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.
When he was 12, John Slocum beat Joshua severely when he
discovered his son building a model ship. Beaten again after trying
to run away from home, he finally escaped at 16. He joined the
merchant marine and, starting as a cook, progressed rapidly through
the ranks. By 18 he sailed as second mate, traveling regularly
between Liverpool, China and New England. In 1869, at the age of
25, he achieved the rank of captain. Because it was an American
ship, Slocum became a U.S. citizen.
Life in the merchant marine was a lot like freelance computer
programming today. Captains and seamen shifted from company to
company, depending on the work. Routes in turn depended on the
cargo. Often captains bought their own boats and did tramp, or
On one of those trips, to Sydney, Slocum was in port long enough
to meet and marry Virginia Albertina Walker. She, as it turned out,
was the square peg in her family’s aspirations too. Born to a
society family, Virginia’s interests lay outdoors. She was a crack
shot and an excellent equestrian. On their honeymoon, a trip from
Sydney to Alaska to deliver cargo, she hoisted a shotgun to deter a
shipboard intruder. It turned out to be her husband. Like many
other spouses in her day, she sailed with her husband, raising the
children on whatever ship Slocum was commanding and in Australia,
San Francisco and the Philippines.
‘It was my job,’ wrote Ben, one of their sons, ‘to get the shark
interested in coming close up. I used a new tin can with a string
on it to attract the shark close under the stern where mother
dispatched it with her .32 caliber revolver. She never needed but
The rise of steamships cut down on work for sailing captains,
but Slocum continued to garner appointments. Then came the
three-masted cargo ship Aquidneck. In 1884, Slocum bought the
Aquidneck and essentially became captain and boss, finding his own
clients and hiring his own crew. Calling the ship ‘the nearest
perfection to beauty,’ Slocum planned to use it to haul cargo
between South America and the U.S.
But on its first voyage to South America, his wife died. In
grief, Slocum ran the ship aground. ‘Father’s days were done with
the passing of mother,’ said son Garfield. Slocum managed to get
the Aquidneck back to Boston, but his streak of bad luck continued.
In late 1886, he sailed a cargo of alfalfa from Buenos Aires to
Brazil. A cholera epidemic raged at the time, and Brazilian port
officials steered the ship into quarantine. Slocum’s load of
Meanwhile, the cholera epidemic had led port officials to clear
out the jails. Two ex-cons, Bloody Tommy and Dangerous Jack, wound
up as Slocum’s new crew members. An aborted mutiny attempt ended
with Slocum shooting both. A Uruguayan court acquitted him on
self-defense, but Slocum was now teetering on bankruptcy. Then he
ran the Aquidneck onto a sandbar.This low point in his fortunes,
though, turned out to be a rebirth. Marooned and broke in South
America, he and his new wife, Henrietta, and sons Victor and
Garfield, started to build a new boat from scratch. Based on
Slocum’s memory of a picture of a Japanese sampan, they constructed
a 35-foot vessel that not only floated but sailed them all the way
back to the U.S. Made with scrap parts, it cost $100 to build.
The Liberdade was born of desperation but proved to be
cathartic. ‘We learned to love the little canoe as well as anything
could be loved that is made by hand,’ Slocum wrote later.
The adventure persuaded him to try his hand at writing. His
book, The Voyage of the Liberdade, failed to sell. But a second
volume, The Voyage of the Destroyer, won him a few fans. Then, in
the winter of 1892, an old sea captain told the idle salty dog,
‘Come to Fairhaven [Massachusetts], and I’ll give you a ship.’
It was an offer Slocum couldn’t refuse, even though most would
have. Historians guess the Spray was originally built as a fishing
hulk in New England around 1800. But Slocum saw the antique tub as
the ticket to the ultimate sailing voyage. He would rebuild it and
sail it around the world.
His plan was scoffed at by most, especially the busybodies of
Fairhaven. Flat, old and wide, the Spray did not conform to the
design of oceangoing cruisers. Though there were few believers,
Slocum at least had a sponsor. Century Magazine agreed to publish
pieces on the voyage, giving the captain a trickle of cash. But
money was not why Slocum was doing it. It was an act of rebellion,
a bit of nautical can-doism for the mechanized era. He wrote:
‘If the Spray discovered no continents on her voyage, it may be
that there were no more continents to be discovered; she did not
seek new worlds, or sail to powwow about the dangers of the seas.
The sea has been much maligned. To find one’s way to lands already
discovered is a good thing.’
The voyage was largely improvised. ‘Where shall next I be heard
from, I cannot tell,’ he told a reporter when first starting off.
Slocum originally sailed east from Boston. In the Mediterranean,
though, Moroccan pirates gave chase. He dodged them with a few deft
turns and then recrossed the Atlantic, sailing east to west. (As a
result, Slocum actually went 1.33 times around the world.)
He rounded the rough seas of Cape Horn and sailed up to Juan
Fernandez Island and then to Samoa and Tonga. Indonesia, Australia,
South Africa and the South Atlantic outpost of Saint Helena
followed. A third crossing of the Atlantic put him in the Caribbean
and North America again. He had no chronometer, and sailed by the
stars and an old tin clock.
Near-death experiences occurred throughout his trip. He almost
drowned off Brazil when a huge wave swept over the ship. (Believe
it or not, he couldn’t swim.) The boat nearly got swamped near the
Strait of Magellan in successive, violent storms. He almost sank
the boat trying to dodge the hallucination of a coral reef near
But Slocum never sweated the dangers of global sea travel, which
is part of the appeal of the book. Mostly he wrote about the people
he met along the way. While ostensibly a solo voyager, he bumped
into his share of characters-thieves in Tierra del Fuego, English
colonial governors, an Argentinian who claimed a comet was coming,
old sea captains, the widow of Robert Louis Stevenson, Indonesian
children who studied his shark wounds. In Chile, he introduced a
lucky village to donuts.
Surprisingly, for an epic solo sailor, Slocum felt that being
alone was unhealthy. At one point, in Tierra del Fuego, he couldn’t
bear to hunt for food. ‘There was sort of a swan, smaller than a
Muscovy duck, which might have been brought down with a gun, but in
the loneliness of life about that dreary country I found myself in
no mood to make one life less, except in self-defense.’
But his epic feat turned lonely days into lecture audiences and
brisk book sales. ‘I had profited in many ways by the voyage,’ he
wrote. ‘As for aging, the dial of my life was turned back ten
Slocum spent the next years sailing at his leisure. He set off
in 1909 to seek the Amazon’s headwaters in Venezuela. But he never
arrived. He and his ship disappeared off the map. The most likely
cause of death: collision with a steamship, according to Victor
It’s an ending he probably would have approved of. ‘He had led,
not a comfortable life, perhaps, but one that demanded meaning,’
said one of his chroniclers, Walter Teller. ‘If Slocum lived by
miracles, he didn’t count on them.
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