I’ve just finished reading Joshua Slocum’s book Sailing Alone Around the World
. I should be embarrassed that it has taken me so long, but this is the way of classics with me. For years, I’m sure that I will continue saying with a twinge of guilt, "No, I haven’t read that book yet. But I will one day." Then I some day I’ll read it and love it, and go on to tell anyone in my path about that great book, and how they should read it too. Slocum’s is one such classic. As I turned the pages, I realized that this book has been a significant source of inspiration in the history of cruising, a way of life that just would not be the same without his 102-year-old story. Slocum’s voyage, and subsequent book , is in large part, a reason why even this website exists, why I am writing, and why anyone would be reading this column.
Slocum was no Homer, a landlubber telling the story of Odysseus, the superhuman hero who runs into every imaginary fear of the unknown at sea, and overcomes them all. He wasn’t discovering new lands, fighting any wars, leading any expeditions, or defending any national pride, which had been some of the more typical ways sailing had contributed to history up until that point. Slocum created a different kind of legend, an accessible story about himself, a boat as a mode of travel, and the sea that has made the idea of small-craft voyaging and single-handed sailing possible for regular people ever since.
Slocum and his boat, the Spray, were casualties of the late 1800s, when the industrial revolution and the steam engine began muscling out merchant sailing vessels, leaving a wake of unemployed skippers and craft. According to the foreword of the edition I read, Slocum’s last command was on his own boat, a trading freighter named the Aquidneck, and he lost her to a shoal off the coast of Brazil. He went on to bring his wife and two children back up to Washington, D.C., in a 35-foot "canoe" that he built from the wreckage. Just what is meant by "canoe" and how he used one to transport his family 5,500 miles across the Caribbean and North Atlantic became his first book, The Voyage of the Liberdade. It was self-published and never sold enough copies to pay the bills.
Slocum was struggling to stay solvent in an age that was giving birth to the individual, to people who were testing their own limits in every imaginable direction, and getting public recognition for doing so. Given the scarcity of jobs, even for sea captains with impressive résumés, the time was extremely ripe for somebody to take his sailing skill to a whole new level. And so, it was the challenge of the great sea frontier that called to Joshua Slocum.
From 1895 to 1898, he sailed around the world aboard his 37-foot sloop, the Spray. Nobody had ever done this before, so he had no guidebooks, no manuals, no examples to follow, no seminars, and no classes. When he began the voyage, he had nothing but his experience, a boat, and a gift for storytelling. He also had no reason good enough to keep him from going.
In Slocum’s own words, he forgoes details of what sounds like a colorful past and launches right into the rousing tale of a down-and-out man with a friend who gives him a wreck parked in a field, more or less as a joke. Slocum goes on to transform the derelict oyster boat into a perfectly sturdy and well-balanced 37-foot voyager. It takes him 13 months and costs $553.62, and the biggest question people would ask of any sailing boat in those days, especially in the fishing and whaling center of New Bedford, was, "Will she pay?" In the end, she does, not in the capacity of a cargo vessel, but as the boat that carries the first single-hander around the world.
|"Slocum wasn’t funded by queens or endorsed by celebrities. He was an out-of-work sailor, a character with carpentry and nautical skills, perseverance, and a dream."|
Slocum wasn’t funded by queens or endorsed by celebrities. He was an out-of-work sailor, a character with carpentry and nautical skills, perseverance, and a dream, who took off from Fairhaven, MA, one day "with a light step." He sailed for the sake of traveling, to arrive in one port after another on the deck of his boat with no purpose other than to be an amiable visitor with simple provisioning needs, and a belief that he could support himself as he went. Seen through the lens of a different era, the stories of his experience are very human, and involve concerns that are still familiar to the contemporary sailor.
This grizzled sea captain is scared nearly to death single-handing the sailboat into his first harbor where he takes on some paint scrapings from other boats. He weathers storms and frightening navigational pitfalls. He runs severely aground on the coast of Uruguay, and later finds himself off a hazard-strewn Patagonian island at night, in the middle of a place that has so many rocks and foaming breakers it is called the "Milky Way of the sea." For navigation, he uses a battered tin clock that is missing the minute hand and dead reckoning. Yet, close calls and all, he always finds his way, connecting the dots from one small island to the next.
He outruns a pirate felucca off the African coast, and worries all the way through Tierra del Fuego about intruders. He has a gun for protection, but the story everyone remembers is how he uses carpet tacks strewn on the decks at night to deter unwanted Fuegian guests while he sleeps. For entertainment, he reads and rereads the log of Columbus, then takes on an imaginary crew member, the Spanish-speaking pilot of Columbus’ boat, the Pinta. Throughout the book, Slocum mentions this guardian señor who often stands vigil at the helm, and who makes his final adios several days before the last landfall, after the Spray has weathered her last storm.
Slocum also has various pets along the way—a rat, a centipede, a coconut crab, crickets, mosquitoes, and a goat that eats through all his lines
—none of which survives longer than one passage. He develops a self-steering system by lashing the tiller accordingly in different weather conditions and at one point, he even alters the rigging
of the sloop, changing her into a yawl and reconfiguring the whole sail plan. In Australia, facing the Coral and Arafura Seas, he thinks about giving up and then gives up the thought.
Slocum steers consistently away from technical overkill and keeps to the story of the sea, its power, and his connection to it as a sailor. The landfalls he makes, the people he meets, their stories, and their reactions to his exceptional circumstances at sea punctuate the vivid descriptions of the passages. His fears, his joys, the raw beauty and wonder of the trip as a whole are timeless. This book is truly a seminal work that touches upon every topic that has been fleshed out and elaborated on since by the sailors who have followed in his wake, filling bindings in the modern cruising library.
Upon entering the calm waters behind the Great Barrier Reef, after months of wind and waves across the un-Pacific Ocean, Slocum writes, "I once knew a writer who, after saying beautiful things about the sea, passed through a Pacific hurricane, and he became a changed man. But where, after all, would be the poetry of the sea were there no wild waves?"
And, where, after all, would be the great classic of sailing literature were there no Sailing Alone Around the World? It has been around for 102 years, endlessly inspiring the modern genre of lecturing and writing about sailing. So, if you haven’t done so already, read this book—and soon. It’s a story worth knowing, a link to the past that will resonate with anyone who hears the poetry of the sea.
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