First Around Alone

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He was bored and, at 51, well beyond the age when most people would contemplate splashing about Cape Horn on their own. But for Captain Joshua Slocum, it was the perfect time to make history.

The New England mariner was just another guy with a do-it-yourself project back in 1895, in his case rebuilding a mothballed boat and taking it for a little drive-around the world. Neighbors and naysayers at first jeered. But by 1898 he was world famous. Slocum had become the first man to circumnavigate the world solo, an improbable feat chronicled in his book Sailing Alone Around the World.

Along the way, Slocum outmaneuvered pirates, used upturned tacks on deck and dummies in the cabin to deter burglars, and set speed records for certain ocean stretches. Other than a few rats and bugs, his only shipboard companion was a ghost, a pilot from Columbus's Ni?a, that dispensed advice.

'You did wrong, captain, to mix cheese with plums. White cheese is never safe unless you know whence it comes,' it said.

'Avast there,' he replied. 'I have no mind for moralizing.'

In a sense, he was a nautical Edmund Hillary; he sailed because it was there. Many have followed in his wake. Jack London was inspired by Slocum's book to sail across the Pacific in his own custom-made boat. Kenichi Horie, a Japanese mariner, sailed from Japan in a 19-foot plywood boat in 1962.

Slocum was not looking for fame, grandeur or epic deprivation when he sailed into the sunset. He went because he was unemployed. And it beat farming. Farming, or, more accurately, the dislike of it proved instrumental in Slocum's life. Born in 1844 on Brier Island, Nova Scotia, he was destined for manual labor. He left school in the third grade to help around his father's boot shop. From his earliest days he wanted to be a sailor, but that was not what his taskmaster father had in mind.