by Rob Morris
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|Dory in the colours of the USA Flag, 1876. Digitally Enhanced from Black and White Card.Commissioned by Alfred to commemorate his historic voyage on his return to America he arrived in New York on the steamer Greece in February 1877. The original photograph is in the Dickman family collection.|
|Plaque made of Welsh Slate situated on quay wall in Abercastle. Made by St.David's stonemason, John Williams to commemorate the historic event.|
|Charlie Dickman, Alfred's Grandson, with his wife Maryline, before the unveiling of the Plaque.The plaque was funded by the kind generosity of Mathry Parish Council and The Pembrokeshire National Park Authority. The land at Abercastle is owned by the National Trust and it was with their permission that the plaque was mounted on the wall by the slipway where it can be viewed by the thousands of people that walk the coastal path each year.|
|Rob Morris (Author), Charlie, Maryline, and John Williams (Plaque Maker) The couple had traveled three thousand miles from their home in Gloucester Massachusetts to be present at the ceremony. They hope that one day a similar plaque will be erected in Captain Johnson's home port of Gloucester.|
|Abercastle c1900.Two ships at anchor waiting for the men to bring their horse and carts to unload the cargo. They had only six hours to complete the task before the tide returned. Abercastle as with so many ports dotted along the coast is tidal. The captains of the ships had to keep a careful watch on the weather. To be trapped in these ports could end in disaster. The only safe anchorage for them several hours sailing away was Milford Haven the second largest natural harbour in the world.Abercastle exported dairy produce, grain from the local farms and salted herring and pilchards from the small fishing fleet.|
|Abercastle, pictured at the height of a north west gale, on New Years Day 2004.The unpredictable weather along the Pembrokeshire coast has sent hundreds of ships to the bottom of the sea. During the summer season divers travel to the area to explore the wrecks. Some of the ships can be found in very shallow water.|
|Local Lobster Fisherman, Scott Lewis, returning to shore after early morning fishing trip. The catch is taken straight to "Tides Restaurant" which is run by his wife Emma, and is served up just hours after it has been caught.|
|Charlie being interviewed by Jon Gower from the BBC, on the spot that Alfred stepped ashore in 1876 at Abercastle.|
|Local poet Tony Davies, of St. Davids, has specially written a poem about Alfred and has kindly allowed Rob to print it in the book. His books “Moments of Time” and “Moments to Remember” are available through this site. Tony suffers from Parkinson’s disease. His poetry expresses how his life has changed since his illness. Both books are little gems. The poetry is both sad and funny a real bargain at £4.00 +p&p.This is the front cover of one of Tony's books.|
|Charlie gets his feet wet at Abercastle.The highlight of the day for Captain Charles Dickman was to walk on the same beach feeling the sand between his toes as his grand father Captain Alfred “Centennial” Johnson had done on that afternoon of August 10th 1876|
Reflections Past and Present
Earliest memories of my childhood are of going with my mother to pick Pembrokeshire new potatoes. The fields running down to the cliff tops of Abereiddy, the smell of the sea wafting up to the field as the Atlantic breakers crashed onto the black rocks below. The youngest of three I lived the idyllic life on a small farm harvesting the soil and the sea each in their season. I suppose you could have called us Welsh crofters. We lived a simple life as did so many of our friends.
Living on the coast the sea was always going to play a big part in my life from the early years of going out on fishing trips with the local fishermen from the Blue Lagoon at Abereiddy, the harbour at Porthgain.This would eventually lead to me becoming a full time crab and lobster fisherman crewing on the boats of the Jones brothers Phil and Rob from Porthgain. The family boat was well known along the Welsh coast as their father Mervyn and his partner Don Phillips fished the Magella from St David’s Head up to the Lleyn Peninsular in search of lobster.
Our boats were the Macareux and the James Mervyn.Mainly used for potting both vessels had been designed for use in other forms of fishing.With growing families to feed we had to be adaptable if the potting was poor we quickly changed to tangle netting and trawling. Depending on the time of year we fished different parts of the coast from the smalls ( a god forsaken group of rocks jutting out of the sea some eighteen miles off Milford Haven) to Aberporth in Cardigan Bay.
Both boats usually moored at Fishguard Harbour. It was an ideal port for early morning starts. Our day began around 3.30am as we steamed past the breakwater into the open sea one of the first marks on the chart was the model of Moby Dick. The whale hunting scenes in the film that starred Gregory Peck were filmed outside the harbour in Fishguard Bay At the end of filming the white whale was towed out to sea and sunk.
During long days at sea we often talked about the olden days of sail and fishing and of the men who crewed the vessels. The hundreds of wrecks that are on the charts in our area bears testiment to how dangerous it must have been. Totally at the mercy of the elements 24 hours a day.
One summer’s day as we were lifting our gear some three miles off Abercastle I told the boys about a fisherman who had sailed across the Atlantic and had landed at the tiny harbour.
The first time I had heard the story was from a family friend who lived in Trefin about a mile along the coast from Abercastle. Rosemary Reynolds related the landing at the harbour and of how members of her family had met Alfred Johnson on that sunny day of August 10th in 1876.
As the years rolled by curiosity got the better of me and after reading an article in a newspaper by local historian Roy Lewis. In his interesting account he asked the question why we did not know anything about Alfred and why was there no recognition of his achievement in Abercastle.
I decided to look into his story after all he was the first man to sail the Atlantic single-handed. He was in the Guinness Book of Records, information would be easily available. How wrong I was. It was a nightmare to research. Newspaper reports on careful examination could be traced back to his first interview in Liverpool. Several documents were wildly innacurate.Why was Alfred not given the recognition that he deserved? He was the first person to sail the Atlantic single-handed. Others quickly followed in his footsteps.Joshua Slocum and Howard Blackburn just to name two.Ship builders recieved orders for special design yachts. In Gloucester Higgons and Gifford began building yachts after Alfred's exploits in 1876
Alfred lived in the fishing port of Gloucester Massachusetts on the eastern seaboard of America. Gloucester at that time had one of the largest fishing fleets in the world.The schooners exploited the inshore and offshore fisheries in their search for cod,haddock, halibut and swordfish.Ships sailed as far as Greenland, on these long voyages the fish was salted.As the fish cured it shrank in the hold the vessels continued fishing until the schooner was full.
Most will recognize the place today from the film “The Perfect Storm” that was made into a Hollywood blockbuster. It is the story of the final fishing trip of the crew of The “Andrea Gail” and starred George Clooney as the ill fated skipper William “Billy” Tyne
In 1876 Alfred was a dory man on a Grand Banks schooner. He fished for halibut and cod. It was on one of his trips that he decided he would build a dory and attempt the crossing.
Two years later after researching in America, Britain, Germany and his native Denmark I had managed to put his story together and on October 17/2003 the descendants of Alfred unveiled a plaque at Abercastle on the same slipway that Alfred had shakily walked up in 1876.
Charlie Dickman addressed the gathering. He spoke about his grandfather and of his remarkable life. They as a family never realized that Alfred had landed at Abercastle. They believed that he had sailed directly to Liverpool his original destination. With the sea in their blood from their Viking ancestry Charlie said that it was inevitable that he and his brother John would have a career at sea after graduating from Maine Maritime College. John became a pilot on the Panama Canal whilst he became a Captain on an oil tanker. Charlie delivered a cargo of oil into Milford Haven in 1967 and he never realized he was so close to where Alfred had landed. Had he known he would have visited the area sooner.
After doing interviews with the BBC’s Jon Gower, “The Western Mail” and the local press there was one more radio programme for the World service where both Charlie and Maryline were interviewed. At the end of the broadcast the last verse of the poem “Atlantic Crossing” by St David’s poet Tony Davies was read. The poem is a tribute to the young halibut fisherman from Gloucester.
Sixty six days, three thousand miles,
Record breaking, Abercastle smiles,
Liverpool, trip complete,
The courage of Captain Johnson and Centennial’s feat.
At the end of the proceedings at Abercastle Charlie and Maryline as guests of honour attended a buffet at the award winning Shed Bistro and Wine Bar in Porthgain owned by Rob and Caroline Jones.
Later in the day Charlie and Maryline Dickman both helped with the launch of my book. Many of the gathering had their book signed by the famous couple.Mr Ivor Thomas a retired London taxi driver travelled from Southampton to purchase a signed copy of the book.
Y Crofft Publications. We are a small family run business swimming against the tide of the establishment. By self-publishing our books retail outlets are difficult to come by. Even so the sales of The Alfred Johnson story have been a great success. A second edition will be released in 2005.
Next summer sees the launch of our next book. Based on the lives of the people on the North Pembrokeshire Coast. The story will span a 100 years from 1900- to the present day.How families survived two world wars, a typhoid epidemic and the aftermath of a hurricane that destroyed the seaside hamlet of Abereiddy.
During the research a large number of photographs were discovered that have never been viewed by the general public. Ordrinary folk going about their lives give us a unique picture of life along the coast.From quarrying at Porthgain to ploughing the fields at Pwllcaerog, rowing horses and cattle from the mainland to Ramsey Island this is their special story.
To pre-order a signed copy of this limited edition e-mail Y Crofft Publications on this address.
The first two photographs are of Abereiddy they illustrate graphically the devestation caused by the hurricane that hit the village in the late 1930s.Several houses were destroyed during the storm. Through the bravery of one of the fishermen who rowed his boat in huge seas he was able to rescue the stranded family in the street at the far end of the village.The properties were never rebuilt and the families that lived in the quarrymen's cottages had to be relocated.
The tram road linked the slatequarry at Abereiddy to the harbour at Porthgain. Horses pulled the loaded trucks for two miles as they wound their way up the valley. The slate was loaded onto ships and transported around the British coast. At the peak of production in the 1870s over 300 men worked in the three quarries perched on the cliff tops.
In 1931 the works at Porthgain closed without warning 80 men were made redundant. Great hardships followed for them and their families they recieved only 50pence a week in unemployment benefit. A pittance of their former wages.
The harbour from that time on was used by local fishermen to moor their lobster boats. Seventy years on the same families have moorings in Porthgain. Lee Clarke is one of three brothers that fish out of the harbour. The sea is in their blood they began fishing for lobster whilst still in primary school.
The two pictures are of crayfish caught by Lee in mid December 2004.Christmas crayfish are a rare occurence on this coastline. The last one caught from Porthgain was on Boxing Day 1981 by Rob Jones.These fine specimens will end up in France for someones xmas dinner. What an alternative to turkey!