- by Carol Standish
In 1896, two young Norwegian immigrants rowed from New York City to England in an 18 foot open skiff. They set a record unbroken today of 55 days. Author, David Shaw, an avid waterman himself, accompanies the intrepid Harbo and Samuelsen every stroke of the way in his new book, Daring the Sea (Carol Publishing Group; 224pp; $19.95). The fictionalized account is based on a log book written during the crossing by George Harbo, and an expanded log dictated by Harbo shortly before his death in 1908. Shaw did extensive research, tracking down Harbo's and Samuelsen's families in the United States and Norway and interviewing members in person and by phone.
As well as family papers and diaries, Shaw unearthed contemporary newspaper and magazine accounts of the daring deed from libraries and historical societies. He states that he has "stuck to the facts and taken no literary license." Dialogue, for the most part, was taken from the expanded log.
In 1884 Norwegian, George Harbo, booked steerage passage from Liverpool to New York, paying a dear $15. He was one of more than 300,000 of his countrymen to emigrate. Norway had experienced a mid-century population boom and young men could no longer expect to achieve a standard of living as comfortable as their parents from traditional occupations such as farming, fishing and whaling.
Frank Samulesen, another Norwegian left home in 1887, shipping out in the merchant marine. After several years on the high seas he was ready to try his luck on land. Both men gravitated to the New Jersey shore which was home to several seafaring and fishing colonies. The two men met fishing and teamed up together in a clamming skiff which George built himself. Hard work promised a modicum of success until the Panic of '93.
George's wife and family returned to Norway. Samuelsen didn't feel prosperous enough to start one. Lean times led the young men to dream of faster ways to make their fortunes than the slow and back breaking labor of clamming at short prices. Over the next three years the two convinced themselves that they could achieve both fame and fortune by being the first to successfully row across the Atlantic Ocean. Joshua Slocum had left Boston in the Spray the previous year on the first solo circumnavigation. He exhibited his boat and lectured at many ports along the way. After their heroic crossing, Harbo and Samuelsen planned to tour both Europe and the United States exhibiting their boat and lecturing—making lots of money, just like Slocum and other turn-of-the-century adventurers.
As Shaw recounts, Harbo and Samuelsen certainly had the physical strength and endurance, the knowledge of the sea, the courage, and trust in one another to row from New York to England in an amazing 55 days, earning a place in the Guinness Book of World Records, still unbroken. Tragically, however, they underestimated the amount of guile and hoopla it would take to capture public attention, even in 1898. Although they approached a high visibility, big money promoter and named their boat, Fox, after him, they never got more than token support or recognition— only a couple of worthless medals. They were never able to draw sufficient crowds on either their U.S. or European tours. They made a heartbreaking pittance for their effort and in 1897 went back to New Jersey and their previous occupation, clamming.
It seems strange that Daring the Sea, written this year, is the first book to call attention to this impressive feat in an entire century. Fortunately, Shaw finally does justice to the unsung heroes' effort. The bulk of the book describes the ocean voyage of the two crazy-brave men in their 18 foot open skiff. As an adventure, the book is gripping but Daring the Sea is more than just an account of an incredible physical feat. Shaw gently reveals the innocence of two earnest, hardworking, immigrants, who had completely absorbed the American dream.