The Intrepid “Centennial” Johnson

By CAM Docent, Doug Stewart

A centerpiece of the museum’s maritime galleries is a 20-foot decked-over sailing dory with traces of red, white, and blue paint on its sides. Launched in Gloucester 124 years ago, the craft was sailed across the Atlantic Ocean by a 29-year-old Danish immigrant named Alfred Johnson. The taciturn bachelor was caught up in “centennial fever” in 1876. Having saved up $200 working in the Gloucester fishing fleet, he paid to have his new dory equipped with two watertight compartments, a fold-down mast, and a tiny cockpit. Johnson thought that sailing alone across the Atlantic—a feat never accomplished before—was a fitting way to pay tribute to his adopted country. 

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No longer watertight: Alfred Johnson’s original 1876 sailing dory, Centennial seen here in the Maritime & Fishing Industries Gallery at the Cape Ann Museum.

In June 1876, when Johnson set out for Liverpool, many of the bystanders on Gloucester Harbor expected they’d never see him again. Johnson, too, evidently had his doubts: he planned to record his boat’s progress on a card every two days, place the card in a bottle, and toss the bottle overboard. If he disappeared without a trace, a record of his voyage might survive. Johnson was a daredevil, to be sure, but he was a highly methodical one. He made sure to have iron bars lashed inside Centennial’s hull as ballast, rather than just piling stones in the hold. This, and a rope around his waist, no doubt saved his life when he capsized in 30-foot waves off Ireland and was thrown overboard. The ballast stayed put, so he was able to splash back to the overturned hull and right it. 

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The newly launched Centennial under sail in 1876 with Johnson at the helm. From the Collection of the Cape Ann Museum Library & Archives.

Despite persistent headwinds and three gales, Johnson reached the British Isles in 59 total sailing days. (The blue-water passage alone, from Nova Scotia to Wales, took just 46.) Johnson had brought enough food and water for three months, but his kerosene stove had been unworkable, so the odd figure who appeared out of nowhere on a Welsh beach on August 12 was not only exhausted but emaciated. At a triumphant welcoming ceremony in Liverpool the following week, Johnson confessed he wouldn’t repeat the stunt for a million dollars. 

“Centennial” Johnson lived quietly in Gloucester for another 50 years, dying in 1927 at age 81. As a schooner captain for 27 of those years, he was said never to have lost a man. 

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A latter-day Alfred Johnson (1846-1927), Gloucester schooner captain and owner. From the Collection of the Cape Ann Museum Library & Archives.

Cape Ann Museum docent Doug Stewart is a retired freelance magazine writer and one-time ocean sailor who used to edit books at Sail Magazine.