Sailing Alone Around the World

Joshua Slocum was the first person to sail around the world alone. It took him three years, ending in 1898. Though the record seems strangely late to me, the book is a classic belonging to another time.

Slocum was born in Nova Scotia in 1844, ran away to sea as a boy, and though he became an American citizen, never settled down. Master of several ships, he raised a family with his first wife largely at sea. He held prestigious commands, but was beset by legal and financial setbacks; his first wife died, and he was nearly destitute by the time he undertook the voyage round the world, leaving a second wife behind him.

Spray was a 36 foot sloop, meaning a single masted rig with roughly triangular fore and aft sails. Spray was no fancy yacht, but the hulk of an oyster boat Slocum rebuilt so completely that it might have been another ship entirely. Crucially, he hit on a design that was able to keep a straight course with the wheel lashed in place. The feat does not seem to admit of easy explanation outside of its having a long keel and being “well balanced”, whatever that means. Anyhow, Slocum didn’t have to steer twenty four hours a day. The longest stretch of the voyage was 72 days, from Juan Fernandez off of Chile, to Samoa. In another stretch, from Christmas Island to the Cocos, he sailed twenty three days and claims to have steered for only three hours in that time. He spent his free time reading.

Spray

Spray

Slocum’s navigational methods were of a piece with his journey: at once crazily negligent and highly accomplished. He purchased his chronometer at a discount because it had a broken face; at some point it also lost its minute hand. He had a special mechanical log to measure distances travelled, but one day he reeled it in to find it had been chewed to pieces, probably by a shark. In practice, he navigated by dead reckoning. Once, to confirm his calculations, and also for the pure mathematical pleasure of it, he took his longitude by the long obsolete lunar distance method. I should have suspected that all the Longitude lone genius greatest problem business was a little hyperbolic. On the other hand, perhaps Slocum blundered through the Pacific and simply acted like he hit every mark.

One gets the sense that in these remote islands the sway of foreign missionaries and governments was still quite limited. I don’t really have a sense of the history at all. I believe Hawaii, in comparison, was basically conquered by American agribusiness around the same time. Some of Slocum’s accounts are Edenic, though with more than a touch of anarchic menace. The Cocos, he relates, were settled by two parties, a Scottish family accompanied by several sailors, and a lone adventurer with some sort of harem. The two groups did not get along, the sailors wooed the women away, and finally prevailed. Slocum remarks on how crowded with children this island was.

The first nonstop solo circumnavigation was not completed until 1969, during a race marked by bizarre and tragic turns. Slocum made many stops and devotes much of his book to them. In Tierra del Fuego he collected a cargo of shipwrecked tallow which he was able to sell on Juan Fernandez (of Robinson Crusoe fame) after teaching the inhabitants to make doughnuts. He was paid in “ancient and curious” coins from a wrecked galleon. In Samoa he met Robert Louis Stevenson’s widow. He took long enough that by the time he reached Australia and South Africa, his fame had preceded him and he was able to earn his way with public lectures.

The problem with this book is that he makes it seem too easy. A severe bout of food poisoning in the midst of a storm is an occasion for a long running joke about hallucinatory visits from the navigator of the Santa Maria. He talks to fish and and mentions breaking down in tears at the sight of land. Mostly, though, he doesn’t talk about why he wants to sail around the world or what it feels like. Perhaps it was obvious. Sailing Alone Around the World was a financial success. Slocum kept sailing. He and the Spray disappeared at sea in 1909.

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