There are many amazing story’s and maritime tale’s surrounding America’s oldest seaport, Gloucester Massachusetts, but none so legendary as the tale’s of Howard Blackburn. Whenever a retched, “I can’t” crosses my mind – I remember Howard Blackburn. When I’m feeling overwhelmed – I remember Howard Blackburn. In any moment of complete and utter despair – I REMEMBER HOWARD BLACKBURN. The story of this man’s life, a harrowing tale of survival followed by countless self inflict challenges, distort the boundaries of human limitation. And that’s exactly why he’s one of my all time favorite sailors of old. Here, in short, is the tale of Gloucester’s “Man of Iron.”
In 1883, at age 24 Blackburn was a doryman aboard the schooner Grace L. Fears a Halibut fishing vessel out of Gloucester MA. One cold January day the captain ordered the men out in their dories to collect the trawls (long lines of baited hooks) early because a storm was brewing. Blackburn and his dory mate Welsh hoped to it, but by the time they finished collecting their lines a thick fog had rolled in and they lost sight of their ship. As the snow began to fall, the wind began to howl and the seas began rise, they gave up hope of finding their ship in such conditions and threw out anchor.
All night they bailed out the dory after every pounding wave and used their fishing gaff’s to chip away ice accumulating on the gunwales. The next morning arrived, the snow stopped but the sea and wind still ragged and the Grace L. Fears was nowhere to be found. They continued on at anchor the seas too wild to row. Then Blackburn lost his gloves, knowing his hands would soon freeze he shaped them in hooks around the oars and continued his work bailing with his “hook hands.” Late that day Blackburn prompted Welsh it was his turn to bail and Welsh replied he couldn’t. Blackburn told him he had to help, told him “look at my hands!” Which in Blackburn own account of the story, he says he wish he’d never done because at that moment Welsh gave up all hope. Before nightfall Blackburn pulled the anchor, slid his frozen hands around the oars and began rowing for the Newfoundland coast 60 miles to the north.
He rowed, hands frozen around the oars with no food, no water, and only a frozen dead man for company for 3 days. On the fifth day of his ordeal he reached the mouth of a river where he was spotted, brought to safety and treated for frostbite. He lost all his fingers and several of his toes, but he survived. A year later he returned to Gloucester a hero. Since he could no-longer work as a fishermen the people of Gloucester all contributed to give him some money to get back on his feet. He opened a tobacco shop and later a bar. He was a successful business man in Gloucester, and this sounds like the end of the story but it’s not!
Blackburn somehow still had a love for the sea, nothing it seemed could make landlubber of him. He tiered of running his bar so he found a ship and crew and headed south around Cape Horn. The best route he could think of to California, where the gold rush was in full effect. He didn’t find what he was looking for out west and returned to Gloucester at which time he began planning a solo crossing of the Atlantic aboard the Gloucester sloop Great Western. He was successful and made the crossing to England in 62 days. Two years later in 1901 he decided he wanted to do again (why not!) this time in a smaller boat. He sailed solo aboard the Great Republic reaching Portugal in 39 days, a new record. That was his last successful solo crossing. A couple years later he set out again to cross solo in a small sailing dory but turned back when he hit foul weather. It is said that the year he died at age 72 he was still talking and planning another solo crossing. What a life, what a tale, what an absolute will of Iron.