation etc.
This fully-documented evidence had not inspired anyone to make a side-by-side comparison of these voyages and ask how Harbo and Samuelson could possibly achieve an average speed of 60 miles per day. (Although they admitted to getting a ride and a rest on one or more sailing ships!) I suggest that is why, 120 years later, that miraculous 55-day mark is impossible to beat. Even the best equipped and trained two-man teams with all the latest high-tech gear like carbon fiber oars, watermakers, dehydrated food, GPS navigation etc. can’t some within a month of it!
However, it would only increase my respect and admiration for them if I knew they had hoisted a small sail to increase their chances and avoid dying in a storm or from starvation or thirst. After all, they were poor fishermen trying to make a name for themselves and hopefully earn some money–not upper-class Victorian sporting gentlemen who would rather die than sacrifice their honor!
While researching this, I realized what a remarkable feat of navigation it was in a tiny boat under primitive conditions on a rolling ocean. In fact, accurate navigation by sextant from a rowboat in a seaway is practically impossible, and this skill was only studied and mastered by ships’ officers. To make a landfall on the Scilly Isles after 55 days at sea almost certainly required that they regularly find a ship and ask their position. (The highpoint of the Scilly Isles is Telegraph, only 167 ft above sea level.) Besides getting a good noon sight, it requires use of an almanac and tables to work out the calculations and a large scale chart to plot the position line—having kept all the tools dry and in good working order for two months in an open boat.
Do the Math!
For a 60-day crossing the Norwegians would have needed to carry about a gallon (3.5 L) of water per man per day. That means a minimum of 55 gallons per man–a weight of 900-1000 lbs, plus 300-400 lbs of food, which would sink their dory. So they must have depended on collecting rainwater with a canvas sheet (generally called a “sail” by seamen) or stopping passing ships for supplies–a perilous way to cross an ocean!
When a four-man team followed the Norwegians’ direct route in 2010 and arrived in 43 days, the press acclaimed them for “smashing a 114-year world record.” This is a typical example of the hype, exaggeration and deception that has become standard journalistic practice.