For a bet he crossed the Atlantic solo on a 20-foot “shell.” In 1876!


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alfred johnson
Sometimes it’s the people who no one imagines can do certain things, the ones who do things no one can imagine,” was fond of saying the Alan Turing played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the movie “The Imitation Game.”(Source opening image :

Since the time of Christopher Columbus, until 1876, no one had ever dreamed of sailing solo across the Atlantic in the pure spirit of enterprise. Then came a “crazy” fisherman, Alfred Johnson. He amazingly accomplished the feat by setting off aboard the small “Centennial,” a 6.1-meter dory (a small open fishing boat with a shallow draft and flat bottom) from Gloucester, U.S., on June 15, 1876, to land, after 3,000 miles and 58 days at sea in Abercastle, Wales.

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Born in 1846 in Denmark, Alfred Johnson ran away from home while still a teenager to embark, working as a deckhand aboard various sailing ships and eventually ending up as a fisherman in the New World, Massachusetts. At the age of 28 (it was 1874), he was playing cards with some friends when someone brought up the idea, perhaps in the fumes of alcohol, of making the ocean crossing from the United States to England solo.

The young man declared that in his opinion it was not only possible, but that he would be able to do it with an open fishing boat, a dory, in fact. Friends obviously called him an exaggerator. This charged him to the max, and to prove them wrong he decided to put himself out there. What pride sometimes makes us do!


Insane? May be, but certainly not stupid. First, he determined that he would leave two years later, in 1876, so that with his venture he could celebrate the centennial of the birth of the United States of America (hence the name of the boat, “Centennial,” which would later also become his nickname), securing the support of the media.

Then, being the man of the sea that he was, he immediately realized that to set sail without making appropriate modifications to the 20-foot dory he had purchased, a small boat for coastal and shallow water sailing, would be suicide.

He installed a pivoting centreboard (a solution invented in 1783 by British Admiral John Schank) to improve sailing performance and reduce drift, and fitted the hull with three watertight compartments that would help it float in the event of a capsize.


Amid general curiosity, Alfred Johnson set sail from Gloucester on June 15, 1876, hoping to reach Liverpool within 90 days. He stopped briefly in Nova Scotia to make some modifications to the boat, and then left for the open ocean around June 25.

He was spotted by several ships along the way: those on board punctually mistook him for a castaway, attempting to rescue him: and Johnson, to the amazement of the crews, punctually refused. Once they threw two bottles of rum at him from a passing ship.

We anticipated that Johnson was a sailor “with attributes,” and he proved it by keeping an average of about 70 miles a day, a lot for such a large open boat.

He also managed to save his hide during a major storm that hit him in the middle of the Atlantic and partially capsized the boat. Against all odds, he landed in Abercastle, a small port in Wales, on Saturday, August 12.

After two days’ rest, he recovered his strength and set sail, and on August 21 he finished his crossing to Liverpool, welcomed by locals as a hero.

For a few months, Alfred “Centennial” Johnson was a celebrity. His boat(which can now be seen in the collection of the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester) was displayed in Liverpool for a while. The young fisherman had made it. And not only that: he had initiated the era of great ocean adventures, the heroic crossings of Bernard Gilboy, and the round-the-world voyages that would bring glory to his countryman Joshua Slocum.

And to think that all this had come out of an evening of revelry with friends. When asked at the end of his life (he passed away in 1927) why he had done it, Johnson candidly replied, I made that trip because I was a damn fool, just like they said I was.




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