The Fox Rowboat

Posted on June 10 2019


On June 6, 1896, two young Norwegian immigrants, George Harbo and Frank Samuelson, set sail from the Battery in New York Harbor in a small rowboat bound for Europe. 

The Fox Rowboat

Image from Wikipedia.

Two months later, on August 7, 1896, after battling 45 foot waves, icebergs, whales, and massive steamships, they arrived at Le Havre, France having traveled 3,250 miles in 54 days. This record would remain unbroken for 114 years, and even then, would only be broken by a team of four rowers in a modern, carbon fiber rowboat rather than two fishermen in a wooden skiff. 

Harbo and Samuelson

Harbo, 31, and Samuelson, 27, named their boat Fox in honor of Richard Fox, a newspaper publisher who had promised $10,000 and a gold medal to anyone who could successfully row across the Atlantic Ocean.

According to this 1975 NY Times article, they carried 60 gallons of water, 100 pounds of bread, 250 eggs, canned meats, 24 emergency flares, several gallons of oil for a small stove, and an extra pair of tightly attached oars.

At one point about two thirds of the way through their adventure, an enormous wave overturned the 18 foot long Fox. The men wrote the following account in their logbook later that day:

”It has been blowing a gale for 2 days, and the sea is bigger than we have ever seen it on this trip. At about 8 p.m. a big sea struck us partly side-ways and upsetting the boat and us into the water. In a few minutes however we got into the boat again. We lost many things this time: Floating anchor and cable, dishes and fryingpan and cookpot and one rattanseat. Everything we have in the boat soaked with water except the bread. This is the 3rd night up without sleep.” 

You can read the original August 22, 1896 article about their successful voyage from Fox's newspaper, The National Police Gazette, here. According the The Gazette, the two men expected to average about fifty-four miles per day. Each man was expected to row for eighteen hours out of the twenty-four. Five hours were allocated for sleep, and one for meals.

This follow up article appeared in The Police Gazette about two weeks later, on September 12, 1896:

"Consulate of the United States of America.
                                                  Havre, France, August 12, 1896.
      Richard K. Fox, Esq., London—
Dear Sir: On the arrival of the rowboat, "Richard K. Fox," at this port, the two men, Harbo and Samuelson, reported to me in absolute destitution—without money or clothing—and I took the responsibility of providing them, in an economical manner, with the necessaries of life, on the faith of the statement of the men that the amount would no doubt be refunded by you, as the patron of the daring enterprise. I, therefore, beg to enclose herein copies of the several bills for your information and consideration.
      If the men had come upon the Consulate as destitute American seamen, regularly discharged from an American vessel, I should then have the authority to charge the government with the relief afforded, but as this is a unique case I do not feel authorized to charge the government with the expenditure, and shall have to pocket the loss, unless you are inclined to intervene.
      I have made a somewhat elaborate report to the government of the circumstances and facts connected with this wonderful feat, that adds another glory to the American name and flag, and have forwarded affidavits to establish beyond question the fact that the voyage was made in good faith and without the aid of any other propelling power than the strong arms and trusty oars of the audacious mariners.
      Hoping to hear from you at your convenience, I am, dear sir,     Yours very respectfully,
                                                   C.W. Chancellor, Consul.

      It is needless to say that the money advanced by the Hon. Consul was immediately sent him by Mr. Richard K. Fox. The POLICE GAZETTE and its proprietor's reputation for liberality in all that he is interested in are known the world over."

The FOX rowboat replica 1975

Image from Wooden Boat Magazine

You can see an exact replica of the Fox that was built in 1975 under the supervision of 92 year old Harold "Pappy" Seaman, who at age 13 had helped his father, William Seaman, build the original Fox rowboat for Harbo and Samuelson at the Long Branch Ice Boat Club in Long Branch, NJ. 

You should watch this fascinating documentary, The Sea Bright Skiff, about the tradition of Scandinavian boat building among the fishing villages of the New Jersey coast. 

You can also read more about Harbo and Samuelson's adventure in David Shaw's book, Daring the Sea.

Papat limited edition linocut FOX

Papat limited edition linocut of Fox.