Thomas Crapo (1842-1899), tried his hand at whaling, being a diver, a ship’s mate, a sailor in the US Navy and a fishmonger, but none of these occupations satisfied him. He had it in his mind to cross the Atlantic Ocean by sailing his own boat alone. In his autobiography he wrote, “I had for years been thinking about crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a small boat, in fact I was very anxious to outstrip any attempt that had ever been made. . . . The more I thought of it the more decided and determined I became.” In order to fulfil his ambition, he had a 19’ 7” dory built which he named ‘New Bedford’ after the seaport where he lived. She was deliberately made shorter than Johnson’s ‘Centennial’ to take the record for sailing the smallest boat across the Atlantic. She had a beam of 6’ 2” and was rigged with two leg-o’-mutton sails on independent masts. Similar to Johnson’s boat, Crapo incorporated a flush deck with two cockpits, one forward and another aft for the helmsman. She did not have a bowsprit, and resembled a whaler of the sort he had crewed in when hunting whales in his youth.
As he set about preparing her for the voyage, the forthcoming venture was the talk of the town, especially as Crapo had reluctantly agreed to take his wife, Joanna, as a non-active crew member. She had insisted on being with him, and as she had been courageous in the past when riding a storm with him aboard the brig ‘Kaluna’, he agreed. She had demonstrated her courage and tenacity by holding a lantern close to the ship’s compass for many hours to enable the helmsman maintain a course before the wind on that dark, tempestuous night. The binnacle light had been washed away when a large wave crashed over the brig causing much damage to the aft cabin, as well as smashing the ship’s boat.
On 28th May, 1877 the couple departed from New Bedford, bound for England aboard their tiny vessel. During their voyage they experienced all manner of difficulties, including gales, dense fog, blinding rain, a near-collision with a steamship, a broken rudder and an encounter with a pod of sperm whales. After a gruelling fifty-five days at sea they arrived at Penzance where they were feted by crowds, not so much because of Thomas’s achievement, but because Joanna had survived the ordeal. No woman had accomplished a long voyage across an ocean in such a small boat before! In 1893, Crapo self-published an autobiography, ‘Strange, but True’, giving an account of his life, including graphic descriptions of the couple’s Atlantic adventure.
Early in 1899 he tried to sail a nine foot boat, the ‘Volunteer’ from New Bedford to Cuba, but the skiff capsized during a severe gale, and he drowned. His body was recovered off Charlestown beach. Joanna had Thomas’s book re-issued in 1904 to supplement her income.