Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World

by John MacBeath Watkins

The sea and inland waters have given us some great writers. Joseph Conrad was a sea captain, James Fenimore Cooper a naval lieutenant, Mark Twain a Mississippi River pilot, Herman Melville was an able-bodied seaman on whalers and a Naval frigate, Frederick Marryat a midshipman at Trafalgar and a captain when he wrote his first book. Joshua Slocum belongs among them for his writing ability, though he produced only two books, and only one is famous.

In 1895 sailing for pleasure on long ocean passages was almost unknown. Such passages were the province of fully-crewed ships. When the owners of the schooner America wanted to race her in England, they crossed by steamer and left to professionals the task of sailing the vessel across the Atlantic. When the owners of the 54-foot sloop Alice, built in New Hampshire in 1866, wanted to cruise her in Europe, they hired Capt. Arthur Clark to sail the boat across, with a crew of three professionals, a steward, and two young amateur yachtsmen. Merchant ships invariably hailed her as a vessel in distress, assuming such a small yacht could only be so far at sea through misadventure.

Slocum sailed out of Boston, Mass., April 24, 1895, alone on a 37-foot oyster sloop he had rebuilt from a hulk, with the intention of sailing alone around the world. The enterprise seemed foolish. But Slocum was a life-long mariner, had once owned his own ship, and had been tried for murder after shooting two mutineers who came at him with knives. He'd been shipwrecked on the coast of Brazil with his family, built a sampan with a junk rig, and sailed it back to the U.S. His boat, the Spray, was not ideal for the journey. An oyster boat has to be shallow, and such boats can be capsized. Most mariners prefer a boat that can be knocked down on their beam ends and still recover, but this was the boat Slocum had, so it's the one used. He'd tried to find a ship to command, but he was a sailing-ship skipper, and steam was taking over. He'd rebuilt the Spray and tried to make her pay fishing for cod, but found he'd lost the touch for jigging. So he did what he knew, and set out to sea again.

His first wife had died, his second did not care for life at sea, so he sailed alone. He lacked a good chronometer, so celestial navigation was nearly impossible, though at one point he shot a lunar distance sight to confirm his longitude, a feat few modern mariners can do. He had two old alarm clocks he used for dead reckoning (if you reckon wrong, you're dead.)

At every port, he was wined and dined, invited to tell the tale of his voyage so far. Sometimes those dinners became tales themselves, as when a head of state corrected him, saying you do not mean you are sailing around the world, you are sailing around in the world, because he thought the world was flat.

There was no one with him to confirm his sea stories. He said that in the Mediterranean he was chased by a pirate felucca, which was rapidly overtaking him when a squall hit. He stopped to reef, but the felucca did not, and when the squall had passed the felucca was nowhere to be seen.

The tale seems fanciful, but that is largely because of peoples' misconceptions about piracy. Piracy is armed robbery at sea. Most acts of piracy are not committed by career pirates in special pirate vessels. The poet Shelley was killed by pirates, who were in fact fishermen who had decided to kill him and rob him. One of them confessed on his death bed. In 1895, feluccas would have been in common use as commercial and fishing vessels. Slocum would have known something was up when a vessel made all sail to catch him in dangerous conditions.

Or maybe he made it up. We don't know, and at some level, we don't care. He was a charming raconteur, and we accept his story on that basis rather than interrogating the work for its factual truth. He tells of becoming ill from eating bad plums, then hallucinating that Magellan's pilot sailed the vessel for him through the straits named after that explorer. Hey, it could have happened, and it's tales like that that got him wined and dined at every port.

When he finished his voyage in 1898, the country was at war with Spain, and few paid attention to his arrival. He wrote his book, which was serialized in The Century magazine. The war was over by the time the book was finished, and the country was ready to give him his due. His book was an instant best seller, and is still in print today. His imitators in making long offshore passages in small boats are legion. There is a Joshua Slocum Society devoted to chronicling such voyages, though many people prefer to just go, and not tell the society. People have even raced around the world singlehanded without stopping, which I think misses the point of Slocum's voyage. He wasn't testing himself against the sea. He had a lifetime of sailing behind him. Of course, part of the adventure was the voyage, but a big part was the arrivals in new ports, meeting new people, and being part of each new port in a way no mere passenger on a steamship ever could be.

Few people ventured offshore in small boats before Slocum. He showed it could be done, and his account of his adventures made others yearn for the romance of such adventures.

At age 65, Slocum set out for one more solo voyage, this time to South America. He was never seen again.