Deceased , Historic




Howard Blackburn was born in Port Medway, Nova Scotia, Canada in 1859. An adventurer by every measure, he made a name for himself defying the odds and sailing difficult voyages even after he lost his fingers, half of each thumb, and several toes to frostbite.

Accomplishments and Honors

  • 1883 – After being stranded by a winter storm in a small dory off the coast of Newfoundland, he rowed nearly 60 miles to safety, forming his frozen hands around the oars in order to keep rowing. After five days, he made it to safety, but he lost his fingers, half his thumbs and several toes to frostbite.
  • The following were solo voyages after he lost his fingers:
  • 1899 – in a modified Gloucester Fishing Sloop, crossed the Atlantic in 62 days
  • 1901 – sailed to Portugal in a 25-foot Gloucester Fishing Sloop in 39 days
  • ca. early 1900s – circumnavigated the eastern United States by sailing down the Mississippi River and back up the Eastern Seaboard

“Tuning her up for Portugal, Howard takes Great Republic for a trial spin
out of Gloucester Harbor.” Joe Garland, Lone Voyager.
Photo credit Sandy Bay Historical Society


At the age of 18, Blackburn moved south to Massachusetts, seeking work as a fisherman, and became part of the Gloucester, Massachusetts fishing community.

Blackburn first rose to fame in 1883. While he was fishing on the schooner Grace L. Fears, a sudden winter storm caught him and a dory mate unprepared while they were in their banks dory, leaving them separated from the schooner. Blackburn began to row for shore, despite the loss of his mittens; he knew his hands would freeze, so he kept them in the hooked position that would allow him to row. He tried to save one hand with a sock and thus worsened his condition by freezing his toes and yet not being able to save his fingers. The crewmate gave up and lay down in the dory and died on the second day. After five days with virtually no food, water, or sleep, Blackburn made it to shore in Newfoundland. Blackburn’s hands were treated for frostbite but could not be saved; he lost all of his fingers, and many of his toes, and both thumbs to the first joint. Blackburn returned to Gloucester a hero, and with the help of the town, managed to establish a successful saloon. The last remaining portion of the mahogany bar top from that establishment can be seen in the Cape Ann Museum Library.

Not content with this, he organized an expedition to the Klondike to join the gold rush. Rather than go overland, he and his group sailed there, via Cape Horn. Howard, after a disagreement with his partners, left the group in San Francisco after a short trip to Portland, Oregon to buy lumber to help finance the trip, and returned home never having panned for gold.

After the quest for gold failed, Blackburn turned his attention to a new challenge — to sail single-handed across the Atlantic Ocean. This had been done before, by Alfred “Centennial” Johnson in 1876, and Joshua Slocum had completed a single-handed circumnavigation in 1898; but for a man with no fingers to undertake such a voyage would be quite an accomplishment. He sailed from Gloucester in 1899, in the modified Gloucester Fishing Sloop, Great Western, and reached England after 62 days at sea.

Returning to Gloucester, Blackburn continued to prosper as a businessman, but he still hankered for adventure. In 1901, he sailed to Portugal in the 25-foot Gloucester Fishing sloop Great Republic, making the trip in 39 days. In 1903, he again set out alone, this time in the Swampscott sailing dory America, but was defeated by bad weather.

Blackburn also circumnavigated the eastern United States by going down the Mississippi River in a sailboat and back up the Eastern Seaboard.

Great Republic may be seen at the Cape Ann Museum, in Gloucester.

In 1931, at the age of 72, he began talking about another solo sail of the Atlantic, this time in Cruising Club.

Blackburn died a year later. His funeral procession on Main Street included hundreds of people. The “Man of Iron” was buried in the Fishermen’s Rest section of Beechbrook Cemetery in West Gloucester.



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