In the year 1878, there was great rivalry between the New England coastal cities of Portland and Boston. In those days, the best rowers raced for prize money. Michael Davis of Portland had already defeated one famous Boston rower, George Faulkner, on the Charles River in front of 30,000 cheering spectators. When a race was arranged between Davis and Boston’s best rower Patrick Reagan, the excitement was comparable to a championship prizefight. A neutral location was needed, and Silver Lake, about thirty miles south of Boston was chosen. A special train was chartered to help transport the rowers and thousands of spectators from Boston to Silver Lake, and it was crammed full with fans from both cities.
The boats they used were the racing shells or "sculls" of the period. Reagan's boat was most likely the typical sliding seat variety, whereas Davis had been experimenting with sliding riggers, which is probably what he was using on that day.
The race was 2 miles out to a stake, around the stake, then back to the starting line. Stake races were popular in those days, because the spectators could see both the start and the finish. Davis won by a large margin, and the results were challenged with a claim that Reagan was fouled at the turning stake. Fights broke out, but eventually the bets were paid. Reagan had bet all his family’s assets on the race and was now broke.
Sick with exhaustion from the race and with the knowledge that his family lost everything, he was carried back to the train. That evening the train filled with passengers including Reagan headed back to Boston, while Davis stayed behind, celebrating his victory with friends and admirers. An open switch at a sidetrack caused the returning train to derail. Railroad employees on a freight train waiting on the sidetrack saw the accident happen and sped off toward Boston to get help. To get more speed, they unhitched their freight cars. The unhitched cars rolled back down the tracks, smashing into the derailed train, compounding the disaster.
Reagan and 18 other passengers were killed, and more than 190 others injured, making it the worst train disaster in New England history.
Roger Williams (the Founder of Rhode Island) was an English clergyman who immigrated to Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631. Five years later he was banished from the Colony for being too liberal and too friendly with the Indians.
He founded Providence, a community based on religious freedom and democratic ideals, outside the boundaries of Massachusetts at the head of Narragansett Bay. Later, he obtained a royal charter for the Colony of Rhode Island.
Williams gave up the clergy and ran a trading post. There were no roads or bridges at the time, and he traveled throughout the area on foot and by boat. He mastered the Indian’s language and had friendly relations with them, often mediating in disputes between Indians and Colonists.
By 1670, the Quakers were gaining political power in Rhode Island. Although Williams tolerated the Quakers, he had differences with them, and tried to discredit the teachings of their leader, George Fox. On August 8, 1672, in an attempt to debate Fox, Williams rowed himself some thirty miles from Providence to Newport, leaving in the morning and arriving that night before midnight. The debates took place the next day, but Fox was not present.
30 miles in one day would be a challenging row for anyone. What makes this row amazing is that Williams was about 70 years old at the time. He must have been one tough cookie. He said that God helped his old bones row the distance. The prevailing summertime winds in Narragansett Bay are from the south, so he probably had headwinds most of the day. The tides reverse direction every 5 3/4 hours, so he would have had tides running in both directions. Then he rowed for several hours at night, without the aid of lights. The row boat he used was described as a “great canoe” which may have been fitted out with a pair of oars, as was common on ships’ boats of the time.
Howard Blackburn was a native of Nova Scotia, Canada. In 1883, at the age of 24, he was a doryman on the schooner Grace L. Fears, sailing out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. The Grace L. Fears had six dories—the two man fishing boats that were lowered over the side of the schooner when the fishing grounds were reached. The dorymen set out their trawls (long lines with about 500 baited hooks, an anchor on one end, and a float at the other), then rowed back to the mother ship to wait for the fish to find the bait and hook themselves.
On January 26, the Grace L. Fears was anchored on Burgeo Bank, a rich fishing grounds about 60 miles south of Newfoundland. Captain Alec Griffin ordered the men to retrieve their trawls early because a storm was brewing. Blackburn and his dory mate, Thomas Welsh, were slow at retrieving their lines. By the time they were done, it was snowing heavily, and they lost sight of the ship. They rowed in the direction of the ship, but were downwind in the howling gale. They anchored their dory and waited for dawn, bailing out the spray and chipping away the ice that froze onto the sides and gunwales to keep the boat from becoming top heavy and capsizing.
In the morning, the snow stopped, but the ship was nowhere to be seen. The wind was still blowing so they continued at anchor, bailing and chipping away the ice. While bailing, Blackburn somehow lost his gloves. His hand began to freeze, and knowing that they would soon become useless, he placed them on the oars and let them freeze into curved hooks. The men decided to try to row for the coast of Newfoundland, 60 miles to the north. Blackburn rowed while welsh bailed and chipped the ice.
Sometime during the second night, Welsh expired. Blackburn continued rowing without food or water, knowing that to stop would mean death.
Blackburn continued rowing through the third day and third night, with his dory mate’s body lying frozen in front of him.
On the fourth day the sea was calm and in the afternoon he saw the coast of Newfoundland. He continued rowing.
On the fifth day he rowed up a river on the coast and was found by the inhabitants of Little River, Newfoundland. A family there took him in, nursed him and treated his frostbite as best as they could, soaking his wounds in brine solution, then applying poultices of flour and cod liver oil. He lost all his fingers and half of each thumb. He also lost several toes from the ordeal.
In 1886, Blackburn found his way back to Gloucester where he was welcomed as a hero. Since he was no longer able to work as a fisherman, sympathetic townspeople helped him raise enough money to open a cigar store, which soon became a successful saloon. Blackburn prospered and paid back the monies given to him many times over. But he was not satisfied being a landlubber. He bought a sloop, The Great Western, which he learned to sail despite his disability. In 1899 Blackburn sailed single handed to England, the trip taking 62 days. In 1901, he made a second solo crossing of the Atlantic, setting a new record of 39 days.
The Blackburn Challenge 22 mile rowing race off the coast of Glocouster was named in Blackburn’s honor.
Blackburn died in 1932 at the age of 72.
The Atlantic Rowing Race was first run in October 1997. It starts in the Canary Islands, a group of islands belonging to Spain and located off the coast of Africa. It finishes in the island nation of Barbados in the Caribbean Sea. The course is similar to that taken by Columbus when he traveled the Atlantic, and is timed to avoid the hurricane season. The distance traveled by the individual boats varies depending on the exact route followed, but is in the range of 2,700 to 3,000 miles.
Until 2005, all the boats entered were of an identical design known as the Atlantic Rowing Race Doubles class boats. These boats are designed for two rowers and are 23.4 feet (7.1 meters) long with a beam of 6.3 feet (1.9 meters). The boats are produced as kits which can be easily shipped anywhere in the world for assembly by amateurs, and many of the race teams build their own boats. The boats are made of marine plywood, stitch and glue construction and reinforced with fiberglass. These boats are self righting and can be completely sealed with hatches. They have an open rowing deck amidships with two sliding-seat rowing stations, an enclosed storage compartment forward and enclosed sleeping compartment in the aft. They weigh 550 pounds empty and have 330 pounds of water ballast. Fully laden, they weigh in at 1,650 pounds.
The typical regimen for the two person boats is for both team members to row during daylight hours, and at night one sleeps while the other rows. Someone is always rowing unless the weather is severe. Most crews have two hour shifts.
In the 1997 race, 30 boats started and 24 finished. The winning team were New Zealanders Rob Hamill and Phil Stubbs, finishing in 41 days. Second Place was the French team of convicted murderer Pascal Blonde and his parole officer Joseph Le Guen, finishing in 49 days. Finishing in third place was the British husband and wife team of David and Nadia Rice, taking 55 days. The last finisher took 100 days.
The race was run for the second time in 2001, with 36 two person boats starting, and again it was won by a New Zealand team, Steve Westlake and Matt Goodman in 42 days. The fourth place boat that year was powered by two women, Steph Brown and Jude Ellis from New Zealand in 50 days. The last to finish was Debra Veal rowing solo after her husband became claustrophobic and gave up 13 days into the race. Debra crossed the finish line after 111 days of rowing. One boat was sunk at sea in compliance with maritime law after its crew gave up and were remove by the safety vessel.
The 2003 race was won by New Zealanders Kevin Biggar and James Fitzgerald in 40 days (a new record).
The 2005 race (which is under way at the time of this writing) has four boats of the Woodvale Fours class entered, each with a team of four rowers. Two of the teams are all women and two are all men. This is a new design of ocean rowing boat, 20 meters in length and 1.9 meters beam. These are professionally built foam core construction with fiberglass skin. There are also 20 Doubles and 2 Singles boats entered in the race. It will be interesting to compare the results of these various teams.