My Favorite Survival Story
“Please, tell us about the Gloucester, Massachusetts, guy who rowed across the Atlantic Ocean without any hands or feet.” That’s a typical request I receive in the mail (or e-mail) from time to time. But most people don’t have it quite straight. Yes, a Gloucester fisherman by the name of Howard Blackburn did row across the Atlantic several times. And, yes, he’d lost both hands and both feet. But the realstory is how he lost them.
For that we must go back to the cold winter of 1863. The good ship Fears out of Gloucester was fishing above Newfoundland’s Grand Banks, putting out long lines that eventually needed to be gathered in by men in dories. Well, it seems that Howard Blackburn and a man named Tom Welch were in the last dory launched that day, and when the wind shifted from southwest to northeast along with dramatically increased velocity, the two men were blown so far away they totally lost contact with the Fears.
Realizing that trying to row against the wind toward where they’d last seen the ship was hopeless, and knowing that the ship was already miles away and probably in trouble with the storm, too, they turned toward the coast of Newfoundland. But the waves were now huge, and with the temperature well below freezing, the two men had to not only bail but also knock off ice with their oars.
They survived the first night all right, but by the second night, although the wind had moderated by that time, Tom Welch was so weak he could no longer row. During the third night, he slowly froze to death. Blackburn was now alone with a body in the bottom of the dory and he’d somehow lost his mittens. They’d gone overboard during bailing, and although there were mittens on Welch’s body, they were so frozen to his hands that Blackburn couldn’t even begin to remove them. So his hands were bare — and freezing rapidly.
Now comes the incredible part of the story. Knowing that if he let his hands become stiff and straight, he wouldn’t be able to handle the oars, he wrapped each hand carefully around the oars, bending the fingers so they’d grip. Before long, the hands and the oars were frozen together as one. In that way he was able to row another day and a half, finally reaching the coast of Newfoundland, where he was rescued. Of course, eventually both his hands and his feet (they’d also frozen stiff) had to be amputated.
For many years thereafter, Howard Blackburn was quite a celebrity in Gloucester, where he ran a popular restaurant. He didn’t return to fishing again, but we’re told he did manage to continue his adventurous ways by rowing across the Atlantic several times single-handed. Well, perhaps we should say “no-handed.” (He must have rigged up a way to grip the oars.)
There are a few old timers in Gloucester today who remember their grandparents saying that they’d often gone to his restaurant and had enjoyed talking to him. Of course, they’d told their children not to stare.