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.