Howard Blackburn: Heroism at Sea

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 The gaff-rigged Great Western was not an easy boat for a man with no fingers to sail

The gaff-rigged Great Western was not an easy boat for a man with no fingers to sail

Tales of small-boat survival and heroism at sea still occur, and always will, but they are not as common as they once were; today’s sailor is blessed with the kinds of boat and equipment that Joshua Slocum and his predecessors could not have dreamt of in their wildest imaginings, to say nothing of advances in meteorology and communications. It is harder to get yourself into trouble, and easier to get out of it than it was not so long ago.

Sailing into the beautiful New England port of Gloucester, Massachusetts, last summer I was reminded of one of the town’s most colorful characters, a man who embodied the sailorly traits of perseverance against all odds, mental and physical toughness and a keen sense of adventure, back in the days when you had no one to rely upon except yourself.

In the harsh January of 1883, Howard Blackburn signed onto the schooner Grace L. Fears as a doryman, trawling for halibut from a flimsy rowboat on the Grand Banks. Ordered to retrieve the gear as the weather closed in, Blackburn and his mate, Tom Welch, were blown away from the ship in what became a five-day ordeal. On the second night, as they lay to a sea anchor, Welch froze to death. Blackburn decided to row toward land, 60 miles away.

 Blackburn in his prime

Blackburn in his prime

One problem: he had lost his mittens, and Welch’s were too small to fit him. Soon his fingers turned black, and the only way he could row was to shape his frostbitten hands into claws so that he could pull at the oars.

Blackburn rowed for three days and two nights with the frozen body of his friend for company, beaching the dory on the Newfoundland coast on the evening of the third day. He was taken in by fishermen and nursed back to health, though he lost all his fingers and several toes.

Upon his return to Gloucester, the death-defying Blackburn was given a hero’s reception, and donations of money poured into a fund set up for his recuperation. As a proper sailorman should, Blackburn used the cash to open a saloon, where he enthralled visitors with tall and true tales of his adventures at sea.

A restless nature cannot be denied, though, and Blackburn yearned for adventure. In 1897 he and some friends bought a schooner and sailed it round Cape Horn and up to Alaska, where a gold rush was under way. A year later they sailed back again, without any gold, but richer for the experience.

Blackburn’s appetite had been whetted, and he was ready for bigger challenges. Joshua Slocum’s book Sailing Alone Around the World had just been published and inspired by the epic voyage, Blackburn commissioned a 30ft cutter, which he intended to sail across the Atlantic to England. Great Western, as he called her, was gaff-rigged, with heavy spars and canvas sails that grew heavier when wet; how could a man with no fingers, and only the first joint of the thumb on either hand, sail such a boat, let alone accomplish all the other tasks such a voyage demands—cooking, navigation, repairs and maintenance?

The resourceful Blackburn found ways around every problem. He sailed Great Western reefed down to ease the loads, and though his crossing from Gloucester to Portishead took him 62 days, it was an accomplishment that could indeed be described as heroic.

Back in Gloucester, Blackburn once again started thinking of the open sea. In 1901 he had another boat built, the 25ft Great Republic, and invited all comers to race him to Portugal. No one took him up on his offer, so he set off alone, arriving in Lisbon 39 days later after an uneventful passage.

Was this enough to quench Blackburn’s thirst for adventure? No way. He had the Great Republic shipped home from Portugal, and the following year he embarked on another solo voyage, this time an inland excursion up the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, down the Mississippi and around Florida—becoming in the process one of the first, if not the first, Great Loopers.

Now Blackburn’s escapades began to wind down as advancing years and poor health caught up with him. He had a third boat built, this time a 17ft Swampscott Dory called America, which he planned to sail across the Atlantic to Brest, and thence down the French canals to the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, the little America proved entirely the wrong boat for such an undertaking—she capsized twice in the first few days of her Atlantic crossing, and Blackburn wisely returned to port. He did not venture out to sea again.

A popular and sociable man whose saloon was always filled with fishermen and sailors, Blackburn lived out his remaining years in Gloucester, where he died in 1931. You can see two of his boats, the Great Western and the America, in the Cape Ann Museum (capeannmuseum.org), and marvel at the power of the human spirit.

Photos courtesy of Cape Ann Museum

August 2017

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