Lowering the mast
Seen from stern
Danish-born, Alfred Johnson (1846 – 1927), was an exceedingly brave man who ‘took on’ the Atlantic Ocean by sailing single-handed in a 20’ dory from Gloucester, New Brunswick to Abercastle, Wales, in 1876. Celebrations were taking place in America marking 100 years of independence, and the 29 year-old schooner man believing he could capitalize on his fame after a successful crossing was motivated to prove his friends wrong when they said it was an impossible feat for him to do.
On 15th June, 1876, with hundreds watching, he set off in his red, white and blue dory, the Stars and Stripes flag fluttering from her masthead. He had modified the otherwise traditional halibut fisherman’s dory by completely decking her, save for a double hatch amidships and a smaller one aft from where he could steer his vessel. The dory’s beam was 5’ 6” and her depth amidships was 2’ 6”. She carried iron ballast in the form of ‘pigs’ secured within her bilges. She was rigged as a cutter with a short gaff-mainsail, staysail, and a bowsprit for setting either of two jibs. She also carried a square sail for running before the wind. For better windward performance, Johnson fitted ‘Centennial’ with a centreboard, and to prevent her from sinking, he built-in three watertight compartments. To reduce top-hamper, he devised a method of unshipping her mast prior to the onset of rough weather. It is thought that he may have had a tabernacle arrangement that allowed him to lower the mast. He also deployed a sea anchor when conditions warranted it, but this was not entirely successful in keeping his ship’s head to the seas. During one storm his boat was fully capsized and he found himself in the water, but fortunately for him he had tied himself to his craft with a length of line and he was able to climb onto the upturned hull. By hauling on a rope he had secured to the underside of the vessel and by synchronizing his movements with the waves while standing on the upturned hull he managed to upright her. During capsize he lost his square sail and his bread was ruined - also his clock and watch stopped. Not the least of his problems, his dory was threatened by the attentions of a persistent shark that he successfully fended off, but not without a tussle. At the end of his eventful voyage lasting 66 days, he arrived at Liverpool, England, on 21st August, after first stopping for a couple of days at Abercastle to take on stores and water and to regain his strength.
At the time of Johnson’s success, ‘Centennial’ was the first vessel to have been sailed by a lone sailor across the Atlantic Ocean from west to east. His passage was well documented by those on ships who met and talked with him en route. He was sighted at 40.11 degrees latitude and 67.10 degrees longitude on 9th July when he was considerably more to the east at 46 degrees latitude on 19th July. He averaged 70 miles a day, mostly sailing at night after snatching sleep during daylight hours. He suffered greatly from cramp and from being constantly wet because of spray and seawater entering the boat. After exhibiting ‘Centennial’ in Liverpool, the man and his boat returned to America, he aboard the steamer ‘Greece’, arriving at New York on 21st February, 1877. The famous vessel can be seen at the Cape Ann Historical Museum in Gloucester where she is preserved to this day.
Later in life when asked why he had done it, he said, “I made that trip because I was a damned fool, just as they said I was.”