Timeline Cape Ann The Fighter Within


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. 

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 Part II in the story of Howard Blackburn.

Late into their second day adrift, Blackburn noticed that his dory mate had stopped bailing.  Howard barked at his partner to startle him, but Tom’s expression was blank. 

“I’m blind,” said Welch.  “There’s no use.  We can’t last another night.” 

Blackburn broke his hands from the oars, laid Welch down, and started bailing.  Welch, crazy from thirst, tried jumping out.  Howard pulled him back and fed him ice, but all Welch could do was mumble prayers.

The surf was relentless.  Howard rowed towards what he hoped was the coast of Newfoundland, but there were no signs of land.  Welch was catatonic.  Occasionally he blurted Blackburn’s name but when Howard turned to bail again, Welch was dead.

Frostbite swelled Howard’s hands so badly that he couldn’t put Welch’s mittens over them.  Instead, he put his hands between his legs, crouched down to avoid the gales and rocked back and forth to stay awake through the night.  He watched helplessly as Welch’s oars spilled overboard.  On the third day adrift, sunrise oversaw a calm sea.  The storm finally passed.  Blackburn and his gear were encased in ice, which burdened the dory.  He was wonderstruck to see that his anchor lines had frayed to threads yet froze solid, keeping the vessel from tipping overnight.  He repaired what he could and continued rowing.  By noon, his finger flesh began breaking off like dry powder, the blood freezing instantly.  He rowed on instinct alone, bone on wood.  Far in the distance, Blackburn eyed a snow-covered rock.  He spent the entire day and night rowing, bailing and cowering just to stay alive.  Four days into an endless odyssey, Howard Blackburn approached land.  The snow-covered rock he zeroed in on was an uninhabited island, but soon he found other clusters of rocks.  Again, he rowed for the entirety of the day.   By evening a coastline appeared.  There were no homes or harbor, but steep, snowy bluffs to follow.  He fought a swift tide.  Finally, there was a positive sign.  Blackburn noticed two distinct colors of rushing water and figured he was at the mouth of a harbor where fresh river water flowed into the sea.

Adrenalized, he rowed until spotting a broken wharf and abandoned shed—a mere footprint of human existence—but inspiring, nonetheless.  As he looked for signs of life, a curious thing happened.  He got desperately thirsty.  Voices of former shipmates taunted him that he wouldn’t make it.  Delirious and defeated, Blackburn backtracked to the lifeless hut.  When he finally reached shore, Blackburn stood up to drag the dory onto land but stumbled.  His feet were frozen.  He stomped through knee-high snow to the shed.  The roof was gone; a table and bed covered in drifts.  There was a half-barrel of salt cod, but he had enough sense to realize eating salt would kill him. 

So, he chipped through the ice and laid fish in the snow, hoping to draw the salt out.  It never occurred to Howard that some of the cod and halibut he and Welch caught four days earlier was still in the dory.  Sitting in the dilapidated shed, Blackburn noticed the silhouette of a schooner on the black horizon.  Now he knew there was a harbor close by. 

The plan was to spend the night in the hut then row at dawn.  He found some flint but was incapable of starting a fire, so he balled up old fishing lines and nets to use as a pillow and blanket. 

Still exposed to the elements, Blackburn shivered uncontrollably.  If he slept, he’d die, so he spent the night pacing and crawling on the floor eating snow.  At dawn, Blackburn heard the dory thrashing against the flat rocks.  It was fractured and flooded.  Tom Welch’s body had warped grotesquely.  While repairing the boat, he heard a faint gunshot.  Howard remembered that in the winter, successful fishermen often stayed in cabins at outposts with their families to hunt.  He screamed for help, but his calls went unanswered.  The thought of human contact brought another sudden rush of thirst that triggered a second bout of delirium. 

Convinced that the old wharf must have a freshwater well, Blackburn crazily waded and dived through waist-high snow, searching for low points in the drifts. There was no well.

When Howard regained his senses, he went to shore to repair the dory.  First, he had to drag Tom Welch off the boat.  He used a gaff to pull the body close, but when he tried lifting Welch, Howard suffered an excruciating hernia.  As he pushed the bulge of organs back into his body, he watched Welch sink to the bottom of a tidal pool.  Blackburn yanked the dory away from the surf, biting down on the anchor line to hold the boat in place between crashing waves.  He drained it, filled the keg with snow, took one last look at Tom Welch’s floating body, and pushed off to row.

Hugging the coast, he sloshed through one featureless cove to the next.  Then, a glimmer of hope:  Two schooners on the horizon.  Blackburn made an immediate beeline and got close enough to see a man on deck, but the wind shifted and pushed him away before getting spotted.

It was devastating, but Howard kept on.  The leak worsened and the sea got choppy.  Snow started to fall.  Blackburn turned all the way back to the hut to regain whatever strength he had left.  That night, he rowed along the opposite side of the bank.  Chunks of ice perilously floated by; there was fresh water somewhere.  He was one mile beyond where he reached the day before when he noticed a cluster of cabins in the moonlight.

Blackburn fought the current, zigzagging at a glacial pace.  Every time he stopped to bail, he lost progress, but the battered dory finally reached a frozen inlet.  A group of men crossing the ice stopped in their tracks, stunned beyond belief at the site of a haggard, lone voyager willing his pitiful boat to land.  They sensed the enormity and the emergency.

After five days and nights of hell in the North Atlantic, without food, without hope, without the use of his hands or feeling in his feet, Howard Blackburn was about to be saved.  But, as the shadowy figures on the ice slowly came into focus, Blackburn had no idea that his road to recovery had only just begun.

howard blackburn, fisherman, gloucester