Johnson wanted to prove he could do it alone
November 28, 2003

Alfred Johnson unshipped his mast and hove-to when he saw the midafternoon gale coming. He tied a rope around his waist and then to the mast socket of his dory. The seas built until a breaker hit the boat broadside, capsizing it and throwing Johnson into the waves. He hauled himself along the rope until he reached the overturned vessel and clung to its bottom in the middle of the Atlantic. The 30-year-old fisherman had sailed out of Gloucester, Mass., in the dory a month before, hoping to make the first recorded solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in honor of the first centennial of the United States that year, 1876. One fisherman who watched Johnson's departure was heard saying, "Johnson's fortune's made when he steps his foot on English soil, and he'll fetch there safe enough; that dory will carry him there all right. I've been on the Banks in a dory and lived in as heavy a sea as he'll meet." But another fisherman predicted, "He'll go to Davy Jones' locker ere he's many days out." As Johnson rose and fell with the waves on his overturned boat, the success of his voyage hung in the balance. Rob Morris, author of a new book, "Alfred 'Centennial' Johnson," says, "Johnson is a forgotten hero and deserves his place in history along with other great sailors." "It was an enormously difficult thing to do, and he knew the dangers involved," says Ellen Nelson, librarian and archivist at the Cape Ann Historical Museum in Gloucester, where Johnson's dory can be seen today. "It wasn't a sensible thing to do, but it was a courageous thing to do, a daredevil thing to do." They say Johnson was playing cards with friends when the men got to discussing whether a sailor could cross the Atlantic alone in an open boat, and how small a boat he might do it in. Johnson said he could do it in a 16-footer. The others laughed. Johnson insisted, "I'll get me a dory and I'll sail it right smack into England. You just wait until I save enough money to buy the boat."


Johnson spent about $200 on a specially designed dory and provisions. He dubbed the boat "Centennial." The wooden vessel was 20 feet long on deck, 16 feet at the keel, 5 1/2 feet wide and 2 1/2 feet tall. It had a centerboard to keep from sliding sideways. It had three water-tight compartments. Johnson carried a canvas mainsail, two jibs, a square sail, chart, compass, quadrant, medicine, a sea anchor for holding the bow into the wind when not sailing, and a lantern he hoisted at night to keep vessels from running him down. He packed canned meats, condensed milk, fruit, hard bread, tea and coffee. He carried 60 gallons of water and rigged an awning to catch rainwater to replenish his supply. Johnson planned to follow the course to Liverpool plied by ocean steamers and make the nearly 3,000-mile crossing in less than 90 days. He would sail to England and back and then exhibit the vessel in the grand Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. He believed he was just the man to pull it off. Johnson (sometimes spelled Johnsen) was born in Denmark on Dec. 4, 1846, but ran away to the sea when he was a teen-ager, working aboard square-riggers. He fished out of Gloucester for seven years before he attempted the Atlantic crossing. "He is not a man of an enthusiastic temperament as one would naturally suppose a person to be who had such a perilous trip in view," the Cape Ann Advertiser reported before Johnson left, "neither is he sanguine, but is quite reserved, and from his general appearance gives evidence that he is cautious, and in the habit of giving any subject in which he is interested due consideration before making up his mind." Many thought him foolhardy. Friends tried to talk him out of it. But about two years after Johnson first proposed the idea, a large crowd gathered along Gloucester's wharves to watch him sail from the Higgins & Gifford wharf, now Parker Street, at 4:15 p.m. on June 15, 1876. Several yachts and many small rowboats followed him to the Eastern Point breakwater.
Then he sailed out of sight.

Off Course

Johnson put in at Barrington, Nova Scotia, around June 25, to shift his iron ballast -- he believed it was interfering with his compass -- and set off again. Initial reports of his journey that filtered back to Gloucester via crews of ships he met along the way left some thinking he was headed south and the whole trip was a hoax. He was reported at 40.11 latitude, 67.10 degrees longitude on July 9, about as far south as Philadelphia. Friends were reassured that he seemed to be back on course when he was reported at 46 latitude, as far north as Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and 39 longitude, about halfway across the ocean, on July 19. The crews of ships he passed tried to "rescue" Johnson, but to their dismay he refused. Still the meetings helped him fight loneliness. About halfway across the ocean, Johnson said he encountered a German passenger ship, and the captain hollered across the water to see if there was anything he could do for him. "Well, since you're so kind, captain, I wouldn't mind having a bottle of brandy," replied Johnson, who by then had exhausted a case of whiskey. The man tied a couple bottles to a plank and threw it overboard for Johnson to recover. Johnson slept during the day and sailed at night, keeping watch for ships. He was a short man but still felt cramped. There wasn't enough room for him in the hatchway he'd fitted with a mattress to stretch out to his full height when he slept. His legs ached. He was often wet from the waves and spray. He averaged about 70 miles a day, sometimes sailing more than 100. His speed increased as he consumed his supplies and the boat got lighter. And then the gale came that flipped Johnson's dory and left him clinging to the bottom. It blew up July 18, or maybe Aug. 2. Accounts vary, but it is said he held onto the bottom for about 20 minutes before he used the crash of another wave to right the vessel. All his clothing was soaked. His bread was spoiled, and his clock and watch stopped. His square sail was lost. A vessel sailing nearby gave him bread and water (or maybe ale). It may have been another day, but some say when Johnson righted the boat he saw a shark swim alongside and heard its fins bump against the bottom of his boat. He fastened a knife to an oar and slashed at the shark, scarring it off.

Smack into Port

Johnson sailed into Abercastle, a small seaport in southwestern Wales, on Saturday, on Aug. 10 or Aug. 12. He later said it was to take on provisions and briefly relieve his weariness and cramped condition. Residents there recall that he had to be carried from his boat because he was so weak. They took him to a nearby pub to recuperate. Two days later he continued north, up St. George's Channel. "He is entitled to the credit of successfully accomplishing a feat without parallel, which many not be paralleled for years, and any repetition of which will not take away from him the honor of being the first to accomplish it," the Cape Ann Advertiser proclaimed on Aug. 18. About a half day sail from Liverpool an English passenger ship, its deck crowded with people, pulled close to Johnson. The captain shouted down to him that he was a reception ship to take him the rest of the way. Johnson later recalled that he stood up and shouted that "I would sail that dory right smack into an English port and I hadn't changed my mind about it." And so he sailed into Liverpool harbor on Aug. 21. The journey took him 66 days. Johnson and his dory were exhibited in England for several months, charging six pence per person. At the Liverpool exhibit, Johnson confided to a man visiting from Lowell, Mass., that "he would not attempt the feat and pass through what he did on that trip across the Atlantic for a million dollars, in fact nothing on earth would tempt him to repeat such a voyage." Johnson and the dory returned home aboard the passenger steamer Greece, arriving in New York City on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 1877. The Centennial Exposition was over, but his feat earned him the nickname "Centennial." Johnson took the dory to a few cities to show it and tell his story, but the tour did not generate as much interest as he hoped. He returned to fishing, captaining a vessel and earning the reputation of never losing a man in 27 years. He lived at the corner of Riggs and Mansfield streets until he died in 1927. His grandson Charles Dickman of Magnolia, a retired skipper of oil tankers, and his wife Maryline flew to Abercastle for the Oct. 17 unveiling of a plaque honoring Johnson's accomplishment. Dickman took off his shoes and waded into the water of the cove his grandfather had stopped in 127 years before. "I felt closer to the whole family," Dickman says. "... I never thought I'd be at the spot where he landed." Dickman marvels at his grandfather's accomplishment and wishes this city would erect a plaque or otherwise make note of Johnson's adventure. "People in Gloucester have really forgotten about it," the 78-year-old says. "Or they never heard about it. I think it's a shame really that there isn't some sort of memorial." "His story shows what can be achieved by grit and determination," says Rob Morris of Treffynnon, Great Britain, whose book about the adventure was recently published in Britain and is available on his website. Cape Ann Historical's Nelson says, "If we extend ourselves and prepare -- and he prepared as well as anyone could -- we lesson our chances of failing. But it was an extremely courageous and ill-advised thing to do." Late in life, Johnson himself called the trip "a fool stunt." When Charles Lindberg made the first solo, nonstop flight across the Atlantic in 1927, a Boston Sunday Post reporter remembered Johnson and asked him why he made the trip. "Lots of people have asked me that," the 81-year-old replied, "and I always try and tell them the truth. I made that trip because I was a damned fool, just as they said I was."