Mary Harper: Record-Breaking Lone Trans-Atlantic Sailor in Crookhaven 

This is a Guest Post by our friend Brian O’Riordan, a native of Charleville, now residing in London

In 1995. as I was crossing Drake Passage between Antarctica and South America, I met a lady with a strange story. I was on a small Russian expedition ship, the Professor Multanovskiy. We experienced increasingly bad weather, encountering a force 12 gale as we rounded Cape Horn. We were not permitted to go out on deck but the ship operated an open-bridge policy. That was where I spoke to Mary Harper as we both studied the ship’s chart of Cape Horn.

She seemed to be the oldest passenger on board but had no difficulty making her way around the ship in the rough weather. We were experiencing waves of over 40ft at this time. She told that she had made the Trans-Atlantic crossing from Nova Scotia to Ireland, singlehanded, the previous year. She did not tell her family but left a letter with her solicitor to be opened 6 weeks after she set out, if she had not been heard from. When she arrived in Ireland, she was feted; it was Regatta time and she was asked to present some of the prizes. 

Our conversation was interrupted by an almighty wave which shook the ship so I went below to check on Valerie, my wife, in our cabin, to find her injured. I was not able to speak to Mary Harper again as we landed the next day, but resolved to research her voyage to Ireland when I got back to my home in the UK. Strangely, I could find nothing out about her exploits on the Internet. Eventually I tackled the search by looking for her as a person who sailed out of Nova Scotia and there I was in luck as it had been reported that Mary Harper had set out to cross the Atlantic but had to be rescued as she sustained fractured ribs in a storm; but that was in 1993 and she told me it was in 1994. Turns out she did try in 1993, but had to abandon the trip: Latitude Magazine recorded her intentions (below)

I then came across Roaringwater Journal written every week by Finola Finlay and Robert Harris. Since Roaringwater Bay is one of the nearest landfalls for Trans-Atlantic sailors I felt they should know about Mary Harper. They did not, but set in motion an enquiry (special thanks to Florence Newman for this lead) which eventually took me to the iconic O’Sullivan’s Bar in Crookhaven run by Dermot and Linda O’Sullivan. Linda e-mailed me a framed press cutting which hung on the wall of the pub with all the other nautical memorabilia. The cutting was from the Cork Examiner of 11th August 1994 and was an interview with Mary Harper, aged 79, who landed in Crookhaven on 8th August on her 30ft sloop, Kuan Yin II, named after the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy and patroness of sailors and seafarers. Bingo! I now had evidence of Mary’s crossing.

Shortly after, a notice appeared on the Web of a book launch in Nova Scotia entitled My Sailing Adventures with Mrs. Mary Harper by Jacinta MacKinnon. I contacted Jacinta who sent me a copy of the book which contained stories of sailing around the inner islands of Cape Breton. Importantly, however, she had also had access to a summary made by Mary of the log book of her solo Atlantic crossing.

On July 1st 1994 Mary Harper left Baddeck, sailing alone, on a coastal cruise northwards towards St Johns on the Eastern tip of Newfoundland where she had a rendezvous with friends at the Royal Newfoundland Yacht Club in Long Pond. She called in to a number of friends on the way, so it started out as a leisurely cruise although Jacinta MacKinnon had an inkling that she would attempt the Atlantic crossing again as did her friends in Long Pond. After all, the boat was ready having been modified for the crossing the previous year. On reaching Long Pond she must have provisioned for the crossing and she finally decided to attempt the Trans-Atlantic crossing as she sailed out into Conception Bay on July 14th. Crucially, she had not told the Coastguards or Harbour Master of her intentions.

The first two days she dodged huge icebergs coming down “Iceberg Alley” from the glaciers in Greenland. She had to weather a number of storms, one of which shook the boat so severely that she was surprised it survived.  On some stormy days she was driven off course and backwards but on August 6th, she sighted land and gannets flying overhead.

Some fuel had been used up tacking and she would need the engine running as she came in shore to avoid rocks and other obstacles. She put out a call through the Irish Coastguards for anyone who could sell her fuel. The Valentia lifeboat answered the call and indicated they would reach her within 2 to 3 hours. She was very embarrassed when they arrived as the lifeboat crew found the fuel tank nearly full. Mary had used the handle of a mop as a dipstick not realising that there was a bend in the inlet pipe. However, the crew gave her 5 gallons of fuel and returned late with another 5 gallons so that she could safely negotiate her landing. She was heading for Baltimore, in West Cork, as she got a radio message that her daughter and son-in-law were awaiting her arrival there. Coming near land the wind and tide were driving her westward: she was unable to pass Fastnet Rock after three or four attempts. Three other boats in the vicinity had the same trouble. 

She decided to head for Crookhaven which was now 10 miles west of her position (the photo of the Fastnet Rock above was taken from near Crookhaven) and managed to find the opening of the harbour which was hidden from her view. Two young French men came out from the pier in front of O’Sullivan’s Bar and helped her anchor before she stepped ashore and had the Champagne held in storage from the first aborted attempt the year previously. 

News spread that a solo Trans-Atlantic sailor landed at Crookhaven. Her arrival was greeted with enthusiasm but also incredulity that a sailor so old could have made that journey. It was the time of the regatta with races nearly every day. Mary became the guest of honour and was invited to present some of the prizes (above) with Norma O’Keeffe (Commodore at the Crookhaven regatta) and Jason Fitzgerald. In the lead photograph at the beginning of the post, she is shown surrounded by well-wishers in Crookhaven.

The then proprietors of O’Sullivan’s Bar (that’s a recent photo above, although the mural has now changed), Billy and Angela O’Sullivan, were very impressed by her and, of course, framed and mounted the Cork Examiner interview published that week.

There was much talk of Mary entering the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest person to make the solo crossing of the Atlantic at the age of 79.  Mary said she was not interested in the record, she just wanted to meet the challenge of the crossing. Later when her journey was not credited as a record she commented “I did not officially leave Newfoundland and I did not officially enter Ireland” as she did not register her journey with the Harbour Masters or Coastguards. This, of course, was why I had such difficulty tracing her achievement. It had taken her 23 days to make the crossing which is 1680 nautical miles but because of the difficult sailing conditions and being blown off course had lengthened considerably to 2150 nautical miles (approx).

The summary she wrote of her journey stops in Crookhaven (Finola sent me this photo of herself beside the press cutting) but Billy O’Sullivan told me that she stayed in Crookhaven for a week and MacKinnon knows that she sailed eastwards along the South coast of Ireland, up the Irish Sea, through the Caledonian Canal in Scotland and across the North Sea to Sweden where she met up with some friends, Christer Arakangas and his wife who sailed with her in Nova Scotia. She then sailed around the picturesque Stockholm archipelago. Kuan Yinn II suffered some damage on the rocks (she hated rocks!) so when it was repaired, she sold the boat and on her return to Baddeck bought another boat and named it Kuan Yinn III. She continued to sail with Jacinta MacKinnon until finally ending her sailing days in 2004.

When asked about her memories of her Trans-Atlantic journey she replied “It was a great trip, the ocean, the sky, the waves which you can only appreciate from a small boat when you are between them, the sun and the clouds, all clean and free of pollution, so beautiful” and about sailing in general she is quoted as saying that as soon as she set sail, she felt that the whole world was hers to play in: “I feel like a free spirit”.  Mary Harper died on December 17th 2008 at the age of 92.

Jacinta,  with Ferris Asaph, has written and performed “A Sea Ballad for Mrs. Mary Harper”. Some of the photos on this piece are from that video. Take a look.

Postscript: Mary Harper was originally from New York but after her marriage to Harry H Harper Jnr. who became the Vice President and Executive Editor of the Reader’s Digest she moved to Pennsylvania and opened a sports shop for women. Both enjoyed going to Canada and having their vacation in Baddeck on the island of Cape Breton where they had a boat. 

This island had two special features: a large tidal lake named Bras d’Or and the house and laboratory of Alexander Graham Bell where he conducted his telephone experiments as well as aeronautical experiments being involved in the first heavier than air flight over Bras d’Or Lake. In 1993 Mary Harper donated 24.3 hectares (approx. 60 acres) on the shore of Bras d’Or Lake as a nature reserve, now named after her.

Just this month, the ownership of that land has been transferred to the Mi’kmaq, the local First Nations community. Jacinta McKinnon (that’s her on the left in the photo below) feels that Mary Harper would have been vey pleased with that decision.

Mary Harper was an intrepid sailor. She has not entered the Guinness Book of Records because of a technicality but her exploits must not be forgotten. 

Acknowledgements: To Finola Finlay for getting me on the first rung of the ladder in seeking out the Irish end of Mary Harper’s story and in hosting me on Roaringwater Journal. To Jacinta MacKinnon for her book “My Sailing Adventures with Mrs. Mary Harper” and for providing me with additional information, and to the O’Sullivan family, Bill, Dermot and Linda for their hospitality and the all-important press cutting. To Mary Daunt who took the photographs of Mary Harper presenting the prizes, being surrounded by well-wishers, and the detailed view of the press cutting