Howard Blackburn: Remembering a Hero Adventurer
e don’t know exactly how cold it was when Harold Blackburn and his dory mate got separated from their fishing schooner off of Nova Scotia in January of 1883, but we know it was cold. Damn cold. It was so frigid that Blackburn’s hands froze to his oars, and his mate, Thomas Welch, died huddled in the bow of the small boat.
After five long days of rowing and bailing the boat with the deadweight of his fellow doryman beside him, Blackburn finally pried his frostbitten claws off the oars on land. He was taken in by a homesteading family in Newfoundland who did their best to nurse him back to health over the winter. Each day they soaked his frostbitten hands in poultices of flour and cod oil. But day by day, his digits fell off. He eventually lost all of his fingers, one toe and both his thumbs down to the first joint.
He recalled later that when his frozen hands would strike the oar that night, “...It would sound just like so many sticks...Then the oar would strike the side of my hand and knock of a piece of flesh as big around as a fifty cent piece...The blood would just show and then seem to freeze.”
When Blackburn finally returned home to Gloucester, Massachusetts he was hailed as a hero, a man among men in a town full of a hard, salty fishermen. But that was really only the beginning of a life well lived, full of adventure and bravery. That story, of one of America’s true hero adventurers, is little known outside of the fishing community and of Gloucester, but Joseph Garland tells it expertly in the fascinating book Lone Voyager.
After Blackburn arrived home, locals took up a collection and gave it to the brave fishermen. That money would allow Blackburn to open up a pub, which is still open today though it operates under a different name. And even though he would never work on a fishing boat again, the loss of his fingers didn’t stop him from living an absolutely epic life of adventure on the sea.
While business was good at Blackburn’s pub, the urge for adventure became an unscratchable itch for Blackburn. In 1889 he organized a mining expedition to Alaska. He led a crew of sailors on a trip around Cape Horn, and up to San Francisco. But because of disagreements, he abandoned the crew before heading for Alaska. But that long journey around South America, confirmed his suspicion that he was still an able seaman despite his disability, and it planted the seed for more adventures.
When he returned to Massachusetts, he came up with a plan to sail solo across the North Atlantic to Gloucester England. He would do it in a small 30-foot boat called the Great Western. People thought he was crazy. A fingerless man, sailing alone across the ocean? Only five men before had completed a solo transatlantic journey. But Blackburn was committed.
And he did it in 62 days.
During the crossing he endured driving rain, fog banks that lasted weeks, a steamship that almost ran him over, and other even more unpredictable occurrences. “One day a very heavy black cloud passed over,” he says. “A long sharp point shot gradually down towards the water. All at once the water around the boat began to leap and jump in all directions.” Despite that waterspout, and the fog, and the storms, after 60 days he saw Cornwall’s bluffs. His dead reckoning and navigation skills had landed him pretty much exactly where he wanted to go.
That was the first of Blackburn’s adventures. In 1901, he sailed to Portugal on an even smaller boat (25 feet long overall) called the Great Republic. He tried to make a race of it, putting out a call to all sailors and offering a $500 winner take all purse, but no competitors would take up the challenge. He embarked anyway, and completed the journey in 39 days.
Then he had the Great Republic shipped back to the States and left for a journey that would take him up the Hudson River, through the Erie Canal, across the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi.
The U.S. lakes and rivers though would prove to be even more challenging than the North Atlantic. His boat was too big to portage and the warmer water in Florida set the scene for some surreal sights. “One evening while I was washing some shells in the river near the inlet,” he says, “I saw a fight between an alligator and a shark. It was the greatest battle I ever saw.”
We never get to find out who won.
Blackburn would try one more transatlantic crossing in an even smaller 17-foot boat, but this time the ocean would prove too much of an obstacle. After surviving two gales, he was forced to turn around and head back to Nova Scotia and then eventually to Gloucester.
Blackburn died in 1932, but his legend lives on in two very fitting ways. To this day Blackburn’s old pub, now called Halibut Point, still serves beer and has some of the best chowder in Gloucester. Pictures of the Lone Voyager hang from the walls there. And there’s also Blackburn Challenge, a 20 mile paddling/rowing race around Cape Ann. And though it takes place in the summer, no doubt Howard Blackburn would appreciate all the aspiring adventurers taking to the sea. [H]
John Peabody runs The Hand & Eye — a creative space that equips makers and entrepreneurs
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Images ©: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6. Library of Congress; 3. Winslow Homer; 7. Halibut Point Restaurant