This is a true 19th century tale of incredible courage. Lost in a winter storm in a small dory, with fingers so frozen that he lost them, Howard Blackburn pulled off an epic feat of survival. Years later, without fingers, he set the world sailing record crossing the Atlantic alone.
Blackburn first came to the attention of the nautical world in 1883, at age 23, when he was trawling for halibut aboard the schooner Grace L. Fears, on the Burgeo Bank off Newfoundland. On a cold and blustery January day, the captain of the Fears steered the ship over the fishing ground and ordered the anchor dropped at his favorite spot. The crew then lowered six 18-foot dories. Howard Blackburn and Tom Welch climbed into one and rowed away from the mother ship to their assigned area, where they set their trawl lines dangling toward the ocean’s floor, with hundreds of baited hooks at fifteen foot intervals.
Because a squall was moving in, Blackburn and Welch hauled in their trawl lines. As they were both rowing for the schooner, the squall hit. But they were rowing into the wind and within minutes they were in total whiteout conditions. Try as they might, but they could not reach the Fears. A few hours later at nightfall, they decided to drop anchor. The snow stopped, and they could see the dim light of a torch on the distant mother ship. When dawn broke, the Fears was gone, and the two men were alone, sixty miles from Newfoundland.
Wild Unforgiving Weather
The seas gave them no mercy and threatened to capsize the dory, forcing the men to take turns pulling on the oars while the other bailed. Spray hitting the dory instantly froze, coating it in a thick sheet of ice, while waves crashed up and over it. Blackburn took off his mittens and dropped them in the bilge so he could use his fingers to fashion a drag from a buoy keg. The improvised sea drag worked, helping to hold the bow to the wind. Water still came up and over the dory, and as Welch bailed he may have inadvertently scooped up Blackburn’s mittens and pitched them overboard. A couple hours later, both of Blackburn’s hands were frozen to the bone. Knowing he’d be next to useless without his hands, he wrapped his fingers around the oars and let his hands freeze solid in that shape, like claws. In that position, he could use his hands for both rowing and bailing.
Sometime during the second night, the cold sapped Welch’s will to live. He stopped bailing and lay frozen, huddled in the water-soaked bow. Blackburn grabbed his mate and said, “Come, Tom, this won’t do. You must do your part. Your hands are not frozen and beaten to pieces like mine.” But Welch replied, “Howard, what is the use, we cannot last until morning. We might as well go first as last.” By dawn, Welch was dead. The following day, the seas calmed a bit and Blackburn started to row north, hoping to make Newfoundland. His frozen hands were disintegrating before his very eyes, as Blackburn later described, “the end of the oar would strike the side of my hand and knock off a piece of flesh as big around as a fifty-cent piece, and fully three times as thick.” Late on the fourth day Blackburn’s tenaciousness paid off when he spotted land and forced himself to bend to the oars harder still, directing the boat toward the mouth of a brackish river.
Was the End Near?
“I would have given ten years of my life for a drink of water,” he later said. He found an abandoned shack and spent a freezing night; not daring to sleep for fear the cold would claim him. Instead he paced the floor of the shack, eating snow, which did little to quench his thirst. The next day his willpower was giving out: “I looked around me but could see no escape and said to myself, “It is too bad that it must end like this after such a struggle.” But he dug deep for strength and courage and rowed his cracked and battered dory further up the river and finally found an inhabited cabin.
The cabin was owned by the Lushman family. Mrs. Lushman placed his frozen feet and hands in a tub of cold water. “In a few minutes I was wishing myself in Welch’s place. I will say no more about the agony…” Blackburn’s fingers could not be saved and over the next two months, dry gangrene set in. He eventually lost all his fingers, half of each thumb, five toes, and the heels of both feet. His flesh, however, grew over the stumps of his hands and feet and covered the wounds with scar tissue.
A Record-Breaking Sail
Most men surviving such an experience, would understandably curse the sea and never again set foot in a boat. But not Blackburn. After several more nautical adventures, he decided, at age 39, to sail solo to England. After two months of being bedeviled by fog, calms and easterly winds, Blackburn astounded the world by entering Bristol Channel and stepping onto land at Portishead, England. Still he was not satisfied. Two years later, he made another solo sail, in a 25-foot sailboat, across the Atlantic. It took him just 39 days to cross the ocean, setting the record for the fastest, single-handed nonstop voyage across the Atlantic ever sailed.
Shortly before he died, Howard Blackburn gave a short account of his survival ordeal. You can read it here. Several books have been written about Blackburn which incorporate some of his most vivid recollections. Among the best is Lone Voyager, by Joseph Garland.