Timeline Cape Ann: Howard Blackburn: A Different Wind Rises


Gloucester, Massachusetts is America's oldest seaport. For most of its 400-year history, Gloucester was the fishing capital of the world.  Its lifeblood is dangerous and costly. More than 10,000 people have left this port and lost their lives in the Atlantic. When disaster strikes, few live to tell the tale. 

But one fisherman's story of survival at sea surpasses all others. And his ambition and daring made him a legend in Gloucester and one of the most celebrated seafarers in history.  This is the story of Howard Blackburn.

Howard Blackburn was born on February 17, 1859 in a small cottage in Port Medway, a booming lumber town on the southern coast of Nova Scotia.

The Blackburns were a fishing family and Howard’s fascination with the sea was instilled at a young age.  His rough and tumble father and grandfather both earned a living on the water and Howard spent his formative years swimming, sailing and rowing the Medway River with his seven siblings.  He was exceptionally strong and independent for a child obsessed with becoming a man.  It was obvious to the Blackburns that young Howard was going to forge his own path, whether they liked it or not.

At age 10, he skipped school constantly to work at a sawmill.  Howard’s parents punished him over and over, but finally relented and let him live with a tradesman so he could earn $6 a month building cabinets. 

But woodworking soon bored Howard, so he fled the sawmill when he was 11, walked over 20 miles to the town of Bridgewater, and became a lumberjack.

Before he was a teenager, Howard toiled with rugged outdoorsmen in an unforgiving part of the world.  He developed a man’s build.  While on the job, he saw a depiction of Columbus landing in the West Indies, which further inspired him to sail the world.  The Blackburn family already boasted one world traveler, though Grandfather John’s adventure was quite unintentional. 

A few winters before Howard’s birth, John Blackburn and two crewmen planned a routine sail on his pinky boat 80 miles northeast to Halifax to exchange goods for booze.  They brought no navigational equipment.  Hours after departure, a violent nor’easter blew them off course, setting them adrift for days.  They maintained composure and followed the wind, pleasantly surprised with the unseasonably warm February weather.  Forty-two days later, they landed just south of Halifax - 2,000 miles south - in St. Maarten.  They returned to Port Medway nearly a year later, astonishing family and friends who thought they were dead.

Howard’s life at sea got off to an equally inauspicious start.  He and a young friend were fishing off Puddingpan Island when their boat flipped.  Howard swam for an hour before a fishing crew pulled him aboard.  The incident didn’t shake his faith; nor did the deaths of his father, Bill, who capsized and drowned in the Medway River, and his older brother, Will, who was lost at sea.  Instead of being spooked, Howard became even more adamant about becoming a sailor.  The captain who found Blackburn treading water gave him his first job as a fisherman.

Howard began sailing on American and English vessels from pole to pole, learning the seafarer’s lifestyle and more importantly, the behavior of the global waterways.  Now 20 years old, Blackburn was burly, worldly and could handle his rum.  But deep down, Howard believed the biggest test of manhood was to go schooner fishing in the treacherous banks of the North Atlantic.  In his eyes, there was only one place in the world where that could happen.  In April of 1879, Howard Blackburn arrived in Gloucester.

For three years, he earned a solid reputation amongst the Gloucester fleet, fishing nonstop until Christmas, when he would return to Port Medway to visit family.  It was during a break in January 1883 that Blackburn learned of a last-second opening on the Grace L. Fears, an 80-foot schooner known as the queen of the ultra-competitive halibut fleet.  The Fears made top money and hired the best crew.  It was a golden opportunity.


On January 21, 1883, the Fears left Nova Scotia for the 400-mile trek northeast to the churning Burgeo Bank off Newfoundland, in a mad rush to be first to market.  On the third day, the Fears set anchor.  The crew broke off into pairs and manned six dory boats to set trawl lines.  The dories were 18 feet long, flat-bottomed and open; nothing more than simple rowboats.

Blackburn was 23 years old, 6 foot 2 and over 200 pounds.  The only newcomer on the crew, he was paired with Tom Welch of Newfoundland.  Welch was younger and lighter than Blackburn but had experience on the Fears.  That morning, the two set a half-mile of trawl line then returned to the schooner for mug-up.  The seas and sky were calm, but the captain sensed an impending storm and ordered the crew to retrieve the trawl lines just two hours after setting them.  Passing on the potential haul was costly, but not worth the risk.  As Blackburn and Welch rowed past the other dories to collect their line, a quiet snow began to fall.  The wind blew from the southeast—a good sign.  They rowed on.  Suddenly, the air became quiet.  As the other dories headed back, a different wind arose, this time from the northwest.  And soon, it turned fierce. 

In an instant, Blackburn and Welch were caught in a squall.  They rowed furiously but lost their bearings.  The other dories seemingly vanished.  Hours passed.  Thinking they rowed past the Fears, they dropped anchor.  By nightfall, the snow lessened.  The Fears raised a signal torch to guide the lost crewmen.  Now and then, the undulating ocean cruelly bobbed the dory just high enough so that Blackburn and Welch could catch a glimpse of the Fears, but it was too far away.  All night, Blackburn and Welch took turns bailing and rowing, but the wind and surf were so vicious that with each stroke the two actually lost progress. 

Gear on the dory began to freeze, forcing Blackburn and Welch to dump any excess weight overboard, including tubs of trawl lines.  They had no fresh water or food except the fish they caught, and that iced solid.  The Fears was well out of sight by then.  To keep from drifting further, Blackburn and Welch dropped anchor again and for hours they bailed.  When Howard removed his mittens to better handle the bucket, Welch accidentally bailed them away.

It was then that Tom Welch noticed that Howard’s hands were gray and crystallizing.  Blackburn tried putting his socks on his hands, but they too froze and were lost.  The only way he could be useful, he thought, was if he bent his fingers around the oars to freeze in place.  To curve his fingers in position, he smashed his hands repeatedly on ice in the boat that had begun to weigh the vessel down.  Then he gripped the oars.  Welch was horrified.  Even worse, he was discouraged.

This is the first part of a two-part series from Kory Curcuru’s history series for 1623 Studios, “Timeline Cape Ann.” Look for Part 2 in next week’s Cricket.

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