Year 1876. The “stupid” Alfred Johnson and the first solo record across the Atlantic


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alfred-johnsonThere are records and feats that remain almost hidden from most, buried for who knows what reason in the mists of passing time. As in the incredible story, unearthed on the website of our friends at Cultura Marinara, which you are about to read, and which goes back to 1876…

Alfred Johnson (1846-1927) was a Danish fisherman born in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The great Johnson is one of the ranks of early twentieth-century navigators such as Howard Blackburn, Bernard Gilboy and the Shackleton sailors who made sailing great.

In 1876, with a 20-foot sailing dory, he was the first to sail solo across the Atlantic Ocean, landing at Abercastle in West Wales to celebrate the first centennial of the United States of America. Johnson had run away to sea as a teenager, and after working on sailing ships he ended up as a fisherman in Gloucester.

One day in 1874, he and some friends were playing cards discussing the possibility of a solo Atlantic crossing, when Johnson declared that not only would such a passage be possible, but that it could be made with an open dory, and that he would do it. When his friends mocked him, Johnson wanted to prove them wrong.

His goal was to sail to Liverpool, hoping to make the 3,000-mile journey in less than 90 days. He bought a 20-foot (6.1-meter) dory, which he named Centennial.

Alfred Johnson Dory
The boat was equipped with a centreboard and three watertight compartments that would help it float in the event of a capsize. Alfred Johnson left on June 15, 1876. He stopped briefly in Nova Scotia to make some adjustments to his ballast, and then left for the open ocean about June 25.
He was spotted by several ships along the route, most of which attempted to rescue him, remaining incredulous when he refused. On one occasion, he received two bottles of rum as gifts from a passing ship.


Johnson sailed at an average pace of about 70 miles (110 km) per day, which is very respectable for such a small boat on the open sea, and survived a major storm that scuppered him. Against all odds, it finally landed in Abercastle, a small port in Wales, on Saturday, August 12. After two days’ rest, he finished his sailing trip in Liverpool on August 21, 1876, with an enthusiastic reception.

Johnson received some attention for his feat and his boat was displayed in Liverpool for several months, he was later known as Alfred “Centennial” Johnson. When now old he was asked why he had done it, he said, “I made that trip, because I was a damned fool, as they said.” Johnson’s voyage was the first solo Atlantic crossing record and perhaps the first voyage that identified solo sailing with the spirit of adventure.



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