Monday, July 9, 2012

A True(ish) Story - Harbo & Samuelsen

In Brooklyn, New York,
at the turn of the century,
Lived two young Norwegians
so brave and so bold,
Frank Samuelsen only halfway
through his twenties,
George Harbo had just become
thirty years old.

Now, Harbo had spent all his life on the water,
he shipped in square riggers while barely a lad.
His partner likewise was no stranger to workin',
No matter the task he gave all that he had.

“We'll see you in France
or we'll see you in Heaven,”
cried Harbo and Samuelsen out on the bay.
Two hardy young oystermen after adventure,
no one believed they could row all the way.

Many men had attempted to cross the Atlantic,
in small wooden boats that were driven by sail.
Those that succeeded were welcomed as heros,
but many there were who did nothing but fail.

Then a rich publisher offered a challenge
that men in a vessel no matter the size
could not make the crossin' without steam or canvas,
and ten thousand dollars he named as the prize.

Now dredgin' up oysters by hand is no picnic,
and these two young fellas were tough as a whip.
Said Frank, “If we row only four miles an hour,
in fifty-four days we could finish the trip.”

Obtaining a sponsor
they started their training;
they ordered a dory made of cedar and oak.
Just eighteen feet long
with a draft of eight inches,
and Fox was the name of their cockleshell boat.

On the sixth day of June,
eighteen-ninety and six,
Messrs. Harbo and Samuelsen started to row.
They took food and water to last until August,
and the newspapers said
they were foolish to go.

From the slip in Manhattan
they rowed through the narrows,
and out for the gulf stream and onto the deep.
Each day they would row
eighteen hours together;
each night they took turns
gettin' three hours sleep.

Well, their stove wouldn't light
so they ate cold provisions.
Their arms and their hands
became swollen and cramped.
The odd passing vessel that took 'em on board,
was their only relief from the toil and the damp.
Then out on the Grand Banks
the weather attacked 'em;
the wind humped the water
into mountainous waves. They lashed down their oars;
they tied on their lifelines
and prayed they were not going
straight to their graves.

A monstrous wave hurdled out of the darkness,
rolling over the Fox and her terrified crew.
Their lifelines held fast
but they lost half their water,
and most of their food it was swept away, too.

They carefully rationed the little remainin',
prayin' for help as they rowed through the brine.
At last a tall ship appeared on the horizon
with the colors of Norway a floating behind.

Well, the Captain could not be convinced
they weren't crazy, but he gave them supplies
and they went on their way.
By the lines on the charts
they were half-way to Europe,
and now they must row sixty miles every day.

The weather held fair,
the two men kept pulling,
all during the days, far into each night.
Then early one morning before the sun rose,
far out on the horizon they spotted a light.

On August the first they made land at St. Mary's,
off the south coast of England
close by Bishop's Rock.
In amazement the townsfolk
gathered down by the water,
where Harbo and Samuelsen barely could walk.

Most men would have stopped then
to bask in the glory,
after having been sunbeaten,
capsized and starved.
But they were both back in their boat
the next morning,
and in less than a week they arrived at Le Havre.
So all of you listening
that yearn for adventure,
like Harbo and Samuelsen so long ago.
Like them be prepared for the task you'll be facin',
they were not only brave
but by God they could row!

© Jerry Bryant - post by Mark Olson

Bryant says of his ballad: "I had to write this song (1985) because it was astounding to me that these two men had accomplished such a feat over 100 years ago and NO ONE REMEMBERED. I am amazed at the perseverance, guts and stamina it took for them to cross the ocean in an 18 foot open boat, without the benefit of freeze-dried food, GPS navigation systems, radios, flashlights, nylon, aluminium, and everything else modern adventurers take for granted. My hope is that my song will allow an awareness of Harbo and Samuelsen's achievement to reach a wide audience, and will provide an inspiration for folks to keep trying no matter what obstacles confront them."
More about George Harbo and Frank Samuelson, the first men to row across the Atlantic Ocean in 1896 without sail or steam, and the book Daring the Sea based on the original logs.