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David Nightingale: Harbo (1864-1909) & Samuelsen (1870-1946)


Harbo & Samuelsen – law firm? Insurance Company?

No – they were immigrant Norwegian clam diggers, who rowed from NYC to England in 1896.

In that year, 6'3” Frank Samuelsen was 26 years old, and George Harbo was 32.

They had planned the trip for over a year, as a way to make their mark beyond clam-digging. They were each hard workers, with high integrity and considerable skills as fishermen, earning fair enough wages to support themselves –, and Harbo was happily married to his Norwegian sweetheart Anine, with 3(?) small children and a house in Brooklyn. Samuelsen was unmarried, but with a sister also living in that section of Brooklyn that had many Norwegian immigrant families. Samuelsen's parents and other siblings still lived in Norway on a small farm.

Harbo and Samuelsen left the Battery in their open row boat, in June 1896, with onlookers yelling “Good luck!” “You're mad” and “Off to Davy Jones' locker”. The wooden boat was 18' long, no rudder, and they had stocked it with cans of corned beef, baked beans, ham, salmon, coffee, boxes of brown bread, a crate of 250 raw eggs, and 60 gallons of water stored in galvanized steel tanks secured to the bottom. They had several extra pairs of oars, all secured to the boat, and at each end was a water-tight compartment holding Harbo's writing paper, matches, a nautical almanac, a quadrant (they could not afford a sextant) and a small kerosene stove. Also with them was a large American flag. Their boat was called the FOX, after R.K.Fox, owner and publisher of the Police Gazette, a popular local NY paper. While the publisher didn't believe they would make it he had given them some minor assistance, because it would sell papers.

The Statue of Liberty had been unveiled just  10 years earlier, and Marconi's faint Morse code signals would not travel between Cornwall and Cape Cod until 1901.

Gales, fog, rain and heavy seas battered them for their first 3 weeks, and the two were cold and wet most of the time despite their oilskins. Not far from the Grand Banks as they rowed through the night, on 3 hour watches, an iceberg loomed above them. More gales from the direction of Canada gave 20 foot waves, white-capped and frothing, and after a month at sea a 40 foot night-time rogue wave broke over them. The sailors were lifted up into the air, out of the boat; their rope tethers wrenching their bodies painfully  – and they found themselves gasping in the freezing North Atlantic but fortunately still attached to the now upside down. They had wisely put a railing on the underside, and managed to right the boat in the raging waves and wind, but the next morning, sodden and depressed, they realized much of their supplies were gone. There was perhaps enough food and water for another 5   days if they limited themselves to 1 meal a day.

The westerly gales however had blown them many miles.  David Shaw's book, “Daring the Sea” is taken almost entirely from Harbo's log. Shaw comments that while they had each other – what if one lifeline had broken?    5 days of food and water, half way between England and America meant certain death from starvation and dehydration. But, by a stroke of luck, in calmer weather, a sailing vessel carrying lumber from Canada to Europe, and temporarily slowed by lack of wind, actually saw them as they frantically rowed closer. Astonishingly, it was a large boat with Norwegian captain and crew! Given a hearty evening meal, a night of rest, and – most importantly – accurate latitude and longitude, Harbo and Samuelsen were restocked with food and water, and,with still sore hands and burned skins, the next day were on their way again.

The earlier foul weather let up for much of the 2nd half of the Atlantic, and the weak Gulf Stream was a help. Harbo's careful noontime measurements of latitude kept them on a remarkably accurate course, and on August the 1st they reached landfall, which was the rocky Scilly Isles just off Cornwall.

There isn't time to describe how their little kerosene stove caused a fire early on, during heavy seas and winds, and how, after Cornwall, they went on to Le Havre, and rowed up the Seine to Paris, nor how they did not earn the monetary rewards they had hoped for. For a while they went back to clam digging off the New Jersey shore. Harbo died only a dozen years later from pneumonia, in 1909, and Samuelsen returned to Norway after a few years to run his family's small farm. He died in 1946.


“Daring the Sea; the True Story of the First Men to Row across the Atlantic Ocean”, by David W.Shaw, 1998, Citadel Press, Kensington Publishing Corporation, 850, 3rd Ave., New York, NY 10022.

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.

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