Listen to Al Grover tell the full story in the player below:
As kids, my brother and I spent many an afternoon exploring Al Grover’s High & Dry marina in Freeport, New York. We’d scour the ground for broken zincs, climb atop trailers and pretend they were battleships, and run along the shoreline like soldiers storming Normandy. Every boat and piece of scrap were pawns in our imaginary world. The name Al Grover didn’t mean anything to me then.
One summer, when I was around 10 years old, my dad gave me a book he had just finished called Against the Sea. Already an imaginative kid, I was sucked in by this compendium of the best adventure stories from the pages of the now-defunct Motorboat and Sailing. Tales of kidnappings and storms, rescues and sinkings stuck in my mind, but none as much as Polly Whithell’s story: “Across the Atlantic by Outboard. The firsthand account of a boatbuilder’s record crossing from Newfoundland to Portugal on his 26-foot skiff.” It was the story of Al Grover.
As a general rule, I don’t gush over celebrities. I don’t dream of one day meeting a performer or snapping a selfie with a professional athlete. I have to admit though, getting to meet Al Grover was as close as I’ve been to star-struck.
He didn’t disappoint.
Dressed in a short sleeve, Tommy Bahama-style fishing shirt and blue jeans, Grover, 94, seems impervious to the August afternoon’s heat and humidity as he invites me into his home. Stepping through the front door is like walking into a maritime museum. Interesting salty artifacts fill his living room where he settles into a floral armchair. Aviator-style glasses and a white beard that begins at his sideburns Ahab-style only hint at his age, which is impossible to predict thanks to his tack-sharp wit.
Grover’s fascination with the watery world began when he was a kid, not much older than a pair of brothers who used his marina like a jungle gym. After moving to Freeport, on Long Island’s south shore, he began working aboard the fishing fleet. In those days, a 12-hour shift—6 a.m. to 6 p.m.—would net a mate $2. When he wasn’t working aboard a charter, he sought other ways to get out on the water. “Nothing else held my attention,” he says.
Grover’s pursuit of a career on the water was put on pause when he served in the Pacific as a paratrooper in World War II. Upon returning from the war, he purchased a Jersey Skiff to fish for cod commercially. Grover admits that while he loved being on the water, he was “never really a great fisherman.”
With little money, good advice and a lot of luck, Grover would come to purchase an abandoned building on Freeport’s now-famed Nautical Mile. It was in that building that he gained success selling Old Town and Thompson boats. As business grew, he became a dealer for powerhouse brands like Mako, Chris-Craft and Evinrude. He also ramped up the production of his own fiberglass Groverbuilt boats.
By all accounts, Grover was living the post-war dream, happily married with a thriving family of five kids and a successful business with his name on the front. Yet, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing. In his mid 50s, it would be easy to write off his interest in crossing the Atlantic in one of his boats as a midlife crisis, but for Grover it was more of a calling.
“I had been doing coastal cruising but never crossed an ocean. Well, I crossed the Pacific in a troop carrier, but I never crossed an ocean in my own boat. That got to me,” says Grover. “I read Joshua Slocum from the inside out and that inspired me. I had to try it, even if it was crazy.”
Man with a Plan
Until that point, Groverbuilt boats were powered by single diesel engines; a fortuitous meeting would change that.
“I was talking to the guy who ran Evinrude about my plans, and he said, ‘Why don’t you throw a couple of our motors on the back, and we’ll back you with parts and whatever you need.’ That really changed my thinking,” recalls Grover, who had never considered using outboards prior. When Guinness World Records told him that no one had ever completed a trans-Atlantic crossing in an outboard-powered boat unassisted, the die was cast.
“Their 3-cylinder, 65-hp engines were the most reliable at the time, so we went with two of those. Then I had a 9.9-hp [Evinrude] as a backup.” At that time, no builder was putting more than a single outboard on their transom; his quest for redundancy led him to become something of an accidental pioneer. Grover will be the first to tell you that he didn’t love the aesthetics of the triple outboards bracketed to the back of his otherwise classic, Down-East-esque boats, but he admits she “slid along quite easily” with that power package.
“Remember, I had been an Evinrude dealer; I was thinking that after completing this people would think outboards were more reliable. When I asked Evinrude for some money (on top of the engines) to support us, their lawyers said they couldn’t because we were going to drown ourselves,” he says with a laugh.
An admittedly arduous self-promoter who once kept a caged lion in front of his shop, he inscribed the words Trans-Atlantic into his hull. With new engines and as bold of a statement that’s ever been pinned on a boat, there was no turning back.
“The year leading up to the trip, I was searching for a good young person to join me. I met a young man who just graduated from Maine Maritime. I needed someone strong and knowledgeable. I told my wife we were heading to Montauk on a test run. Then we continued on to Block Island. He loved to drink and party every night. He would go ashore and tell everyone, ‘We’re going to cross the ocean.’ We continued on to Cape Cod and Provincetown on the third night. Then I said, ‘Let’s go to Nova Scotia,’” reminisced Grover with a mischievous grin. Dressed in only their bathing suits, their fun was starting to cool off by the time Grover’s wife arrived in Nova Scotia with his children in tow to relieve the party-loving mate of his duties.
It’s around this part of Grover’s story that Rosemarie, Grover’s wife of 63 years, steps out from kitchen to listen in on his version of events, which she’s heard hundreds of times. A sweet woman who’s quick with a smile, she nods to confirm this version of events. “I told him he would have to take one of his sons with him so he wouldn’t do something stupid and take unnecessary chances,” she says matter-of-factly.
“I ordered these very heavy inflatable tanks for all of our fuel,” says Grover when asked about customizations he made to his boat. But without baffles he learned that he suddenly had between 500 and 600 gallons of fuel sloshing around, and that was throwing off the handling. “That wasn’t going to work. I couldn’t control the boat. I built my boats with 40-gallon saddle tanks, one on each side. Let me see how many of those I can sneak on. I ended up with 18. Each tank had a hose with a squeeze primer, so I had 18 hoses running from the tanks to my helm station amidships.”
At that time, outboards were just starting to use built-in oil-injection systems. The salesman in Grover knew it was going to be a popular addition, but the ocean-crosser in him knew that now was not the time to experiment with new technology. “I mixed 6:1 gas and oil by hand for all 18 tanks and used a magic marker to keep track.”
With the fuel capacity ironed out, Grover shifted his focus to the boat’s steering. Long before outboards had hydraulic steering they were operated via cables and pulleys, components that would likely succumb to the wear and tear that the nearly 3,000-mile trip would induce. He came up with the idea of locking the outboards straight forward onto the bracket and using the boat’s rudder, which was already hooked up to the autopilot, for steering. He also decided that they would run a single engine at a time to maximize efficiency. While that strategy certainly extended the boat’s range, it meant that they would not produce enough juice to keep their batteries from draining.
“We had four 12-volt batteries aboard,” he says, which he thought at the time seemed more than sufficient for the electronics of the day. “What I didn’t understand is that those engines only had 10-amp alternators, so our batteries weren’t keeping up.” A little electrical rerouting allowed him to turn one battery into a designated house battery for his onboard electronics.
A brushstroke of design brilliance came when Rosemarie suggested her husband make use of the large inflatable fuel tanks that were going to waste. She suggested that they be inflated with air and lashed down in the cockpit of the boat for added buoyancy in case the boat capsized.
This suggestion may have saved her husband and son from treacherous following seas. Says Grover: “When a following sea would crash into the cockpit, the tanks dispersed the water away from the boat. I really learned how to make the boat ready by hard-luck learning.”
The Adventure Begins. Kind of.
Originally they planned to cross the Atlantic with two Groverbuilt boats, a 24- and 26-footer. Much like the outboards on the back of his boats, he figured two was better than one in terms of redundancy. With decades of hindsight, Grover now realizes that this calculation—had it not been for an unexpected blessing in disguise—would have proven dead wrong.
Grover would captain one boat alongside an onboard mechanic, and the second crew was to be skippered by his oldest son, the then-indignant Al Jr. They decided to tow the boats to Newfoundland because that’s where Charles Lindbergh embarked on his iconic Atlantic crossing.
“We left at night and were heading through Maine. Well, one boat got out of control, jackknifed and fell down into a ravine and was damaged beyond repair,” says Grover. “I called my wife that night and said, ‘That’s it, we’re done.’” Later that night at a roadside motel, he made the decision to continue on with his son and the one boat they had left.
“It was a blessing. Two boats could never ever stay together in bad seas, at night, in fog and a hurricane; you’d be chasing each other all around the ocean. It was an impossible way to go, so the good Lord decided to get rid of the other boat for us.”
(Another) Inauspicious Start
A big party the night before their departure had Grover Sr. feeling a bit green behind the gills. With his stomach doing somersaults he asked himself, after all this prep, “Am I really going now?”
“I finally said, it’s now or never. You can’t change your mind and go hide someplace. We left St. Pierre on August 1, 1985.”
That night it started to blow, and by the morning conditions continued to deteriorate. The father-and-son team looked at each other and asked, “What do you think?” They were both thinking the same thing: They wanted to go home. “I said I’m not up to it. I didn’t sleep, we’re wet, we’re cold.” The white flag was slowly being raised.
An invisible force, also known as the wind, pushed them along. “If the boat was to turn back for the barn, a powerful Northeasterly would prevent the props from staying in the water. We physically couldn’t turn around. If we had been able to quit, we would have quit. Period.”
A (French) Guardian Angel
Fate is a funny thing. As the Grover boys were preparing for their imminent departure, they struck up something of a friendship with the captain of a 56-foot sailboat that was also making the ocean crossing named Capt. Claude. The pair wouldn’t be able to run together because of their variance in speeds and boat type, but they agreed to stay in touch via the Single Sideband Radio.
Grover hailed Claude with his intentions of turning around. In a thick French accent Claude urged the Grovers to stay the course and shoulder on, promising to keep in contact with them. At a time when a 26-foot boat in the middle of the ocean felt like the loneliest place on earth, Claude’s encouragement sounded like a guardian angel.
“We were 10 days out. We tried doing shifts of four hours on and four hours off, but we couldn’t stay awake for four hours; staying awake was torture. So, we decided to do two-hour shifts. That’s as long as we could stay awake.”
During one of his shifts, Al Sr. decided he wanted to relieve one of the 65-hp motors and lower the 9.9 horse. Unlike its bigger siblings, the smaller motor didn’t have a power tilt option, which meant Grover would have to tip-toe along the narrow gunwale to physically lower the engine.
“On board we had three rules,” Grover explains. “One: never leave the cabin unless you wake up the other guy who was down in-between the fuel tanks. Well, I looked down and Al was sleeping, so I thought, ‘Oh, leave the poor guy alone.’ Two: never go out without a lifejacket. Three: never go out without your safety hook, which ran from bow to stern so you can’t go overboard. I didn’t obey any of those.”
To get the engine down, Grover first had to pull it up to release the lock. “I forgot all about that,” he confesses with a rare, serious look on his face. “So, I’m pushing down on it and pushing down on it and I’m getting madder and madder. Well I must have giggled it because the last time I pushed down on it I had my whole body going in that direction. The engine went down, and I did a flip over the engine into the water. Boy did I yell. Al says he heard me, but I doubt it. I think something else woke him up.”
Al Jr. popped his head out from the canvas enclosure that was their home and saw his dad swimming with all his might. Grover realizes that had it not been a calm day, this is where his story may end. While Grover chased the boat, Grover Jr., because of the locked outboards, had to begin a long, slow circle to reach him.
“I’m sure he thought this was a good chance to get rid of the old man,” laughs Grover. It was a lesson that fatigue and complacency can make mortals of us all, and at sea, a simple mistake can cost you your life.
“On the 17th of August we met Hurricane Claudette,” recalls Grover from his knife-sharp memory. Even Claude—the calming voice of reason on the radio—warned Grover that they were in for a widowmaker of a storm.
“According to Al Jr., I told him that we should say goodbye to each other because we really didn’t think we would live through the night. I told him I’d been lucky and blessed and that I’ve had a good life, and he replies, ‘What about me!? I’m still young! I’m not ready to die!’”
The worst of the storm came during the black of night. The waves—20-plus feet tall at times—would surprise them with a broadside hit that would nearly roll their modest craft. The only thing they could see in the darkness was what looked like a white cloud—it was the contrast of the breaking water and the deep blue sea—before it crashed into their boat.
“I don’t know if I really thought we’d drown, but I was questioning it. I remember saying to the good Lord, I’m going to do 5 million things if I make it through. I’ll never do that again, I’ll never drink again, I’ll never fight with my wife.” It’s the first time in his stoic retelling of the storm story that he breaks out with his signature laugh.
Finally, at Flores
The storm would eventually subside, and the Grovers would step foot on dry land on Flores Island, a 55-square-mile spit of land on the western side of the Azores. “Al hit the dock and took off,” remembers Grover of his then 29-year-old son. “I didn’t see him for two weeks, and he didn’t really have any money to speak of. I called my wife and said, ‘I’m shot, I’m coming home.’ She said, ‘You can’t.’ She knew I’d be miserable. She said, ‘You stay there. I’m sending Dante.’” Dante, who was 25 at the time and had already been running his father’s business for seven years, had previously been quoted on the local news as saying: “There is no way I will ever go on that trip.”
So it came to be that Dante begrudgingly found himself aboard Trans-Atlantic for a decidedly more mundane final 800 miles to Portugal’s mainland. When Grover laid eyes on the European continent, he shook Dante awake and said, “There’s Europe. Do you believe it? I thought I’d never see it!”
In a tone that children reserve especially for their parents, he replied: “Looks like Block Island to me.”
In the Wake of Evinrude
This is where most versions of the Grover story ends. With the grand celebration in Portugal and an official Grover Day back home in Freeport. With retellings of his harrowing adventure at yacht clubs, to the media, to clients and boat buyers, friends and family.
What many don’t know is that while the remainder of the story was not full of man-and-machine, life-and-death struggle, the journey was not over for the Grover family. The following year, Grover, his wife and their two daughters returned to Portugal where he had left the boat. The family returned to Europe to settle unfinished business; Al was determined to bring the boat to Norway, the birthplace of Evinrude founder Ole Evinrude.
During what Grover calls the happiest summer of his life, he cruised through canals from Barcelona, through France and Germany to their eventual destination. On these treks he would have one daughter aboard and another with his wife in a car they rented trying their best—and often failing—to stay together through Europe’s winding canal system.
“I learned to swear in French because we kept losing him,” chimes in Rosemarie.
Grover pulls out a scrapbook and pauses on photos of smiling faces and happy memories. “Dinner in France and Spain was late, late, late,” he remembers. “In France, if a loaf of bread was a few hours old you’d just throw it away and get a fresh one.”
The culmination of the adventure took place in a nondescript Norwegian field, the boat resting on a trailer. In that field two men would shake hands, one the grandson of the Evinrude founder and the other the man who put his legacy to the ultimate test.
Grover says that the night they arrived on the Evinrude property he slept in the boat, “so Evinrude’s spirit could visit the boat.” His laugh indicates that while he knows it sounds ridiculous, he truly believed that there was a higher power guiding his crossing.
Grover has long been retired, but salt still runs through his family’s veins. Two of his sons still run highly successful marinas and broker some of the highest quality outboard boats on the market.
While walking through Al Grover’s High and Dry Marina that morning, I saw a vintage 26-foot Groverbuilt a stone’s throw from a 40-plus foot Invincible with quad 450-hp Mercury racing engines on the transom. What a difference 35 years can make.
Grover and I talk about how far outboard-powered boats have come since his great experiment.
“Did you ever think outboard boats would take off like they have?” I ask.
“Not in a million years,” Grover laughs.
“If you had to do it all over again and you could pick any outboard boat in the world, it could be a Grady-White, it could be the 65-foot HCB, what boat would you pick?”
Without a second’s hesitation, he replies: “My boat.” Ever the showman and salesman, he laughed and joked about how no boat could match his in a following sea and overall ride.
“Looking through all those old albums and talking about this story has brought up some great memories for me,” he says. We’re walking slowly back from the dock behind his home when he stops and says, “You know, I’m the luckiest guy in the world. You have to find what you love and do that, or you’ll be miserable. I found what I love, and I wouldn’t have made it without my wife.”